Skip to content

Rockstar Librarians

(This was supposed to be three paragraphs. It started as seven tweets, which I thought better of and decided to make a blog post. It got out of hand… It’s not perfect, but it’s timely, so I’m posting it.)

I have a serious message for anyone in the library profession with any authority, any popularity, any sway, whether you’re a “rockstar” or “just someone people listen to”: Make sure you’re responsible with your power. Obviously, don’t directly abuse your power: harassing people, using your platform to hurt others, etc. But there are more subtle things that people with power should not do: letting other powerful people directly abuse their power; turning a blind eye to unwelcoming behavior in your community (whether it’s a library you run or a professional association you govern or an internet forum you started); talking too much and listening too little; shouting down/shaming people with differing opinions; and using your platform to increase your own reach, instead of helping to pull others up.

If you’re being invited to speak, elected to association governance, hired to run an organization, or even listened to on social media, then you have power and therefore responsibility. This means you need to always be listening and learning, so that you can promote the work and, where appropriate, implement the ideas of people who don’t have the reach you do. Find and follow people who might not be leaders yet, but whose ideas are good and maybe different than yours. (And when you share their ideas, make it crystal clear whose ideas they are.) Watch for subtle biases in whose work you’re promoting: in librarianship, if you’re sharing more than 30-40% stuff-by-men, you’re showing bias; if you’re only promoting people who are straight, white, able-bodied, of a particular age, etc., you are showing bias, or at least failing to listen hard enough. In fact, your sharing should be biased, heavily, in favor of people our profession tends to marginalize.

If you don’t want the responsibility that comes from having power, get off the effing stage. There are so many people who do want it and who will use it well. And if you choose to keep the power, without being responsible, then understand: many of us will turn our backs on you. We won’t come to your talks, follow you on social media, work for your organization, or vote for you when you want to govern our associations—whatever form of power you have been granted, it will fade if you are not responsible. I, for one, am tired of granting power to people who don’t deserve it. I won’t do it anymore, and I hope others will join me in that.

Where’d that come from?

flaming guitar imageI just read How did we get here? The rise and (hopefully) fall of rockstar librarians, by @winelibrarian. Overall, a pretty balanced approach. I think I mostly agree, though I’m still gathering my thoughts on this “rockstar librarian” thing.

I agree, it’s infuriating to see people who lead irresponsibly building their careers with nothing more than a certain fraternity-style swagger. It is especially infuriating, because I can’t help but see the gendered aspect of this behavior (even among the “rockstar” women, oddly), and the analogies to the tech world and venture capitalists and the “Yo” app and… I spiral into this “everything is a disaster” mindset, which is no good.

I have some ideas about how this happens: If these people have mastered flash and hype and self-promotion, then it makes a certain amount of sense that other librarians would be interested in what they have to say. Libraries and librarians are terrible at self-promotion, as a rule; we’re constantly plagued by budget cuts, by discussions about obsolescence, by large segments of the public not even fully understanding why we exist. (We don’t even fully understand why we exist, arguably.) “If only we were better at promoting [our work, our library, whatever],” we think, “people would understand.” So these hypesters (ha) appeal to us on that level. We’re interested, because these people have clearly figured something out. At least, I think that’s a factor. As is gender, as is age, as is extroversion, as is the Matthew Effect.

So, I get it, I guess. But we have to overcome this impulse and evaluate who we’re following with open eyes.

Side note about awards

The commentary about rockstars always bothers me, because so much of it seems like opposition to the existence of awards, as if by not giving out awards we could prevent irresponsible people from having a following. I mean, OK, YES, some people who don’t deserve it will win awards, if there are enough awards given out; that’s life. But lots of people are out there doing amazing things, and it feels wrong, to me, not to recognize them. There are plenty of Movers & Shakers who really deserve it—I’ll go out on a limb and say “most of them!” There are Emerging Leaders who have never given a single keynote, let alone many. (Ahem, hi there, nice to meet you. :)) Which makes sense: the goal is to conentice more people into working their way up through ALA’s governance. Not everyone in ALA governance is famous; I’d never heard of most of the other Councilors, although it seemed they all knew each other. I think being an EL is more of an acknowledgment of ambition than achievement, though I guess there’s a little bit of chicken-and-egg problem, there.

My point is, I don’t see how refusing to showcase what’s going right would be good for the profession or for morale. It’s so easy to be negative, with all the aforementioned budget-cutting and misunderstandings about librarians/libraries. Why not publicize great things that our colleagues do? Why not celebrate what goes well? Sure, some of these folks might not be that much harder-working than the rest of us; they might just be luckier. But good for them!

Full disclosure: I still hold the hope, somewhere in my little librarian heart, that, despite having taken a position without the title “librarian,” outside of a library—and thereby having been written off by a number of our colleagues—I will somehow manage to do something worthy of being a Mover & Shaker, myself, one day. It’s not a primary motivator for me, clearly, but it sometimes nudges me toward one decision over another, which is ultimately to the good (since that decision is usually “say yes,” or “give up my Saturday to do something that I probably could put off”). I know I’m not alone in that. Awards are powerful motivators, and I think our profession is better for having them.

I’ve digressed, a bit. My point isn’t so much about the awards themselves as it is a more general caution that we should not take away something good because it has a bad side effect, unless it’s truly necessary. I don’t think taking away awards would fix the rockstar problem, any more than I think taking away keynotes would.

Call to action

I just think we should agree not to give any more keynote slots or awards or attention to the rockstars, if we can avoid it. If someone is leading thoughtfully and responsibly, has something worthwhile to say (especially if it comes from a non-majority worldview), and/or has good outcomes (or good failure stories!) to show for their hard work, let’s give them our attention, our speaker slots, and places in governance.

If you don’t like rockstars and irresponsible leaders, then stop retweeting them, even when they’re funny (or wrong). Don’t go to their talks; consider skipping the conferences that are paying them, and let the conference organizers know (gently — organizing a conference is hard). Don’t vote for people just because you recognize their name. Don’t work for them, if you can help it. Their power comes from these things.

Published in#el12ala#libtechgenderaladiversityleadershiplibrarianship

One Comment

  1. “Find and follow people who might not be leaders yet, but whose ideas are good and maybe different than yours. (And when you share their ideas, make it crystal clear whose ideas they are.)”

    This struck a chord with me. I want to tell you a little story. In 2005 I wrote a column where I cited someone younger than I who had said something worth quoting (Andrew Pace from whom I heard the “lipstick on a pig” quote about library catalogs): . I then re-cited him and his phrase in 2007: . And still, to this very day, I am given credit for his statement. I kid you not. This happened JUST TWO DAYS AGO.

    My point is this: Those who are doing the quoting can only do so much. If people don’t pay attention to attribution, what can we do? I’ve repeatedly corrected any mention of it that I have ever heard mis-attributed. And still it persists.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *