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Clammering in the Hallways

Scott McLemee, with the help of Steven Bell, declared quite some time ago that there’s too much silence in the stacks.* Apparently he couldn’t find blogs that were specifically “maintained by academic librarians” and focused specifically on issues important to academic librarianship. Hi, I’m Iris, and I’m an academic librarian.

Actually, there were a couple of statements in this article that rankled. I don’t particularly enjoy thinking of my writing here as “splenetic” (no matter how true it may be some days) or hearing that I’m “not capable” of the type of writing McLemee and Bell would prefer. But whenever people get too defensive about these types of statements, authors always come back and argue that we missed the main point of their writing.

So let me be clear. McLemee is not, apparently, saying that there aren’t blogs out there that are both maintained by academic librarians and focused on academic librarianship, no matter how clearly that message seems to leap off the screen when the few of the blogs mentioned in the article are condemned either because readers “don’t really know if the [author] is an academic librarian” or because the blog’s topic “isn’t specific to academic libraries.” Instead, he maintains that his argument centers on two points. First, he is not aware of any blogs that have stepped up and become the “voice of academic librarianship.” And second, the lack of such a voice is sapping the profession of it’s cultural capital.

These are not simple arguments. Every time I think I’ve grasped their intent, it slips away to snicker at me from behind another corner. But even though this post of mine won’t stand up to the criterion of “great (or even good) insight,” I think it’s important to unpack some of the underlying assumptions here.

First, I’ve already written that good, clear writing is essential to our profession. So on that point, I believe McLemee and I agree. Without clear and insightful writing we librarians can’t hope to excel in academic environments because these environments eat, drink, and breathe scholarly writing. Scholarly writing is the lingua franca of our environments, and if we don’t speak it, we essentially exclude ourselves from the societies in which we live and work.

I do not believe, however, that a blog – any blog – no matter how consistently insightful, would prove to our chosen culture that we are fluent in its language. In order to be seen as “full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life,” we would have to publish in vehicles that are understood to be prestigious by our audiences (in our profession, academia, and the wider intellectual community). Currently, these only rarely include blogs or any other self-published vehicles.

And if what McLemee wants is “public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics” that are important specifically to academic librarians, and yet doesn’t want “reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays,” then blogs may never be the appropriate vehicle as blog posts, by their very format, lend themselves primarily to an op-ed style, much like McLemee’s own essay.

So I would argue that yes, good and focused writing is essential to our profession. Librarians with the gift of insight and eloquence should be encouraged to pursue their talents for the good of the profession. And these writers should also contribute to the professional discussions that happen online, the visible “thinking out loud” that will in turn inform their thinking and writing. Blogging is very important, but it cannot be all things. Not yet. Not when we’ve set up our lives in the midst of academia.

And when I reference the online “discussions,” I use the plural quite deliberately. No single profession can easily sum up the issues that are important to that profession. There are myriad issues, and most can be approached in multiple ways. Because of this, no single person can become the voice of the profession. And this is not a characteristic exclusive to academic librarianship. People can usually identify a handful of voices of Dickensian criticism or the theory of Universal Grammar, but it is impossible to identify the “voice of literary criticism” or “voice of linguistic analysis.” What is more, nobody thinks of this as a lack in either of those fields. Nobody calls this a “puzzling silence.”

What we do find are journals and publishing houses that take the lead in publishing the cream of the scholarly thought in those fields. In this way, McLemee’s idea of a group blog devoted to topics in academic librarianship makes sense. I would gladly subscribe to such a blog, and there are a few out there that I think contend for the title of academic blog for academic librarians, by academic librarians.

But even these blogs might fail to meet his expectations because issues that are important to academic librarians are also important to other types of librarians. Librarians in public and special libraries are just as engaged in “questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom” as academic librarians are. I would argue that the different types of libraries are usually more the same than they are different. We may prioritize our foci differently, or emphasize certain parts of our missions differently. But for the most part, we care about the same issues and deal with the same or infinitely analogous challenges. Blogs focused on issues in academic librarianship may not, then, look very much different from blogs focused on public or special librarianship.

So perhaps there is silence in the stacks. But maybe that’s because the conversation isn’t happening in the stacks. Maybe the conversations are happening in the hallways. And maybe it’s hard to pick out the conversation because there are several, and maybe they’re happening concurrently and on multiple plains.

p.s. Does this count as disagreement and discussion?

*This article was just brought to my attention today, and though the article itself is old, my response to it is based in the world of current academic librarianship. I wonder if McLemee still thinks the same way?

One thought on “Clammering in the Hallways

  1. I want to thank everyone who’s contacted me privately to discuss this post. Almost immediately after posting it I became terribly shy that I’d put so much thought into a two-year-old op-ed. But the fact that I’ve heard from so many of you confirms my initial feeling that the issue is still relevant, even if the date on the original article is 2005. So thank you. I feel a little less ridiculous now.

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