Nothing Tweetable: A Conversation or How to “Librarian” at the End of Times
In 2015, Joshua Finnell (JF) was appointed data librarian at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Shortly thereafter, in 2016, Lareese Hall (LH) was appointed Dean of Libraries at the Rhode Island School of Design. Lareese and Josh first met as newly appointed liaison librarians at Denison University in 2009. Since that time, they have remained friends and professional confidants. In early 2017, as they find themselves working on opposite sides of the arts and sciences spectrum, Josh and Lareese reflect on the perils, frustrations, hopes, and passions they still encounter and stoke in the library profession and in the off centered world in which we find ourselves.
Note: We have taken the opportunity to add links to many topics, people, and resources throughout the text. These can be distracting: “People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text,” said Nicholas Carr in an essay that asked “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” (Carr, 2010). We do not want to make you dumber. We see these links as something to come back to, not something you need to click on immediately. Proceed accordingly…
LH: My first question to you is one that I come to again and again: Why do we care about libraries? We complain and try, I think, to make each other laugh with the most ridiculous stories possible.
JF: Yeah, this is usually how we end our epic library-related conversations, so it is only fitting to start with this question. We complain because we care deeply about libraries. Like most librarians, I am hopelessly in love with the multiple functions and possibilities a library provides: shelter, inspiration, self-improvement, discovery, community. There’s that Kurt Vonnegut quote from A Man Without a Country, “So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries” (Vonnegut, 2005, 103). That line resonates deeply with me in our current political climate. I suppose, like you, I complain about libraries because I see the unlimited potential and it never ceases to amaze me how much of it is squandered.
JF: What tethers you to the library world?
LH: I honestly don’t know. On one hand I believe in the work that I do and care deeply about the potential for information and knowledge to transform people’s lives, and on the other hand are the actual people. I believe in the possibilities, like you, do but I wonder sometimes if that isn’t just my ego. Who am I to say what is possible for someone else? But it’s who I am and what I dream about. I have had heartbreaking professional experiences and they have often been the result of my unwavering idealism faced with the crushing reality of pedestrian things like indifference (other people’s), incompetence (other people’s and sometimes my own), budgets, and reality. And egos, again. Libraries have always been a constant for me – they have always been the places where I was most comfortable dreaming. That dreaming has kept me sane and, to this day, is the thing I rely on when the world is too heavy. I don’t dream to retreat from the world, but to run towards it. And on some level, I suppose, I always want to be a part of creating spaces for dreamers.
LH: We are both dreamers (fools!). This quality fits pretty well (at least abstractly) within academic environments – but you are no longer working in an academic environment. Has that changed you professionally in some way? Has it had an effect on your relationship to the work you do and care about?
JF: Well, certainly moving from a small liberal arts college in Ohio to one of the nation’s nuclear labs has been an adjustment. Needless to say, this environment is narrower in scope and just a wee bit more restrictive. Throughout my career, I have always thought of my current job or institution as an incubator, providing me with the tools and support necessary to explore my interest in the profession. If an idea or project doesn’t fit within the scope of my duties or institution, I tend to find the community or group where the idea can take root. As you can imagine, working on top of a mountain behind heavily secured fences can make one feel rather isolated from the larger library community. My current work with the Santa Fe Public Library, Make Santa Fe, and Library Pipeline is certainly a direct result of needing to see, feel, and contribute to the larger community. And, obviously, I’m a humanities-trained librarian working in a nuclear physics lab who doesn’t get to wax philosophical about the digital humanities very often. I think, at least I hope, most academics chose their profession because they were in love with art history or Spanish literature, not a particular institution in which those subjects are taught. I feel the same way about librarianship (broadly defined). Though institutions have certainly impeded my day-to-day enjoyment of the profession, they rarely dim my pilot light.
JF: I know that you are also no stranger to working in, across, and between disciplines over the course of your career. Your professional experience and research, from your role as the Carnegie Science Center’s first manager of environmental education to your recent Knight’s News Challenge proposal to build a Science Library of Visual Metaphors, has seemingly always been bridging what C. P. Snow referred to as the two cultures: sciences and the humanities. What attracts and inspires you about this collision of cultures (Snow, 1959)?
LH: It should be noted that I was the first (and last) environmental education person at the Science Center. In 2006, I was working full time (going to library school part time) while also working at what I thought was my dream job. My approach at the Science Center was about understanding environmental science in a creative and social/cultural context while rethinking organizational structures to support new ideas and experiments. I kept being told that what I was proposing (bringing artists into the conversation; building a living wall that treated water runoff as it then worked its way to our riverfront through a bioremediated landscape; eliminating styrofoam from our dining hall and creating a marketing campaign about waste; developing a composting system, I could go on…) wasn’t real “science” or even science adjacent. I discovered Seed Magazine (how I loved that magazine) and was convinced the direction we were headed in was the right one. I was particularly inspired by an article titled “The Future of Science…is Art?”. At the same time, I took a course called “Civic Entrepreneurship in Public Institutions” with the late Taylor Willingham, and it was revelatory. This kind of collaborative and creative thinking in museums and science centers does happen, with spectacular results. By 2008 the bottom fell out of the economy, my job disappeared. I was furious, heartbroken, and yet felt a clarity. I decided that I would never wear a suit again (this was silly, but it felt good to say). I decided that I would fully devote myself to becoming a librarian because libraries were, in my limited assessment, places for collaboration, experimentation, curiosity, and making. I wanted to work in places that were willing to take risks and try to change the world and I saw that possibility in academic environments. It was at this point that I first read the C. P. Snow book. The desire to categorize and name ideas and disciplines (“cultures”) and to keep them separate has never made sense to me. It is in the places of intersection that real change and magic happen. We create distinctions because it is easier to manage the uncertainty of our very human existence. It is a kind of control. Control is a mechanism for managing fear. How we define that fear is entirely our own, but having control is one way to manage the total weight of that reality.
Libraries (and people who work in them) like to control things. We have to, on many levels, for the machine to work. Control equates order and we use that word to describe what we do – controlled vocabularies, authority control – but we also limit ourselves as organizations by letting that control dictate our behavior. I see collaboration as a way to let go of control (and fear). I spend a good deal of time getting to know people wherever I work, and in those introductory conversations projects or ideas emerge. The Science Library of Visual Metaphors grew out of meeting and talking to the incredible and wonderful Felice Frankel (a photographer and research scientist) at MIT. We have not given up on the project.
LH: Bringing ideas to life is something we both love to do. When we were at Denison, we librarians were tasked with developing digital projects with faculty (and I won’t talk about how we didn’t get stipends but faculty did). I started with an enormous project that took almost two years to complete. But you took the opportunity to develop multiple projects and they were all so wildly different and full of hope. We both wanted to do more, to take this opportunity to push beyond just digitizing and putting things online. Looking back, how did that work shape the work you do now, if at all? Was it worth it?
JF: Oh, you didn’t get a stipend? Kidding! I’ll try hard to not go off on a tangent about the compensation for, and value of, library work. If I remember correctly, you were the first to develop a digital project among the liaison librarians.
LH: I always have a project (or two) ready to be developed. It’s a good practice.
JF: Your project was inspiring not only in scale and scope but also its purposeful incompleteness – allowing the collection to grow in descriptive richness as each successive course or senior project enhanced the metadata over time. What struck me about your pedagogical approach was its, perhaps unconscious, comfort and ease with incompleteness and perceived failure. Especially with grants, so much emphasis is placed on success. However, success is usually narrowly defined through the lens of completion (i.e. “Did you complete the intended project?”). Experimentation and growth, in contrast, are usually accompanied by incompleteness and failure. By disentangling the concept of failure from the perception of incompetence and lack of effort, and underscoring how an unfinished project can still be a success, you opened up a template for riskier project proposals. Failure is illuminating. Incompleteness can be powerful. As a matter of fact, there was a really great exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, exploring the prowess of unfinished work.
In my experience, librarians are really uncomfortable with the concept of incompleteness, from serials to archives. A missing volume in a complete set represents a failure of our services to our patrons. I think that ethos, intentionally or not, framed the committee’s perception of how the library should approach digital projects. Like you, I too wanted to enhance the narrative around failure and incompleteness in my digital projects.
Allison Carr, in her great essay in support of failure writes, “Failure reverberates. It expands. And it makes visible what we often take for granted. In causing notice, it helps us see that there are other ways of moving through the world, alternative ways of coming to know lived experience” (Carr, 2013). My sincere hope is that my project focusing on campus scholarship inspired students to engage with issues of open access and spurred the library to ponder its role in content creation on campus. Hopefully the Homestead Archive taught a generation of Denison students about the inherent political power of archiving while also asking the library to consider its relationship to the community archives developed at the University. Maybe the Baptists in Burma: Midwestern Missionaries at Home and Abroad sparked a conversation about using institutional history as a pedagogical tool across disciplines. To my knowledge, none of these projects are “done” or complete. However, their encased incompleteness signify thoughts left visible to future librarians at Denison. In that sense, the effort and time put into these projects was not wasted. Though my focus has shifted to building data repositories at a national lab, I still want experimentation and incompleteness to be part of the conversation.
JF: At the 2015 ACRL/NY Symposium you described your librarian agenda as subversive, rebellious, and one that seeks to establish a critical consciousness about the existence and importance of art, design, and creative thinking. You also opened the session with the disclaimer that you don’t want to say anything “tweetable.” Given how embedded the hashtag is in library conference culture, can you expand on your reasoning for this humorous caveat?
LH: Twitter is both wonderful and depressing, and at any given moment I hate and love it simultaneously. I recognize that people like to live-tweet at conferences. There are also real communities and revolutionary movements that have begun and been sustained by Twitter. My comment wasn’t about any of that. I was not denouncing these things, but I find some of the live-tweeting and conference conversations, in particular, to be frustrating.
People should do whatever makes them happy with Twitter (I mean, they will anyway) but I find it to be superficial at times. These “fluid spaces” (like Twitter) can overwhelm us with so much information and chatter that it’s impossible to process it all. I think we seek comfort and community in these spaces that sometimes allows us to not really engage with our own vulnerability or stupidity or pain or even happiness.
You aren’t putting your thoughts on Twitter because you want to come back to them later – at least I don’t. I now have over 1400 “likes” in my Twitter profile – things I want to remember and go back to but probably never will. Yet there they sit, liked. I am pretty sure I “like” things because I want the person who posted it to know that I appreciated their sharing it.
JF: All those likes sit at the Library of Congress too, where archivists are currently scratching their heads trying to figure out if Twitter can fit inside the Library of Congress.
LH: We should keep our fingers crossed that there remains a Library of Congress! Imagine trying to figure out how to manage the digital archive of the current administration.
I am grateful to Twitter for keeping me informed, however haphazardly. I wrestle with the tension between the opportunities, freedom, and potential in higher education and the economic and social realities in which we find ourselves and our students find themselves. The world is on fire, and it always has been. Twitter fuels the fire. It makes you feel like there is some order, that you have some sort of control.
When I am at a symposium or a conference I benefit the most by just listening – not even taking notes. I once had a boss who never took notes but always had a grasp of what was being discussed and always spoke with incredible accuracy and nuance. She told me that the secret to remembering and being engaged was to really listen to what was being said. My job was to understand and participate. It was liberating and it taught me a great deal about listening and allowed me to actually contribute to the conversation.
JF: I’ve actually forgotten what it’s like to attend a library-related conference that didn’t start by mentioning the “official” hashtag for a specific session. Whenever I mention this phenomenon to my colleagues in other disciplines they tend look at me funny. That’s why your quote, the exact opposite of every opening statement at a library conference, caught my eye. It’s refreshing to hear a librarian at a conference actually speak to the equal importance of presence over participation. In an article for Inc. Magazine entitled The Art of Listening Well,” Eugene Raudsepp cautioned readers to use the speed of thought productively “because we usually think three to four times faster than we talk, we often get impatient with a speaker’s slow progress, and our minds wander. Try using the extra time by silently reviewing and summarizing the speaker’s main points” (Raudsepp, 1981). Tweeting a fragmented quote often isn’t the best summary of an entire panel presentation. Though, admittedly, sometimes it is.
With that said, I do enjoy following the hashtags of conferences that I can’t attend for links to useful resources and projects. Also, I do think the social network analysis performed on conference hashtags can help visualize the density of “conversations” happening among conference attendees, but I also think that this “network mapping” can sometimes be an abstraction away from the actual substance of what is being conveyed by the presenters, panelists, or keynotes. So much of communication is nonverbal (body language, attitude, environment) that an aggregate of disassociated tweets runs the risk of losing context and specificity. It’s like Alfred Korzybski wrote, “A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” (Korzybski, 1933, 751).
Of course, in the age of Trump, Twitter has become a confounding discourse on the meaning of authority, accuracy, and context.
JF: As you know, we certainly share a healthy distrust of authority. This attribute will serve us well over the next four years as will an ability to focus on both imagination and pragmatism simultaneously.
In To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm made a distinction between rational authority, which is grounded in competence and aids a person in their development, and irrational authority, which is based on power and merely functions to subjugate and exploit (Fromm, 1976). All too often organizational hierarchy, whether in a library or Fortune 500 company, breeds irrational authority with an emphasis on titles and roles over skills and passion. Now that you are a library administrator, how do you envision enacting a library agenda based in rational authority within the traditional structures of library organizations?
LH: It’s an impossible question to answer because the answer changes on a daily basis. But it comes down simply to listening to people and understanding their skills and passion and having that inform their work and how the organization supports and grows from that work. Leadership is an opportunity to create community. I have used myself as a case study in how to lead with kindness and rigor and, most importantly, love. I don’t care about tradition or the way things have always been. I respect history, I want to understand where we have been but I will not accept anyone telling me that there is just one way to go from point A to point B. I just won’t. So, I will enact a collaborative and flexible agenda based on the growth and development of everyone working to bring it to fruition. The work is always in the service of our mission and vision as an institution and as an organization within the institution but also to the betterment of the world.
JF: Isn’t it funny how much we, as librarians, espouse values of love, kindness, and rigor in our personal but not our professional lives? Can you think of any library mission statement that contains the word love or kindness?
LH: No, I can’t. Libraries definitely edge towards nostalgic affection, but I wouldn’t say love. But love has strength, it can be radical. bell hooks has been writing and talking about love for some time. She says, “Whenever anyone asks me how they can begin the practice of love I tell them giving is the place to start” (hooks, 2016). Could it be that we complain about and fight what is basically our greatest love? That we make it complicated because it’s interconnected to everything we do and believe? I truly love the concept of a library. Big or small, academic or roadside, doesn’t matter. Someone took the time to bring things together, to offer them to you. Someone wants you to see it and experience it. Isn’t that a miracle?
Working in an art library completely shifted the way I thought about libraries and their structure and possibility. I saw/see art libraries as a creative landscape and a case study for curiosity and generosity in the manifestation of ideas. I sometimes say libraries are the liberal arts heart of an academic institution. We have opportunities to make connections and be experimental in unusual ways and I wish more academic libraries took advantage of that. That potential is what I love the most. As long as we provide our communities with the basic services (and do them exceptionally well) then we are free to be as wild as we want to be.
LH: We often talk about working together and frequently slip into conversations about great conferences or inspirational people, projects, and work. “Who is doing work that inspires you?”, is a question I often get. Or, “What other library is doing this thing you’re talking about?” I have my own list, but I want to hear yours first.
JF: Oh, there are so many! Admittedly, having grown up in a city between Chicago and St. Louis, my antenna is always tuned to initiatives in the Windy City and the Gateway to the West.
I am really inspired by the work of all the librarians and volunteers who built and sustain the Read/Write Library in Chicago, formerly the Chicago Underground Library. This is such an important resource for the city of Chicago and the rest of the country, especially as a singular narrative focused solely on crime statistics is being peddled by our current president.
I am truly in awe of the tremendous work of librarians, archivists, activists, and volunteers who created the Documenting Ferguson archive at Washington University in St. Louis. It is so important to see one of the city’s most powerful and elite universities amplify, and ally itself with, the voices of the Ferguson community. Also, the hard work of everyone at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library before, during, and after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. A great reminder that the simple act of keeping the lights on in the library, and being open to the public, can be an act of radical love.
Shanika Heyward’s work at the E. 38th Street Branch in Indianapolis feeding neighborhood children and providing educational opportunities for adult learners reaffirms my belief in the transformative power of public libraries, big and small. Also, the work of Libraries Without Borders and Philippe Starck in designing and deploying the Ideas Box in Syrian refugee camps and during the recent peace process in Colombia brings me joy. A great reminder that a library, even when ephemeral, can have a tremendous impact.
JF: I know we share an affinity for design and community engagement, so I’m curious to hear your list.
LH: Your list reminds me of how much inspiration I get from public libraries and nonprofits in terms of space design, programming, and community engagement. These things are important in academic libraries too, of course, but can get buried. The L!brary Initiative is a wonderful example of public/private partnerships working together to tackle systemic problems through design.
I wrote a piece in 2015 about my bookshelf that pretty much sums up my inspiration and what I am seeking at any given time. The bookshelf always changes, of course. I have always been inspired by women who are content with being on the edge of things and who head out on their own paths: Agnes Martin, Beatrice Wood, Corita Kent, Muriel Cooper, Iris Apfel.
Lynda Barry is in a class by herself, teaching and writing and drawing and always learning. James Baldwin keeps a fire lit inside.
I am fortified and inspired by the work of the African American Intellectual Historical Society and try to keep up with what is shared on their site (and I found them through Twitter!). Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site is astounding. It inspires me to think more about how we shape discovery experiences for our users – through storytelling and making connections. Culture Type is another remarkable site that is a model for ways to share a library and create opportunities for discovery.
Amos Kennedy reminds me that every day is new and you can always reinvent yourself, especially if you are on the path of something you love. Triple Canopy (which I think you introduced me to?) has been a model for thinking about new ways of publishing, writing, and sharing information. Rural Studio and the work of Sam Mockbee inspired me to study architecture and to approach it as a way to make the world a better place and events like Structures for Inclusion continue to give me hope. Visiting the studios and campus at the Cranbrook Academy of Art inspired me to leave architecture school and see where I landed.
The New York Public Library is a public research library and a standard for experimentation and delight. I have a twitter feed (hah) called #librarymaybe where I keep track of spaces and ideas that can apply to libraries but aren’t where one would necessarily look. I see a library as a laboratory, an incubator, a place for experimentation, a place of creation. I am inspired by everything. Everything relates.
JF: One of the first conversations we ever had was about Sam Mockbee and the Rural Studio. I still have an old Architectural Digest dedicated to his work. It has also been really neat to see Triple Canopy evolve over the last few years. Everyone on your list can be considered a pioneer, articulating and discovering new possibilities within a defined set of circumstances or medium. Recalling your first question, I think most of our frustrations within the library world occur when libraries reify societal norms, as opposed to creating new possibilities and ways of being in the world.
Shirley Chisholm famously said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas” (Thomas, 2015). Your own Twitter background is emblazoned with the words, “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make. The only rule is work.” From where, what, or whom do you continue to derive your work ethic and drive to bring new ideas into the world?
LH: My work ethic is a healthy balance of wonder and stubbornness. I don’t compete against other people, just myself. I have often been my own coach, football team, and cheerleader. Not all the time, but a good deal of the time. I believe in kindness. I like to work. I like to get lost in a project. I believe in the Shine Theory. I like to be spontaneous and I like rules (not to follow all the time, but as a compass).
You only get to the good ideas by working your way through the bad ones and you cannot be afraid of the bad ones. You also have to be willing to make leaps but bring your team along with you on that journey. You should surround yourself with creative and interesting people who are just a little bit rebellious but still generous with their ideas and time. As I am hiring new staff, these are qualities that I look for in other people. Work should be an inspiring space.
That quote on my Twitter profile is from my absolute favorite list of rules by Sister Corita Kent who was an artist (also one of my absolute favorites) and an activist (and at one time a nun). These rules are ones I come back to again and again. They are simple, and they are true.
Rule 1: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.
Rule 2: General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
Rule 3: General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.
Rule 5: Be self-disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
Rule 6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
Rule 8: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
Rule 9: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
Rule 10: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)
Hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything – it might come in handy later.
JF: I think Rule 9 is one to hold close in the coming years. Any final thoughts on how to “librarian” going forward in our current political climate?
LH: With love.
“I believe in living above the line.
Above the line is happiness and love.” – Agnes Martin
The authors would like to thank Michael DeNotto (external peer reviewer), Annie Pho + Ian Beilin (internal peer reviewer), and members of the editorial board for reviewing drafts of this article. The authors also wish to give a special note of thanks to shared cubicles, Luxardo Cherries, the inspiring work of libraries and librarians everywhere, and the magic of serendipity for making this conversation (and our friendship) possible.
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Thanks so much for sharing your conversation. It was both the professional and spiritual nourishment I needed today.
Thanks for thoughtful comment Becky. We are glad you enjoyed it.
Echoing Becky’s sentiment – many thanks for sharing your back-and-forth with the world.
We enjoyed sharing it. Thanks for the kindness.
There was an interesting conversation with such depth and humor. I was a bit sad when I got to the end. You talked about many points and many of which resonated with me. The first was when you talked about listening. Anyone can ‘listen’ but many do not ‘hear’ what is really being said. Granted even what we ‘hear’ can be interpreted in various ways to support any number of arguments then how it was originally intended. A good or bad thing depending on your view. The other point was about Ferguson. This was hard to read. I live near Ferguson and yet I had no knowledge about what the library was doing. It is this lack of knowledge that truly humbled me. I did not ‘listen’ nor ‘hear’. Rather, I chose to let this information pass me by. Thank you for the opportunity to change this and for the links to read just what was happening in my neighboring community. Thank you!
Thank you Julia!