To Criticize, To Hope, and To Library

I’ve been struck by something on library Twitter recently. I doubt that anything has changed, but i seem to be noticing this more and wanted to dig deeper into my response to it. What I’m seeing is a lot of “either for us or against us” response to criticism of libraries. A lot of what I’m seeing is good push back, I’m certainly not arguing against the content of what people are saying. Instead, what I want to do is to look at criticism of and in libraries and see if there is something to learn in the general reaction, as opposed to simply choosing a side or deciding who is right and who is wrong. 

This is coming from a place of self-contemplation. At my intersections of gender, race, class, and other demographics I’m learning how to examine my initial emotional responses to external criticism and temper my defensiveness with listening. For example, when friends post online “Men are awful!” or something to that effect, instead of responding “YOU’RE WRONG! I’m not awful.”  I’ve been taught to listen to the complaint and to try not to be awful. When this happens, above all, don’t say #notallmen.

Maybe because I’ve been paying more attention to how I respond when groups I belong to are publicly criticized, I’ve seen that when libraries and librarianship are criticized, our first responses aren’t quite what they could be. So there are three examples of criticism of libraries and librarians that showcase our response. Again, my point in writing this is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, but instead, I want to figure out how can we best respond to criticism.

@theangriestlibrarian’s excellent rant to an uninformed library critic

(librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement

In this lovely rant, @HalpernAlex takes down someone who suggests that libraries are no longer needed, or at least are no longer the most efficient way to provide the public with access to information. I have zero criticisms of the rant; I think that it’s is accurate. What I’m worried about is that we, as a profession, are more interested in preserving libraries as institutions than we are in fulfilling the mission of libraries. When we see bad ideas about replacing libraries, whether it’s this one (give the books to schools and close the buildings) or others (buy everyone Kindle Unlimited and stop funding libraries or academic libraries are vanity project that have already been replaced with smartphones) we (myself included) gleefully dogpile on the poor benighted fools who dare question the invaluable contributions of our vocation to the public good. My question is this: when librarians face a choice between libraries and something new that more efficiently serves our mission, how will we respond? Part of me worries that it will be with torches and pitchforks.

At least, this is what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that we (librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement.1)Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.

@rdlankes’ tweet about a continuum of library quality and @lisalibrarian (& others)  response to this.

I’m really intrigued by this exchange. There are two good (and not mutually exclusive, in my view) arguments being made here. One: some libraries do bad work or at very least, bad libraries are the result of bad library work. The other: referring to library work as bad in public forums is disrespectful of library workers. So what do we do about libraries that fail in some aspect of their work?

The first example that comes to mind is the Florida librarian who broke the law and patron privacy ethics by calling the FBI to report on suspected library usage by 9/11 perpetrators.  If that is too ambiguous an example, nina de jesus’ article Locating the Library In Institutional Oppression and Cheryl Knott’s book Not Free, Not For All: Public libraries in the age of Jim Crow provide undeniable examples of not just bad libraries and bad librarianship, but libraries (the concept writ large) in the service of oppression.

if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues

So I guess I’m taking a position here. I’m against the unwritten rule that orders librarians not to tell the truth about bad library work. On the other hand, I’m on board with the argument that says if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues. As a personal rule, I try to talk about bad libraries and bad library work, but not bad librarianship or bad librarians. Failing this, if I’m talking about bad librarianship, it’s best to assume I’m talking about myself. We’ll see in the next example that I don’t always follow my rule here, but similar to the first example there’s a tension between telling the truth about library work and providing a consistent narrative most likely to lead to better library work in the future.

My tweets about bad library instruction and the responses to them.

I wrote some tweets earlier this month about bad library instruction and my response to it. There was more engagement with these thoughts than there is with most of what I write, so I appear to have struck a nerve with others. However, it wasn’t the same nerve that I had struck in myself. Reading how others responded to what I wrote, I saw a lot of people concerned about their own library instruction being seen as shit. I was more concerned with interacting with the course instructors–what do we do when then inevitable bad day of instruction happens? How do we safe-guard instruction programs from instances of low-quality work? I know that author intent theory is dead and what I intended is not more important that what the readers perceived, but it was hard to see the thread of conversation get away from me.

It was especially hard because my casual use of profanity and the scatological metaphor 2)I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in. only amplified the disconnect. When instruction librarians are fighting for the time, respect, and resources we need to succeed, it must have felt awful to have another librarian say that our work is shit.3)I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point. Swearing about librarianship helps me, as a professional practitioner, to shed rose-colored glasses I have to wear at work. There are a lot of contexts in which I rightfully treat librarianship as holy. These make it necessary to have a space where I can blaspheme with critical thought. Otherwise I’ll have no choice but to believe my own marketing copy and drink the Kool-Aid. When we’re shifting perspectives or code-switching, hyperbole, profanity, and blasphemy can be contextually confusing. I’m confused as well. I still strongly believe that the library instruction I was writing about was undeniably shitty and that talking about shitty library instruction is a first step towards making better library instruction. Yet by not making my criticism general enough or impersonal enough 4)I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day. I appear to have disrespected my colleagues and caused pain.

So What Do We Do About Criticism?

What do we do about criticism? We accept it. We listen to it. We don’t have to agree with it or obey it, but we should hear it. Librarians should strive to hear criticism of our profession without treating it as a personal attack. Library critics (myself included) should strive to hear the push back that tells us overly mean criticism tears down rather than building up. Criticism is a means to an end and that end is the public good, the good of the people who use libraries. The end we are pursuing is not the good of libraries or librarians, it is the mission of libraries.

We embrace criticism and we pursue to provide better criticism. We seek out criticism that provides hope for better libraries to come. I don’t have a better example of this than a talk given by Eli Neiberger in 2010.  Neiberger tell us that libraries are screwed, explains why, and then gives us reason for hope and a vision for services that better meet the information needs of our communities. For me, this is the platonic ideal of how do provide criticism. I worry that if we’re not able to hear that libraries are screwed, if we’re not able to hear that there are bad libraries out there or that if we make bad choices, we get bad libraries, and if we’re not able to hear that some library instruction is shitty, then we’re not able to avoid these fates.


There’s no intrinsic value in making us feel bad about libraries. There’s nothing to be gained in nihilism or in being a pretentious know-it-all who looks smart by correctly predicting that there is no hope. However, the path towards hope, the path towards a better future, the path towards better libraries goes through criticism, not around it.

Vocational Awe: A concept that helps us go forward here

Finally, I want to refer to someone else’s words and thoughts that do a better job of describing the dangers I’m trying to write about. Fobazi Ettarh wrote a great piece on Vocational Awe I strongly encourage y’all to read it. I’ve pulled two key passages here to explain the term vocational awe:

As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. ~Fobazi Ettarh

So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.

My fear is that we (librarians) feel so much protective love for our work and our patrons and we feel so much justified fear that changing attitudes towards funding the public good and changing information technologies will undermine and destroy libraries; we feel this so much that we lash out against all criticism, even the criticism we need in order to have hope for a better future. Vocational awe is a thing that keeps us from building better libraries because we are afraid of listening to criticism. Vocational awe is what makes us define program assessment as “making the library look good to the administration so they don’t cut our funding” instead of as a practical tool to doing our work better. We can do better.


Here’s the hope I have to offer. No matter how real the threats we face are, our cause is just. We can wrap ourselves in the confidence that when we teach people to find and use quality information, we are improving their lives. When we help kids learn to love literature, stories, and information we are making their futures brighter. When we library5)That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!, we are doing the good work. This confidence is well-founded and it can replace vocational awe. We don’t have to be afraid of criticizing the library that we love, because we know that the library is unquestionably lovable. We don’t have to shy away from ugly truths about the shifting foundations beneath our feet, because our mission is clear.

We’re going to have to face a lot more ugly truths about the future need for today’s library services. We’re going to have to confront the ways in which our library structures prop up oppressive structures in society. We’re going to have to face the unpleasantness of learning that some of the ways in which we library are misguided. We are wrong about a lot of our thinking about libraries. That’s where the hope is. We can do better. We can find new ways to library that aren’t shit. We can find new ways to library that don’t exclude the marginalized. We can find new ways to library that continue to meet the changing information needs of our service populations. As long as people need information, librarians need to library.


Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Fobazi Ettarh’s name. My sincere apologies for being careless.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.
2. I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in.
3. I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point.
4. I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day.
5. That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!

2 thoughts on “To Criticize, To Hope, and To Library

  1. The Lankes tweet isn’t talking about library work or library workers; he isn’t criticizing or assessing specific work or workers. This is about the vision and mission of libraries with a capital L, about being bold and going beyond the basic boundaries and expectations, about not being a warehouse of books (or servers or even bright shiny special collections). I wonder why this five-year-old tweet is getting dumped on now.

    1. I don’t really know the context, I was just interested in the interplay between Lisa and David on the question. Truth be told, I didn’t notice the date until you mentioned it. Still, there are tropes or stereotypical library arguments where I can see small, underfunded librarians looking at David’s words and thinking that the difference between bad, good, and great jobs is the tax base of their funding communities. (I’m not saying that’s the only answer, but it’s out there.) It costs to dream big and many, many libraries aren’t funded at a level where they can afford to go beyond basic expectations.

      But really, what makes me curious about this is asking the question: “where can we get away with saying that some libraries are bad?”

      Are there places where we can be painfully blunt and face starkly unpleasant truths or do we treat everything like an article in library literature or an assessment report where we are unfailingly and ruthlessly positive in how we frame things?

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