Listservs: Think Tanks or Shark Tanks?

When you decided to become a librarian, did you know about the power of listservs? I certainly did not. During my premiere week as an “official” librarian, my coworkers provided me with a laundry list of recommended listservs. Eager to learn from the collective wisdom of librarians across the country and world, I joined the ones I felt best suited my position, research interests, and institution.

Overall, I find  the listservs to which I subscribe very useful. In addition to sparking new ideas ranging from library instruction to organizational culture, listservs provide a continuous, professional pressure cooker for collaboration. Depending on the size and location of your library, you may feel as though you’re on a deserted island with limited flares to signal for help. Listservs not only bring the professional community to you, but you also have the power to decide how much you choose to interact with the community. You can simply be a receiver of the collective wisdom or you can actively contribute.

Because of the lack of immediate feedback that comes with email communications, your first contribution to a listserv may require a tremendous act of bravery. Your name and institution are attached for all of your colleagues to read. This could inhibit someone from asking a question they may deem as “stupid.” But as the old saying goes, there are no stupid questions except those that aren’t asked. While feedback is expected in these forums, feedback in the form of criticism should always remain constructive, not destructive. When feedback becomes destructive, it not only discourages participation, but it generally reflects poorly on both the criticizer and the profession as a whole. Additionally, when you provide constructive criticism, you should think about whether it’s appropriate to reply on or off list. Place yourself in the shoes of the recipient and ask yourself if you’d want to receive your comments individually or for the entire listserv to read.

Recently, a thread in one of my subscribed listservs experienced this jump from collegial to antagonistic. It began with a librarian asking if we would complete a short survey about librarian demographics and attitudes for her MBA market research class. The survey had standard demographic questions, but then asked a series of questions related to cats – whether or not you owned one, your attitudes about them, etc. You could see where she was going with the survey. The survey evoked a series of responses that ranged from amusement to pro-dog outcries to anger. The outraged questioned statistical methods, offensive stereotypes, and what they perceived as a misleading introduction to the survey. After a few days, the surveyor notified the group that 1600 self-identified librarians responded and that her group’s hypothesis, one to which the listserv was not privy, was proven mostly wrong. She concluded her summation by mentioning the possibility for publishing the study, which incited a series of critical responses regarding IRB approval, institutional affiliation, survey transparency, and the differences between data collection for research vs. educational purposes (as though the two are not inherently bond).

Although some of the questions asked by respondents are pertinent, I struggle with how they were posed. The tone was largely condescending and demeaning. They were destructive, not constructive. In many of the instances, respondents probably should have provided feedback off list. However, a handful of librarians quickly defended the surveyor. One such defended perfectly expressed my feelings:

Is it possible to ask these questions with a little humility? Why would anyone attempt anything new, let alone share it with a group of peers if they knew that any slip would be seized upon by a heavy dose of tactless criticism?

My fear is that if listservs continually see aggressive, self-satisfying, and humiliating responses, librarians may hesitate to participate. That would be the real tragedy.*

Finally, what if I and the handful of defenders are mistaken? Is it possible that we inferred a tone that wasn’t intended in the criticism? Were the critics truly attempting to be constructive? Was something lost in digital translation? How can we use this as a self-teaching moment? More specifically, can we use these digital miscommunications in our professional interactions to inform our instructional design choices when creating online courses and tutorials for distance learners?

When creating information literacy tutorials or interacting in an online course as an embedded librarian, there are plenty of opportunities for miscommunication and misinterpretation. When a simple question or statement can easily be misinterpreted in a face-to-face environment, just think how a seemingly straightforward question or comment can be misinterpreted by an audience in a digital environment.


Miss Congeniality, 2000

* I’d be curious to research how many and how often threads divert down such negative paths, but I’m pretty sure I’d refrain from mentioning it on any listserv for fear of inciting an ironic series of antagonistic replies.


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