The Tumblarian, controversy, and the future of the library

Library books on shelf

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.

‘Librarian Shaming’

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’

and that

‘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)

On 13th October, an article by MG Siegler, entitled ‘The End of the Library’ was published on TechCrunch. In it, Siegler predicts the imminent end of the library as a valuable institution, crediting the rise of e-book popularity, the rising prices of e-books for libraries and the numerous different makes of e-books as a major factor in the library’s downfall. He also argued that ‘the internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository of knowledge’ (Siegler, 2013) and that digital distribution overrides the need to have libraries as distribution hubs, and that a general preference for “digital bits” over tree-destroying paper, all point towards such an end (Siegler, 2013). Siegler’s article received over 200 comments during the period of the above study, most of which disagreed strongly with his views. However, it was on Tumblr that the article spread, with a post featuring two quotes gaining over four thousand notes within the period of this scan. The quotes in question were:

‘it’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library,’

and

’it’s impossible to see a world where we keep libraries open simply to pretend they still serve a purpose for which they no longer serve’

The Tumblarian community responded at length to the quotes and the article in full via Tumblr reblogs.

Thedanaash reblogged with the comment:

‘On Sunday, October 14th, yet another “End of Libraries” piece appeared. Per usual, it was written by a white male with no use for libraries, because every single time this trope appears, that’s part of the author’s demographic background’.

Laurel-sea provided a list of nineteen reasons why people come into her library (laurel-sea, 2013). Others added reasons why libraries remain important in society. Further commentary was in agreement with the above sentiments.

On 14th October, Neil Gaiman delivered a speech to the Reading Agency. It was published by The Guardian Newspaper the following day under the heading, ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’. Its content was in direct contrast with Siegler’s piece. Two quotes stood out:

‘I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.’

And,

‘We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.’

Links to Gaiman’s article and selected quotes from it were blogged and reblogged at length within the Tumblarian community, with few added comments, but much appreciation.

The aftermath

The fact that these two high-profile pieces were published within days of each other – and in the middle of the Librarian Shaming discussion – meant that Tumblarians were speaking of little else. These three almost simultaneous events set the tone for the following weeks. It appeared that librarians were more defensive of their profession and a profusion of positive posts about libraries circulated.

The Librarian Shaming discussion quietened towards the end of October, but there was a definite move to proactively and positively represent the profession in the weeks that followed. Gaiman’s speech continued to be quoted at length, and rebuttals to Siegel’s anti-library article continued to be published. There was also an increase in positive stories about day-to-day librarianship.

Two new blogs were launched specifically in response to Librarian Shaming – Optimist Librarian and Librarian Pride (), both of which sought submissions from librarians who are proud of the work they do.

The frequency with which Tumblarians posted personal accounts of their daily routines or of positive encounters with patrons increased. One Tumblarian, thepinakes, reposted an earlier blog post in which he had described helping an adult learner, and added:

‘Library instruction can make a difference. For her, and for countless other students. If a librarian doesn’t take it seriously, and do everything they can to teach the students what they’ll need to succeed (whether that class is in-person, or online, or in any other format), then they are wasting an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.’

This anecdote and commentary encouraged other librarians to reblog the post with their own stories. This led to first-hand accounts of life at the reference desk, positive interactions during activities and requests for help with upcoming projects.

Another theme which increased in volume was that of treating patrons with respect. One such post, entitled ‘On Patrons’, was published by jennyandthelibrarians on 24th November. It reads as a direct message to library patrons, informing them that they are not bothering librarians when asking for help, and reminding them of their right to read whatever they want without judgment.

It finishes with the following message:

‘In other words, thank you to those who visit the library, and all other library professionals who aim to make it a welcoming place. You make what we do meaningful, and we care more than you know.’

 

Final Analysis

There was a visible shift in focus among the regular bloggers within the Tumblarian community during the period of this study. The negativity of Siegler’s article could have embittered or dampened the tone of posts; the controversy around Librarian Shaming might have divided the community or brought about arguments; Gaiman’s praise of libraries could have resulted in complacency. Instead, these three separate events caused what was already a lively community to become impassioned and optimistic. More bloggers began to take part in new discussion, and non-librarians reblogged library-related posts with their own positive comments about their favourite libraries.

This kind of evolution would not have been possible on a Facebook group or across Twitter. I would not have happened on a single blogger’s site either. The medium was hugely responsible for the interactivity and dialogue, due in large part to how the reader can see the many comments already posted, and also add their own comment and post the whole conversation anew. At the Academic and Special Libraries’ Section Annual Seminar in 2013, Michelle Dalton described joining a Twitter conversation as jumping into a moving stream (Dalton, 2013). Tumblr is similar, but instead of only moving forward, like with Twitter, Tumblr allows the user to move forward while still looking back at the source.

So perhaps, the hope for Gaiman’s library of the future and also for the library Siegler has condemned, is at the heart of the online librarian community. Throughout this study I witnessed  librarians and future librarians across the world passionately fighting for the idea and the reality of the library. I am hopeful that as socially active librarians take up posts of responsibility within libraries, policies will adapt and will grow – and will be rewritten by these librarians – to allow for this reality.

Full bibliography below.

Bibliography

Annoyed Librarian. (2013, October 10). Librarians embarrassing themselves. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/blogs/annoyedlibrarian/2013/10/10/librarians-embarrassing-themselves/

Anonymous. (2013a, October 6).  [I read library books in the bathtub] [Photographic submission to Librarian Shaming]  [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/post/63299754316/i-read-library-books-in-the-bathtub

Anonymous [Librarian Shaming]. (2013b, October 21). [We do pay attention to which items you check out and we definitely judge you] [Photographic submission to Librarian Shaming]  [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/post/64688187804/we-do-pay-attention-to-which-items-you-check-out

Anonymous [Librarian Shaming] . (2013c, October 9). [I hate patrons] [Photographic submission to Librarian Shaming]  [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/post/63558849280/i-hate-patrons

Anonymous. (2013d, October 21). 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 [Submission to Librarian Shaming] [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/post/64710372414/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Burkhardt, A. (2010). Social media: a guide for college and university libraries. College and Research Libraries News, 71(1). 10-24. Retrieved from: http://crln.acrl.org/content/71/1/10.short

Daily Mail Reporter. (2013, October 6). Do as I say, not as I do! Anonymous librarians confess to breaking their own rules and a series of guilty pleasures (including ‘vampire smut’ and Fifty Shades of Grey). Mail Online [Daily Mail]. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2447492/Anonymous-librarians-confess-breaking-rules.html#ixzz2m8FGCUFz

Dalton, M. (2013, March 1). What we talk about when we talk on Twitter. Paper presented at Academic & Special Libraries Section of the LAI, Annual Seminar – “Content Creators – The Digital Frontier”. Retrieved from http://media.heanet.ie/page/e5afd996f7c345f28795df7e80dc2aa0#.Upp6Zo0ngy4

DelRosso, J. [nascentlibrarian]. (2013, October 25). Why I’m not ashamed to be a mod at Librarian Shaming [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://nascentlibrarian.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/why-im-not-ashamed-to-be-a-mod-at-librarian-shaming/

DelRosso, [niwandajones]. (2013, October 22). As the mod who posted the submission you linked, I agree — and said in the tags — that the librarian who submitted that is not the one who should be ashamed. I also included trigger warnings, and hope that people realize [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://niwandajones.tumblr.com/post/64786356919/the-common-librarian-to-all-those-librarians-who

Dickson, K. [thecommonlibrarian]. (2013a, November 26). Tumblarians, a question about social media policy! [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://thecommonlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/68167210628/tumblarians-a-question-about-social-media-policy

Dickson, K. [thecommonlibrarian]. (2013b, October 22). I can see the appeal of having a place to vent. I really can. But 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 [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://thecommonlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/64764680360/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Dracut Library [dracutlibrary]. (2013, September 30). Librarian Shaming [Wordpress Blog post]. Retrieved from http://dracutlibrary.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/librarian-shaming/

Dracut Library Twitter [DracutLibrary]. (2013, October 10). We are thrilled that people around the world have embraced #librarianshaming ! Libraries & Librarians Rock! Keep them coming! @Lib_shaming [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/DracutLibrary/status/388145909424750592

Gaiman, N. (2013, October 15). Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Glassink. (2013, October 22). I think it’s important that our patrons see us as people. Any patron can tell you horror stories about other patrons – they already know the people we mean when we say we hate patrons. I don’t hate patrons, personally, but [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://glassink.tumblr.com/post/64762892054/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Gnomadiclibrarian. (2013, October 22). THIS. EXACTLY THIS. You know, I was super psyched when Librarian Shaming started. I thought it was a clever way to break the shh-ing, judgey, eagle-nosed librarian stereotype. However, recently it’s taken a turn for the worst and [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://gnomadiclibrarian.tumblr.com/post/64781509769/the-common-librarian-to-all-those-librarians-who

Heidireadsya. (2013, Octover 21). But is “Librarian Shaming” the appropriate place for that 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. Librarians and libraries already [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://heidireadsya.tumblr.com/post/64740830893/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Jennyandthelibrarians. (2013, November 24). On Patrons [Tumblr blog post]. Retrieved from http://jennyandthelibrarians.tumblr.com/post/67956485902/on-patrons

Keith, E. & Koenig, A. (2011). Tales from the Trenches:  social media use at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. [Handout]. Educause Conference 2011. Retrieved from https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/35180/Educause%20handout.pdf?sequence=4

Ken. (2013, October 10). You said “To which I wanted to reply, no, you Googled your way through library school, and that doesn’t count. Why don’t you Google your way through an academic graduate degree and see how that works out for you.” Could [Comment on article]. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/blogs/annoyedlibrarian/2013/10/10/librarians-embarrassing-themselves/

Laurel-sea. (2013, ca. October 15). I work in a library. Here are some of the reasons people come to the library [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from: http://intrepidheroine.tumblr.com/post/68364310406/its-hard-for-me-to-even-remember-the-last-time-i on 28th November, 2013.

LibrarEan. (2013, November 26). I was literally just going to ask about this. Our current de facto policy requires everything we post to be approved by one of two people, which means interacting with people is nonexistent. Our questions are only rhetorical, never direct [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://thecommonlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/68167210628/tumblarians-a-question-about-social-media-policy

Librarian Shaming Tumblr (2013, September 30 [ongoing]). A place for those of us in libraryland to come clean [Tumblr account]. Retrieved from http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/

Librarian Shaming Twitter (2013, ca. October 2 [ongoing]). [Twitter account]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/Lib_shaming

Librarian Pride. (2013, October 9 [ongoing]). A blog about why we love librarianship, and what makes us proud to be librarians [Tumblr account]. Retrieved from  http://librarianpride.tumblr.com/

Nancejan. (2013, ca. October 30). Because books don’t shelve themselves and somebody has to clean the bathrooms [Comment on article]. Mail Online [Daily Mail]. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2447492/Anonymous-librarians-confess-breaking-rules.html#ixzz2m8FGCUFz

Optimist Librarian. (2013, October 22). Are you a librarian or a library fan? [Tumblr account]. Retrieved from http://optimistlibrarians.tumblr.com/

Paevo. (2013, ca. October 30). Why are there still librarians in the age of the Internet?… [Comment on article]. Mail Online [Daily Mail]. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2447492/Anonymous-librarians-confess-breaking-rules.html#ixzz2m8FGCUFz

Rhodes, T. (2013). A Living, Breathing Revolution: How Libraries Can Use “Living Archives” to Support, Engage, and Document Social Movements. [Conference paper]. IFLA World Library and Information Congress 2013. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/52/1/084-rhodes-en.pdf

Siegler, M. G. (2013, October 13). The End of the Library. TechCrunch. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/13/the-end-of-the-library/

Thedanaash. (2013, October 15). On Sunday, October 14th, yet another “End of Libraries” piece appeared. Per usual, it was written by a white male with no use for libraries, because every single time this trope appears, that’s part of the author’s demographic background. Beyond [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://thedanaash.tumblr.com/post/64131449988/its-hard-for-me-to-even-remember-the-last-time-i

Theinnkeeperlibrarian. (2013, October 22). But the material point is this: it is a public forum. Anyone can see what we’re saying and doing. I don’t know about where you work, but if I publicly said similarly-toned things about where I worked, and my [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://theinnkeeperlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/64763736165/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Thepinakes. (2013, November 8). You made an impression on me [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://thepinakes.tumblr.com/post/66394102351/you-made-an-impression-on-me

Thereadingmouse. (2013, October 21). At the same time, working in a library is like working anywhere. Not every day is rainbows and unicorns, and sometimes that person you just don’t get along with is a patron instead of a coworker. The point of librarian [Tumblr reblogged post]. Retrieved from http://thereadingmouse.tumblr.com/post/64739669668/to-all-those-librarians-who-hate-their-patrons

Tkacik, K. (2013). Tumblarians [Curated list of librarians on Tumblr]. Retrieved from http://thelifeguardlibrarian.tumblr.com/tumblarians on 29th November, 2013.

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