Steven Bell tough on LIS discourse in Inside Higher Ed
Steven Bell has an article in the current Inside Higher Ed, entitled, “Good at Reviewing Books But Not Each Other,” about the major disfunctionality in LIS discourse: our excessive “niceness” toward each other and discomfort with open disagreement. In this article, Bell elucidates an uncomfortable contrast between us nice, non-confrontational librarians and academics in other fields whose professional discourse is full of strong disagreement and argumentation.
I am somewhat uncomfortable blogging this, because while we on the Library Left have been the exception to the rule of niceness in librarianship and the most comfortable with direct disagreement and confrontation in the style that Bell recommends, I have taken Library Juice, in the last couple of years, into less confrontational territory. Part of Bell’s article is about blogging debates, and some may have noticed that I do not engage in blog debates with Right Wing library bloggers. It is hard to explain why I avoid it beyond saying that I think it is a dangerous waste of time. Aside from that, though, I think Library Juice is still among the more critical of the serious or non-autobiographical library blogs out there, in keeping with my connection to the Library Left and our ongoing critical themes.
Is Bell right? Mark Rosenzweig and I lampooned the “niceness” of our professional discourse in 2002 with a mock document called “A Declaration of the Niceness of Libraries.” It was largely the stifled discourse on ALA Council that we were talking about and the discomfort of librarians with topics that are “not nice.” I think there is a connection between the rule of niceness in librarians and a certain strain of demureness and primness that really is a characteristic of many librarians (whether we like it or not). At the same time, I’m not sure whether it is entirely fair of Bell to compare us directly against academics in other fields. Most of us are not academic librarians, and only some academic librarians are on a tenure track with publishing demands. And academic librarians with tenure are still professional librarians first and contributors to Library Science a distant second. It is really LIS professors who should be considered against the normal standards of academia, and where they are concerned I think the issue that Bell is talking about doesn’t exist in the same way.
That said, I think we really are under too much pressure, in our professional community, to go with the flow, to be inoffensive, to be non-confrontational, and to avoid criticizing leaders in the field. I think the taboo against criticism is especially problematic when it comes to criticism of library directors regarding their professional decisions. That is something that people are often openly taken to task for, as though they need to be taught a lesson about professionalism and what it means in our field. I find that very regrettable.