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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 12


On reputation and transparency and pie

As I type, it's Thanksgiving weekend in the US. The tradition here goes like this: eat an awful lot, list things for which you are thankful – and then start Christmas shopping.

This whole process made me think of "the pie lady". At the small public library where I used to work, one of the patrons would bring us a pie every holiday season. (We were small enough that no one was concerned about accepting "gifts" – and it was darn good pie.) One year, she came in to see how we'd enjoyed the pie. "What pie?", we asked. Turns out she'd given the pie to a certain staff member with instructions to share – and said staff member had taken the whole thing home to her own family.

We all know that the "reputation economy" preceded the Internet by millennia, and that built-up credit and credibility can easily be destroyed by one thoughtless action or act of greed. The Internet just allows this to happen faster and our credibility to plummet in front of larger groups of people.

Libraries and ... mommy bloggers?

Speaking of credibility ... one of my non-librarian hats is "mommy blogger"; I blog about frugality and money-saving tips at Mashupmom.com. So I was interested to see a recent post by librarian blogger Meredith Farkas, "This is not my Blogosphere" (http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2009/11/22/this-is-not-my-blogosphere/), which talked about her disgust with mommy bloggers who do pay per post or accept free products in exchange for glowing reviews. On that theme of giving thanks, she's grateful for what she sees as the marked contrast of the biblioblogosphere:

"I just want to say how grateful I am to be part of a blog community where people contribute to share ideas, connect with others, and contribute to the profession. I know that I'm getting 'the straight dope' from the library bloggers I read. Some people might be more diplomatic or politic than others, but they don't write about or review things simply because a company asked them to. I can count on one hand the number of posts in my five years of blogging that were written by library bloggers because a company or individual gave them something. And I love that I can believe in the bloggers I follow and trust in their integrity. Thank you for being the ethical people you are."

I'm not quite as sanguine as Meredith, nor do I think there's as big of a contrast between the "mommy" and "library" blogosphere as one might assume. (And, all those books and other media that are reviewed in the professional literature come free from the publishers, of course – but that doesn't necessarily translate into glowing reviews.) There's a continuum there somewhere that runs between pay per post and the provision of free products for review or giveaway.

This also points to a larger issue of being aware of how our actions are influenced. Are you more likely to purchase a database or renew a contract because a vendor wines and dines you at a conference? Because said vendor sponsors a reception or a coffee break or a big-name speaker? Is a library blogger that covers a friend's project or book or conference presentation or post inherently suspect because of their bonds of friendship?

We're all influenced by outside factors; no one can be completely impartial. Yet this has been a big part of the library/librarian mythos: that we give impartial service to all. Did we give the pie lady better service because she brought us pie? No – but here's the dirty little secret: we absolutely did give her better service because she was nice and because we got to know her. We're all influenced by outside factors: we pick people for our teams that we'd like to work with; we pull a book and put it aside for a regular patron because we know she'd like it; we're more inclined to post favourably about the new project of a colleague we admire; the donor whose name is on our new meeting room gets fast first-name service.

Why? Because we're human – but really, isn't that our big selling point in the Internet age?

The transparent librarian

Speaking of reputation and impartiality ... transparency is one of those buzzwords that has gained currency from the participatory management and Library 2.0 movements. Even Library Journal has gotten in on the act, publishing "The Transparent Library" column by Michael Stephens and Michael Casey. This makes a lot of sense on the management side: a transparent decision-making process increases buy-in and gives people the chance to feel that their concerns are being heard. But let's think further about transparency and libraries.

Library Journal (http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6708592.html) and several other outlets recently reported on libraries that are using bandwidth throttling to, in effect, block users' viewing of pornographic video – and of sites like MySpace and YouTube, or online video of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) finals – by reducing the speed of downloads from such sites to less than dialup. This, of course, they do in order to reserve appropriate bandwidth for library operations like the OPAC and cataloguing, and there are some nice quotes here about "avoiding the problematic use of filters".

Problematic, indeed – in what way does choosing a list of sites to render unusable differ from choosing a list of sites to block completely? Different technology, same result. And what does it say about libraries when we block things because they are too popular? From a management standpoint, this is a reasoned allocation of scarce resources. From a patron standpoint, let's say from the point of view of that teen trying to get into MySpace after school, or that grandparent trying to watch a YouTube video of their grandkid, it's incredibly frustrating. If I were front-line staff at one of these libraries, I'd get pretty tired pretty quickly of explaining why things won't load, so would hope that this is transparently explained to patrons.

The thankfulness – and pie

I didn't actually have pie this year on Thanksgiving. I do miss that pie lady ... my former pie-stealing co-worker? Not so much. But at the risk of sounding corny, I'm thankful for libraries, and for the biblioblogosphere (and mommy blogosphere!), and for people who write posts and articles that make me think. Thanks, everyone!


Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).