Gavia Libraria

Silencing, librarianship, and gender: a preface

Some months ago, the Loon had occasion to stop her nominal boss, the department chair, in the hallway to say, “So… that last published piece? {high-level university administrator} is apparently upset about it. You should know, in case it becomes a larger issue.” The Loon then briefly explained a few relevant details, apologized for the potential fuss, and explained that she didn’t want her nominal boss blindsided.

Wearing a bemused expression, the Loon’s nominal boss looked back at the Loon and said, “Well, we didn’t hire you to be quiet.” And that was the end of it. The administrator in question chose not to pursue the Loon further, but if further pursuit had happened, the Loon is quite confident that her nominal boss would have backed her, immediately and to the hilt.

(The Loon says “nominal,” incidentally, because honestly not a lot of boss-ing goes on around her current workplace. Discussions, yes. Meetings and task forces, yes. Information-passing, yes. Ideas and responses to them, including “no, and here’s why,” quite commonly. “This needs doing; please do it,” absolutely. The occasional minor fracas, certainly. But rank-pulling, caste, passive aggression, dumping dirty jobs on the less-powerful, silencing, ostracism, cliques, interference, tall-poppy syndrome, micromanaging—these are not the culture. The Loon is profoundly aware of and grateful for her good fortune.)

This is relevant to Chris Bourg’s call to discuss silencing in librarianship (and its occasioning screed by Andy Woodworth, with which the Loon is naturally quite in sympathy) because the Loon is convinced beyond any possible question that if she were still a librarian at her prior workplace, the above story would have turned out much, much uglier for her. She doesn’t care to imagine the details. Whatever the ultimate result, the Loon’s employer would not have protected—indeed, would eagerly have punished—her public dissent. The case of Dale Askey, and the shameful abdication by both his current and former employers of their duty to protect his dissent, is another relevant example. Sandy Berman is a third.

The Loon cannot possibly address the question at hand in a single post. It’s hideously complex, and for the Loon it is of course hideously fraught. (Indeed, the Loon herself is something of an experiment in teaching oneself to handle fraught subjects with verbal kid gloves instead of sledgehammers.)

Ergo, this preface. The Loon’s bald answers to the questions Bourg poses:

  • Is there a pattern that indicates a real systemic, cultural problem or are there simply many troubling idosyncratic stories that defy generalization? In academic librarianship, the Loon believes there is more than one such pattern: attacks, attackers, victims, and common causes for attack are all patterned (each in several ways, to boot). Patterns combine in deadly fashion.
  • So, how can we as leaders encourage healthy, honest, public conversations about our profession — the good, the bad, and the ugly? The first principle (of many, to be sure): do not discourage or punish the open expression of anger or frustration, especially while it is still small and remediable. This is hard (the Loon knows, dealing with students as she does). It is also a sine qua non.
  • And where exactly is the line between unprofessional trash-talking and healthy, thoughtful critical dissent? The Loon wishes she knew. She knows she’s been guilty of trash-talking, though without explicit intent to do so—line-crossing, rather than intentional infliction of pain. The Loon loathes the word “unprofessional,” though, because it is a vague but effective condemnation with no clear referent that is often used to silence dissent. In fact, its use is often a pattern-of-silencing indicator.
  • Those of you who are afraid to speak out, what would have to change for you to feel safe making your thoughts known? The Loon only has lefthanded answers to this, she fears. One such answer, already implemented, is “her entire online identity.” Another answer is the story beginning this post. A third set of answers in this previous post. A fourth, admittedly quite discouraging, answer below.
  • And how do issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and other dimensions of difference and power play into this? The Loon cannot herself speak to race, class, or sexuality properly, so she will leave that to those who can. She has many thoughts about gender, however, which boil down to her belief that the silencing of women notable in society generally and professional/technical environments particularly is alive and well in librarianship despite its majority-female workforce. Power—is complicated. This is by no means as simple as management versus labor; librarians at all levels of employment hierarchies can and do silence others.

The Loon has already explained that she is unemployable in academic libraries. She alluded briefly in that post to the central reason for that unemployability: a well-earned reputation for “abrasive, vocal iconoclasm.” Unemployability is only half the story, however. The rest of the story is that the Loon shrinks from even considering a return to academic libraries, despite her close identification with many of the challenges they face and her avowed orientation toward praxis rather than research or even teaching. Why would the silencing, the ostracism, the covert blame, the whisper campaigns, the slow buildup of unexpressed (not expressable?) frustration to intolerable levels, not simply happen again? She couldn’t bear that. It damaged her physical health, as well as her trust in her profession and its practitioners, more than enough the first time. Whatever is going on here (and the Loon agrees with Bourg that it is difficult to study, vastly under-studied, even undertheorized), the Loon is its casualty.

The Loon has written about silencing before. In the interest of not repeating herself:

Chris Bourg is to be commended for starting this conversation, as is Taiga for hosting it. May it be fruitful.

6 thoughts on “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: a preface

  1. Chris Bourg

    I love this: “We didn’t hire you to be quiet.” Will borrow that liberally.

    Also, excellent point about the term “unprofessional.” Mea culpa.
    I struggle with how to describe the difference between the kind of public bitching that is just mean and destructive versus constructive, needed bitching. The fact that the line is fuzzy, as you note, contributes to the silencing. Hoping these conversations will provide some clarity.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Well, and many people (the Loon emphatically included) are guilty of both. The Loon is of the opinion that taking the bad with the good is necessary, at least sometimes, if the good is to find voice at all.

      The Loon’s experience is also that she doesn’t start bitching destructively until no few attempts at constructive discourse have already failed, leaving her feeling unheeded and (that word again) frustrated.

      1. Chris Bourg

        Good with the bad — yep, I think you are right there. And I think leaders need to have thick skin and lots of patience and lots of forgiveness and tolerance. Probably not too different from what you talk about vis-a-vis dealing with students.

        Also, your opening story is such a great example of how “it” should work on every level — your heads-up to your boss so she not be blindsided, her willingness to back you up. Thanks for sharing it

        1. Library Loon Post author

          The Loon trusts her boss implicitly, that occasion being one cogent reason why. The Loon obviously can’t prove this, but she approached her boss not solely to cover her own cloaca, but in an honest desire to reduce her boss’s stress load, an expected crisis being less stressful than an unexpected one.

          The Loon does wonder how often unexpected crises happen because those who anticipated them did not feel safe telling anyone.

  2. Lisa Hinchliffe

    Pondering a lot these days about how “forgiveness” (well, really the lack thereof) plays into these issues. Are people ever allowed to shed a mistake they made? Can we move beyond it? Or, is the person forever marked with a scarlet “M”? And – I mean that for people in all types of positions. People are often in a mode of “learning how to be a …” (librarian, administrator, etc.) and learning mode pretty much guarantees it won’t be perfect all the time…

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Quite so. The Loon is all over the map on this. There are quite a few people she’s forgiven, and one or two she never will. She herself doubts the profession will ever forgive her, and her prior workplace certainly will not, not ever. (Though, curiously, the one person there who actually had the gumption to call her out? Did exhibit behaviors consonant with a limited level of forgiveness later.)