On Disagreement: A Partial Pre-Essay

Mark Lindner expressed the hope that I would follow up on an offhand comment in the June Cites & Insights–on page 6–to wit:

Deschamps’ post also set off an interesting, sometimes heated discussion–and I may deal with that as part of a cluster about librarians’ willingness to disagree with one another. But not in this installment!

As I commented on Mark’s post, it was on my list–but maybe not with the emphasis Mark is interested in.

The essay, if and when it gets written, would deal with three issues (naturally beginning with Steven Bell’s assertion that librarians don’t disagree enough–a grotesque oversimplification of what he wrote, but hey, this is a pre-essay):

  • A partial disagreement with the premise, since I do see a fair degree of principled, thoughtful, non-vitriolic, non-ad hominem disagreement within discussions on library issues, here among libloggers at least. But…
  • It is tough to disagree with some people, either because you perceive them as so powerful that they can do you harm or because they have a tendency to take disagreement badly and have cliques ready to jump on you for disagreeing. I see good, vigorous disagreement within “trusted circles” where we’ve all pretty much agreed that disagreement is OK. I see good, vigorous disagreement with people so remote from the field that they’re unlikely to notice or care. Then there’s that tricky middle section…
  • It’s also difficult to take issue with popular positions or people when you’re not in a tenured position or independently wealthy or retired or otherwise immune to economic realities.

I’ve become more aware of that third issue recently. “Speaking truth to power” is great fun, when power isn’t likely to make or break your own future. Having the courage of your convictions is wonderful–but, you know, courage doesn’t pay the bills.

I hate even saying that. I might not have been willing to say it, oh, a year ago. And if the issues are important enough, I’d like to believe I wouldn’t say it now. But I’m a little less certain.

I was just going to comment on a near-cliche about situations where heated discussion is common because nothing important is at stake…and I didn’t write the full thing because, well, just because.

When I was putting together the current Cites & Insights it started at 31 pages and I got it down to a nice, neat 28 pages. And then printed it out so I could look at it a day later and see whether I could catch a few of the typos that seem to haunt every issue. (I did–there are five fewer problems in the final issue than there were at the 28-page level.)

But as I was reading it, I got to one full-page section of Making it Work, sharply critical of a particular initiative (not the results so much as the process). Went past it. And stopped. And went back again. Reread it. Thought about the people who might take offense, rightly or wrongly. Thought about the importance of my comments in the overall scheme of things (pretty close to zero, fortunately).

And pulled the page. Then found enough other stuff to pull to bring the issue down to 26 pages.

Much as I hate to admit it, I muted my own disagreement–admittedly, on a relatively trivial issue–because right at the moment I didn’t want to peeve a few dozen people. I saved the content; it’s possible it will emerge in a later issue. It’s more likely that it won’t, either because the thing I was discussing will be of no current interest–or because I still don’t feel ready to “speak truth to power” in this case.

I’m not sure where this is heading. I am sure of this. No matter how long you’ve worked somewhere, no matter how effective you’ve been, you can find yourself jobless for a variety of reasons. And if you’re jobless or think you might become jobless, you may have a different perspective on the necessity for open disagreement on all issues. That may not be noble, it may not even be right, but it’s reality. Particularly for someone who lives from paycheck to paycheck (which is not my case at all–there’s no pity party going on here–but neither are we independently wealthy: funny how that works for two library people with no significant inherited wealth).

So here it is–and this really is just one badly-written piece of what should be a longer essay on disagreement. Mark, it’s a damn shame if people are jumping on for taking an informed stance–and I note that the person you actually disagreed with is not one of those jumping on you. Steven B., first we need to have tenured librarians honestly and articulately disagreeing–and I think we need to recognize that, ahem (oh great, here I go getting into trouble again), much of the informed discussion and disagreement on library issues these days takes place in the relatively informal world of liblogs rather than the formal world of scholarly publications and other periodicals.

I’d love to pledge that I would never back off a position because I thought it might hurt me down the road. But to make that pledge would be dishonest. And that’s a shame.

I do pledge to say what I mean and mean what I say: If I don’t feel I can write honestly and openly about a situation, I’ll try to avoid writing about it at all.

Oh, and if you think there’s another personal angle to this–well, watch this space on Monday.

9 Responses to “On Disagreement: A Partial Pre-Essay”

  1. I look forward to the essay.

    Another protective factor can be working in a weird niche of librarianship that nobody actually cares enough about to disagree violently with. I can “speak truth to power” about OA, insofar as I do, because OA is a small enough, weird enough niche that it’d be hard to put together a posse to shut me up.

    I learned from my first-job interview process to keep workplace issues off-blog. That, on the whole, I believe was a smart and even healthy choice. I have also learned to moderate my tone somewhat when discussing OA issues, because the [censored] blog keeps getting quoted! I’m still ambivalent about that; my voice in those posts feels less human and less like me, but I also can’t deny that the change creates greater reach and more impact for the blog and for me.

  2. walt says:

    You, of course, are part of that growing circle of “people I know I can disagree with.” And OA seems to have an interesting tradition of people being unwilling to be shut up, no matter how hard (cough SH cough) others might insist that they should shut up and go away.

    I think I’ve heard of security through obscurity before. Maybe I should try that…or maybe it’s a little late. (Although my day job has, in fact, been a little obscure, maybe too much so.)

  3. It may be a shame that you can’t pledge not to back off of something in order to protect yourself, but I would be willing to bet that there are a good number of us with similar sentiments out there. I tend to be overly concerned about how things that I say might impact my livelihood – and censor myself much more than I would like to admit. Additionally, I’m not a confrontational sort of person. I very rarely argue with people who seem to take it poorly – since it seems to be a waste of time and doesn’t produce constructive discourse. There are so many reasons why we so often think twice about what we say and feel compelled to not openly disagree with others. Life teaches hard lessons sometimes.

    I do hope you decide to write the essay!

  4. walt says:

    For the essay itself, “if and” is unlikely. “When” is probably the relevant factor–after all, a third of the essay is right here, just needing some polish. Do some “research,” gather some other comments, let it sit in my hindbrain for a few weeks, and it should be ready.

  5. Mark says:

    As I said, I appreciate whatever you do, Walt. I have no doubt that I can learn from whatever you write. And while this is not an essay, it is a good beginning.

    I hope that you (and everyone, or at least my friends) know that I am in the same boat as to having to throttle back and even outright avoid some discussions. As you say, “I hate even saying that.” But the truth is the truth. My avoidances generally fall into the 2nd issue, which should be fairly evident since all of my blog “heroes” were due to their allowing me into a “trusted circle” of discourse. But the 3rd wanders into my mind on occasion as I learn to adjust to the “realities” of the world and (very) soon to be on the market.

    I only want you to write whatever is comfortable for you. I know how to find you for more sub rosa discussions, if need be.

    Great point on the tenured librarians showing the way. Not necessarily how, but that it might even be allowed, much less accepted as a part of discourse is the important point.

  6. Pete Smith says:

    I’m careful not to directly discuss my present work situation. i have commented on and disagreed with a prominent commentator on UK public libraries, but I can’t see that harming me- I don’t think he’s that sort of person.
    I don’t think my future job prospects would be damaged by disagreement with “prominent” libloggers, US based as many are.
    Circles always form. If you disagree with one part, you disagree with all, and I’ve seen that in various online discussions.
    Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism- those who are not with us totally are totally against us.

  7. walt says:

    Great statement there–something I’ve talked about but rarely so concisely:

    “Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism- those who are not with us totally are totally against us.”

    I’ve run into that time and time again, on topics as diverse as ebooks, the One True Path for Open Access, and copyright–the last from both ends of the spectrum. (I suppose being attacked by copyright absolutists as being anti-copyright and by “free everything” absolutists as being a copyright hardliner must mean I’m doing something right…) And, at times, on the Library 2.0/social software area, although less so there as time goes on.

    In practice, there are lots of powerful and prominent people who I will disagree with openly and without qualms, either because I know them or have a pretty good idea of their character. It’s the slightly less prominent, slightly less powerful people who occasionally worry me.

    There are at least two kinds of circles. The circle that pleases me, and it’s a growing one, is the circle of mutual respect that doesn’t require mutual agreement–which means it’s true mutual respect rather than clique-formation. It’s a big circle and one I’ll try to keep doing my part to make bigger and even more inclusive.

  8. Pete Smith says:

    I think there are circles that form, break and reform as people negotiate. Then there are those made up of people who fear that if any part of the circle goes, it all goes.
    Maybe geometry isn’t the best source for metaphors 😉 A party is better; groups form, break up, reform- but there’s a sense that we’re all at the same party. But some parties are rather more exclusive than others 😉

  9. bowerbird says:


    thanks for an important entry.

    first off, i think the general situation of
    the mixing of libraries and cyberspace is
    filled with some massive shortcomings…

    second, i see lots of librarians who seem to
    realize it, and who seem unafraid to say so.

    however, it doesn’t seem that this “criticism”
    is doing much good. the infrastructure still
    is being badly managed; the decision-makers
    are still making bad decisions; and there is
    precious little dialog being held concerning
    exactly how to improve the general processes.

    so users end up being stuck with inferior tools.
    (or, even worse, libraries end up losing literally
    millions of dollars when vendors go bankrupt.)

    even with some of the “leading” universities —
    i can mention the university of michigan here
    — their output looks exceedingly stupid to me.

    if something along these lines doesn’t change,
    and _soon_, i am afraid the world will _never_
    learn how to manage the library of the future.
    we’ll be stuck with whatever google gives to us.

    as a final comment, there _are_ a lot of people
    who seem to take any input (not just criticism)
    far too personally, and are then quick to respond
    with too much vitriol. for the most part, though,
    i find they are simply turning to their blogs and
    disallowing comments, which is “convenient”…