Does the library world squash public dissent?

In Waiting for Batgirl, Andy Woodworth laments the lack of compelling library blogging. Woodworth implies that most library blogging is pretty bland, primary because few of us are willing to be publicly critical of our organizations and/or of the profession. He goes on to write:

I also believe that the library world doesn’t handle honest portrayals of the work place very well. Public dissent is considered gauche in a profession that proudly supports the societal provocateurs, miscreants, and iconoclasts but wants to keep discontent in-house.

Clearly, Woodworth’s sentiments struck a chord with many librarians, as the blog post was tweeted and retweeted steadily over the last few days, mostly by folks who agreed with Woodworth’s dismal view of the profession’s tolerance for dissent:



Obviously, there are librarians who have suffered career repurcussions from speaking out in ways that are critical of the profession or of specific organizations. But it is hard to know how widespread the phenomena is. Is there a pattern that indicates a real systemic, cultural problem or are there simply many troubling idosyncratic stories that defy generalization? Is the “library world” even a meaningful agentic construct?

I think those are important questions (and hope many of you will respond in the comments), but the sociologist in me knows that “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In other words, we have a problem. Some significant number of bright, creative, passionate librarians feel constrained in talking and writing honestly about their concerns and criticisms of the profession and of particular workplace policies and situations. That can only mean that there are valuable voices and ideas that are missing from the conversations.

So, how can we as leaders encourage healthy, honest, public conversations about our profession — the good, the bad, and the ugly? And where exactly is the line between unprofessional trash-talking and healthy, thoughtful critical dissent? Those of you who are afraid to speak out, what would have to change for you to feel safe making your thoughts known? And how do issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and other dimensions of difference and power play into this?

These are not rhetorical questions. I joined Taiga, and agreed to be on the steering committee, because I wanted to try to leverage the Taiga platform to engage the library community writ large on issues that matter. I think Woodworth’s post has raised one of those issues, and I hope you all will engage with us on it. Dissent welcome — I promise!

7/11/13: Edited to add: Comments from any and all interested parties are welcome and encouraged. No need to be a Taiga member or an AUL/AD type. In fact, I personally would rather hear from non-AULs (no offense to my dear AUL colleagues, but let’s not talk amongst ourselves, OK?).

7/13/13: Edited to add:

I encourage you all to read the 3 excellent posts by the Library Loon that followed this one:

Silencing, librarianship, and gender: A preface

Silencing, librarianship and gender: How to find the silenced

Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing


AUL for Public Services, Stanford University Libraries

Posted in Leadership Tagged with: ,
30 comments on “Does the library world squash public dissent?
  1. I haven’t suffered any career repercussions in the library field (touch wood) but I did encounter this in my pre-library life.

    On one hand, I understand how a library might want to control the messaging around a particular incident to ensure that correct information is being disseminated through an official channel. On the other hand, that idea seems at cross purposes to an organization and a profession that claims to support intellectual freedom, curiosity and collaboration.

    What would have to change for me to feel safe? I think feeling that I would be supported by the organization regardless of the outcome. Feeling like any honest critique from the higher-ups has to do with my argument, not who I am as a person and what I represent.

    I think it would also take a more serious commitment to diversity in thought and representation, not just to the diversity of our library collections. Changing that might mean giving more voice to paraprofessionals or library staff who, for whatever reason, haven’t had the privilege of obtaining the MLIS degree. We could broaden the makeup of our profession if we really wanted to; handing out Spectrum scholarships shouldn’t be the only avenue available.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Cecily-thanks for such great comments.
      Your comment (and the Loon’s post below) have me thinking that it is important for leaders to help folks understand the often subtle difference between speaking out as individual (which means say whatever the hell you want, no repercusions), and speaking for the institution. And the Loon’s point admonition “do not discourage or punish the open expression of anger or frustration, especially while it is still small and remediable” is really important. Leaders need thick skin and patience.
      And serious commmitment to diversity is SOOO important. And here I will resist the urge to self-censor … I think the library world sucks at this. I think we give it lip service and think we are OK because we have so many women and lots of the gays. In academic libraries especially, I am consistently troubled by the lack of racial and ethnic and class diversity (although to be fair, class is often invisible. Some of us with solid working-class roots probably pass much of the time).

  2. Damon Jaggars says:

    Is librarianship different from other professions in this regard? I’m not sure it is. Not that this fact makes self censorship any less insidious, but if I’m correct then the issue becomes a larger question about workplace culture within the broader society, doesn’t it? The only reason I would care about this distinction is to avoid yet another reason for us to moan about the “state of librarianship”…another reason to navel gaze. If this is an issue in our workplaces, then we as managers and administrators need to get on with building the type of organizations that enable a variety of voices and help our colleagues develop the ability to use them effectively. Ineffective, nonconstructive communication, the “unprofessional trash-talking” Chris mentions above is just as damaging as self censorship in my estimation.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Damon-Don’t know if library world is much different from other professions, but I also don’t really care. Libraries SHOULD be different. We have stated values of Diversity, Democracy, and Intellectual Freedom — we ought to be a radically open profession. One that celebrates dissent, and that recognizes that there is tremendous power in disagreements.

      And I think the Library Loon’s take on “unprofessional trash-talking” is better than mine (see, disagrement is good): “The Loon loathes the word “unprofessional,” though, because it is a vague but effective condemnation with no clear referent that is often used to silence dissent. In fact, its use is often a pattern-of-silencing indicator.”

      • Damon Jaggars says:

        Fair enough. I just worry that we, in this profession, concentrate so deeply on the disagreements that we don’t get to working toward solutions with the same verve.

    • Andromeda says:

      I suspect it’s different from some and not others? I used to be in teaching and, while I didn’t try to have a public voice there, I think that’s also a very niceness-oriented field. My husband is in software and has typically worked in small companies, and his discourse pattern with a former boss was that they’d regularly call each other ()%*#)( idiots (note: they liked and respected one another; this was a good working relationship). There are cultural tools in the field for eliciting disagreement (e.g. code reviews) and niceness isn’t really a value. (Really, the field goes too far in the other direction for some purposes — but at least demonstrates that libraries’ discourse norms are really not universal.)

      • Chris Bourg says:

        Hi Andromeda-
        I think you are absolutely right. Different professions have different norms for disagreements and for sharing concerns and criticisms of other people’s ideas. And it can vary within professions too. In the sociology program at UMd, faculty and students were actually quite supportive. I assumed that was normal. Stanford sociology was a much more critical culture, but not mean. The first Economics grad seminar I went too was a real eye-opener … I found the Economists to be way more blunt, direct, and (by my estimation) mean-spirited.

  3. Amy Kautzman says:

    What do we mean when we say “dissent?” I’ve worked in plenty of institutions where librarians and staff make public statements (blogs, editorials, articles) that may not agree with local goals and priorities. The repercussions run the spectrum from “nothing happens” to “respect is lost”; depending on conversation style and the validity of the discourse.

    What I do not see is active disagreement between a UL and the Associate Directors or library leadership vs. campus leadership. That, in my mind, is career suicide. After all, we are hired to support our institution’s mission. If we have qualms, they tend to be expressed in a very different way.

    Being that Taiga is built around senior admins, I posit that we are really exploring a difference in communication at higher levels in an institution. I believe there is ongoing library debate and disagreement, but administrators process issues differently. There are more nuances and as much as we’d like easy answers, the shade of gray are more prominent than black & white.

    Additionally, at higher levels, mature people are less willing to burn bridges or call out their peers. Let’s add the gender dynamics and our dominant “polite gene” and accept that Fox News type rants are never going to be our norm.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Amy- I think you are absolutely right about the current state of things in terms of senior administrators being polite, nuanced, etc. I had a colleague (actually, he reports to me, but I call everyone a colleague) tell me yesterday that I’m “too reasonable”. He meant it as a compliment, I took it as a challenge. I’m really starting to think we are too damn polite, too willing to go along with ULs and Provosts and Presidents who are not always right. A big part of the appeal of libraries for me when I first came into the fold was that libraries are an essentially radical ideal. At this point in time, when many of the folks who have power over our very existence know next to nothing about what we do yet are cutting our staffs and budgets, I think we need to get a little more ranty.

  4. Dale Askey says:

    I read this piece yesterday, and I think he makes many good points. He does tend to focus, however, on retribution that could come from employers. I would point out that in certain jurisdictions and with certain parties, one can also face legal remifications in the form of libel and defamation claims, as I experienced. That is something of a unique case, but I think the saga that Jeffrey Beall is enduring shows that there are a lot of bad-faith actors in our realm, particularly on the publishing side. Organizations such as the AAP have shown themselves to be hostile toward any form of public criticism, and speaking out against such entities likely comes at a price.

    Another issue that comes to mind here is that thoughtful, coherent writing takes time and energy, and if you’re an academic librarian in any kind of tenure or ‘up or out’ system, then you will likely devote that time toward creating output that your organization deems valid, such as journal articles or conference presentations. There aren’t many library employers out there who would accept personal blogging as a serious professional activity, which is a real shame. I’ve been at the tenure table when this topic has come up (not with regard to myself), and while people were open to blogging as a professional activity, it was more or less deemed trival in importance compared to a conference talk. Given that presentations nowadays are given to audiences engrossed in their wifi-connected device, that seems backward. If anyone reads your blog, it’s because they sought it out and made the time.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      I wondered when you would chime in with your special point of view 😉

      I think your points about academic writing versus blogging are important ones. Someone (on twitter, on the Loon’s blog? I can’t recall and am feeling lazy) posited that people are more honest and critical in peer-reviewed lit than on blogs. Interesting.

  5. Rebecca Kennison says:

    There seem to be two important components under discussion here: (1) public presence and (2) dissent. I’d argue that the first — a well-established, well-written, consistently thoughtful blog (or other online presence) with a distinct voice and a loyal following, such as the Library Loon’s — then allows for the second. I wonder how many “regular” employees feel the freedom to establish such a presence, though, for all the reasons Woodworth suggests in his original post. I’m not a librarian, although I (now) play one at conferences, and I will admit that many of the sensitivities of my library colleagues are foreign to me, including the (often unspoken but still somehow clearly communicated) idea that, even if you speak as an individual, you will nevertheless be judged as a professional simply because your colleagues might read you. My colleagues in publishing do not seem to have the same qualms, as some of the bloggers on the Scholarly Kitchen prove on an almost daily basis (for better or for worse). I do wonder (and here I am being intentionally provocative) whether what really is at the heart of the dearth of public dissent by librarians is that the status quo is very much valued by most in the profession, including the image of librarians, like footmen in a so-called great household, who serve proudly in silence, for whom what is most prized is to be seen but never noticed. Would dissenting librarians not disrupt that idyllic picture, perhaps even contributing to the end of the “patron” aristocracy they so proudly serve? (That commonplace “patron” terminology alone says something, does it not?) How long can a dissenting footman last in a household whose butler prides himself on maintaining tradition even as the world outside burns in revolution? With apologies for going all “Downton Abbey”-ish on everyone, but the question itself is a serious one.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Thanks for commenting!
      How do you think the fact that the Library Loon is anonymous factors in? The Loon herself implies that the anonymity is critical to her willingness to dissent.

      There seem to be plenty of librarians who want to disrupt the status quo … but perhaps the ones who favor it are more likely to be in positions of power and influence? Which from a cynical point of view makes sense — if you gained and enjoy power and influence under the status quo, you are selfishly motivated to maintain it.

      • Rebecca Kennison says:

        While the Loon’s persona (including the deliberate affect of referring to herself in the third person) is anonymous, I think most people these days, especially in the library community, know her true identity. She still maintains the fiction of anonymity, but that doesn’t make her anonymous. What such a fiction does do, however, is reinforce that she is speaking as an individual, rather than for her institution. Those of us who have not created that sort of persona do run the risk, I think, of being read with those two roles conflated.

        I do think you’re right, though, that those in power wish to retain power and so are more highly motivated to maintain the status quo, as are those who want to get into positions of power themselves. It seems to me that if the only positions open above you are traditional ones, you almost of necessity must become ever more traditional yourself to move up in the organization. Put another way: the further up the managerial ladder you go, the easier it is to merely talk about change rather than to create change, especially if such change might make your own job and position obsolete. To embrace that kind of disruptive change takes a special kind of leader for sure.

  6. Eleanor Cook says:

    Interesting discussion. On my campus we’ve been having a number of conversations that I think fall into the category of “healthy dissent” but edged with less functional attitudes (including whining and moaning and general discontent). Topics, for example, include our continuing “discussion” with the administration about our faculty status within the library, and related topics of faculty/staff relations and disagreements concerning recent decisions about reorganizations within divisions of the library. When is it healthy and when is it hurtful? The answer, I think, is when the conversation leads to a better understanding of viewpoints and real needs, and something can be done to address those needs, then it is helpful. If the conversation is simply a rehash of points made before that go nowhere, then it’s time to move on.

  7. Rudy says:

    I recently heard my Dean make an insightful comment about the conservative natures of libraries, especially evident during tenure processes. Libraries hire big picture, broad thinking, energetic, go-getters with big ideas. And hire them into cultures that are in no cultural way ready to absorb them or their ideas. They are rejected, reprimanded, silenced, disabused, walled off, walled in, and unable to do their jobs, to succeed, to feel energized, or to get tenure.

    This is not a new trend, or even a newly discussed trend. For the past 4 or 5 years, an astonishing number of library people whose vision helped move us forward and energize us left the ranks and became “consultants”. Or took jobs in other fields. Or went back to school. And this was remarked upon.

    We do this, as a profession. I think I;m only surprised that folks are still only just noticing that we do this. We silence. We shut down. We kneecap. We minimize. We eat our fresh minds and spit it out as gristle.

    What are we going to do about it? This is the question that’s still unanswered.

    • Amy Kautzman says:

      I’ve seen that movie!

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Just FYI — I fixed a typo in your website url, so it now goes to your excellent blog.
      Thanks for commenting.
      There seems to be an interesting trend in the comments here — many, like you, are saying some version of “Girl howdy – yep this is a problem and has been for a long time.” Others seem more skeptical that this is a real problem. And the divergence sure seems to cut along gender lines.

    • Jenn Riley says:

      Rudy, I think you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head here. And you (and Chris) have inspired me to stop feeling like a victim of this phenomenon and start planning what I can do to make it better.

  8. StevenB says:

    This brought to mind an IHE column I wrote back in 2007 “Good at Reviewing Books But Not Each Other” ( which I lamented the lack of good controversial – and respectful – discussion and back in forth in this profession. What I observed at that time was that alternate viewpoints – challenging the status quo in the library blogosphere in particular – would invite heaps of criticism and little in the way of support. After all, who else wants to take the punishment?

    So I can appreciate Andy’s points about bloggers being unwilling to take on controversial issues (although I’m not sure why you’d want to publicly criticize your university or library colleagues – I think there are probably better ways to tackle that than with a public airing of issues – possibly excepting some incredibly egregious injustice affecting quite a few people). I’m not sure I have any better answers to your questions now than I did then. As leaders we need to provide good examples with our behavior in the workplace and profession-at-large. We need to be good listeners who are open to differing viewpoints – encouraging discussion – and willing to offer them up when we feel the need to speak up. And we certainly have to refrain from any impulse to quash voices of opposition, but rather engage them as best we can.

    Personally I’m not seeing the trend to which Rudy speaks in her comment. Who are these folks with vision that felt compelled to leave the profession because their idealism was shut down? Who trampled on their enthusiasm? I can think of many more examples of big picture thinkers who are well accepted and appreciated for their vision. While I don’t doubt some folks get fed up with frustrating job situations and decide there are greener pastures elsewhere, if this is happening on a large scale I’m not sure how I missed this. If so, yes, we do need to do something about it. Or is the sort of trend within our profession we fear bringing into the light?

    • Chris Bourg says:

      I assume your point about not personally seeing the silencing others describe is simply you pointing out that we may have different lenses into the issue, and is not meant to question the veracity of the claims made.
      I too find myself wanting to know exactly who was silenced and how (because I want to somehow encourage the silenced and reprimand the silencers), but of course the nature of the phenemona is such that those are the wrong questions to the wrong people.
      I can tell you that I have recieved several private notes from women (yes, all women) telling me tales of their silencing. They were told to me in confidence, so I won’t repeat them, but it is abundantly clear to me that there is absolutely a trend and that we mustn’t ignore it or minimize it.

    • Dale Askey says:

      One doesn’t see the trend because people who have been beaten down in a job aren’t likely to have much desire to document it publicly for the world to see. It does happen, however, to which I can personally attest. I’m just not going to write about it in public. For one, it’s an unpleasant topic for me personally, but more to the point, what do I have to gain by airing such a grievance? It’s a topic for a pub.

  9. John Jackson says:

    “So, how can we as leaders encourage healthy, honest, public conversations about our profession — the good, the bad, and the ugly?”

    The first part in getting there is making sure there is a clear and open two way channel of communication that employees feel comfortable using. At my place of work, there is no system in place for airing professional grievances in a public forum. We have quarterly all-hands-on-deck meetings, but those are simply used as a soapbox for the administration to tell us what they’ve been up to the past few months. It’s a one way conversation. And so as a result, when problems do arise that require public discussion, they end up being pushed into the various gossip corners to fester.

    There are some of us who raise the issue repeatedly but no solution, even a bad one, has been recommended. All this to say, one way of silencing is to not provide a forum in the first place.

    • Jill says:

      John’s point about communication going one way rather than two ways is important. I was struck by how one-way the instruction in library school was — at times it seemed pretty clear which ideas were considered worth expressing and which were not. Since there’s a fair amount of discussion of library school as a means of socializing people into the profession, I wonder if there’s a pattern set early on. Rebecca’s earlier point about the conflation of personal and institutional identities might also be related to socialization too — having come from a different field, I’ve noticed that as a difference, too.

  10. Ian Anstice says:

    My world has expanded beyond recognition since starting a libraries blog – winning an international award, visiting the House of Lords, Downing Street, speaking at UK and French conferences, talking to chief librarians and the national media on a regular basis. I’ve advised on national libraries policy for one major political party and all sorts of other stuff, including paid consultancy. The boss of CILIP waved me over two weeks ago at the conference and introduced me to some others as “the public libraries superstar”.

    Bear in mind that I’ve been happily managing a branch library for 20 years and no-one outside of my authority knew me … the blog got my name noticed and means that career options are more open now. Yes, I’ve annoyed some people but, if you don’t, frankly you’re doing it wrong.

    Above all, though, I blog because I love it and it clearly makes a difference. If you don’t want to blog and you don’t know why you’re doing it, don’t.

  11. Ann Frenkel says:

    I have seen so many situations where public dissent is called “airing dirty laundry” and is considered a no- no within an establishment (whether it be a library, a campus, an association). Yeah, sometimes it’s clearly just stinky laundry, but often legitimate issues are being raised. Our organizations don’t seem to be comfortable with openness or with dissenting opinions. I think it is seen as a loss of control.

    Chris, I like your statement that “we ought to be to be a radically open profession,” but as academic librarians in a campus bureaucracy, we are in the midst of a culture where silencing dissent is the norm (especially in administration). I don’t think it is right, but I have colleagues who do feel strongly about it (although I know they would feel upset at the word “silencing” being used).

    I’ve followed the Loon for years (in her many manifestations) with admiration. This is one of the topics I really appreciate her raising consistently for so long.

  12. Dale Askey says:

    Just to pick up one thread mentioned by Chris: I don’t think this cuts so cleanly along gender lines. Or put differently, the silencing of dissent or critical voices can happen to anyone, but perhaps the expression of the outcome of such actions differs based on gender. But, really, I want to be careful with that notion here, because I think this issue goes beyond gender, or again to rephrase: gender is only one element that influences it, and perhaps not the most significant.

    What seems to matter more is a question of fit: are you like us, or are you different? That varies by institution and locale, of course, depending on the prevailing organizational culture. I say this based on personal experience. In my career, I’ve worked at six different universities, and have been perceived differently at each and every one, and in very obvious ways. Have I changed to bring this on? Not really. Sure, I have matured as a professional and a human being as I’ve gone along, but it’s more a matter of how my core personality and values jive with–or fail to jive with–the local vibe. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, apparently, and what I used to think of as a personal failure I have come to see differently: I just didn’t fit.

    • Chris Bourg says:

      Dale, You are right that it is not all about gender. And certainly you know better than most of us that direct, explicit silencing is not limited to women.

      And … there is ample social science evidence that assertive behaviors are viewed negatively when engaged in by women and positively when engaged in by men. Gender matters. Race matters. They are not the only factors, but they are always factors.
      –Signed, your resident sociologist

7 Pings/Trackbacks for "Does the library world squash public dissent?"
  1. […] is relevant to Chris Bourg’s call to discuss silencing in librarianship because the Loon is convinced beyond any possible question that if she were still a librarian at […]

  2. […] Chris Bourg noted, studying silencing involves a methodological dilemma: how does one measure what isn’t said? […]

  3. […] this vein, Chris Bourg posed the question, Does the Library World Squash Dissent? on the Taiga Forum.  He genuinely asks (not rhetorically, he stresses) […]

  4. […] afford to collect heavily in foreign languages and on niche topics. Moreover, conversations here at Gentle Disturbances and elsewhere indicate that many in our profession feel that gender, race, class and other aspects […]

  5. […] in mind. The Loon asks her readers to remember that this conversation started at an “is silencing real?” place. The Loon judged that getting past that would take some meticulous and unfortunately […]

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The title of our new blog, “Gentle Disturbances”, is a tribute and a reference to the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art consists of vast, temporary outdoor installations, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the 24-mile Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. Christo has asserted that their art creates “gentle disturbances," designed to challenge traditional perceptions of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. By encouraging viewers to see familiar landscapes in new ways, their art disrupts assumptions about permanence, ownership, and categorization.

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