By Meredith Farkas | January 16, 2013
Lots of people have been writing about Ask Miss Julie’s post Ego, thy name is librarianship. Julie is a talented and humorous writer and a hard-working and innovative children’s librarian. She feels like she and many of her friends and colleagues who blog and are doing amazing and useful things for their patrons and wonder why people aren’t beating down their doors to offer them speaking gigs when they are for people talking about Pinterest, augmented reality and makerspaces. In the midst of a post that was starting to sound like sour grapes (but wasn’t), Julie makes some really interesting points about the nature of fame and attention in our profession. She articulates something I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with over the past few years; so much so that I gave up a promising speaking and writing side-job as a social media expert to focus on attending and speaking at conferences that were more aligned with my job as an instruction head.
On the one hand, I think Julie tars way too many people with the same brush. There are a lot of people who focus on emerging technologies and trendy topics who are providing an amazing service to others by sharing what they know. There are plenty “where the rubber meets the road” speakers out there whose road happens to be technology. There are also lots of people who focus on ideas that provoke and make people think in new ways that spur action.
On the other hand, she’s right about quite a lot. I, too, get tired of the focus on certain hot trendy topics that end up being discussed at every conference for a year or two and then seem to disappear into the ether. Some of these topics are valuable and influence practice in meaningful ways. Some seem to serve no useful purpose other than to push librarians way too far out in front of their patrons or to make librarians feel like their libraries are “so five minutes ago.” Regardless of their worth, they serve to distract from many other innovative or just plain useful things people are doing that don’t happen to be “hot topics.” I’m researching, writing and speaking much more now about assessment (and not the hot “Value of Academic Libraries” type of assessment), which is about 1,000,000 times less sexy than programming for little kids. Luckily there are conferences for this kind of stuff, though at many of them, I feel totally out of my depth (this coming from someone who has keynoted international conferences). I think it is more difficult for children’s librarians, simply because there aren’t a bunch of conferences made just for the discussion of youth services.
I also see that gender imbalance Julie mentioned, along with the lionization of hipsters, “thought leaders”, tech evangelists, and party-animals who offer very little in their talks that could be put to practical use in libraries. At first I was prepared to argue with her assertion that those style-over-substance folks were all male until I realized that I couldn’t think of a single female librarian who truly fits that description. I don’t feel like men necessarily have more opportunities to become famous rock-star librarians (and yes, that term turns my stomach). There are more men involved in library technologies than women and, at this point, technologies are hot topics at a lot of conferences. But I do think it’s more acceptable and expected in our society for men to be thought-leaders, impressarios, evangelists and the like (how many female cult leaders have you heard of?). I think a woman who acted like that in our profession would be tarred and feathered and marked as a phony. It’s a double-standard; like the guy who sleeps around and is a player and the woman who acts the same way and is a slut. This gender stuff is pervasive and insidious.
One good way to stop conferences from being all about trendy people and trendy topics is to get on conference planning committees. It’s great to see smart, savvy people like Andromeda planning major conferences, because it means we’re so much more likely to see thought-provoking and useful keynotes and presentations.
Julie writes about how she feels she would have to compromise who she is and/or focus on the wrong things to become a big name in the profession. I don’t believe that’s true. Julie, I’m not going to give you and your compatriots advice on how to become a big name in the profession (which clearly is not what you’re looking for). That’s way too ego-driven and I’d still like to believe that ego-driven efforts will not lead to lasting success (yes, I live in a dream world, but I like it here). I’m going to tell you how to change things to benefit more than just yourself. You and your children’s librarians don’t feel like there’s a forum for you to give presentations, share your ideas, and get the recognition you deserve? Make one! Create an online conference or a conference in your local area. Create an awesome youth services unconference at ALA, ILA, etc. Subvert the dominant paradigm. It’s possible. I’ve done it. When I was frustrated by the lack of affordable learning experiences about social media (in the days before free webinars and Learning 2.0) I created Five Weeks to a Social Library. It was a hell of a lot of work, but it was rewarding. I’ll tell you, it’s things like that, which did not bring fame or fortune, that I am most proud of. And honestly, in the long run, being proud of what you’ve accomplished is a lot more meaningful than fame. Also, subversion is just really fun.
But maybe I’m weird. I never really consciously wanted fame or keynote gigs or any of that (not that I’m complaining; I feel ridiculously lucky for the opportunities I’ve received). I created this blog back in 2004 because I was lonely. I had done my degree program online, was about to graduate, was in the midst of a soul-crushing job search, and I needed to find a like-minded professional community to keep me sane. I was thrilled to have a circle of blogger friends online and never really wanted for more. And from there, every good thing that happened to me came from following my heart. I created a wiki for the 2005 ALA Conference since I lived in Chicago and thought crowd-sourced info about the city might be useful for others. That made the readership of my blog explode, which led 6 months later to an offer to write a book. Creating a similar wiki for the Computers in Libraries Conference led to my first speaking gig (which scared the life out of me). I know I was lucky, but I do believe that doing good work, following your heart, and focusing on helping others in the profession will lead to good things.
Finally, let me just say that this fame thing, fame in the library profession, is really trivial. I’ve had people call me a rock star librarian (again, gagging) and yet the vast majority of librarians have no idea who I am. I was big at certain techie conferences and a nobody at the Library Assessment Conference. It’s a very small portion of our profession that really follows all the library blogs and the memes and the FriendFeed or Twitter discussions. It only feels bigger because those are the people you associate with. I was put in my place recently by one of my research partners on a project I’m PI’ing who suggested that maybe she should send out the recruitment email for our survey since library directors will know who she is (she’s a former ACRL President, so she’s totally right). But most importantly, all that stuff doesn’t make a difference to the students and faculty I serve. If you think recognition from your profession and fame is important, you’ve got your priorities all wrong. A faculty member who says he loves the tutorial I made means a hell of a lot more than the librarian who thinks I rock because of my blog. It means I’m effective at my job, which is why I became a librarian.
Being a rock star librarian reminds me of that commercial from Intel a few years back with the co-inventor of the USB. Do you really aspire to this?