Stop being so damn nice

Steven Bell suggests that we librarians are too nice for our own good.

As one explores and delves into the world of library blogs it soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape. There one is likely to see a repetitious flood of posts exclaiming “What a great post by so-and-so” or “She’s got a must read post today”. Rarely does one see a post that starts with “I have to disagree” or “Boy, does he have it wrong.” Most commenting is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting. But why bother anyway? Comments are secondary to actual posts and they reach a much smaller audience. One exception might be ACRLog, a blog for which I write. Geared specifically to academic librarians it still allows fairly unrestrictive commenting, and on occasion comments may offer brilliant opposing views. But these are few and far between; the overall dearth of comments, even for posts that make controversial statements, is shockingly surprising for this profession.

I’ve got two reactions to this; the sympathetic one, and the raised eyebrow one.

One one hand: yes, librarianship is not the world’s more ‘rigorous’ when it comes to scholarship. I would be very happy to be challenged a little more often, particularly as a relatively new librarian who still has a heck of a lot to learn. And when I find an article in the literature dealing with my precise struggles and challenges at work, it’s pretty disheartening to see trite, sophmoric and downright pathetic options listed as best practices in some of the supposedly sterling journals of the profession. I’ll be among the first to jump up and agree that we tend not to think deeply enough or research long enough. We’ve got a million other things to do, unfortunately, and I don’t know a single librarian who isn’t flailing a little under all the work. So yes; it would be nice to dig a little deeper.

But let’s move on to the raised eyebrow. (Steven, you know you asked for it!) The basic accusations here centre around us being “too nice”. We don’t stir up debate enough. We don’t disagree enough. We don’t show our selves off as true (aggressive) social scientists, clinging to the stats as ultimate truth and displaying our hard-won research to the world. We don’t fight amongst each other, in an academic kind of way. We are, as he says, “the nice guys of higher education.” But you know what? No we’re not. We’re the nice women of higher education. Librarianship is, for the most part, filled to the brim with women. Women, who were attracted to librarianship in the first place based on its positive, affirming and stress-reduced traits. It’s not generally acceptable in western cultures for a woman to be aggressive, and certainly not aggressive in the workplace; what’s considered confidence in a man would label a woman strident at best or a bitch at worst. Why would we go out of our way to do a bellyflop into someone’s work and say, “I completely disagree with this ridiculous argument” in blatant, argumentative terms? We have way more powerful tools in our arsenal. We have agreement to play with. And silence to lay on thick.

Rather than an absence of debate in the profession, I submit to you that we have lots of it, but you need to be more subtle in your interpretations to understand it. Librarians use a more cautious, conciliatory approach to debate. Let’s take Steven’s examples: he mentions contentious posts that recieve no comment. Well, isn’t “no comment” a comment as well? Sure, you could call it passive aggressive, but I prefer to think of it as using praise to reinforce the good, and silence to discourage the bad. The best thing you can do in a situation where someone has said something clearly offensive is ignore it, and spend your time instead of speaking only of the things you do agree with. That way, we take up more bandwidth with the things we think are worth it. This is otherwise known as “don’t feed the troll.” It’s generally good advice.

First: we don’t blog for pay (well, most of us don’t, at least), so why should we waste our time thinking and writing about things we don’t find useful? (It’s true that critical reactions to things are learning experiences too, but no less so than responding to things that are challenging in a more positive and reinforcing way.) Silence is powerful; librarianship has opted to eshew open hostility in favour of positive discussion and praise. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Librarians will certainly tell me when they disgree with me, but why must they be aggressive about it in order to be seen as rigorous or thoughtful? Most librarians would rather pick the one thing about my argument that they liked or that resonated with them, and ignore the rest. They are not just patting my head when they do this; they’re pointing out their disagreement in a most polite and subtle way. In a sophisticated way.

Why must we be aggressive in order to be seen as rigorous? There is no natural relationship between those things, unless the purpose is to denigrate cooperative and collaborative knowledge construction in favour of a more war-like, negative debating style of learning. It’s not really fair of me to suggest that one is the way of women and one is the way of men, but there are gender distinctions in western communications, and and this is one way to describe them. Roughly speaking. Why should librarianship model themselves after male-dominated, aggressively negative disciplines? Why is that seen as a better means to an end? Is their output really so much better?

We all work in the same tiny pools, and we need each other in many ways throughout the our (usually long) careers. I think it says a lot about us that we don’t want to make enemies of each other; a person who says something you disagree with today might be your best ally tomorrow, and I think we all know that. It is more functionally productive for us to try and see the positives in each other’s thought rather than focus on the negatives in a space where collaboration is the best way forward (and I believe quite strongly that it is).

Sure, it’s easy to read through the literature and roll your eyes (as I expressed quite clearly above that I have done). But I’m not going to name names. It would be more useful for me to instead take my criticisms, bolster them with bigger, better, more creative and sustainable ideas, and write a whole new article, citing the useless ones with grace. I am far more likely to enact positive change by rising above petty debate. Denigrating the ideas of others is far more likely to make it look like I’m feathering my own nest and trying to look super smrt in front of my peers than actively trying to make the world a better place. And maybe that’s the distinction here; librarians are not defined by their scholarship. Librarians are defined by their work, which is, writ large, an attempt to make the world a better place. We put our efforts toward that rather than toward showing off.

Let’s not stop the nice. Nice isn’t weak. Nice is a form of power.

Or, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her story “Gertrude Talks Back” in Good Bones and Simple Murders: “I’m not wringing my hands. I’m drying my nails.”

1 thought on “Stop being so damn nice”

  1. Librarians are defined by their work, which is, writ large, an attempt to make the world a better place. We put our efforts toward that rather than toward showing off.

    Nice. Er, I mean, what a great post! Er, I mean, I disagree with those who might take exception to this post!

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