Gavia Libraria

Silencing, librarianship, and gender: confronting the naked emperor

Both the Loon and her Boring Alter Ego uncannily resemble the child in the naked-emperor fable at times: shrill, all-too-public, all-too-impolitic, but also truth-aligned and at heart unmalicious assertions that break broad unspoken agreements regarding What We Don’t Talk About.

Oddly, Gavia Libraria started as an experiment in training the Boring Alter Ego not to do that, or at least to do it more consciously, carefully picking battles rather than innocently yet perilously breaking taboos like the child in the crowd. (After a few years in librarianship, the Loon came to believe the proper ending to that fable runs “… and the headsman’s axe separated the child’s head from its body in full view of the naked emperor and his silent subjects.”)

The experiment hasn’t failed, from a strictly Loonish perspective. The Loon and her BAE are better at picking battles and waging them effectively when they do pick one. A few Loonish constructions and thoughts—the dangers of the C-word in job titles, for example—are fairly common currency in online librarian discourse, despite being largely unspeakable topics before the Loon weighed in.

The Loon has also improved how her BAE frames naked-emperor problems, most notably by consciously dragging her treatment of them out of a frame of pure despair into a frame containing feasible action and hope for amelioration. (The Loon has been using a rather good book about this and similar problems of change management to frame her efforts of late. Even allowing for pop-psych magic-wandism, the book’s suggestions give rise to useful tactics, at least in the Loon’s mind.) The Loon has also been a useful check on her BAE’s tendencies toward caustic framing sometimes amounting to full-on toxicity. Neither the Loon nor her BAE is perfect about these things, but they are both better than they were; the Loon sometimes reads her BAE’s older writing with newer eyes and just winces.

From a broader perspective… well. These thoughts arise in the Loon’s head because of a couple of recent blog posts from librarians the Loon respects—and who are by any conceivable measure significantly more professionally successful and effective librarians than the Loon ever was or ever will be, which lends their words additional weight—blog posts that advocate, even reify, professional silence on matters of import. Also contributing is the sudden absence of an online voice not wholly unlike the Loon’s; the Loon believes she knows the why of this absence, in broad strokes, but she cannot but regret it anyway.

All this saddens the Loon. It makes her angry, too, for a number of reasons, one the toll that keeping silent about important matters takes even on professionals decidedly less given to blatheration than the Loon; another the amount of wisdom that the profession (and, selfishly, the Loon herself) miss out on when successful, effective people cannot see fit to share what they know and think; a third the real, pressing problems in the information professions and in specific information workplaces that cannot be solved in silence, much less by silence.

So in a broader sense, the Loon has failed in one of her aims, because librarianship’s Overton window is still tiny, dim, and iron-barred. Put less metaphorically, there are things we need to talk about, would benefit from talking about, including publicly, that we don’t talk about. Too much is left unsaid because too much is considered strictly unsayable. Too much is left unsaid, no matter how true, no matter how important, because whoever says it will incur punishment sufficient to deter anyone but loons.

The extent to which this strain of silence is attributable to intersectional oppression, to profession-specific norms, or to particular especially-poisonous workplaces is a question for wiser heads than the Loon’s. Exactly where the line between silence and speech should be drawn, likewise; the Loon has abundantly proven she isn’t to be trusted with such judgments, though she’s working on it still.

She just cannot shake this sense that the line is now drawn far, far too conservatively, not only in the larger profession but within individual workplaces as well. Librarianship and archives have some (metaphorical; the Loon means systemic phenomena rather than individual people) emperors parading around in the altogether, few or none gainsaying them.

All that said… the Loon thinks that librarianship can make inroads on handling naked-emperor problems better. Indeed, she believes the profession is starting to do so in one or two cases at least, and what is learned about methods from those cases can be applied more broadly.

While those matters work themselves out, what the Loon asks of herself, and would ask of others, is to make more space in the soul for discomfort, for cognitive dissonance, for many kinds of difference, even for feelings of shame and inadequacy. This is hard—oh, is it hard; it’s the single most emotionally grinding aspect of teaching for the Loon. (Students and professionals do not often spare their instructors’ feelings; for many, instructors live in an Uncanny Valley between people and some sort of giant robot on a giant robot pedestal.) Hard though this is, it’s even harder to solve problems we won’t own.

Insofar as the Loon is a better Loon than she was, it’s involved owning her guano, if her readers will kindly forgive the momentary vulgarity. The Loon is naked under her feathers, just like every grown avian. Perhaps that individual nakedness, once acknowledged and owned rather than buried or defensively rejected, can give us strength to acknowledge and own some collective nudities?

It is worth remembering that the child in the fable is not wrong. It is worth remembering that the emperor and his court in the fable are a complete shambles, a vain ignorant self-obsessed easily-hoodwinked dandy shored up by cowardly yes-folk with a shared will to silence that they impose on the rest of the empire as well as themselves. Who would want to live in that empire, the Loon wonders? How long until it falls, to conquest or inner rot?

Given a choice between behaving like one of those courtiers and behaving like that child, the Loon will probably never entirely control her predilection for choosing the child. It is her good fortune that her current context allows, even expects that of her. It is also her acknowledged duty to keep her pronouncements as close to the child’s unmalicious innocence as possible, despite the curse of greater knowledge.

She hopes to be joined by other would-be children, and she hopes our empire can grow to embrace us instead of beheading us.

2 thoughts on “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: confronting the naked emperor

  1. Chicacisne

    Dear truth-aligned Loon,
    As a new librarian struggling in many ways, I can only tell you that sometimes it is only here in your little pond, that things seem to make sense. I have learned so much about how much is left for me to learn and even about some things it might interest me to learn that I had not considered before. I deeply admire how much truth you are committed to telling, and how open you are to admit where we might all be able to improve. I know the BAE has often served as a mentor for her students; I wonder if the Loon recognizes a mentorship role, too? It might not be a role you envisioned, but it is certainly happening, and I am grateful.
    Many swanny greetings, and very kind regards.