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Lessons from the Cranky Librarian Debacle

If you’ve missed the story of the Cranky Librarian, then you can catch up here and here. It’s quite a tale.

By the way, that’s not this Cranky Librarian, who sprang to life and then immediately fizzled in 2005, or this one who started strong in 2007 and had a good run before succumbing to blog paralysis in 2015, or this one who Tumbld oh so briefly in 2016. Cranky librarians, we hardly knew ye.

No, it’s this Cranky Librarian, head of adult services at the Evanston (IL) Public Library, and it’s her debacle from which we have so much to learn.

You can read the long sordid history in the articles, but in brief: in 2014, Cranky Librarian invited a pro-Palestinian author to speak at the library. The director cancelled the speech. The author cried censorship and created a PR mess. The director uncancelled the speech.

Three years later, Cranky Librarian commented on Facebook about a flyer claiming the library had “Free & Equal Access for All,” saying, “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards.” She tagged the library.

Cranky Librarian is, according to one of the articles, the “only full-time black librarian on the EPL staff,” so what would she know about equity or inclusion anyway. That might have been a less disastrous response from the library than what happened next.

Evanston has a (possibly unConstitutional) policy restricting its employees’ freedom of speech on personal social media accounts: “Postings or user profiles on personal social media accounts must not serve to defame or damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments.”

The powers that be in the library claimed that barely passive aggressive comment counted as defamation or damage, so the library suspended her and is trying to fire her (and may in fact have fired her last week, but I couldn’t find confirmation of that). At least that’s what I think happened. The details aren’t entirely clear, so feel free to correct this if you know more.

Oh, and along the way the library director and some board members sent emails about Cranky Librarian and what a pain she was and how they’d like to get rid of her, and how the director got a bad review for not curtailing Cranky Librarian’s “continued adversarial and incorrigible attitude.”

The director cancelling the speech and creating a PR firestorm apparently wasn’t a problem for the library board, because who cares about the Palestinians anyway, or free speech for that matter.

We know all this because of a FOIA request that revealed the emails.

This is certainly a big mess, but fortunately we can all learn some important lessons.

1) If you’re a librarian, don’t invite anyone to speak in public that might be in the slightest way controversial, because libraries should avoid any semblance of being places that would allow or encourage free speech, the exchange of ideas, or anything that might make any narrow minded people remotely uncomfortable.

2) If you’re a minority librarian of any kind, remember that you’re lucky to have been allowed into the company of middle class white women at all, and don’t ever challenge their authority or do anything to make them feel remotely uncomfortable, like making them doubt even for a moment that they’re not inclusive and egalitarian.

Middle class white librarians love them some social justice talk. It makes them feel better about themselves, and hinting that they might not walk their talk doesn’t make them feel better about themselves. That’s bad. Instead, ask them to talk about diversity. They’ll feel better then.

3) Unless you’re a middle class white librarian, and probably a male librarian at that, don’t do anything that might get your attitude labelled as “adversarial and incorrigible.” Some actions might include: not smiling enough around people who think you should smile; talking when someone else would rather talk; continuing to talk when someone else has interrupted you repeatedly; talking; questioning anything.

4) If you’re anyone working anywhere for the government, don’t write anything in an email that you don’t want everyone to read. Seriously, what are you, new?

It could be that Cranky Librarian is entirely in the wrong, and the powers didn’t trump up this minor social media comment into a fireable offense because they’ve been trying to fire her for years, but an Annoyed Librarian has to give a Cranky Librarian the benefit of the doubt on this one until we know a lot more.

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Comments

  1. “… because who cares about the Palestinians anyway…”

    Well, there’s the pope. The governing bodies of the major mainline Protestant denominations. And, since their opinions interest us so much these days, most celebrities who opine on the topic.

    College professors and associations: “Academic boycott of Israel” has its own, not-short wikipedia page.

    A plurality of American Jews disapprove of the Israeli settlements in the conquered territories, and polls generally report that American Jewish support for Israel is “eroding.”

    16 Muslim nations – including that bastion of human rights, Syria – maintain an Israeli Jew travel ban – wait, what? – and surely that shows a kind of caring.

    The “United Nations Human Rights Council” targeted Israel in 56 of its first 103 resolutions.

    In 2015 the UN directed 20 resolutions criticizing Israel – just 3 for the rest of the world.

    But, sure, your librarian’s a lonely crusader!

    • mud fence says:

      Perri, i do believe AL was being facetious about who cares about Palestinians. On the other hand one can name a great number of Muslin nations that apparently don’t care about Palestinians because they’ve “allowed’ them to live in disgusting conditions since 1948, without spending any of the trillions of oil dollars to make a place for them. To the point: Israel is NOT going away. Like it or not. If the Palestinians would quit knifing people walking the streets, they might get a little traction with the PREVAILING government.

    • You may be right, mud fence, and I was thrown off by AL’s applying the word “controversial” to the subject of the cancelled talk, when of course, it was the viewpoint of the cancellers (if they indeed had one) that is controversial, and the only reason we’ve heard of this.

  2. It’s possible that all Cranky has done is invite a controversial speaker and make a mildly snarky comment. It’s also possible that she really does have an abrasive, difficult personality, deliberately attempts to get on the nerves of everyone around her, and claims grievance where none was intended. Just because she’s a minority doesn’t mean she isn’t a difficult person to work with; obnoxious people come in all colors. Without knowing more I can’t say whether the library was justified or not.

  3. “Unless you’re a middle class white librarian, and probably a male librarian at that…”

    It isn’t pleasant being a male librarian, so I don’t understand where this is coming from.

    • anonymous coward says:

      don’t fight the narrative.

    • The only thing you got out of this id’s one of the few sentences that applies to you? Okay

    • sciencereader says:

      “The only thing you got out of this id’s one of the few sentences that applies to you?”
      It is entirely acceptable and normal to comment on one specific point in a post.

  4. anonymous coward says:

    Am I the only one who thinks Cranky Librarian was 100% in the wrong here? Sure, the speaker shouldn’t have been canceled- but who books a speaker that might have a controversial view without first running it by the director? Then, and I’m sorry, an employee who passive aggressively calls out their workplace on social media is a terrible employee- or an employee with terrible decision making skills. It’s not the right avenue to address such maters

    Here’s something you might not know- directors and managers have conversations about bad employees and how they don’t want people working with them who are not good employees. Bad directors can do this about good employees too- but the fact that such communications exist isn’t an indictment of anything.

    • Joneser says:

      Here’s something you obviously didn’t read – the emails included board members, who have no business in library personnel matters except for the director.

    • anonymous coward says:

      Board members have all the rights in the world to send emails with complaints about staff members. It doesn’t mean the director must act on it- but it’s probably wise. Likewise, the mayor of a city in a city manager system can’t fire the library director- but if they mayor has major issues you probably won’t last long.

      Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it bad leadership, yes. However, if you’re a director and have a vision your coworkers need to get on board the bus or leave. If you disagree on the direction of the bus you won’t be happy and neither will the library, so best to find another bus.

  5. NotSoSpecialLibrarian says:

    Statements 2 and 3 are sadly too true – We can all spout buzz words about “diversity” or “inclusiveness” and have that single example of “racial diversity in librarianship” in our library staff, but the reality is it’s seldom practiced wholeheartedly. For example, in FL the Black Caucus was not in the main conference area but totally separate site. Unless you were already a member, you’d have to play Dora the Explorer to find them. I could be mistaken for a stereotypical middle class white female librarian but I see a lot of hypocrisy in this professional. I’m not cranky – I’m your sister saying “we have to look in the mirror and make some changes to make real change”. As a profession of MCWF librarians, we often eschewed segregation, but big deal, we did the right thing. Fifty years later African American librarians are still a minority in this this profession – clearly we are not doing the right thing and we’re not practicing what we preach. Call me the cynical librarian but I think that’s because it’s not a trendy controversy and librarians would have to actually take heat for unglamorous activism against old faded, stomach-churning racism – no grant funding or article features for that. We need , myself included, to start truly shaking things up and taking care of unfinished business rather then being the “eager retrievers” that we tend to be running after the accolades and trendy issues. We can’t say we are inclusive if for the past 100 yrs we have failed equality in race and gender. Male librarians still make more than female colleagues and there are too few African American librarians. Let’s fix the oldest issues and our “inclusiveness” will speak for itself. Actions speak louder than words. It isn’t what we say that counts but rather who we are and are not.

  6. Not a First Amendment violation according to the courts. Once CL tagged the EPL she crossed the line from private discourse to disparaging her employer. Especially wrong when it was based on a false assumption.

  7. I think she is the type of person who wishes to annoy everyone around her.

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