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.

perfect-date

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.

Tradition and the Rhetoric of the Modern Library

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“…Tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance.” – Igor Stravinsky

While at ACRL, I attended  “From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY Culture(s) and the Academy,” a panel session led by the librarians from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I attended the session not only because I’m very interested in the topic, but I also wanted to see how/if they successfully flipped the standard panel session format. 

As the dust settled from the conference, a few commentaries about the session have emerged. In particular, I found the posts by Meredith Farkas and Brian Mathews both interesting and thought-provoking. They both left the session with quite different opinions on the DIY concept and the librarians who spoke at the session. I do not intend this post to be a response to either of those posts because I find facets of their arguments with which I  both agree and disagree, and I can’t seem to find a way to describe this dichotomy with any clarity. However, they both call attention to comments made during the session about the “traditional library.” As an audience member who made one such comment, I’d like to attempt to articulate in greater depth what I envisioned expressing.

Maybe it’s because I am a liaison for the Communication Studies department or maybe it’s because many of the issues my library faces can be attributed to ineffective communication of value, but in recent months I’ve found myself paying an increasing amount of attention to rhetoric. In particular, I have come to believe that librarians need to stop using the word “traditional” to describe what we do or what we are.

I want to be clear that I believe tradition exists and will forever remain an element of librarianship. Any profession that has survived as long as librarianship will maintain some sort of tradition. I’m not implying that we need to throw away the foundations of librarianship or what has brought us to our current state. What I wish to see happen is a transformation in the rhetoric.

My comment at the DIY panel session was along the lines of this: “We need to stop using the word ‘traditional.’ People often use that word and it generally implies something as static, but libraries have always been the opposite. We’re dynamic institutions, always changing.” In many ways, our tradition has been change – adapting to the needs of our users in an ever-evolving world, which is now highly defined by technology. As a profession, we understand this, but if an outsider was looking in, it’s my opinion that they’d hear the word “traditional” and apply the age-old stereotype of The Music Man‘s Marian the Librarian. These are the same people who expound about libraries not existing in the near future because of the internet. They hear the word “traditional” and think static. Unfortunately, these people seem to outnumber those who know what the true tradition of librarianship is, and these are the people who are more often than not making the administrative and policy decisions that affect how our libraries operate.

If we change the rhetoric, can we more effectively impact the administrative decisions being made regarding libraries? Communicating the value of libraries within our institutions has become increasingly important in an atmosphere of escalating costs among flat-lined or decreasing budgets, and initiatives like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries and ACRL’s Standards for Libraries in Higher Education perpetuate its importance. By changing the rhetoric of how we communicate our value, librarians can better position ourselves to create the change envisioned by those at the DIY panel session.

In many ways, this call for transformation in the rhetoric fits the attitudes of most of the librarians who commented at the ACRL panel session and what I believe is the essence of the DIY concept – the desire to transform our libraries outside of the traditional hierarchies, norms, and constraints, to meet the evolving demands of our users. What exactly this new rhetoric should sound and look like, I’m unsure. I do know that it needs to start within the profession and it needs to begin today. Until the profession as a whole decides to change the rhetoric, we cannot expect our surrounding external forces to buy into the vision of DIY culture.

On the Wings of #ACRL2013, or Brace Yourself for Landing

Having returned home from my inaugural appearance at an ACRL conference, I felt a sense of professional rejuvenation unlike almost anything I have previously experienced. I spent a good amount of time in my first days back trying to digest what I’d learned, prioritizing ideas I felt adaptable to my institution, sharing thoughts with colleagues, and emailing the new friends I met in Indianapolis. Now two weeks have passed and the honeymoon period seems to have fizzled, but I still want to attempt to do it all!

And voila, this blog rises from my post-ACRL priorities as a means to begin formalizing my thoughts on the profession and as a place to share those thoughts and ideas. Even if they only echo back to myself, this blog will be a place to explore new ideas and informally sift through new (and old) theories and practicalities of librarianship. My sandbox, if you will.

So, welcome. And please share your thoughts and opinions whether they align, diverge, or land somewhere in between. To paraphrase Geoffrey Canada’s opening keynote at ACRL 2013, I may be opinionated but that doesn’t mean I’m correct.