Gavia Libraria

Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?

Shortly after a conference for which the Loon’s Boring Alter Ego had given a plenary-session talk, the conference organizers emailed to ask her for a photo. The bland headshot that the BAE uses everywhere promptly winged their way. Their response: “Wouldn’t you prefer a photo that looks more like you?”

At the time, the nonplussed Loon leapt to the conclusion that she had aged rather poorly in the two or three years since that photograph had been taken! She still thinks that a possible interpretation—especially since she hasn’t aged particularly gracefully, or indeed gracefully at all—but the email could also quite reasonably be construed as a reaction against the headshot’s consummate blandness. Whatever the BAE’s faults as a speaker, blandness is not among them; to that extent, the photo did indeed traduce her.

But professional headshots are supposed to be bland, boring, safe, not so? (“Artistic” is allowed, for values of “artistic” that embrace “entirely inoffensive.”) This is just one of The Rules.

Last week the Loon glanced over the just-announced speakers’ page at Canada’s Access Conference, as she often does with conferences, to get a read on gender parity and look for friends of hers. (Twenty-six men, eight women, if you were wondering. This could be significantly improved upon. Also, verbum sapientibus, the Loon suggests that this year’s Access organizers compose and enact a Code of Conduct as quickly as may be.) As she scrolled down the page, she chuckled outright at Nick Ruest’s headshot, which is decidedly not bland:

Nick Ruest, biting a Zip disk with a somewhat crazed expression

Then she paused, and scratched the underside of her beak with one webbed foot. For all her non-blandness up close and personal, the Loon could not imagine sending such a photo to a conference. But why not, after all? The Loon’s own eccentricities rival Ruest’s, and Ruest’s photo is wonderfully hilarious. (Nick Ruest, by the way, is a valued visitor here at Gavia. The Loon secured his permission for this use of his photo.)

The Loon decided to interrogate her own reaction via Twitter, sparking a fascinating conversation that the Loon tried to Storify until Storify’s obtuse UI combined with its dislike for the Loon’s Mozilla Firefox installation stopped her dead. (If someone else would care to Storify that stream, the Loon would be most grateful. Thanks to @Miz_Peacock, we have a Storified account of it.) The consensus was… well, there wasn’t one, save for a pervasive sense that The Rules could be broken, but only when certain personal or contextual circumstances obtain.

That a few workplace and conference contexts are more easygoing about The Rules than most (and Access, which the Loon once attended, does indeed fit this category) strikes the Loon as uncontroversial, but not the whole story either. That those with privilege—and in a librarianship context, Ruest has several sorts of privilege, tech privilege among them—risk less when breaking The Rules also seems commonsensical. Lastly, the Loon agrees with various among her Twitter commenters that some people use others’ infractions of The Rules as ad feminam/hominem attacks to avoid engaging with their uncomfortable ideas.

The Loon would add from her own experience that at least sometimes, breaking The Rules doesn’t make a crucial difference until it suddenly does. Librarians absolutely carp and clutch pearls and shake their fingers (or analogous digits) about dress, swearing, social-media presence, or even “unprofessional” conference photographs, but it is still possible to flout The Rules, or at least These Rules, and survive… for a time. Until the Rules-breaker angers someone (usually within his or her workplace) either in a position of power or able to tattle to someone in a position of power, whereupon infractions of The Rules often provide all necessary excuse for broad-based silencing, regardless of whether such infractions have anything whatever to do with the actual beef.

Moreover, Rules infractions are rarely forgiven and never forgotten, in the Loon’s experience. Instead, in addition to their cumulative use as workplace weapons, they are taken as permanent, incontrovertible evidence that the Rules-breaker is neither to be trusted nor heeded, nor permitted to take part in external-facing situations. The notion that different Rules might apply in different contexts (as Erving Goffman so memorably told us), and that the Rules-breaker might actually know this and behave accordingly—or, minimally, that the Rules-breaker might be educable—never seems to take hold.

Since she does not have direct experience with library leadership, the Loon is in a poor position to opine about it, but from what she has heard, The Rules close in considerably tighter the further a librarian climbs up the ranks. This is often attributed to additional external-facing responsibilities, and that may well be true, but the Loon would add to it the common, simmering mistrust-looking-for-an-excuse-to-erupt that librarians too often feel for “management.” Library leaders cling to The Rules because they are left with little viable choice, as best the Loon can tell.

Rules-breakers, intentional or un-, live under the sword of Damocles, never knowing when the thread might break. If there’s anything more professionally terrifying than an out-of-nowhere silencing over conduct that one had fair reason to think was acceptable (as long as one had been engaging in it, or seeing others engage in it, without comment much less censure), the Loon isn’t sure what it might be.

The Loon’s eccentric career also suggests that librarians seem slightly less wedded to The Rules in professional contexts outside the workplace than within it. Eccentricity is fun at a conference! Who really wants to sit and watch consummately professional blandness, after all? Within a workplace, however, significantly less is tolerated; the Loon doubts that Ruest could use that photo on his library’s staff page (were such a thing to exist; it apparently does not?) without repercussions. Extra-workplace freedom, though significant, is neither infinite nor wholly risk-free; workplace Rules-enforcers can use infractions from anywhere as ammunition, and the Loon mournfully avers that fame external to the workplace is usually not any particular protection within it—often quite the opposite, in fact, as tall-poppy syndrome takes root—for those without significant additional privilege to protect them.

Yes, the Loon is entirely prepared to hypothesize (in the apparent absence of librarianship-based research) that MLSes, women, people of color, queer folk, and trans folk are more frequent targets of Rules-based attacks than Ph.D holders, men, Caucasians, straights, and the cis. (It certainly appears true that more Rules, particularly appearance and language Rules, are applied to cis women than to cis men. More than that the Loon is not in a good subject position to say.) Those with these sorts of privilege are also more likely to survive Rules-based attacks than those without.

Well, so what? Who wants all those Rules-breaking troublemakers anyway? What good are they, and why does it even matter if they’re squelched, or driven out of the profession? Good riddance to bad rubbish, right?

Anecdata-lly, the Loon asserts that librarianship very much wants Nick Ruest, Rules or no Rules. Adherence to The Rules is hardly the only or (in the Loon’s view) the most important characteristic of a worthwhile librarian. Important though this insight is, however, it is not the chief argument the Loon wishes to make in favor of relaxing The Rules.

This year’s recipient of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Award was Archive Team, a loose coalition of people inaugurated and helmed by the inimitable Jason Scott. The Loon’s BAE shared a podium with Scott once early in her career, enjoyed the experience considerably (in spite of a rather serious and painful bodily mishap shortly beforehand) and was encouraged thereby to de-bland her own speaking yet further, greatly to the benefit of her many speaking engagements since.

When Scott joined the Internet Archive, the Loon rejoiced; she believed (and still vehemently believes) that the world at large and the library/archives world desperately need Scott to do the work he does. Notwithstanding that belief, the Loon knows full well that Scott would never survive in an ordinary archives or library context. Scott doesn’t just break The Rules, you see; Scott stomps The Rules flat and pisses gleefully on them, particularly though not exclusively online for all to see. Given that, not even Scott—regardless of his hands-on knowledge of digital archiving, regardless of his skill at assembling technical communities for useful ends, regardless of his many and varied accomplishments, regardless of his high public profile—could stay in a library or archives job with the Rules-enforcers gunning for him, as they inevitably would.

Isn’t that a problem? Isn’t it a problem that harks right back to why a librarian isn’t running the Digital Public Library of America? Doesn’t it tie to the recurrent problems librarianship has with its antiquated public image? And to recurrent difficulties with various sorts of information advocacy (with legislators, taxpayers, patrons, take your pick)? Who speaks out for librarianship, when librarianship punishes so many who naturally speak out?

Selecting against Rules-breakers, as the Loon has argued librarianship consistently does, selects against the very people with the confidence, public prominence, experience-honed public-relations skill, and sheer guts to grab attention and do something useful with it, or expand the public image of what librarians are and do. (The occasional “hipster librarian” media piece does not suffice, though it is arguably a step in the right direction; the characteristics chosen for attention are usually too superficial and not related clearly enough to substantive professional issues.) Admitting Rules-breakers to the profession and then suspending a fear-edged sword over their necks by a thread doesn’t help either.

The Loon would never assert that the typical Rules-breaker is the only sort of person librarianship needs; that would be ridiculous. Counterexamples spring easily to mind, the Cliff Lynches and Lorcan Dempseys and Diane Hillmanns whose stock in trade is unassailable logic, graceful prose/speech, and adroit persuasion. (Note, however, that all three of the Loon’s examples currently work outside libraries/archives proper! That is a phenomenon worth interrogating.) The Loon happily asserts that librarianship needs some such folk, however, almost certainly more of them than it currently permits itself.

The Loon’s conclusion, then: The Rules and enforcement thereof are appreciably damaging librarianship’s diversity along many different axes, as well as its ability to make itself heard in the larger world. What to do about this the Loon isn’t sure—Taiga, if you’ve any ideas, the Loon would be interested to hear—but she would surely appreciate seeing those Rules relaxed, and the breadth of acceptable styles of behavior in the profession thereby increased.

6 thoughts on “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?

  1. Chris Bourg

    I can’t speak for all of Taiga, but I will say that this is a tough one. Especially because The Rules are unwritten, which makes them all the more susceptible to being weilded selectively — which generally means weilded in ways that disproportionally silence those in the already disempowered groups you list (noting of course, that many of us fall into multiple groups simultaneously – some privileged, others not).

    As far as I know, the best solution that social scientists have come up with to counter this kind of bias is actually to formalize the rules, make them explicit, and make everyone play by them equally. The rules must be gender, race, etc. neutral, of course. So, for example, a dress code might call for shirt & tie, or dress/skirt & blouse; without regard to the gender of the shirt & tie or dress/skirt & blouse wearer. Note that I don’t think that making The Rules explicit has to be in contradiction to your call for relaxing them, which I likewise support.

    Formal rules alone won’t keep some of those in power from expressing their biases & prejudices in words or actions, but neutral formal rules at least provide some recourse. If professional attire is defined as above, no matter how uptight the boss is, she can’t formally punish the skirt-wearing male librarian for unprofessional attire.

    At the individual level, I think those of us in leadership positions need thick skins, lots of tolerance, courage, and patience. We need to be willing to defend the actions, statements, self-presentation, etc. of all in the profession. More than reactively defending those who speak out, I think we need to vouch proactively for those in the profession who are speaking out and I think we need to do it publicly. I would like to see my colleagues who tell me privately that they think it is great that others are speaking out say so more publicly. I especially think it is important to vouch for those voices that are different from our own — in content, perspective, opinion, experience, social and professional status, etc. Personally, those are the people I learn the most from.

  2. Chris Bourg

    Let me also add that I think 12-step programs are on to something with the claim that acknowledging the problem is a necessary 1st step.

    I think/hope that simply having these conversations (here and importantly on the Taiga blog) forces leaders to acknowledge the problem, and may even cause individuals to think twice before saying/doing something that would have a silencing effect.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Thank you so much! This is an amazing gift of time and effort. The Loon will edit her post to add this link to it, for the benefit of those who read via RSS feeds.