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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 14

The personal is political

I've recently seen a number of blog posts and tweets from fellow librarians about their assumption of a separation between their online "private" persona and their work persona – the idea being that one should have clear boundaries between the two, and that what you say in your personal tweets, posts or status updates should have no bearing on your work performance or colleagues' perceptions of you.

Well ... ha!

I'm sorry, that was rude and probably will affect your perceptions of me, so let me put it a bit more delicately: Let's just say, good luck with that.

This issue pops up perennially on e-mail lists, which I've talked about here before. But, as social networks continue their inexorable climb, we just have new ways of finding out all sorts of interesting things about one another.

Maybe I'm biased

I work from home and for myself, so those lines between work and home and private and public blur for me a bit more easily than for others. But the days when we could hang up our hats, go home, and leave the workplace behind us are long gone. When we have conversations online, particularly when we have conversations that are archived and Googleable, public and easily accessed online, of course the net total of that information will affect our colleagues' – and our bosses' – perceptions of us.

The idea that there's a clear and forbidding line between the personal and the professional assumes that we're robots, that we can somehow compartmentalize ourselves depending on the job we're doing at any given moment. Do your impressions of your co-workers include just what they say and do at work ... or what they say when you're out to lunch? At the bar after work? Do your impressions of your co-workers incorporate the fact that this one has a teenager or that one goes to your church or the other one just bought a motorcycle and is fixing it up in his spare time?

Even at work, we share the personal, we have conversations about decidedly non-work-related topics, and we form perceptions of one another that have nothing to do with our work performance or our specific roles in our institutions. But, even more important than that, the idea that there's this easily discernable boundary assumes that we're different people in the workplace than we are in other areas of our lives. (If you are, there's likely something awry in your workplace, and you have bigger issues than that of blurring boundaries.) I don't cease being Rachel when I have a professional conversation. I don't stop being a mom or a blogger or a science fiction reader when I put on my "professional" hat. All of my experiences and all of my knowledge go towards making me the person, and the librarian, that I am.

We have this tendency to treat online interactions as if they're somehow special, different, our own private space. They differ only in that they are more easily accessed. When you tweet or e-mail or otherwise put anything in writing, you need to have the expectation that anyone can access it – and that this information will inevitably affect their views of you, whether positively or negatively.

Say I'm your boss, and I see you participating in online conversations in which you belittle others or disparage your workplace, of course it's going to make me think more negatively of you, regardless of your performance at work. Of course it's going to make me wonder what else you say behind my back to your other co-workers. Of course it's going to make me think about how your conversations reflect on our institution.

Say you're an online friend of mine, and you see me disparaging my institution and ragging on my co-workers. Does that give you a good feeling about ever working there? Does that give you a good feeling about ever working with me anywhere? What might I say about you, somewhere, someday?

Now, if your boss is reprimanding you at work for something you said or did outside of work, that's a whole other issue. We're entitled to our private lives; we're entitled to do as we wish on our own time, and work rules don't apply outside the workplace. Rules and perceptions, though, are two different beasts.

Cost-benefit analysis

Related to this whole idea of public vs private is the notion that we can consciously choose what pieces of information we share about ourselves online. When we know information is accessible, we need to be aware of the trail we're leaving behind and make a deliberate decision about whether the benefits of sharing that information outweigh the possible costs of sharing.

Jenny Levine has an interesting post on her blog titled "You Don't Know Me" ). This focuses mostly on what companies know about her by her Internet habits, but says in part:

"I've thought about my own 'walled garden' a lot and worked through what I'll share publicly, privately, and pretend privately. Most things I share publicly, and you can see a list of many of the sites I use on my FriendFeed account. It's not difficult to piece together information about me by tracking these sites, but overall I'm more careful with specific things like location information."

Too few people think about these decisions, hence the occasional brouhaha when sites like Facebook bring information that users perceived as private to the forefront. Users of social networking sites like Facebook and twitter and FriendFeed know that these networks can bring incredible personal and professional benefits. But we all need to think about where our own line lies, and where sharing too much can result in consequences that outweigh those benefits.

Cultivate awareness

You may decide that the benefits of sharing – or of sharing a lot! – outweigh the potential negatives. That's fine, but it's less fine to pretend that there aren't any negatives. As librarians, we need to go into our online interactions with eyes wide open. Our business is information, and we know full well how that information can be accessed. We should make it our business to be aware of what information we're sharing with others and how we're presenting ourselves in all our interactions.

Say what you want, when you want, where you want; simply separate your right to do so from the implications of doing so. You have the right to say what you like; other people have the right to react as they like. Some people see any holding back on what they say online as "selling out". OK. But if you're going to be bold enough to say whatever you like, wherever you like, online, then you'll just need also to be bold enough to accept others' reactions, positive or negative.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (