• A Short Distance Correctly: 13 Ways of (Not) Writing (Contrarian) Librarianship

    May 18, 2011

    “It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” –Edward Albee, The Zoo Story

    triptych, renée alberts 2006

    triptych, renée alberts 2006 - all rights reserved, renée alberts

    I

    It’s all fun and games until somebody gets locked in her office. By “somebody” I mean “me,” and by “locked in” I mean the deadbolt committed suicide so quietly that until I tried to take my dinner break, nobody realized what had happened.

    As captivities went, it was a cushy one: landline, cell phone, computer with T-1 connection, snacks, water, something to read. On top of that, the walls of my office stop about three feet short of the ceiling, an architectural development that guarantees I will be shushed at least once a week by a patron who does not find my indoor voice charming. Barring the threat of fire or incontinence, I was sitting pretty. So I did what any sensible information professional would do: called for help, then logged into Facebook to leave a witty status update about my predicament.

    After I reassured my supervisor several hundred times that I had not simply locked myself in, the security and custodial staff were summoned to jailbreak me like an iPhone. It must have been a slow day in Reference, for they were soon joined by a clucking, fussing cluster of librarians, some of whom were wringing their hands and muttering dire imprecations about my impending doom.1  It is possible, however, that they were slightly less concerned about my health and well-being as they were about their purses and wallets, which I silently vowed to fling over the wall if need be. Ladders were brought and a repairman nimbly climbed down to begin work on the broken doorknob. After silently panicking over the length of my skirt—professional, but sub-optimal should climbing become necessary—I realized two things:

    1) This would make a hilarious episode of the library-based HBO2 dramedy I fully intend to write someday, and

    2) I could probably blog about it, but nobody would pay attention because I wasn’t singing the praises of ebooks or Twitter. 

    Or would they?

    II

    In David Auburn’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Proof, Catherine, a brilliant mathematician, writes the play’s titular document despite having very little formal education. The possibility that Catherine has inherited her father’s mental illness makes her struggle to be heard and believed even more poignant, for the odds are against her: who would believe that a comparatively unschooled, possibly fragile young woman in her mid-twenties could produce, on her own, a scholarly document to humble the nation’s brightest mathematicians?

    I ponder Catherine’s dilemma as I scroll through my newsreader. Print is dying. Ebooks are the future. QR codes will save us all. Fire the librarians, hire the geeks. Drink the Kool-Aid, brothers and sisters, for our time is short! For the first time since I earned my MLIS I wonder, with a touch of dread, if the other voices I hear in the library profession are not simply figments of my imagination, as opposed to the soulful songs in which I have always sincerely believed, the ones that sing of ethics, social justice, intellectual freedom, physical artifacts, access to government information. Perhaps, like Catherine, I have inherited a madness that will only consume me if I dare to pursue it.

    Every day I feel a little more uncertain about my professional identity, a little bit more of an outsider, an imposter because I, for one, do not welcome our new digital overlords. Perhaps, instead of struggling to make myself heard, I should quietly extend my arm, accept a shot of Thorazine, and go gently into that good night, so that some young Mover and Shaker can take my place at the reference desk.3 I wonder if all the silken, shining threads that led me to the library profession in the first place—print books, high ideals, enduring values, the best of Western culture, the notion of the public good—have meaning and value in a professional discourse seemingly hell-bent on stripping every ounce of soul out of our careers.

    An evil voice in my head chuckles, “Silly girl. Should’ve joined the YALSA set while you could. But now it’s…..too late.” Soul, it would seem, is the province of Youth Services librarians, who still booktalk print novels and pass out bookmarks in the schools, with the understanding that when their patrons become men and women, they will set aside childish things.

    III

    Elsewhere in matters theatrical, I spent the forty days of Lent 2011 writing one-page plays, one per day through Holy Saturday. Although I left the Catholic church long ago, she has never really left me, much in the same way that grapevines never grow far from their trellis, no matter how frequently the grapes themselves fall to the ground.

    I got the idea from Suzan-Lori Parks’s collection, 365 Days, 365 Plays, a collection of one-page plays written over the course of a year. Because the glamorous lifestyle of a “famous” librarian is exhausting, I decide forty will be more than enough, and draft two writer-theatrical friends to play along with me. We gather a list of scene suggestions from our friends and relatives and use a random number generator to select the daily scenario. By virtue of the fact that my co-writers are not librarians, this is, technically, non-library writing.

    I find, however, as I write through the days—stubbornly, with notebook and pen, transcribing to Facebook notes only later, during the editing process—that the library is in every word of dialogue I write, regardless of who my characters are or where the scene takes place. I have learned much about the human condition while sitting behind the reference desk, observed people at their best and worst, been exposed to a hundred different gestures, postures, speech patterns, situations, relationships. Like a Parisian café, the reference room is a never-ending stream of color and sound, mirth and madness, anger and wonder, mystery and discovery.

    I write the library. The library writes me. It is difficult to determine where one process ends and the other begins, if, indeed, said processes can ever be separated. I am a better writer because I am a librarian, and I am a better librarian because I am a writer. Never make me choose.

    IV

    “This is Leigh Anne,” my colleague says, introducing me to her latest intern. “She’s our famous librarian. She writes for library blogs.”

    Instantly I recoil, as if kicked. “No. No I’m not. I just…have opinions. And sometimes I share them.” Ah, what a silver-tongued devil am I. No wonder I’m constantly asked to give presentations at my alma mater.

    And of course I am mentally kicking myself for the double fail: insulting a co-worker who was trying to be nice, and dropping the ball on Next-Gen mentoring. But I can also feel my hackles rising, the knee-jerk inner rebellion at the notion that I might be somebody worth emulating. For God’s sake, can’t they see that I’m making it up as I go along? That I’m frightened, every day, about where the profession is going and whether or not I can keep up with it? That I worry about one of our patrons snapping, coming in here with a bazooka, and blowing us all to smithereens? That the only wisdom I could possibly give would sound ridiculous if I said it out loud?

    Breathe. Maintain a joyful mind and an open heart. Be compassionate with everyone who crosses your path. Live in this moment. All you need is now. But most importantly, don’t try to be a librarian like me, or—heaven help us—any “famous” librarian. Figure out what kind of librarian you are, and then be her as best you can, for she is all you ever can be.

    I take a deep breath and smile. “Welcome to the team. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot while you’re here.”

    V

    The scheme was brilliant in its simplicity: assemble a team of library workers and hit the Pittsburgh bar trivia circuit. In a plot twist worthy of a John Hughes movie, said caper resulted in a road trip to Atlantic City and $2,000 in cold, hard cash.4

    Truth being stranger than fiction, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we were able to profit from our storehouse of useless knowledge. What astonishes me, however, is that everyone else in the bar hasn’t quit or tried to beat us up by now. Where is the pleasure for the non-library person in being defeated week after week by people who organize, classify and retrieve knowledge for a living? Perhaps it is the hope of one day beating the know-it-alls, or maybe it’s as simple as this: we define ourselves by those things against which we struggle. In a world where information is both cheap and plentiful, the value of said information rises in direct proportion to its difficulty to organize, classify, and retrieve.

    VI

    Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way offers a plethora of exercises for getting unstuck and enhancing creativity. One exercise suggests you compose a list of ten alternate careers you would like to have. I find this both delightful and, considering the current state of the library job market, quite practical.

    In the event that I really am too old and unhip to be an effective librarian anymore, I have crafted a plan B in which I set myself up as a library consultant, or, as I prefer to think of it, a Tough-Love Library Life Coach. My franchise, “Oh Honey, NO,” will be available to other disillusioned library workers, with special discount pricing for anyone who has successfully coped with a patron’s heroin overdose in a public library restroom. Under my expert tutelage, Tough-Love Library Life Coaches will learn how to call shenanigans once a committee meeting has dragged on to its third hour and stage “Girlfriend, PLEASE” interventions with colleagues who refuse to learn how to use a flash drive. Much like Mary Kay, there will be a structured series of incentives, so that you, too may, someday, finally earn that goat farm in Montana as a reward for your willingness to speak truth to power.5

    VII

    Another way in which I’m professionally strange is that I would much rather fetch my own reference books than have a clerk go to the stacks for me. Given that reference librarianship involves a great deal of sitting, and sitting kills, is it any wonder I seize any opportunity to scamper about the stacks like a hoyden? With my skirts swooshing about as I dance up and down the stairs, I feel like Atalanta chasing golden apples, or perhaps Artemis, running wild and free in the forest of books and papers that is my home.

    VIII

    “You helped me one time.”

    I’m washing my hands, and at first I don’t realize that the woman is actually talking to me and not to herself. Do not judge.

    Quietly, stubbornly, she repeats herself. “You helped me. One time.”

    Irritated, I turn my head, customer service smile pasted to my lips. “I’m sorry? I didn’t hear you.”

    Her answering smile is beatific. “You helped me this one time, and now I’m gonna graduate. I got a good job, too. Thank you.”

    Her eyes blaze like coals. She is queenly, serene. She came back to say thank you. I am simultaneously overjoyed and profoundly ashamed of myself. Be kind to everyone you meet, for you may be entertaining angels unawares.  And never forget that you, too, are an angel, perhaps especially when you least feel like one.

    IX

    You cannot write the library without writing the librarian. Because the personal is political, we carry our whole selves to work with us every day. Although we repress certain portions of our psyche and call this “professional behavior,” we are, no matter what kind of librarian we are or what sort of institution we work for, a seething mass of contradictions: joyful, angry, frustrated, fearful, arrogant, delighted, compassionate, nerdy.

    At present, there is no room in our professional discourse for creative expression beyond a certain number of limited outlets, unless we christen ourselves Library Mofos or adopt an Annoyed pseudonymous posture of detached superiority. Bad satire and anonymous ranting aside, we have no voice for the collective library shadow. We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds. I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.

    X

    Although I have little use for theory, it occasionally proves helpful. Jacques Derrida, for example, did the world a favor by pointing out that what is not said in a text can be as meaningful and significant as the text’s explicit content. Thanks to deconstruction, we are free to create a new librarianship by examining all that we have steadfastly refused to say, and all the ways we have not explored to say—or not say—it.

    Water finds its own level; I am here, I have decided, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. My role in librarianship is akin to the one I played in high school: to sit in the back of the metaphorical classroom and ask uncomfortable questions in the hopes of someday getting an answer. Why are we in such a hurry to embrace a clinical, digital future in which technologies become our gods instead of our tools? Why do we insist that the future lies in e-readers when census data indicate that, as of 2009, 43 million people lived in poverty?  Why do some academic librarians behave as if public librarians are brainless half-wits, and why do public librarians let them get away with it? Why on earth aren’t more of us unionized? Why does Seth Godin get to dictate what the future of the library should be? What the hell is going on in California, and why isn’t somebody doing something to protect the school librarians from hostile lawyers? Have we all collectively lost our professional minds?

    I don’t expect answers. Just don’t expect me to stop asking questions. I hereby declare library science a deconstruction party, and you are all invited.

    XI

    Exhibit A: unlike those in my office, the walls of the Telephone Reference Room go all the way up the ceiling, and are further safeguarded by a sturdy, locked door.  Ergo, anything that happens in the Telephone Reference Room generally stays in the Telephone Reference Room.

    The rest is silence.

    XII

    The greatest joy of librarianship is this: after all these years, print books still sing to me.

    E-books do not sing, or, if they do, sing at a pitch I cannot hear, much like the high-frequency whistles that appeal only to dogs. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the digital shadow, I fear no evil. My peers may regard me with horror, much as Prospero and his visitors looked upon Caliban with disgust and disdain. And yet, as I travel through the stacks on my daily rounds:

    Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

    Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

    That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

    Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

    The clouds methought would open and show riches

    Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

    I cried to dream again.

    William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, Scene ii. 125-131

    Who, then, is monstrous? Think carefully before you answer.

    XIII

    At the end of the day, what I really want to do is run through the streets, bellowing, a la Charlton Heston in Soylent Green, “Librarianship is made out of PEOPLE!” Given that public displays of strong emotion frequently prove unsettling to one’s peers–to say nothing of the poor, unsuspecting Muggles outside library walls–I have so far refrained. I do not know, however, how much longer I can hold out.

    Librarianship has, as far as I’m concerned, walked a long way out of its way in a sad, desperate attempt to become something else, something hip, edgy, and shiny that will, ultimately, appeal only to the privileged few who can afford to enjoy it when the for-profit model prevails. It is long past time to come back a short distance correctly, to become, once again, the repository of myth and magic, the sacred shrine of story, the domain of democracy, the labyrinth of legend.

    Who’s with me?

    Suggested Readings For Your Contrarian Journey

    Notes

    1 The rest were too busy “liking” and commenting on the aforementioned Facebook status update.
    2 It has to be HBO, or another premium channel, due to the language choices and sexual content.
    3 Or, as Hilary pointed out during the editing process, eliminate it altogether
    4 Don’t hate us because we thought of it first. Go thou and do likewise.
    5 Oh, quit that laughing. You’re just jealous because you didn’t think of it first. But fret not: if you hurry, you can get in on the ground floor of my next brilliant idea, Library Job-hunting Boot Camp.

    Leigh Anne would like to thank Renée Alberts, Don Wentworth and Sally Rosen Kindred for their continued support of her creative writing and librarianship.  She would also like to thank Hilary and Eric for serving as lead editors on this piece.

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