Does every librarian need to be an involved expert on everything?

Maybe that’s too broad a question. Maybe a better question:

Is it really reasonable to say that librarians must be involved in something they personally find unsatisfactory because lots of other people are?

You can probably guess my answer–but I’m not really a librarian. Of course, neither would I expect to use a librarian as my first source of helpful advice on, for example, tax deductions, which church I should attend, how to improve my golf game, whether I should be concerned about this mole on my neck…or how to manage privacy settings in Facebook. In all of those cases, the library might have useful resources–but I see no reason to expect each and every librarian to be an expert.

The background

I found the range and depth of commentary about Facebook’s betrayal of its users helpful changes to encourage openness in December 2009 so interesting and so relevant that I put together a Zeitgeist essay on it, which will appear in the July 2010 Cites & Insights. (Out well before ALA Annual–probably next week.)

That essay ends at roughly the point where FB announced the new easier settings, with the promise that they’ll remain in future updates–a promise that I can only interpret based on past performance and the CEO’s clear, obvious predilection to regard everything as preferably public (except, of course, for his own stuff). (The changes haven’t “rolled out” to my FB account yet, so I have no first-hand experience.)

Personally: I didn’t quit Facebook, mostly because I have family members and a few other acquaintances that I can keep up with, to some extent, through FB. I did lock down my settings, trim my already-sparse profile, and renew my self-promise not to Like, Join, or use Applications–the “you don’t mind if we harvest everything you’ve ever done, do you?” alert always did scare me off. My so-called Friends on FB, something over 200 of you, already know (at least implicitly) that I rarely update my status or post on my wall–most of my stuff goes on Friendfeed, this blog or C&I.

There’s my personal decision–and my understanding of what’s involved. It struck me (and strikes me) as entirely reasonable for a librarian or anyone else concerned with privacy and corporate behavior to leave Facebook as a principled decision. I didn’t choose that course.

The incident

Stephen Abram posted “Today is Quit Facebook Day – for Dummies” at Stephen’s Lighthouse on May 31, 2010. (If you go to the link, be sure to read “About the Author”–about which I will not comment.)

I thought it was an insulting post, right from the first sentence:

I wonder how many info pros will announce to the world they don’t have the information skills to manage privacy by leaving Facebook today.

This seemed to me to say that librarians (“info pros” lost at SLA and I’m not about to use it) can’t reasonably quit FB based on principled objections; if they do so, they’re “announcing” that they’re dummies. Hokay. And I started wondering about this:

It seems to me that it should be a reasonable user expectation of librarians and information professionals that they should be able to manage privacy settings and use the full range of web tools.

Really? Every librarian should “use the full range of web tools”? Why? Well…

I also would expect to be able to receive informed, current and excellent advice and training on how to deal with the emerging social tools from my professionals in the social institutions I frequent (public libraries, schools, univerisities, colleges, etc.).

And here I come up short. [By the way, that was a direct cut-and-paste, not retyped.] Should I be able to take a workshop on Effective Facebooking at my library? Maybe. Should I expect that I can walk up to any librarian–every librarian–and get “informed, current and excellent advice” on every “social tool”? I think that’s unrealistic, and I think it privileges “social tools” over nearly everything else in life. I don’t expect every librarian (or any librarian) to tell me where I can find the best asparagus or whether I should sign up for Safeway’s Club Card. I don’t expect every librarian to offer informed, excellent advice on how to improve my (nonexistent) golf game. I don’t expect any librarian to be a source of current, excellent advice on which software would be best suited to producing a self-published book, and certainly not on how to use each program–although I might be delighted if the library (not every librarian) had a workshop on the topic. And I don’t believe I should be able to walk up to any librarian and say “should I be using Flickr or Picasa to organize my photos–and how should I set up my Picasa account?”

Abram then tosses in a stick:

Will they exit Twitter and Google too for collecting private information? I suspect that would make them unemployable. At least, ironically, they’ll be easily identified by professional recruiters and HR folks through the standard tools and the digital trail they leave as they exit and discuss their position.

Set aside the simplistic equation of FB’s deliberate undermining of its former policies with Twitter and Google policies. Is it plausible to regard a librarian who doesn’t Twitter as unemployable? Really?

I commented as follows:

This is a touch offensive. It’s extremely unlikely that any librarian is leaving FB because they can’t figure out how to handle privacy settings. On the other hand, it’s quite possible for a librarian, or anybody else, to decide that FB as currently managed is simply not trustworthy as a social network, and to leave on principle. Or don’t principles count?

Abram responded at some length. He started with an indirect slap at my reading abilities:

If anyone is reading this post as a direct insult to librarians’ skills, please read it again slowly. I am not a self-hater.

I didn’t say he was directly insulting librarians’ skills–I said the post was offensive. The interesting part is what follows–why “bailing is a very poor strategy for you as an individual or for collective influence.” Quoting in part–you can and should read the original:

1. Recruiters and HR types may not have that same viewpoint or see a principled stance as a plus for their researcher hiring to client’s specs. What justification is there for hiring a researcher who won’t play where the majority of users are? I doubt it will come up in an interview for people to explain, since they wouldn’t make the cut in the pre-interview screening process where resumes are fodder for internet screening.

Wow. First off, if I was an HR type, I’d expect a librarian to investigate claims before making them–such as “where the majority of users are.” Compete’s analysis says Facebook had 135 million unique visitors in April 2010: That’s a big number, but it’s nowhere near a majority of internet users. Even the highest number claimed for Facebook usage, by an ad agency, comes out to 35% of Internet users–by the ad agency’s own assertions. In what universe is 35% a majority?

And in what universe is it reasonable to say that librarians must be where the majority of users are? By that standard, it’s reasonable to reject anybody applying for a U.S. library job who doesn’t attend a Christian church or who doesn’t use Microsoft Windows. (Depending on your definition of “where the majority of users are,” you could extend that to rejecting anybody who isn’t part of a heterosexual marriage with children or, for that matter, anybody who believes in evolution…)

Apparently, somehow, social networks are special–so special that it’s reasonable to reject a librarian outright if they deliberately choose to avoid one. I find that pretty shocking.

I won’t fisk the remainder of the comment. I sense a little slap about retirees in there, and there’s a  little comment that seems to say anyone making a principled choice is using “common consumer mob revolt tactics,” but the key here is the assertion that it is the duty of every librarian to be part of whatever set of social media are the flavor of the month, no matter how repulsive or untrustworthy those media might be. (Well, and the factually erroneous assertion that Facebook is used by the majority of Internet users–or, for that matter, that it’s “the most global site,” which it isn’t.)

Have I urged anybody to leave Facebook? No, I have not, and I don’t in the Zeitgeist piece. Am I leaving Facebook? No, I am not. On the other hand…

Do I believe that it is wrong for a librarian to make a principled choice to leave Facebook, or that doing so makes the librarian unfit as a librarian? I do not.

And I think the whole concept that each and every librarian should be an expert on every hot social network or web tool needs a lot of rethinking. I think it’s nonsense.

‘Scuse me, while I go ask a librarian how to set up my router and which fluorescent lights will work best with dimmers. I assume I can ask any librarian and get excellent, informed, current answers. Right? And that I can suggest that librarians be fired if the answers aren’t good. Or does this only apply to social networks and web tools?

7 Responses to “Does every librarian need to be an involved expert on everything?”

  1. My employer specifically prohibits the use of search engine gleaned data about applicants on the twin grounds of 1) You might not be finding the right person and 2) You might accidentally uncover information showing that your applicant belongs to a discrimination protected class of individuals.

    I imagine that most public sector employers in the US follow a similar practice for litigation risk management, but I have no proof of this.

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks for this, Walt. I was unable to civilly comment at Abram’s post.

  3. Stephen Abram says:

    Hi Walt:

    I regret that you feel that I was being personal and making a comment on your personal reading skills. You’ll have to take my word for it that nothing could be further from the truth and I will attest that you read very well. I apologize that you took offense. By way of explanation, from your first comment on my post, I realized that my post could be misread and attempted to clarify and point people on to the main point – how do we influence FB?

    You asked “don’t principles count?” Sure they do. I still argue that being one of potentially 25,000+ people closing their Facebook accounts out of 400 million active users is too tiny a number to make any difference (that’s something like 0.000625% altho my math can be error prone and you’re the survey expert). As I noted in the comments, I think that collective action through our associations is a better way to influence Facebook and with us as users not bystanders. It appears that some people defend bailing as a principled act which it definitely is. I just question whether it will have the impact it should. I also question how much power non-users will have over time. I doubt it will make enough difference. It’s a shame that too few are taking up the fight to have FB investigated and new rules/laws in place and using our associations to take collective action. I’ll still be pumping for that strategy while others defend the impact of a boycott. I realize there are different points of view and maybe I’ll be proven wrong and a tiny consumer revolt may have more impact. In the past few weeks the small group of us attempting to get governments to investigate are starting to bear fruit in some countries.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about whether professional librarians need to able to use the primary tools and environments of the web and whether that is a key requirement for hiring.

    Lastlly, my sources for saying that the majority of Internet users use FB is the standard Pew surveys. We can probably find competing data as well but is there anyone who wants to argue that a minority of academic and college users are on FB? High school students? Urban users? Canadians? Is it a good strategy for people to be looking for data and reasons to avoid FB and studying its impact on their user communities? I am just saying that being outside the fence is not the right way to run insititutional strategies.

    I hope I’ll see you at ALA this year. Are you coming? I’d love to know what is behind your comment on my “About the Author” blurb. Is there something untrue in it? Should I be offended that your comment is some sort of arch comment? Otherwise, I’ll call you if I can’t see you face to face.



  4. walt says:

    Last first: I said people should read your “About the Author” blurb. That’s all I said. I’ll leave it at that. No further comment.

    Otherwise: If your posts (there was an earlier one) had focused on desirable ways to influence FB, I would not have commented in the first place. If that’s the main focus, it strikes me as well-hidden as compared to comments about people’s professional ability and employability–which have nothing to do with influencing FB. (And, of course, collective action through organizations doesn’t require that each member of the organization retain their personal FB account if they regard FB as untrustworthy.)

    Reading the post itself for the third or fourth time, it says nothing about influencing FB–not one word. (Unless you want to count the extremely indirect note in the final sentence–an odd comparison, since G8 and G20 are closed groups. I’d argue that protesting will have precisely as much effect on G8 and G20 as anything else an ordinary citizen can do.) The argument that library people can’t influence FB if they’re not members only shows up in your response to my comment. An odd way to make your primary point, by omitting it entirely!

    In practice, what appears to influence FB is the constant hammering of commentators, both Gurus and others–well, maybe with a vague hint of government investigation attached. In a way, it’s that string of protests that seem to be having an effect.

    The post also said librarians should “use the full range of web tools,” a potentially unlimited set. Now you say “the primary tools and environments”–a very different thing (although still undefined).

    To the best of my knowledge, the number of librarians who publicly said they were leaving FB as part of a “me too” boycott is tiny–I doubt that I could identify more than two or three. I believed then and continue to believe that it’s both professionally competent and in some ways admirable for a librarian to leave FB as a matter of principle (also a very small number, at least those saying so in public), and that it’s insulting to suggest that doing so is an admission of professional inadequacy. The whole issue of organizational pressures is entirely different, and also not addressed in your post.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    Walt, thank you for this post. I’m not sure what Abram’s point is, especially the way he keeps attempting to back-track, both in the comments here and at his own blog. It’s not so much that he’s taking a strangely pro-FaceBook position, as that he’s heedlessly dismissing the notion that there really might be good reasons for quitting FB, not just to make a statement, but because it’s really time to cut it loose, much the way people quit AOL, even when they basically gave away free internet access in a desperate attempt to keep their customer base. FB is no longer the great social tool that it was, and unless they seriously change their ways, it makes sense to some of us to quit now. There’s nothing at all wrong with taking a controversial position, as Abram does, but there is something short-sighted in insulting your audience, especially when followed by weak explanations in lieu of either a hearty defense or a sincere apology. We all make stronger or less-considered statements than we should from time to time; in this case, however, Abram’s responses only further the notion that he’s strangely out of touch and condescending to the rest of us in library land. (And yes, Stephen, your “About the author” does come across as very condescending, and kind of clueless, actually…) Anyway, thanks again, Walt.

  6. sharon says:

    Amen. Thank you, Walt, for being a rational voice among the extremes of “twopointopia,” neither rabidly for or against. Principled and *informed* use of the Web is yet another, but no means the only or the best, means of communicating with our patrons and letting them know what we offer them. A public librarian may not make the same choices about Facebook as might an academic librarian, and a librarian at a “special” library may make yet a difference choice. And that’s entirely appropriate. And no, not every librarian does know or *should* know how to do everything and where to find everything. Thank god!

  7. walt says:

    Thanks all. I wonder how many library gurus/speakers/columnists told librarians in 1977 that they all needed not only to be CB radio users, but to be expert enough to advise patrons who wanted advice? (Steve Lawson posted a 1977 LJ article on CB radio and libraries–and, you know, back then CB radio was every bit as semi-ubiquitous, empowering and certainly the Wave of the Future as all the web tools are now…)