Hush… : The Dangers of Silence in Academic Libraries

In Brief

This article critiques the idea that civility rhetoric decreases workplace bullying or discrimination. We use Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to do a rhetorical analysis of a campus-wide civility campaign in contrast with literature about civility in libraries. To combat discrimination and bullying, we need to be attentive to systemic power dynamics and to rhetoric designed to enforce compliance and conformity. We conclude with recommendations about how to raise our voices instead of silencing our peers.

By Jessica Schomberg and Kirsti Cole


In this article, we use Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to compare the rhetoric of a campus-wide civility campaign with literature related to civility in libraries. The civility campaign was prompted by concerns about discrimination and bullying at a mid-sized public university in the Midwest. Within the particular context of academic libraries, we examine how the rhetoric of civility has historically been used to control behaviour. There is no evidence that this civility discourse has improved the situations of already-marginalized populations or reduced bullying. Instead, it has contributed additional silencing rhetoric, which could have dangerous implications for the well-being of library employees and the patrons we serve. We will conclude this article with ideas about how librarians might go beyond performative civility to acknowledge the structural and cultural differences that exist within their communities.

The campus civility campaign was a top-down attempt to control individual behaviour. It was introduced as follows:

When civility is present in a community such as ours, it becomes a healthy, vibrant and rewarding place to live and work. Without civility, it fails to thrive…we believe that civility comes down to treating everyone with respect. Each of us is responsible for showing civility in our own actions.That’s why you’ll see a series of posters, table tents and electronic messages across our community challenging you to think about your choices. You can choose to be civil in a certain situation. Or not. Who will you decide to be?

By placing the rhetorical focus on individuals, the campaign points to a compelling dynamic in the relationship between power and language. If the goal of the civility campaign is to provoke members of our community to speak and listen in particular ways, and about particular things, it is setting in place a series of rules for that community (Glenn 1–2).

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) helps us understand the relationships between language, culture, and inequality within a particular context (Gee 23). In this context, the ethical uses of language brought up by the civility campaign are not reflected in the campaign itself.

Below is a table outlining the frame through which we understand this issue. These concepts guide and structure our analysis of the reaction to the campus civility campaign compared with existing literature about civility in libraries. On the left side of the table are the critiques our faculty association, which includes librarians, had about the civility campaign conducted on our campus. These concerns were taken from the recorded minutes of the April 2015 faculty association executive meeting. On the right side of the table are the themes that came out of a literature search conducted using the keywords silencing, civility, and professionalism.

Figure 1. Civility Framing
Faculty Comments Themes Literature Review Themes
What civility or politeness might mean in different cultures Civility
Problems with moving from anti-bullying focus to civility focus Bullying
Singular culture vs. the diverse cultures our campus represents Monoculturalism
Posters encourage passive aggressiveness, not empathy or civility Silencing
Microaggressions Gatekeeping
The 100% whiteness of the president’s cabinet. That people of color are held accountable but white people are not Power and (White) Privilege
Empty rhetoric of the civility campaign: it exists solely for “CYA” so the university doesn’t get sued; protects the institution only but it’s empty, no real promotion of change Empty Rhetoric of Academic Freedom
Attention to constant administrative focus on budgetary constraints, and the cost of producing the posters Precarity/Job insecurity


To explore the civility campaign and understand the possible impacts of such initiatives in academic library spaces, we turn to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). CDA “looks systematically at one or more of the often unnoticed details of grammar and word choice” (Zdenek and Johnstone 25). Linguists and other researchers use CDA to analyze large textual corpuses, as well as long stretches of discourse that include text, talk, image, and gesture. It is a methodology to find patterns that create, circulate, reinforce, and reflect societal norms and ideology (Huckin et al 119).

Within the larger umbrella of CDA, “recontextualization looks for and interrogates chains of events and texts” (Fairclough 420). Recontextualization considers the ways in which language is taken from its original context and transformed into different messages in different contexts. Through that process, texts “are articulated together in new ways according to the logic of the recontextualising practice; and transformed from real to imaginary, and brought into the space of ideology” (Fairclough 399). An example of recontextualization that we examine is how selected quotes from famous writers and philosophers are used to control how civility is defined. In this way, CDA is valuable for examining ways in which power is constructed rhetorically (Huckin et al. 114).

Critical discourse analysis is particularly useful for situations in which researchers wish to examine the relationship between institutional power and rhetoric (Fairclough and Wodak 271-80; Lewis 374). CDA allows us to explore the textual “silences, implicatures, ambiguities, and other covert but powerful aspects of discourse” (Huckin et al. 110). The ambiguities of the civility campaign we analyze are particularly compelling because the faculty association unanimously opposed the administrative agenda surrounding the campaign despite sharing the goal of improving the campus climate.

We use CDA to coordinate the analysis of larger purposes for the civility campaign with the smaller details of the language used to represent civility to the campus community, particularly in the library. CDA gives us the opportunity to look at the indirect or implicit meanings that the posters relay to us: how they shape us and our academic library space.


In analyzing the civility campaign, we rely on cues from the design and the alphabetic text of the posters in order to determine how meaning is made or how expectations for behaviour are established. The civility campaign ran from 2012 to 2015 and produced 49 unique posters. The posters were put up throughout campus buildings, small table tents for each of the posters were placed on tables in common areas, and both were prominently displayed in the library.

The posters from 2012-2014 presented a scenario in which the purple side presented the “civil” or preferred response, while the gold side presented the “uncivil” response. At the bottom of each poster was the appeal “Who are YOU?”


Civility scene 16
To express frustration… Keep your language respectful. OR… Curse a blue streak—it’s great linguistic therapy.
Who are YOU?

After faculty voiced their disapproval, the civility posters were modified. The 2014-2015 campaign posters include quotes from famous scholars, artists, writers, and thinkers.


Civility scene 49
Respect yourself and others will respect you. – Confucius
Who are YOU?

As we analyzed the posters, we turned to word choice as an important category through which to understand possible themes. In coding the language used in the posters, we identified five thematic categories. For each poster theme, there is a corollary to one or more of the faculty comments identified in Figure 1.

Figure 2. Poster themes
Poster categories Faculty comments
Polite Communication Bullying, passive aggressiveness, and gatekeeping
Community Interactions Protecting the university instead of faculty and students
Respectful Behaviour Silencing, ableism, and microaggressions
Social and Cultural Awareness Reinforcing monoculturalism
Power Dynamics Privilege, precarity, intellectual freedom

It is worth noting that many of the scenarios presented in the posters created intersections between the thematic categories. We review the thematic categories in context of the scholarship surrounding the issue in order to locate the interplay of such things as privilege and ableism, microaggressions and gatekeeping, and monoculturalism and precarity. Because the discussion surrounding many of these issues is contentious, we believe it is important to look at the analysis of the texts in the specific context of the scholarship.


In this section, we interweave themes identified from faculty responses to the civility campaign with themes from relevant library literature.


Civility does not have a universal meaning. In her exploration of civility in diverse organizations, Sampson takes a multicultural approach to civility in the library. She explores several definitions of civility. These range from “deference or allegiance to the social order” to “acknowledgement of equality between citizens in private, public or official interactions” (Sampson 94). However, she notes that we can’t truly achieve this ideal until full societal equality is a reality. She also notes that in a more diverse environment, there will be conflicting social norms. This means that individuals have to self-regulate their own behaviour rather than relying on social support to interpret and guide behaviour. While shared experiences make it easier to have shared expectations, operating in a diverse environment means working without those shared norms.

In Farrell’s discussion of collegiality in library workplaces, she utilizes civility in a way more in keeping with the idea of allegiance to the social order, with librarians as role models. The idea of high standards and role model behaviour is a clear component of the civility campaign. The campaign presents the audience with didactic recommendations about behaviours or actions. There is no nuance, no space for cultural variance, and no attempt to educate the community about those behaviours.

In Civility Scene 28, the audience is told to “Model civil behavior.”

Civility scene 28

Model civil behavior….

Demonstrate it, day after day

Or… Pay lip service—activating your mouth is way easier than activating behavior
Who are YOU?

What is the “it” we are meant to demonstrate? Is it in action and language? Only in language? The scenario presented commands us to do, but does not help us learn how.

Some librarians take a more critical perspective to calls for civility, viewing them as attempts to silence dissent. Shockey cites Joan W. Scott’s discussion of the Steven Salaita/University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign controversy, in which Salaita’s offer of a tenured position was rescinded after he Tweeted negative comments about Israel. The UIUC chancellor decided those Tweets provided enough evidence that his behaviour would threaten “the comfort, safety, and security of his students” (Scott “New Thought Police”). Elsewhere, Schlesselman-Tarango argues that historically, rhetoric about civility has been used as an assimilationist strategy (676). In this conceptualization of civility, the focus is on standardizing language, being respectful of authority, maintaining traditional gender roles, and creating a labor force that works hard without being disruptive.

Status quo maintenance is at the forefront of the civility campaign. In Civility Scene 11, the audience is targeted: supervisors.

Civility scene 11
If you’re at the top of a hierarchy…Model civility for those who work with you. Act as if you’re exempt, civility is for suckers.
Who are YOU?

We don’t know exactly what this outdated colloquialism is meant to invoke. Though the poster lacks clarity, it attempts to focus on respectful authority and a non-disruptive labor force.

Sloniowski presents the rhetoric around civility as being a standard by which to demand affective labour and “service with a smile” (660). She engages in a Marxist critique of the affective labour involved in librarians’ roles as “civilizers” or what Farrell calls “role models” by observing how this form of labour is expected, but not valued as labour. In other words, while affective labour is a necessary part of maintaining cooperative efforts, it is often invisible, correlating “to an estranging, sexist, colonization of life by work” (Sloniowski 655-656).

Interestingly, the shadow labour of civility is acknowledged by one of the quotes used in the 2015 civility campaign. A quote by Ellen Goodman says, “Civility, it is said, means obeying the unenforceable.” If a librarian’s perceived role is as emotional labourer, then the manipulative forces of such requirements put individuals in a position where they are constantly working to be seen as pleasant. We know this is not civility in the sense of creating a space where all members are treated with dignity. In fact, policing oneself and one’s environment in such a way may lead to microaggressions (sometimes coded as polite behaviour policing) or to outright bullying.


While they are often conflated, the difference between bullying and incivility rests in power. Both can cause interpersonal challenges and both are interpreted through one’s own cultural prism, but when looking at how power is constructed rhetorically, there are differences. In the way that we use these terms in this article, bullying tends to appear in peer-to-peer or supervisor-to-employee relationships. Incivility tends to be a component of relationships in which individuals who feel powerless in their role push back against those in power. Hicks argues that concepts such as civility are promoted by organizations as a way of conscribing the rhetorical techniques allowed, making it more difficult to challenge those in power (Hicks 251).

Several types of behaviours are typical of bullying, including “yelling, screaming, threatening… aggressive gossip, refusing to communicate, criticizing or humiliating someone in front of others, insults, isolation and/or withholding information or resources” (Matesic 164). Mobbing is a type of bullying done by a group rather than by a single person. Examples of such behaviour includes excessive monitoring of break times, walking past an individual without acknowledging them, punitive desk schedules, withholding communication, and not providing sufficient resources to complete work tasks (Matesic 164). While these descriptions focus on individual behaviours, keep in mind that they may be the results of structural problems (Galoozis “Me and You”).

In the university context, our human resources department and unions recognize these bullying behaviours as a problem. While there are federal protections against harassment, bullying is much harder to identify, define, and understand. This makes it difficult for workplace hostility policies to consistently account for it (Sepler 1). In most cases, organizations identify a vague list of behaviours that contribute to a hostile work environment, but that are also difficult to prove. However, a civility campaign functions beyond the realm of policy and enforcement. How administrators define bullying behaviours can shed light on the organization itself.

When looking at how bullying is operationalized, we find that that victims of bullying are often productive. However, they have found themselves in organizations with low tolerance for diversity and rigid cultural norms. Those in power, organizationally or in the social hierarchy, engage in bullying behaviour to enforce conformity or simply force out the outliers (Fox and Spector 254).

Using civility rhetoric to accomplish anti-bullying goals is the wrong technique. Civility rhetoric as used in the civility campaign attempts to force all members of the community into a single acceptable pattern of behaviour. In order to counteract bullying one must acknowledge that bullying occurs when rigid norms exclude individuals who don’t fit into the dominant culture.


Monoculturalism is the expectation that all individuals conform to one worldview, which assumes itself to be neutral. In North America, monoculturalism ((In the case of our institution, of the more than 15,000 students, we have about 2,200 students of color including 1,100 international students from 90 countries. For our populations of students, then, our campus is roughly 76% caucasian with 81% in-state undergraduates (College Portrait).)) prioritizes whiteness. As Hathcock says in her examination of the failure of diversity initiatives in librarianship, whiteness is “a theoretical concept that can extend beyond the realities of racial privilege to a wide range of dominant ideologies based on gender identity, sexual orientation, class, and other categories” (“White Librarianship”). In the context of campus civility, monoculturalism emphasizes one right way to be civil for the one campus community. This ignores that campuses, and libraries, are made up of individuals from many different communities with many different ideals of civility.

Though two of the civility scenes encourage a broadly accepting point of view (“Be gender-inclusive in your language” and “Recognize how different each individual is”), most of the posters project a nebulous definition of civility that does not take into account what civil behaviour looks like in different cultures. This campaign was approved by a largely white and male administration. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that many more marginalized community members perceived the campaign recommendations as disrespectful. One example is Civility Scene 19.

Civility scene 19
If a colleague shows signs of stress…Ask if you can help. Ignore it–feeling stress is natural, showing stress is weak.
What will you choose?

As suggested above, this didactic framing allows for no subtlely in an individual’s behaviour and ignores social power dynamics totally. Imagine, for example, that your boss excuses themselves for making inappropriate comments because of stress; imagine the expectation to provide emotional support to a supervisor or chairperson who is emotionally abusing you; imagine civil behavior being defined by the expectation that you intercede without any thought to the inherent risks in doing so. This scenario also ignores cultural power dynamics that may discourage someone from directly interceding in such a situation.

Rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism is often used to reaffirm the neutrality of whiteness while simultaneously ignoring structural oppressions (Brook et al. 247). These power dynamics punish people who do not comply with white norms when conflict arises. For example, when critiquing the idea that reference librarians smiling at patrons is universally perceived as welcoming, Brook et al. state that “this apolitical conception of responsiveness limits reference librarians’ ability to serve patrons of diverse racial backgrounds because it does not guide us toward a more nuanced, political assessment of individual and collective needs” (272).

By only acknowledging superficial politeness norms, we don’t recognize the structural layers and nuances that underlie our interactions. We don’t allow people to be their real selves with us, which makes people more susceptible to the negative effects of overwork (Mountz et al. 1248-1249). By creating environments where people are not allowed to behave in ways that reflect the communities to which they belong, we are in effect asking people to silence significant parts of themselves — especially when they don’t fit into monocultural norms.


Silencing prevents people from engaging with difficult and controversial ideas, which runs counter to the goals of higher education. As O’Donnell notes “Education is not a space of absolute control. It has to permit unpredictability and surprise [and allow for transformation] through the encounter with a subject and the perspectives of others” (70-71). This is only possible when we allow space to make personal connections and become open to learning from people unlike ourselves; it cannot be imposed on us from above; it cannot happen when we’re not allowed to speak.

In the area of silencing aspects of one’s own identity in an effort to deflect negative professional consequences, b. binaohan notes that “we have a professional environment where many people feel very comfortable saying some really heinous things but those whose lives are negatively impacted by those words must always smile and remain silent. Because calling out oppression is almost always punished more heavily than being oppressive” (binaohan, “Gender and Presenting”). The poster campaign as a whole showcases silent passivity as a positive trait. Passivity however, can be a problematic civil ideal, particularly if an individual is faced with threatening or harassing behaviour.

Civility scene 14
Mind your own business and keep quiet when a rumor comes your way. Text the details to all of your friends immediately–with a big LOL.
What will you choose?

Civility Scene 14 is again didactic, again extreme, but what if the rumor is addressed to a reference librarian? Maybe a student reported to you that she witnessed another student being harassed while using the computers. Is minding your own business the ethical response in that situation? Though there is a clear indication in the posters that civility is a value on our campus, the passivity demonstrated on the positive side of the posters undermines the possibilities of community-building in favor of silence.

Power and Privilege

Privilege is a complicated topic with multiple facets, including race, sex, ability, economic class, and more. In Sayer’s book on the moral aspects of class, he notes that often those in power demand respect — not in the moral sense of respecting fellow humans, but in an amoral sense of global efficiency. When the expectation of respect for authority crosses multicultural lines without an understanding of those different cultures or a shared understanding of why certain qualities deserve respect, it creates a situation in which superficial politeness norms and showing leadership in a good light at all times becomes increasingly important (Sayer 178).

Farrell argues that prioritizing collegiality creates a sense of shared purpose that helps libraries achieve their goals and also supports the work of individual library personnel (173). Matesic’s research, on the other hand, found that poor behaviour “breeds in chaotic environments with weak leadership, some degree of job insecurity, nebulous task or work roles, indistinct performance measures and strong conformity to organizational culture” (165-166). In that scenario, trying to force feelings of collegiality rather than working to improve structural problems actually impedes civility.

Existing library and university structures were designed to maintain the status quo (de jesus, “Institutional Oppression”). While ideals about service and access are commonly discussed, actually making changes that don’t benefit those in power can be difficult, even when those in power claim to want to reach related goals. As Chris Bourg notes in her post on the whiteness of librarianship, our professional rhetoric claims that we reflect the nation’s diversity, but we don’t actually hire people of colour (“Unbearable Whiteness”). And even when we do hire people of colour, we don’t retain them (Vinopal, “Quest for Diversity”). Within the context of power and privilege, race is not the only factor we contend with.

Civility scene 22
When talking to someone, be present in all senses. Be there in body only—and twiddle away with your gadget du jour.
Who are YOU?

Civility Scene 22 focuses on the role of technology in our face-to-face interactions. This recommendation is ableist, ignoring how embodied experiences vary. For example, common self-calming techniques for someone with autism are stimming or fidgeting, which in some cases involves “twiddling” with a gadget.

In Civility Scene 49, Confucius is quoted, “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” For a person with disabilities, the social and cultural power dynamics; the inaccessible physical spaces in which they must operate; and the struggle with their specific impairments or body image can have lasting impacts on how they perceive themselves, on how others perceive them, and on how they understand the ways in which others perceive them. This double- or sometimes triple-consciousness impairs the ability to comply with a simplistic directive to respect oneself.

Civility scene 1
When you want to get a point across… be calm, clear, and coherent. OR… Raise your voice—makes you sound like The Intimidator.
Who are YOU?

Demands for verbal clarity ignore individuals who may be learning the primary language of the community. It may also silence someone who speaks with a louder voice. Civility Scene 32 repeats this simplistic approach to speech differences.

Civility scene 32
In any conversation… Listen to the tone of your voice. OR… Ignore it—it’s all in the words.
Who are YOU?

Women are frequently referred to as “shrill” when they speak, particularly when they are in positions of authority (West). They may not raise their voice at all and be perceived as aggressive. Gendered communication expectations can result in impossibly conflicted recommendations about how to behave in professional settings. This is especially damaging when this tone policing is used by a person in a position of authority, against someone with less power. As the Library Loon notes in her post on silencing and gender: “Asking a potential or actual target to buck the system—not to mention assuming it’s their fault if they don’t, or if they do and are punished for it—piles responsibility in entirely the wrong place.” (Library Loon, “Silencing”)


In August 2015, after the faculty union’s continued objections to the campaign, the Vice President of Student Affairs reported that the civility campaign posters would be replaced with “general university belief statement posters.” As such, posters produced in 2015-2016 include the mission of the institution, the goals of various departments, and some of our institutional student learning outcomes. While this was ostensibly a victory for the union, in actuality our requests for a focus on intersectional anti-bullying was ignored.

Next Steps

Recognize how we reinforce silence

  • If our discourse is based on prioritizing passivity and squashing dissent, the squeaky wheel gets replaced while non-challenging people get promoted in an endless cycle of bad civility campaign rhetoric.
  • By eliminating people who challenge the status quo instead of spending time on doing the real work of combating oppression, we train newcomers to the profession to continue engaging in that silencing behaviour.

Seek remedies to performative civility

  • Protect library employees from threats of precarity through collective action and unionization of workers. We both work in an institution where tenure is protected by an active faculty bargaining unit. This means that during times of campus budget reductions, the process of cutting resources and positions is clearly articulated beforehand, and reduces the ability of administration to engage in retaliatory action against any single individual or group of individuals who choose to speak out. Because librarians are part of the faculty union, they also receive these protections. This gives us the freedom to speak out against initiatives like the civility campaign and advocate for better methods.
  • Prioritize support for librarian scholarship and political engagement. Writing, researching, learning new skills, and being intellectually challenged helps us develop a sense of self-efficacy and become better, more critical thinkers. Prioritizing learning to use our voices, instead of learning to silence ourselves, allows us to become better advocates for ourselves and others.


Many thanks to our external reviewers for this article, Eira Tansey and Sarah Fancher; our internal reviewer, Bethany Messersmith; and to publishing editor Ian Beilin. Their work keeping us focused is much appreciated! Thanks also to nina de jesus, Kyle Shockey, and many others for critiquing early drafts and encouraging our efforts.


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