Reputation and wrestling pigs in the library

I’m going to be riffing on a theme that pulls in several different strands of thought that have been nagging at me for a while.

Yesterday I read a piece in The Guardian on Michael Fertik’s new book ‘The Reputation Economy‘.  You can read this for yourself. I’m sure the book contains some valuable (and disturbing) insights into how personal data is used to execute all kinds of judgements about us. Michael has built his own reputation on helping others to manage their online reputation to avoid running into problems with the way they may be perceived by people or algorithms. All well and good, perhaps, and good to be aware of the issues involved.

However.

There is something about the advice quoted in the Guardian piece that rankled:

“Fertik strongly recommends that you avoid therapeutic purging on the internet. Keep the content you post light, frothy and relevant to your area of expertise. Even a persistently snarky tone to your tweets, he claims, could be enough to turn potential employers off you.”

Light and frothy. Not snarky. Light and frothy.

I found myself reflecting on similar advice I have run into over the years concerning “professionalism and social media” in the library sector, and the idea of “professionalism” as a whole. The gist of much of this has been very much in line with the recommendation above:

  • Don’t be controversial
  • Don’t be critical
  • Don’t rock the boat
  • Don’t stick your neck out to challenge anything in a way that might get you into trouble

I seem to see this kind of view of “professionalism” rather a lot. It constrains the concerns, scope and remit of that which is deemed to be legitimate for library professionals to engage with to the technical and functional aspects of service delivery. It cultivates an idea of he desirability of “professional neutrality” regarding views on the social or political contexts within which librarians and libraries seek to work. In effect it is like saying “we have no opinion or view about these things. Or, if we do, we don’t think we should be talking about it in any public way”.

To a degree I can understand the reasons why some might wish to hold such a view. It is certainly likely to be a lot less trouble for them, and any personal negative repercussions will be avoided. Just talk about all the good stuff we do as librarians, confine what we say and express to the technical and functional aspects of delivering services and all will be well. Light and frothy. Not snarky.

Then I began to reflect that I was reading the article on ‘Reputation Management’ on MLK Day. I began to wonder what advice Michael might have given to Dr King about managing his reputation. I am pretty sure that brother Martin was committing some cardinal errors in how he was putting himself out there, even in the days before the internet and social media. Goodness knows what kind of a reputational mess he would have gotten into if he had been pushing his revolutionary agenda in the present day.

Somehow, I don’t think this would have been a real issue for him. He was working to a higher calling and a bigger agenda than “managing his reputation.” He was driven by a particular vision of what society was meant to be like, what human values were meant to consist of, how people should treat each other, and how the powers that ruled should behave towards their citizens. Challenging the status quo, speaking truth to power, and calling people to change was of more concern than maintaining his reputation. Ultimately, one might conclude, he managed his reputation so very badly that he got killed for it. What an error.

Then, I began to think about the issues which are live and pressing today. If I am going to think in professional terms about what is happening to the public library sector, what I observe is a rolling holocaust. Driven by the government’s “austerity” agenda, local authority budgets are being cut to impossibly low levels, and by all accounts we have FAR more of this to come for many years hence. Libraries have always been a soft target for cuts in difficult times. I lived through the bitter years of Thatcher’s reign of destruction. This is far, far worse. Local authorities are faced with impossibly low budgets that (I would suggest) are deliberately designed to gut the public sector as part of an overarching ideological agenda. Piece by piece the services and assets which have been paid for and run on citizens’ taxes are being sold off and outsourced to private for-profit providers or, in the case of an increasing numbers of public library services, de-professionalised and turned over to be “run by the community”. Central government appears to wash its hands of this and say that local authorities are the ones making “responsible decisions” and “tough choices” about what services they want to deliver and how they plan to do so. In the mean time we see an almost daily escalation in the rate of libraries under threat, jobs cut, services gutted and relegated to the realm of DIY book swapping clubs.

In the light of all of this I have to say I do NOT feel in the LEAST PART “light and frothy”. Outraged, incensed and disgusted is more like it. So I have a dilemma. Because, in order to protect and manage my reputational assets, I would probably be well advised to avoid sticking my head above the parapet to comment, critique or condemn what I see going on. So should my colleagues in the library service. So should my colleagues in the Academic sector who are similarly on the end of market-driven purges and culture change as part of the same neoliberal assault. We should all keep quiet, keep our heads down, not make waves, and purvey only fluffiness, light and froth through our public and digital utterances.

But, you know what? I don’t really feel I can do that. There are some things which are more important than managing one’s reputation. I don’t buy into the idea of “professional neutrality”. We are part of a society which is being driven in a particular direction by the ruling powers. There are social and economic drivers at work through policies being enacted that are having real and negative impacts on library services as a part of public sector services as a whole. To use an analogy from elsewhere, you cannot stay still on a moving train. We might purport to be “neutral” but we cannot stand outside the socio-political context within which we work and in which our services operate. Or are axed. Or are turned into some other kind of entity that violates or disregards our professional values.

Ultimately, I believe, we are facing quesions about what sort of society we want to be. What are our values? Why is the work of librarians important for social justice, personal and community development? Why should citizens have access to the expertise of librarians and information professionals and to the information and resources that could be provided? Do we REALLY believe that generating money and profit has more value than people and the services that support and nurture them?

I think these are questions that matter, and which demand answers. I would like to see those who represent the library and information professison stand up to be counted. To take a stand that openly acknowledges the devastation which is being perpetrated. To actively oppose and resist it. I am thankful for and inspired by the number of dedicated colleagues and informal groupings that I see who ARE doing this already. More power to you! But this is not a time to be neutral. It is not a time for “light and frothy”.

One of Michael Fertik’s sayings, apparently, is “When you wrestle with a pig, you both get covered in mud.” Well, I’m calling out the pig for what it is, and I fully intend to wrestle that sucker. That probably means I and others will get muddy, but sometimes there are things that require a moral and ethical stand.

This is one of them.

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