Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

An End to Silliness?

Perhaps the only good thing about bad economies is that they force people to set priorities and focus on what’s truly important. Actually, maybe there are no good things, but I’m going to pretend it’s good. The past year has been brutal for many libraries and librarians around the country. Layoffs, furloughs, closures abound. In good times it’s easy to tolerate some of the fluff that passes for library discourse, but I’m seeing less fluff now, and that’s a good thing.

Sure, American Libraries announced a new blog that promises we will "be able to find the very edge of new technologies," as if we all need to waste more time on the latest everything just to say we’ve done it. And yes, there are librarian bloggers who spend a lot of time analyzing their own use of Twitter and think they’re writing something worth reading.

However, even the ALA, ever a source for library fluff, is changing. After years of hype and puffery, they’re acknowledging that if libraries don’t start promoting their actual value to communities, they’ll continue to suffer budget cuts and staff losses. We’re not getting those articles about how librarians are hip and chic and sport tattoos and know about every new techie trend that no one cares about except those people who have dedicated their lives to keeping up with every new trend regardless of how silly it is. We’re hearing about libraries helping people find jobs and educate their children.

There was even some seriousness at ALA Midwinter. Perhaps the seriousness was inspired by the economy, or by the Boston Public Library. I’ve always admired the statements carved on the Boston Public Library building: "Built by the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning" and "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." Those are the kinds of sentiments that inspired me to be a librarian, that kept me going through rounds of tedious group work in library school and all the enormous sweaters with little animals on them. I looked up at those statements again last week, and was just as inspired. Advancement of learning. Education of the people. Safeguard of order and liberty. What more could one ask of any institution? Any librarian who is more excited about by Twitter than by those goals puzzles me.

We could interpret the resistance to the document about "traditional cultural expressions" as a welcome manifestation of ALA seriousness. Maybe there was a recognition that the profession actually has some values worth preserving, and that resolutions that contradict those – no matter how friendly to regressive librarians – should be resisted.

If you followed ALA Council news (and who doesn’t!), you might have noticed that one resolution was soundly defeated. Here’s how the LJ account puts it: "The second Resolution was in support of National Health Care moved by Councilors Tiffani Conner and Mary Biblo. After a short discussion, mainly pointing out that at Annual Conference last year ALA had already gone on record with its support for National Health Care the Council closed debate and defeated the motion."

The defeat of that one could be the ALA Council coming to its senses and staying focused on the problems and issues of libraries instead of letting a few radical ideologues push resolutions that don’t deal with library issues. And let me be clear. I’m not saying only radical ideologues could support national health care. I’m saying that only radical ideologues try to use ALA to support non-library issues, in the process making librarians look silly and turning our attention from issues that we have something important to say about.

Of course it could have been a recognition that I’ve been right that the ALA Council passing a resolution on a non-library political issue is a sure sign the issue will fail. It was noted the ALA already publicly supported a public option, which is now more or less dead in Congress. Maybe the ALA is a jinx.

While catching up with blog posts I hadn’t had time to read before ALA, I found several regarding a blog post by Seth Godin (about whom I’ve written before). The blog post is on the future of the library. It’s tiring enough hearing about the future of the library from librarians, but even more so when hearing from marketing bloggers.

The post itself is short and fluffy. We hear that libraries can’t survive as repositories for books, and that many librarians tell him "that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals." (Sort of makes me wonder just which librarians he talks to. Apparently not ones in academic, school, or corporate libraries.)

The ending is unintentionally hilarious. "Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative. Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others."

So communities can’t be persuaded to fund DVDs or reference books, but they’ll fund sherpas? Maybe libraries in mountainous states might provide sherpas for their patrons, but even then it probably wouldn’t be very cost effective.

Even more bizarre is the canard that "the information is free now." The most valuable information for many people is the same as it’s always been: behind walls they can’t afford to pass without libraries footing the bill. I guess if all the "information" you want is contained in YouTube and Wikipedia, you’re fine. But anyone "aggressive in finding and using information" is likely to need library resources, just like librarians have been saying for years.

What surprised me wasn’t Godin, who’s just doing his thing. What surprised me was the librarian response. (This LIS News post is one such response, and links to others at the end.) Instead of fawning over the words of a marketing sherpa – the way that many other librarians seem to do with Godin – most of the blog posts criticized and refuted everything he said about libraries.

For years we’ve been inundated with librarians who read marketing writers and tell the rest of us that we need to be more like businesses. Librarians have gushed over Godin and others. Despite the fact that libraries aren’t funded like businesses and they have goals and values other than making as much money as possible, some librarians have swallowed all this whole and played up the alleged parallels between libraries and businesses non-stop. We’re not about books or information, we’re about "experiences." We’re not dedicated to the advancement of learning, we’re here to "connect people." They thought they were leading us all into business nirvana rather than just annoying most of us who had serious work to do.

Something seems to be changing. Librarians are less giddy, but more focused. Fewer are touting techie trends and more are talking about the serious and valued services they provide communities.

Will the silliness every return to full force? Will waves of future librarians tell us that if our libraries aren’t adopting every latest techie trend immediately then we’re all bad librarians? Will the ALA Council pass more irrelevant resolutions? Will the markety librarians continue to pester us with "inspirational" quotes from "motivational" speakers? Probably, because no good thing lasts long. However, I’m grateful from a respite of silly fluff, even if it means I have less juicy blog fodder.




  1. RadicalPatron says:

    AL – once again we’ve covered similar ground … today I posted on librarians (and a few others) asking good questions about their institutions. Your readers might be interested.

    I have a different take on the Seth Godin piece(perhaps because I’m one of those non-librarians who writes about the future of libraries :) While I generally agree about guru bloggers, some of us speak of the future of libraries because we care deeply — and don’t perceive there’s a serious discourse coming from the library profession. So we publicly throw our ideas against the wall and hope something sticks…

    For public libraries, I believe the most fruitful dialogue would be between patrons (particularly those who currently do not use libraries) and librarians/library administrators. I speak about libraries all the time with non-users* and find most people care about them in the abstract though don’t use them because they’ve determined their local libraries do not provide enough value personally or for their children.

    For the past 10 months, I’ve tried to initiate dialogue with the library profession by responding to librarians and library organizations in my region or beyond that say they want to start advocacy campaigns. The response has been remarkably consistent: 1) OMG – we need patrons like you. Why don’t you contact your local Friends group? or 2) We do advocacy already … here’s the link to the website…

    * My cohort is between 35-55, employed full-time, with enough income to have options for information and entertainment.

  2. More fiddling while Rome burns.

    Librarians wring their hands and wonder what to where while the public turns to other answers.

    It was fun while it lasted, if only I can hang on until retirement.

  3. Dances With Books says:

    If only this trend away from the fluff would go away for good. However, once you have librarians who have bought into the whole marketing and techie thing, hard to get away from it. Here at Backwater Rural Branch (BRB) U., the trend is: if you can offer a “service” and you do not have to get up from your desk, they are all for it. So we have librarians going ga-ga over all sorts of fluffy 2.0 stuff because it means they don’t have to leave their desks as much. Makes me sad for this profession. AL, like you I was inspired by sentiments such as those from Boston PL. Where have those gone?

  4. HR Fluff-n-Stuff says:


    Lets get rid of the fluff.

    Card catalogs are good enough.

    You want service, come in, take a number, sit down, shut up, and we will get to you in due time.

  5. Dr. Brooks says:

    We need some PR fluff. Blogs, twitter, facebook…these all get the word out that we have new books, movies and books on audio! The large libraries need to do their part and continue to hire new librarians for training, that’s why they get a huge amount of the state budgets. I think we have trimmed down way too far, time to get back in the groove.

  6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian says:

    This too shall pass. The silliness is only in remission until librarians forget about how silly we have been and find the new bright shiny toy to tout to the uncaring world. (sigh)

  7. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    I don’t think social media, Web 2.0 apps and other tools that provide an online connection to our patrons is “silliness.” What’s silly is our lack of ability to integrate these things in a meaningful way. They are time-consuming and they need continual tending with the managing of online relationships and the generation of content. They’re also completely meaningless if you don’t have a few basic essentials:

    1) A library building with contents that are relevant and attractive to your audience.

    2) A library staff that is accessable, friendly, and HUMAN to employees. If I’m a librarian, and I’m intimidated by the staff at my local public, how does your average user feel?

    3) A resolution to this continued divide between the more playful image of a library (we have DVDs!) and the serious “gatekeeper” image of the library (we are here to ‘better’ and ‘improve’ you and make you a more knowledgable citizen!) If librarians can’t understand and incorperate this into the library’s persona, a patron must be hopelessly lost.

    2.0 and web tools should only advertise and reflect the solid backbone of patron services that should already be in place. They should enhance what is there, because that is all they can do–highlight and assist. They can’t create good customer service or community relations, if none has existed before. Twitter won’t save your library if it’s too broken and conflicted to know or understand its place in the modern world. I really think that THAT particular issue needs to be resolved before anyone does any more whining about how Blogger and Facebook are going to be the downfall of the profession. Web 2.0 won’t kill libraries–librarians’ unclear vision of what the institution should be and lack of advocacy to help the public and the political engine understand that vision sure will.

  8. Atilla the Mom says:

    Why would you want a friendly library staff?

    I am constantly told by my local staff to bugger off and find it on my own, they do have a card catalog and all.

    I guess this is why people would rather look things up on benign Google rather than have a harpy in a bun attack them for their political views.

  9. Atilla the Mom says:

    Why would you want a friendly library staff?

    I am constantly told by my local staff to bugger off and find it on my own, they do have a card catalog and all.

    I guess this is why people would rather look things up on benign Google rather than have a harpy in a bun attack them for their political views.

  10. grad student says:

    Hey, there’s an original idea for a thesis: “The Fluff Index (FIX): a technique for measuring an institution’s financial solvency, or institution’s perception of same.

  11. Right on, AL!

    As a young librarian-in-training aka paraprofessional I admire your honesty and views.

  12. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    I’ve worked in public libraries for almost 20 years, which in my case also means that I’ve worked in local government for almost 20 years. I cannot convey how tired I am of hearing the worn out cliche that “government should be run like a business.”

    Which business should we choose as our model? Enron? AIG? Merril Lynch?

    A for-profit business is not the same as government and should not be run in the same manner. The bottom line for a business is just that; the bottom line. A business exists to make money for owners and shareholders. Businesses only sell products or provide services as a way to make money. If Jack Welch had thought that GE could make money by manufacturing and selling unicycles he would have had GE engineers working on it. The product or service is only the means to an end, which is profit.

    Government exists to provide certain services and protections to citizens. While government should be run in an efficient, economical, and transparent manner it does not exist to make a profit. It exists to meet the needs of citizens.

    Performance-based budgeting, budgeting for outcomes, and reinventing government are all nothing more than code words for doing more with less, the logical end of which is that you are doing everything with nothing.

  13. Yes, some government functions cannot be run like a business.

    If I live in Backwater, Iowa — I pretty much have to deal with the tax system, infrastructure, etc that goes along with Backwater. I cannot go next door to Dirtbag, Minnesota to pay my taxes or talk to the utilities commission there.

    However, I don’t have to go the library in Backwater. I can go onto the Internets, go four communities over to the community college library, go ten miles beyond that to the State U Library. . . etc. I am not bound to one place for my information needs. I have options. The only thing that the Backwater Library can provide me is local information. That is if I can wake the librarian long enough to go back into the archives and fetch me what I need.

    Public libraries are run by local governments but they should not be run like local governments.
    Have a nice day.

  14. Nah — in my library we’re still obsessed over the annual summer reading program, which I find is not so much about reading but getting numbers up. We’re more concerned about organizing & finding money for SRP “incentives” and giveaways than we are about getting the actual books that can get kids truly into reading. We’re more concerned about how many kids participate in SRP than if these kids actually are now enjoying reading and will continue to do so in their lives. We do this every year, show off our numbers, pat ourselves on the back for numbers, and then look to the future to accumulate more numbers. did the kids enjoy the books? Are they reading on their own now without the lure of toys? Who cares?? It’s about numbers baby!

  15. I Like Books says:

    I need some enlightenment. When libraries have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, or CoolNewSocialNetworkingSite, do people actually care?

    And a related but different question– does it actually increase business at the library, where “business” is defined as whatever statistics make the funding agencies increase the budget?

  16. Carpe Libri says:

    T-Man commented “Public libraries are run by local governments but they should not be run like local governments.”

    You are right.

    They should be run like public libraries.

    I think if you did any research at all you would find that most public libraries are separate entities from other government services. Mine, for instance, is on a separate budget, has it’s own policies and guidelines, makes it’s own contracts, and hires it’s own support staff. To a large extent, we act independently from our local government. This is partly because we receive our funding directly from the state and local governments, but also from private persons and organizations.

    As far as “running” the library like a business, how exactly would you like us to do that? Treat patrons like “customers”? I find that amusing as most librarians I know are far friendlier and more helpful than your average McEmployee. A good librarian serves the patron by educating them in how to find their information. Perhaps you think good customer service means doing all the work for you.

    Or, maybe you mean that we should iron out our inefficiencies and remove the funds spent poorly. That is probably a case by case scenario, but, honestly, do you really think that the average library has a lot of waste? As opposed to your “local government” our budget is usually between 1 to 3 percent of the tax levies. Our main expenditures are building costs and salaries, and trust me, those are as low as can be expected. The average salary for a librarian is around 55k and dropping. Maybe you are one of those people that thinks we should stop waste by only buying the “Good” books.

    Perhaps we should organize our material like we are a bookstore or blockbuster? That certainly seems to frame the thinking of a good number of patrons. The problem is, while those services are provided, the ultimate goal is still access to information. We need to be able to actually find information on car repair for a 77 Pinto or an article on fibromyalgia rather than just hope that information is on the shelf somewhere.

    Maybe we should cater to the popular needs of our community to generate interest in library use. Perhaps show movies or have classes on how to get a job? Oh wait… we are doing that already.

    I guess you mean we should start charging people for services. The problem is, we can’t. Not if we want to keep our funding.


    I am certain there is someway we can be more “business like.”

    Since you know so much, maybe you should enlighten all of us because, apparently, we didn’t get the last lecture you gave on the subject.

  17. If you can’t figure it out, you better start preparing the going out of business signage.

  18. Carpe Libri says:

    Much like the one on your store?

  19. I am unemployed.

    Yet another victim of the Democratic revolution.

  20. Carpe Libri says:


    So you are an unemployed promoter of business who believes that libraries will fall apart and librarians will be out of work unless they adopt business models and strategies.

    No irony there.

    T-man, you have my condolences for your current hardship.

  21. As a software enginieer and professional web developer for the last 15+ years, and a systems librarian for the last 2 years, I find all of this 2.0 hype interesting (and very silly )- and hype it is, you can take that from an industry insider who was coding ‘blogs before they were named blogs and was cruising the internet before the WWW protocol was invented.

    If you cannot support and convey your core competencies to your patrons (books, research, information skills, etc.) – all the 2.0 gizmos in the world are not going to help you nor your organisation.

    Sure I can put your “Library 2-point-oh” on Twitter, FB, MS, set up a wordpress blog, or a MyBB forum, all within a fancy CMS like Joomla, or program some Flash, get you on YouTube, code up some custom PHP/MySQL interface to your calendaring software and make your OPAC all pretty – but unless you know how to use these apps effectively as tools to support your core values as a library service, all you’re going to have are fragile, shiney toys that cannot help the public you serve, let alone your profession. You and your patrons will do better without them if you can’t come up with a real, honest reason to use them.

  22. RJ, I’m overwhelmed by your knowledge and common sense. Seriously. This is what I have been trying to say, but I’m shouting into the wind caused by the bloviating of those who only want the trendy, the new, the “sexy”. And in spite of all of this, we still keep increasing business. Because those of us interacting with the public are meeting their needs to their great satisfaction in the old-fashioned way of good public service!

  23. “T-man, you have my condolences for your current hardship.” Said Carpe Libri.

    That just shows that you are not a public librarian.

    Public librarians do not care about the public.

    All they care about is marking off the calendar counting down the days until full retirement.

    Ask them a question and the scorn and resentment drip off them while they have to show you something obvious. Or, if you have a differing political point of view, they will tell you that the library does not collect “junk science”.

    Thanks mom.

  24. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    I agree, RJ… You can’t highlight with social networking that which does not exist. I love Twitter and Facebook and the connections they give. Sometimes it’s a bit of insight, or an actual honest-to-gosh moment with a patron who is very far away (some of our patrons/students are in extremely remote circumstances), but honestly, if our institution’s goal wasn’t to help, and if most of our staff weren’t dedicated to that goal, social networking would just be a bandaid on an institution-wide problem. If you are just worried about numbers, as one person mentioned above (and BOY did I work at THAT library), then social networking are just “blaster” mediums almost equivolent to spam emailing. And people aren’t stupid–they know you’re really bringing nothing to the table, and will un-subscribe from you, or not never subscribe to begin with. Like scanners and ILL, I see web 2.0 as a TOOL. But you can have the most awesome book scanner in the world and it won’t do you a bit of good if your service is crap, your people unfriendly, your environment miserable and your mission unclear. I think ALA and other orgs need to come up with a clear plan for addressing THIS problem, before they start whining about budget cuts, salary and how librarians get no respect. We’ve done a crap job of advocating for ourselves and our value in the community because I think we struggle with even knowing what that is.

  25. This excerpt from a Godin transcript appeared on an internal library blog yesterday:

    Seth Godin … talks about the value of freely sharing our creative products, the challenge of finding meaning in our work and the value of emotional labor in comparison with physical labor.

    [Refstaff continues]: I thought what he said about “emotional labor” was particularly pertinent for us. Here’s a bit from the transcript about the subject:

    “Seth: Well, a sociologist wrote about this 45 years ago in a whiny sort of way, which she wrote about flight attendants at Delta Airlines. And she was saying, “It’s not fair that flight attendants have to smile at people even if they’re in a bad mood.” And my response is, “It’s labor, that’s what you get paid for.” It’s not labor with a shovel, it’s labor with your emotions. And emotional labor is the act of connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment. Emotional labor is when Pablo Picasso overcomes painter’s block and paints a whole new set of paintings even though he’s worried that people are going to laugh at him. And that’s what we’re getting paid for today.”

    Sorry about the nested quotes.

    However, it really bothers me that labout is idealized as feminized – smiling, placating, compliant and … powerless. For all their smiles those Delta Stewardesses were bruattly laid off the second it suited the company.

    And the idea that Picasso – notoriously rude and arrogant – might tremble behind a canvas at the thought that someone somewhere mightn’t like his new work is just ignorant? lazy? manipulative? too dumb to address?

    Or is it indicative of just how feminized, aka powerless, we must all aspire to be? Even Picasso should be a 1950s housewife.

  26. wha?

  27. The point is Godin’s idea of how we are to do our jobs. Smile, is his first rule.

    The fact that he uses the Delta stewardesses is, to me, very disturbing. Stewardesses were greatly exploited, expected to trade on their looks, were powerless in the jobs and laid off without resource or recourse.

    When Godin also describes Picasso as having to “overcome painter’s block… even though he might be worried that people are going to laugh at him…” we know
    a) Godin isn’t describing the real, historical Pablo Picasso.
    b) Godin is describing us, as he thinks we should be.

    Clear now?

  28. Mayor McCheese says:

    The best thing about the present economy is that we can FINALLY shut down the library a couple of days a week and force them to lay off some of the ancient hippies that work there.

    Those people will never retire.

    Why should they? They don’t work as it is, they just sit around and complain that it isn’t like it was in the good old days.

    Then they go get stoned.


  29. tummytime wrote:

    “Nah — in my library we’re still obsessed over the annual summer reading program, which I find is not so much about reading but getting numbers up.”

    Are you a children’s librarian? I’m guessing not. The bells and whistles of summer reading programs can be silly, but the idea is to attract kids and families who might not come to the library otherwise. And to get kids who aren’t avid readers in the habit of reading whatever they’re interested in – for fun.

    I put an enormous amount of energy into making our summer programs fun and exciting, and they work.

    Don’t get me wrong – I like it if we get good numbers. But the point is outreach, and making the library a fun, friendly place to CHECK OUT BOOKS AND OTHER MATERIALS.


  30. Bozo the Clown says:

    Let’s make everything fun.

    Have to go to traffic court? How about we put in slot machines to make the time go by quicker and people will go and do the right thing instead of ducking and skipping court.

    School? A three ring circus should do the trick. We don’t want kids not having fun.

    Congress? Introduce South Korean Parliamentary rules and watch the fur fly and the ratings for C-Span soar.

    We want a FUN society.

    That way our tweets will be entertaining.

  31. my library launched a facebook ‘presence’ recently. Looked at it briefly and figured it is mainly of interest to other librarians. Possibly to vendors wanting to sell books.
    Agree the library is not a business and cannot realistically be measured like one, but a little market research and a business plan wouldn’t hurt -__-

  32. “Agree the library is not a business and cannot realistically be measured like one, but a little market research and a business plan wouldn’t hurt -__-”

    Shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work.


  33. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    @Bozo–You’re right. Reading should only be miserable and arduous. We shouldn’t teach kids that reading and learning can be FUN and SELF-STRUCTURED.

    They should only do what their teachers tell them, think the thoughts their teachers allow them to think and parrot back what their teachers have taught them through wrote memorization. Only the students who are especially smart or extremely talented at memorization games and the reading and understand of boring, dry texts should succeed in life. Kids should only like things that are of benefit in getting a job that earns good wages, possibly in one of the trades. God forbid kids like dinosaurs because they’re AWESOME.

    The meaning of their existence should be relegated strictly to interpretations of hard science and not at all because THEY ARE HUGE AND CAN, LIKE, TOTALLY EAT PEOPLE, MAN! Or because they raise Batman’s cool quotient by like 9 thousand because he has one in the Batcave. God forbid kids come to knowledge through a personal and (perhaps) visceral interest in a subject (such as dinosaurs or detective work) instead of just learning things because they’re interested in the topic and want to find out more. Learning should only be miserable and painful, since that’s the way WE learned things. There was none of this ‘choose your own topic’ for a research paper nonsense, and comic books were certainly not given college-level courses.

    I see one of my jobs as a librarian teaching a love for learning (this goes hand in hand with teaching the ability to do effective self-directed learning and research from reliable sources). Kids go to school and are taught what is important to the world. One of those things is getting “credit” for everything you do. My niece HATES reading even though she reads well above her grade level because she can only read AR books for “credit” in school and the AR books are not on topics she likes. She doesn’t understand that you CAN read for fun, above or below your reading level (or I’d have never experienced the wonderful pictures and verbal gymnastics of the Skippyjon Jones books) or that you should somehow be given credit for your reading. Whatever happened to picking up a wholly inappropriate or irrelevant book just for fun? I guess I should stop reading for fun and play more tennis or something. I think this attitude of “well, is it on the syllabus?” is not only rather 19th century, as far as learning methods goes, it really works to crush natural curiosity. Of course, that probably works with the idea of social compliance. Go get yourself a reasonable, respectable job that highlights your ability to know facts like when the constitution was signed, and minimizes the fact that you don’t actually understand what it’s about, other than what you wrote down from memory on your fourth grade test on the subject matter.

    Sorry. Fun, engaged and self-directed wins out for me because I take for granted that if you have enthusiasm for learning, you’ll learn what you want to on your own time, and you’ll be excited about learning what you “must” learn during the school day.

  34. If you have to teach the love of learning, the child cannot be reached and should be given up on.

    Our society is going bankrupt on trying to ensure that kids learn and need to stay in school.

    Eventually the child that has to be coerced, whether by force or by fun, to learn will give up on the system and will tune in, drop out, and collect welfare.


    Now go organize the DDR tourney so that kids don’t have to worry about their fines. Except for poor Billy, who is poor and has no sense of rhythm. His self-esteem is destroyed.

  35. The Boss wrote: Shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work. Slacker

    oops ok.. oh.. btw can I have some money to build a library on blue mars? ^_^

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