Every few months the notion of celebrity librarians (celebrarians?), sometimes embarrassingly referred to as “rock star librarians,” appears on our radar. Who are these librarians? Look no further than your local, state, or regional conference, where one of them is likely delivering the keynote speech, typically with the message that libraries must change to avoid extinction—this, despite our burgeoning usage statistics and the obvious exhaustion of the audience members sitting in front of them, worn out from toiling in overused and understaffed libraries.
Such library stars typically cultivate large followings on social media, especially Twitter, where they exercise great sway. And while it’s not exclusively a boys’ club, it sure seems like a disproportionate number of these stars are white men.
These star librarians often come under attack these days, especially when the guys behave badly. In May, Stephen Abram, a conference mainstay, jokingly trotted out Dan Aykroyd’s “Jane, you ignorant slut” while moderating a recent panel at the Canadian Library Association. It wasn’t funny on Saturday Night Live back in 1977, and it certainly isn’t funny today. Abram’s remark, and his subsequent apology, drew a firestorm that all but drowned out the coverage of CLA’s other program items.
And recently, Joe Murphy—a young star of the conference circuit—faced a barrage of criticism over a defamation suit he initiated against two librarians in Canada. According to the Statement of Claim, one librarian had posted a tweet suggesting that Murphy was a “sexual predator” while another had published a blog post making, to quote the suit, “additional false, libelous, highly damaging, outrageous, malicious statements against the plaintiff alleging the commission of sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women.” Murphy is seeking $1.25 million in damages. The case has become a bit of a cause célèbre, and a petition asking Murphy to drop his suit has reportedly attracted over 1,000 signatures.
Both Abram and Murphy blew up social media among librarians, and on the positive side, they succeeded in generating long overdue discussions about gender and privilege, power and harassment. You would think these issues would be meaty enough to keep the library community engaged for months. But no, the conversation has also turned to an examination of the nature of “celebrity” in libraryland—and the social media–driven star system that can propel people into positions of great professional influence.
Many librarians are quick to point to one major source for the star system: Movers & Shakers, Library Journal’s annual issue celebrating librarians. But I think pointing a finger at Library Journal is just silly. (Full disclosure: I was an editor at Library Journal when Movers & Shakers began in 2002, and over the years I wrote many of the profiles and sometimes edited the publication. My observations here, however, are from after 2011, when I had left the magazine and returned to library work.)
I love Movers & Shakers. To me, the program opens up library buildings and tells the stories of the dynamic people working inside them. Suddenly librarians are visible, and stories of innovation can be told in the context of an individual’s life, stories which we don’t get to hear about often enough. Even in the age of Facebook and Twitter, where it sometimes seems the entire library community is in one continuous discussion, I always discover new people and projects in Movers & Shakers.
What surprises me, however, is the amount of tsuris the annual announcement of Movers & Shakers generates. Many librarians who have been moving and shaking for years—and who should be secure enough without the recognition—still carry a chip on their shoulder that they’re not included. Meanwhile, the generic blog post about “why I’m okay with not being a mover and shaker” has become all too common.
There’s regular debate on the effect that being a Mover & Shaker has on careers, as well as the selection process. And Movers themselves don’t always have it so easy—some have reported that the recognition has caused them some workplace difficulties.
But I guess such uneasiness is inevitable. Librarianship has always had a deep strain of selflessness, a placing of the institution above the person. We’re a bit like the Abnegation faction in Divergent. And then, all of a sudden, a person is recognized with a few paragraphs in a trade publication accompanied by a good photo. Why wouldn’t it go to our collective heads?
I like to see librarians celebrated, and empowered. But when I see librarians giving Movers & Shakers so much professional power, I want to shake them. It isn’t an Academy Award. It’s a profile in a magazine—recognition for creativity and innovation. It’s a reason to be proud, sure, and to have your work admired, and maybe even to have a few opportunities to speak or write. It’s undeniably a good thing. But stardom it isn’t—unless that’s the path you choose to make it. And for some, the profession has been all too willing to print that ticket.
Strike the System?
If there is a villain in the star system, it is in our professional associations and among the vendors who time and again push the same set of celebrarians in front of us. I understand that conference revenue is vital to associations, and the perception is that bigger names draw bigger audiences. But I think it’s lazy when conference committees book so-called rock star librarians because of how many Twitter followers they have, and, worse, it’s often disrespectful to the audience.
The fact is, in all my years of conference attendance, I’ve rarely learned anything from a keynote speech. The innovation I’m interested in is happening somewhere else, offstage, on the grassroots level, where fewer people are paying attention. For example, while our conference keynote speakers were holding forth on Second Life for reference, espousing podcasting and QR codes, and discussing the emerging bookless library a few years ago, librarians at the Fayetteville Free Library in upstate New York were experimenting with something they called a Fab Lab. It was the one of the nation’s first “maker spaces” in a public library.
Maybe it’s time that we acknowledge that rock star librarians are becoming vestigial, like the appendix. Instead of spending so much time criticizing them, why can’t we just forget about them? Information, news, and opinion flow across social media—you most likely followed a link to this column—and we all look to our friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter to help determine what to read and think about, and that is what ultimately informs our practice. Sure, there are personalities I trust, voices I follow, and publications I pay attention to. But I am just as likely to read a 2,000-word blog post from an author completely unknown to me if the topic hits home. For professional communication, social media is the great equalizer and content trumps personality, every time.
When I poke my head out of my library, pony up some real money, and head off to a conference, I’m looking to learn something new. I’m looking for old-fashioned “how we did it” information. It’s always in vogue to trash this sort of presentation, but it’s the meat and potatoes of our professional communication—just look at what rooms fill up first at the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference. I want to hear from practitioners about new programs and services, what problem they are seeking to address, the issues encountered, how sustainable the solutions are, and the effect they’re having on the public.
I also expect to interact, ask questions, explore the model, see whether it should, or could, be modified to work in my library. I’m also looking to be presented with the bigger questions, the questions you don’t think about when you’re locked in the grind of your job. I hope to be challenged in how I think about libraries, to have my apple cart of preconceptions tipped over, to return to work with a new, or at least questioning, perspective on my institution. This is the hardest thing to pull off, and it’s a perspective that typically comes from those outside our community, however much we may sometimes chafe at hearing it.
I don’t always know what I’m looking for when I attend a conference. But the one thing I know is that I don’t want to hear from someone simply because, like the Kardashians, they’ve become famous for being famous. What I don’t find useful are generic “great debates” between library personalities with big Twitter followings. I actually want to get the hell out of libraries. I want to hear from anthropologists or economists, writers or technologists. I want to discover new ideas, especially if that learning has no direct bearing on libraries. The PLA Conference this past March did a brilliant job of this with its TED Talk–like Big Ideas series.
Instead of spending so much attention on personalities, maybe we’d be better off focusing on our work, and on the values of the true giants of our profession. There are a quite a few of those, although I have never heard them speak from a podium or read any of their tweets. In fact, I’ve never met them: Augusta Baker, Pura Belpré, John Cotton Dana, Margaret Edwards, Barbara Gittings, Carolyn Ulrich, and many more (go ahead, please Google them).
These heroes won’t demand expensive speaker fees, or airline tickets. Nor will you find them at the hotel bar, hitting on the new librarians, or getting in a flame war online. But the lessons their lives and work offer are more meaningful and relevant than what you’ll likely find in almost any conference keynote.