Gavia Libraria

DPLA and the so-called “feral librarian”

The Digital Public Library of America has named its founding executive director: digital historian Dan Cohen. The Loon offers him her congratulations and best wishes; she believes he will do well.

Not a librarian! many librarians are currently screaming. No. He’s not. He might be disrespectfully termed one of those “feral librarians” (the Loon nods respectfully to Stanford’s Chris Bourg, who has chosen to reclaim this term). Anyone who seriously believes non-librarianness puts Cohen at a disadvantage in his upcoming role, however, will have the Loon to contend with. Frankly, he’s done a lot of things we librarians consider to be our job better than we have, individually or collectively.

(Teaching? Open access advocacy? Leadership and innovation? Mm-hm.)

That isn’t to say there aren’t capable librarians who could direct the DPLA; doubtless there are. One thing Cohen brings that few librarians can, however, is public presence and authority. Gravitas, if you will. It’s worth thinking about that, in the context of Cohen’s career, and what his career might have looked like if he’d been a librarian.

Some of us may remember that not long ago, George Mason University (where Cohen has led the Center for History and New Media) got hit with a lawsuit from big-pig publisher Thomson-Reuters over a feature of the citation-management software Zotero. Cohen’s institution and its lawyers backed Zotero and its builders to the hilt immediately and publicly, and the lawsuit eventually went nowhere.

Compare this to what’s still happening to Dale Askey. McMaster decided to help with his legal fees only late and grudgingly, and both McMaster and Kansas have done their level best to disown Askey publicly. Mellen’s latest move—cutting the lawsuit against McMaster, while keeping the one against Askey himself—capitalizes on the institutions’ abandonment.

Will Askey stay in librarianship or in academe after this searing insult? The Loon wouldn’t. What a horrible thing his employers are doing to him.

“But Askey was blogging on his own time!” And judging publisher quality isn’t as essential a part of Askey’s then-job as providing Zotero with direction was Cohen’s? More than that, though, this objection forces librarians into the librarian-closet, unable to express themselves publicly—become public figures, as Cohen did—because of the looming threat of pissy vendors and barratry-prone lawyers. Being public, having an impact on the larger world, incurs risk, sometimes risk too great to be borne by an individual alone. If our colleagues, our employers, and our profession won’t defend us, we can’t be public.

In fairness, the profession did better by Askey than did McMaster and Kansas; we’ve kept the pressure on both Mellen and McMaster. The Loon, however, is at least anecdotal evidence that the librarian-closet exists, and sometimes librarians shove other librarians into it. (The BAE was shoved into the closet by other librarians; the Loon eventually emerged therefrom.)

If Dan Cohen had been a librarian:

  • His colleagues would have grumbled that he was spending too much time blogging and speaking; when was he going to do the real work back at the ranch? Slacker that he is.
  • His colleagues would have grumbled about “all that witless digital stuff” he was engaged with. When is that Cohen going to do real librarian work? What does he do all day, anyway, and why is the library supporting him in it?
  • Six committees would have had oversight over his projects, at least one of which he would have been expected to lead. Seven. Perhaps eight. Nary a one would have been explicitly charged to ease his way; each would contain at least one of the abovementioned grumblers. The overhead of cosseting and reporting to them all would have swamped any time he had to work on the projects.
  • His employer would have overlooked him when the time came to discuss issues publicly (such as open access) in which he is a broadly-acknowledged expert and influence. (They haven’t, in case you were wondering.) He would also have been warned, explicitly or im-, not to say anything controversial that might upset… well, anyone, really, but especially those in high places.
  • His external achievements would have been suppressed rather than promoted and celebrated; or he would have felt forced to suppress them himself in order to keep the workplace peace. (That didn’t happen either.) The Loon is hardly the first to have noticed tall-poppy syndrome in librarianship; she wishes to emphasize that sneering at honors harms librarianship as a whole as well as damaging individual librarians’ morale and public-impact potential.
  • Workplace and external enemies would have sought to use his online presence against him, much as happened with Jenica Rogers, Dale Askey, and the BAE herself. In Cohen’s specific case, they might not have found much to work with, granted. One slip, however, and Cohen’s leadership would likely have leaned on him to take the blog down or eviscerate it, and librarians would have invoked the need for professionalism in justifying his silencing.

And how would someone treated in this fashion have made it to the top of the DPLA? (And why would someone treated in this fashion bother staying in librarianship?) This is not to diminish Cohen’s achievements, of course—it’s to point out, instead, that our profession creates and maintains structural barriers to librarians achieving the sort of public stature and impact that Cohen has. This isn’t the entire story of the “feral librarian”—libraries turning to non-librarians to lead and achieve new things—but believe you the Loon, it’s part of that story.

Perhaps we should write a different story, we librarians? A story that acknowledges, even welcomes, that the practice of librarianship does not stop at library doors? That risk is inevitable, and the best defense against it is solidarity? That we can’t climb as a profession if we keep tearing each other down? That the status quo is not touched by deity, and that the new deserves a fighting chance? That vivid voices can’t be tamed to total inoffensiveness, and in fact shouldn’t be?

The Loon would very much like librarianship to write a different story. Perhaps then we’ll have more Dan Cohens, and fewer persecuted folk like Dale Askey.

6 thoughts on “DPLA and the so-called “feral librarian”

  1. Chris Bourg

    Thanks for the nod. Truth is, when I chose the blog title, I was too naive to really understand the debates around the term and the concept/practice. But I do think it is worth reclaiming; and that librarianship would be wise to embrace the strengths and skill of the Dan Cohens who elect to work on the same issues we care about.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Indeed so. We should also clear the decks for our own people to use their own strengths and skills to their fullest extent.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Agreed. This is a question the Loon is thinking much on; librarianship’s policy and provider infrastructure for this is not what it needs to be.

  2. Jenny R

    Where exactly is all this screaming happening? Because I’ve seen nothing but positive comments about this appointment.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon actually hopes she’s forestalled it, at least in public! But many of those who work in libraries without MLSes can attest that they are not loved by librarianship, and as Chris Bourg mentions above, the phrase “feral librarian” comes with an attached (and documentable) history.