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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 13


Crosstalk – and CROSS talk

This time, I'm typing to you at Christmas. Why am I always writing on holidays? E-mail slows down, blogs slow down, and everything seems to conspire to give us some much-welcomed space to slow down and think. (Theoretically, anyway!)

Today, I'm slowing down to think about the predictable rhythm of posts and comments on a number of the library blogs I read. On Michael Stephens' "Tame the Web" the other day, just as one small example, I read about a library that requires kids to show proof they've checked out a book within the last two weeks before they're allowed to participate in a popular gaming programme (http://tametheweb.com/2009/12/21/must-check-out-a-library-book/). Before clicking through to read Stephens' post, stop for a minute and speculate: how do the comments run here?

If you guessed: most of them support his dismay and see this policy as an epic fail, a couple of them see the library's point, and a couple of them say, hey, we need more context here before we can really judge – ding ding ding! You win.

The same old conversations

We seem to be talking past each other in so many of these conversations. No one who has reservations about gaming in libraries is going to be convinced by posts and comments like this, and no one who sees imposing requirements for attendance as counterproductive is going to be swayed by arguments to the contrary. And, no one at all is going to be swayed either direction by the dismissive personal attacks in the comments on the Stephens' post and elsewhere. It takes just a bit of time on lists like NEWLIB-L (http://www.walternelson.com/dr/newlib-l) or reading the comments on posts at "The Annoyed Librarian" (http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/580000658.html) to start to see librarians as a cranky, contentious, and perennially dissatisfied bunch whose main pastime seems to be sniping at one another.

How did we get to this point?

While every profession has its internal arguments – and disagreement and discussion can be both healthy and necessary – the acrimony in some of today's conversations is exacerbated by several factors:

  • Since much of this debate has moved online, participants often fail to slow down and think before they respond. While the ease of online discussion allows many more people to participate more easily, it also encourages hasty replies, and semi-anonymity encourages people to type things they'd be much less likely to say to someone's face.
  • Cost-cutting imperatives by some of our major publications have led to an emphasis on eyeballs, encouraging some, for instance, to draw traffic by employing anonymous bloggers whose sole purpose is to stir up controversy. What we read in our professional publications can set the tone of the debate – and can set the bar quite low.
  • Uncertain economic times mean that many librarians are angry. They're angry because they can't find a job, can't find a better job, are doing the work of several people, are watching their budgets get slashed at the same time demand for their services is rising. Angry librarians are impatient librarians, and impatient librarians tend to lash out without paying attention to whether their discourse is truly professional.

It's disturbing to see pleas for civil discourse on various e-mail lists and blogs construed as cries for censorship. As librarians, we should know the real meaning of the word –- and asking others to think before they talk isn't it. We should also know that, just because we have the right to say something, that doesn't mean it's always a good idea. Implying that others are idiots because their opinions differ may feel great in the moment, but is unlikely to sway anyone to your point of view.

Paved with good intentions

One way to move past this crosstalk is to do our level best to avoid imposing our own preconceptions on others' intentions. Let's go back to this gaming programme post. Fact: some (unidentified) library requires kids to prove they're checking out books in order to play games during a popular programme. OK. Now let's look at some of the pro-gaming-in-libraries sites (http://librarygamingtoolkit.org/faq.html), posts (http://theshiftedlibrarian.com/archives/2008/04/15/does-gaming-promote-reading.html), and literature – much of which talks about the connections between gaming and literacy, gives ideas on using games to introduce new users to other library resources, and gives ideas on how to use gaming to connect kids and young adults with (you guessed it!) books.

Looked at in this light, the problem with library X's policy is not its intention, but its approach. No one in this discussion is saying reading is bad. No one is saying that libraries shouldn't promote books. Rather, what Stephens and other commenters object to is the way this library is going about it: making checking out a book a prerequisite for the programme, instead of using the programme to draw kids in and then introduce them to other library resources.

When we deliberately move to establish common ground, real conversation becomes more possible. The question then becomes the best way to move towards common goals. If we agree that information literacy is good, then what are the various strategies by which we can foster it? If we agree that getting our customers to use more library resources is good, then what are the various ways we can encourage them to do so?

Starting from a common goal lets us argue the pros and cons of various strategies, rather than starting from "fail" or "stupid". If we learn nothing else as librarians, learning to engage in productive professional discourse lays the foundation for all our other professional activities – and that for working with boards, the public and other stakeholders in our organizations.


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/).