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Against Shiny

So I need to talk about something on my mind but blurt it out hastily and therefore with less finesse than I’d prefer. There has been a Recent Unpleasantness in LibraryLand where a librarian sued two other librarians for libel. Normally we are a free-speechy sort of group not inclined to sue one another over Things People Said, but as noted in this post by bossladywrites (another academic library director–we are legion), we are not in normal times.  And as Meredith observes in another smart post, it is hard to see the upside of any part of this. Note: I’m not going to discuss the actual details of the lawsuit; I’m more interested in the state of play that got us there. To quote my own tweet:

But first — the context for my run-on sentences and choppy transitions, this being a personal blog and therefore sans an editor to say “stop, stick to topic.” The last two weeks have featured a fender-bender with our Honda where the other driver decided to file a medical claim, presumably for chipping a nail, as you can’t do much damage at 5 mph, even when you are passing on the right and running a stop sign; intense work effort around a mid-year budget adjustment; an “afternoon off” to do homework during which the Most Important Database I needed at that moment was erratic at best; a terrible case of last-minuting by another campus department that should really know better; and the death at home last Saturday of our 18-year-old cat Emma, which included not only the trauma of her departure, but also the mild shame of bargain-shopping for a pet crematorium early last Sunday morning after the first place I called wanted more than I felt would be reasonable for my own cremation.

Now Emma’s ashes are on the shelf with the ashes of Darcy, Dot, and Prada; I am feeling no longer so far behind on homework, though I have a weekend ahead of me that needs to feature less Crazy and more productivity; and I have about 45 minutes before I drive Sandy to a Diabetes Walk, zoom to the Alemany farmer’s market, then settle in for some productive toiling.

It will sound hypocritical for a librarian who has been highly visible for over two decades to say this, but I agree that there is a hyper-rock-stardom afoot in our profession, and I do wonder if bossladywrites isn’t correct that social media is the gasoline over its fire. It does not help when programs designed to help professionals build group project skills have “leader” in the title and become so heavily coveted that librarians publicly gnash teeth and wail if they are not selected, as if their professional lives have been ruined.

It will also sound like the most sour of grapes to say this (not being a Mover & Shaker), and perhaps it is, but there is also a huge element of Shiny in the M&S “award,” which after all is bestowed by an industry magazine and based on a rather casual referral process. There are some well-deserved names mingling with people who are there for reasons such as schmoozing a nomination from another Famous Name (and I know of more than one case of post-nomination regret). Yet being selected for a Library Journal Mover & Shaker automatically labels that person with a gilded status, as I have seen time and again on committees and elsewhere. It’s a magazine, people, not a professional committee.

We own this problem. I have participated in professional activities where it was clear that these titles — and not the performance behind them — fast-tracked librarians for nominations far too premature for their skills. (And no, I am not suggesting the person that brought the suit is an EL–I don’t know that, though I know he was an M&S.) I am familiar with one former EL (not from MPOW!) who will take decades if ever to live up to anything with “leader” in the title, and have watched him get proposed as a candidate for association-wide office–by virtue of being on the magic EL-graduate roster.

Do I think Emerging Leaders is a good program? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have carved money out of our tiny budget to commit to supporting one at MPOW. Do I think being an EL graduate means you are qualified for just about anything the world might offer, and your poop don’t stink? No, absolutely not. I did not single out one person due  to magical sparkly librarian powers; it had a lot more to do with this being a good fit for that librarian at the time, just as I have helped others at MPOW get into leadership programs, research institutes, information-literacy boot camps, and skill-honing committees. It’s just part of my job.

The over-the-top moment for me with EL was the trading cards. Really? Coronets and fanfare for librarians learning project management and group work? Couldn’t we at least wait until their work was done? Of the tens of thousands of librarians in the U.S. alone, less than one hundred become ELs every year. The vast majority of the remainder are “emerging” just fine in their own right; there are great people doing great work that you will never, ever hear of. Why not just give us all trading cards — yes, every damn librarian? And before you conclude KGS Hates EL, keep in mind I have some serious EL street cred, having not only sponsored an EL but also for successfully proposing GLBTRT’s first EL and making a modest founding donation to its effort to boot.

Then there was ALA’s “invitational summit” last spring where fewer than 100 “thought leaders from the library field” gathered to “begin a national conversation.” Good for them, but as one of the uninvited, I could not resist poking mild fun at this on Twitter, partly for its exclusivity and partly because this “national conversation” was invisible to the rest of the world. I was instantly lathered in Righteous Indignation by some of the chosen people who attended — and not even to my (social network) face, but in the worst passive-aggressive librarian style, through “vaguebook” comments on social networks. (And a la Forrest Gump, the person who brought the lawsuit against the two librarians was at this summit, too, though I give the organizers credit for blending interesting outliers along with the usual suspects.) If you take yourself that seriously, you need a readjustment — perhaps something we can discuss if that conversation is ever launched.

I have a particularly bitter taste in my mouth about the absentee rockstar librarian syndrome because I had one job, eons ago, where I succeeded an absentee leader who had been on the conference circuit for several years, and all the queen’s horses couldn’t put that department together again. There were a slew of other things that were going wrong, but above all, the poor place stank of neglect.  The mark of a real rock star is the ability to ensure that no one back at the ranch ever has any reason to begrudge you your occasional Shiny Moment.  Like the way so many of us learn hard lessons, it gave me pause about my own practices, and caused me to silently beg forgiveness from past organizations for any and all transgressions.

Shiny Syndrome can twist people’s priorities and make the quotidian seem unimportant (along with making them boors at dinner parties, as Meredith recounts). Someone I intensely dislike is attributed with saying that 80 percent of life is showing up, a statement I grudgingly agree is spot-on. When people ask if I would run for some office or serve on some very busy board, or even do a one-off talk across country, I point out that I have a full-time job and am a full-time student (I barely have time to brew beer more than three times a year these days!). But it’s also true that I get a huge amount of satisfaction simply from showing up for work every day, as well as activities that likely sound dull but to me are very exciting, such as shared-print pilots and statewide resource sharing, as well as the interviews I am conducting for a research paper that is part of my doctoral process, a project that has big words like Antecedents in the title but is to me fascinating and rewarding.

I also get a lot of pleasure from professional actions that don’t seem terribly fun, such as pursuing the question of whether there should be a Planning and Budget Assembly, a question that may seem meaningless to some; in fact, at an ALA midwinter social, one Shiny Person belittled me for my actions on PBA to the point where I left the event in tears. Come to think of it, that makes two white men who have belittled me for pursuing the question of PBA, which brings up something Meredith and bossladywrites hint at: the disproportionate number of rockstar librarians who are young, white, and male. They left off age, but I feel that acutely; far too often, “young” is used as a synonym for forward-thinking, tech-savvy, energetic, smart, creative, and showcase-worthy.

I do work in a presentation now and then — and who can complain about being “limited” to the occasional talk in Australia and New Zealand (I like to think “I’m big, really big, in Palmerston North”), though my favorite talk in the last five years was to California’s community college library directors, because they are such a nice group and it was a timely jolt of Vitamin Colleague — but when I do, I end up talking about my work in one way or the other. And one of the most touching moments of my career happened this August when at an event where MPOW acknowledged my Futas Award — something that honors two decades of following Elizabeth Futas’ model of outspoken activism, sometimes at personal risk, sometimes wrongheadedly, sometimes to no effect, but certainly without pause — I realized that some of our faculty thought I was receiving this award for my efforts on behalf of my dear library, as if there were an award for fixing broken bathroom exhaust fans and replacing tables and chairs, activities that along with the doctoral program take up the space where shiny stuff would go. That flash of insight was one of the deepest, purest moments of joy in my professional life. I got to be two people that day: the renegade of my youth, and the macher of my maturity.

Finally, I am now venturing into serious geezer territory, but back in the day, librarians were rock stars for big stuff, like inventing online catalogs, going to jail rather than revealing their patrons’ identities, and desegregating state associations. These days you get your face, if not on the cover of Rolling Stone, as a centerfold in a library magazine, position yourself as a futurist or guru, go ping ping ping all over the social networks, and you’re now at every conference dais. (In private messaging about this topic, I found myself quoting the lyrics from “You’re So Vain.”)

Name recognition has always had its issues (however convenient it is for those of us, like me, who have it). I often comment, and it is not false modesty, that I know some people vote for me for the wrong reasons. I have my areas of competence, but I know that name recognition and living in a state with a large population (as I am wont to do) play a role in my ability to get elected. (Once I get there, I like to think I do well enough, but that is beside the point. A favorite moment of mine, from back when I chaired a state intellectual freedom committee, was a colleague who remarked, clearly surprised, that”you know how to run a meeting!”) And of course, there are rock stars who rock deservedly, and sometimes being outward-facing is just part of the package (and some of us can’t help it — I was that little kid that crazy people walked up to in train stations to gift with hand-knit sweaters, and yes, that really happened). But we seem to have gone into a new space, where a growing percentage of Shiny People are famous for being shiny.  It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for them, and it’s terrible for our profession.


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