During my final semester I wrote a paper (an ‘Environmental Scan’ to be precise) which covered posts on Tumblr and across the wider Internet which examined discussion surrounding the identity of the modern librarian, specifically in response to the launch of the Tumblr blog Librarian Shaming, but also, to a smaller extent, MG Siegler’s 2013 speech on the end of the library and Neil Gaiman’s speech on why our futures rely on libraries. This post is a contracted version of this paper.
The nature of Tumblr – especially its reblog function – allowed me to analyse the community’s reaction to the above three events (for want of a better word). I focused on what was happening during a very specific timespan – from the end of September to the end of November, 2013. During these two months, it felt as though online librarians were actively defining themselves and the profession, prompted (or, perhaps, prodded) by the events linked above. Online discussion is a powerful force, and this post follows some of the more interesting discussions in detail. Forgive me if some of this is over-academic in style. Its genesis as a submitted essay precludes my ability to edit out sections that may be irrelevant in this particular format.
Social media has become an everyday part of the modern library. By utilising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr, libraries now have new ways of accessing and reaching out to their patrons. Interestingly, individual librarians are also using such social media outlets in a para-professional way: they are posting as members of the profession, to discuss professional issues in a personal capacity. This allows them to carve out a new identity for the profession. And, usefully, Andy Burkhadt suggested, ‘through conversations on social media, libraries can gain insights into what their users want and need and ultimately understand their users better’ (2010). So it’s not just the librarians who are benefiting from this.
About the community
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tumblr, there is a curated list of libraries, librarians, library school students and library para-professionals who are active on Tumblr. This is maintained by Kate Tkacik (aka thelifeguardlibrarian, an apt pseudonym). At present, it is made up of 101 libraries and 498 individuals (librarians, Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) students and para-professionals). Those within this community refer to themselves as ‘Tumblarians’, a portmanteau of ‘Tumblr Librarians’. The Tumblarian community functions through the use of the Tumblr ‘follow’ feature, in which followed blogs’ posts appear in a chronological feed. Users can ‘reblog’ posts of interest, adding their own commentary. Users can also track tags – Tumblr allows for user-generated metadata, in the form of tags – and the community attaches tags such as #libraries, #librarians and #tumblarians, depending on the content of the post. For the purposes of this study, both original blog posts and responses to selected posts via reblogs have been scanned, all of which originate from members of this community.
But you didn’t need to read all of that if you are an active Tumblarian, as many of you are.
As I am an active member of the Tumblarian community myself, I have been able to follow the discussion on our identity, and was able to select the ones I felt best represent the community’s attempt to solidify a positive identity. Having analysed types of posts by Tumblarians directly before the period involved, several common themes presented themselves. Removing personal posts (that is, posts not referring to libraries, the library community or library school), remaining posts included the following: the sharing of library- or MLIS-related information and resources, including posts featuring library displays, reference questions and examples of readers’ advisory; requests for information or assistance in library- or MLIS-related matters; information about social issues and social inclusion; anecdotes about events in libraries or in MLIS courses; and, finally, posts about the state of the profession and the public identity of librarians.
Having observed this community for a year, these examples are a fair representation of the general output of this group. Librarians like to share and support each other. We like to give. We also like to say what we think. Generally disagreements do not result in drama or any backbiting, something the community is proud of. Occasionally a topic will arise which pulls the community together or sets members against each other. Such a controversy occurred during the time period above, both directly and indirectly resulting in a shift in the type of posts being generated and requiring the community to define itself in the face of perceived external stereotypes and prejudices.
A new blog entitled ‘Librarian Shaming’ was launched on 30th September, following a popular post on the Dracut Library blog. The premise of the new blog was that librarians could submit their ‘shameful’ secrets, in the form of handwritten confessions held up in front of (and hiding) the submitter’s face. Text submissions were also accepted. The submissions ranged from harmless disclosures such as, ‘I read library books in the bathtub’ to more controversial confessions, such as, ‘We do pay attention to which items you check out and we definitely judge you’ and ‘I hate patrons’.
Librarian Shaming was quickly featured on several high profile websites and blogs (including The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, Neatorama, LISNews and Flavorwire) as well as in online editions of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, where it was portrayed as an amusing new meme which gently poked fun at librarians. The Daily Mail’s review described Librarian Shaming as revealing ‘that library workers have just as many guilty pleasures and embarrassing secrets as the rest of us’; and while this might have inspired readers to see librarians in a more positive light, readers’ comments revealed a quietly negative attitude to the profession. One comment read: ‘Why are there still librarians in the age of the Internet?’ to which another commenter replied, ‘Because books don’t shelve themselves and somebody has to clean the bathrooms’. The Library Journal’s ‘Annoyed Librarian’ column also addressed the topic of Librarian Shaming. ‘It’s supposed to be librarians shaming themselves, but simply embarrassing themselves seems more like it,’ the author writes, continuing further on, ‘Some, I assume, we’re supposed to find daring, like this one: “I don’t care about teaching library research skills because I GOOGLED my way through grad school and did just fine!” To which I wanted to reply, no, you Googled your way through library school, and that doesn’t count’.
The Tumblarian community vocalised a variety of issues with regard to Librarian Shaming, most of which referred to the reputation and identity of the profession and how the blog could damage this. There were numerous short text posts which alluded to Librarian Shaming, but these came to a head on 21st October with a text submission to Librarian Shaming which read:
‘To all those “librarians” who hate their patrons, hide from them, and lie to them to get them out of their hair… I would gladly take your job off your hands. I’ve been trying to for over a year now. Would you like my resume? Sincerely, A recently minted and horribly underpaid MLIS graduate who just wants to be a librarian already.’
The Tumblarian community vociferously reblogged this submission, adding impassioned commentary on both sides of the debate.
Tumblr user thereadingmouse commented that
‘the point of librarian shaming is that the librarian is anonymous, so this gives them a chance to vent’.
Tumblr user heidireadsya asked,
‘But is “Librarian Shaming” the appropriate place for venting? That particular Tumblr is getting some attention from outside the library community, and I think it’s dangerous that this could be the public face of libraries,’ adding also that the community already battles against negativity, and if the community portrays itself in this way, people ‘may not want to support us.’
User glassink defended the blog, commenting that
‘it’s important that our patrons see us as people’
‘they already know the people we mean when we say we hate patrons’.
The same user also added that,
‘Librarian shaming (sic) is a forum for librarians to talk to each other and share their secrets, and the response it has gotten means that a lot of librarians really identify with the things that are submitted’.
Adding to the debate against Librarian Shaming, theinnkeeperlibrarian commented that
‘there will be problems, there will be patrons we don’t like,’ and added, ‘but you don’t talk about that in a public place, where people who want to look for problems in the library in order to argue against their higher taxes or tuition.’
As the debate continued, much of what was published focused on how librarians are perceived by the public and how the Tumblarian community was, to some extent, responsible for improving the profession’s public image. Thecommonlibrarian (that’s me, by the way) posted:
‘we are already battling against so many prejudices, many unfounded. What a platform like this is doing is further prejudicing the prejudiced and creating more ill will towards our profession’.
Gnomadiclibrarian posted her thoughts on this, after commenting that a blog like Librarian Shaming could be ‘a clever way to break the shh-ing, judge, eagle-nosed librarian stereotype’:
‘But being a public forum it does pose a risk to the image of librarianship if we aren’t careful and I think submitters should be conscious of that when posting their secrets. “Librarian Shaming” […] should be a forum to break stereotypes, not re-enforce them, and I am afraid it is turning into the latter.’
Those behind Librarian Shaming remained quiet during much of this discussion; however, niwandajones (Jim DelRosso) , a moderator for the blog, responded to criticism in a post on 22nd October, pointing out that as a ‘moderately popular tumblr (sic)’, he was ‘less concerned about the image of librarianship being hurt’ (DelRosso, 2013). He added that ‘a lot would be lost if we made this less public, or tried to cut back on negativity’ (niwandajones, 2013). DelRosso published a post on his WordPress blog on 25th October, in which he defended Librarian Shaming, and disagreed that it could have a negative impact on the profession, adding that
‘any “supporter” who would hold something some anonymous library worker said against you never supported you in the first place’ and that’ reasonable people will recognize the site for what it is: a place to vent’.
Libraries in the media (click to continue) (more…)