library mgmt navel gazing tech anguish

why does everyone think they know more about libraries than the people who work in them do?

That is the question, my friends. I’m writing this not in response to one particular instance, but rather the seemingly uncountable number of times Library Twitter has found itself ensnared in the typical social media outrage cycle lately. I’m not writing to shame people who engage with trolls, nor am I saying I took the high road when I called some guy a poopface a couple nights ago; rather, I’m trying to identify some patterns and propose some explanations.

First, let’s talk about patterns. (Note: I’m going to keep this anecdatal for now, based on what I’ve seen out there; this is not empirical in any way.) There seem to be patterns of library-related topics that come up, and there seem to be patterns of people asking them. The former is more easily identifiable than the latter; the big four topics that readily come to mind include:

  1. Libraries/library workers are destroying knowledge/promoting censorship/failing at their core duties if they weed/discard books or decline to buy/accept books that don’t fit their collection policies.
  2. Libraries/library workers are no longer needed in the age of Google/Amazon/Starbucks/Netflix/Craigslist, etc. See also, no one goes to libraries anymore (this is semi-related to libraries are ruined because they aren’t dead silent anymore).
  3. An unimaginable cartel of library mafiosi often known as “Big Library” (I picture The Consortium from The X-Files) is destroying publishing.
  4. Libraries/library workers should take on, without exception, every duty suggested to them to make up for a country with no social infrastructure. If they don’t want to do this or express discontent on/about the job, they are not just bad people, but people who want others to die.

In terms of the patterns of people who’ve started in on Library Twitter about these things, they tend to be journalists, people in knowledge-related tech jobs, people in publishing, and small authors/self-publishers. In my experience, I’ve seen lots of middle-aged white men with self-published works, or one or more other things they believe they should have more notoriety for. These are certainly not the only categories, but the one thing they definitely have in common is that they’re not library workers.

Now we know what people are starting shit with library workers about, and we know a tiny bit about the usual suspects. So, why are people so convinced they know all about the work that happens in libraries and feel they must not only share an opinion about it, but then refuse to listen to actual workers who respond? Well, we’ve got to take a step back to the question before that: “How does this person feel about libraries, period?”

At the end of the day, having seen enough of these interactions to theorize about them, I think you’ve got two options – either they dislike libraries/library workers/particular people they’ve encountered at a library, or they don’t think of library workers as people. In the first version, library workers are all stereotyped; in the second version, library workers are non-player characters. Start with that and we’ve immediately got some bad faith a-cookin’. Someone who dislikes a whole field or doesn’t see its workers as having personhood is not going to speak to those workers with positive intent, or intent to listen at all.

Before we move to why these library-hating non-librarians have decided their tweet-sized takes are more valid and important than those of the responses of the people who actually do work in libraries, I want to say it loud and clear: the people who bait Library Twitter are people who dislike or stereotype libraries/library workers. They aren’t fans. We will never know why, whether it’s because of the conventional crappy grade school cronebrarian that shushed them and their friends one too many times (#lifegoals) or if they had a bad breakup with a tattooed MLIS student, but we can surmise they’re not down with libraries or the people who work in them.

And that brings us to why these people are weighing in on library things – they think that because library workers suck so bad and/or are mindless drones, non-librarian opinions must be more valid. Their distaste for the field probably didn’t do much to inform them about the disciplinary nature of LIS, so you can assume they have no idea that library workers are trained in any specific manner and instead believe them to be making arbitrary decisions. (They also probably assume library school consists of drinking tea, knitting, and putting your pronouns in your bio.)

This is hardly unique to Library Twitter and applies just the same in other feminized care labor “Twitters” – nursing, teaching, etc. – and reflects the larger-scale dismissal of the importance or legitimacy of that work. Within libraries, it reflects reality in far more places than just on social media. Librarians are often not seen as educators and LIS as a discipline is largely illegible in academia. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen countless articles in mainstream media about libraries that avoid speaking to any workers. It is also true that Library Twitter has developed a reputation for pile-ons in response to bad takes, and part of the reason why the posters of this content do what they do is absolutely for the guaranteed engagement. Most of the people who engage in the baiting have very high numbers of followers. And it can be especially easy to bait exhausted, underpaid, and underappreciated people.

At this point, we could ask ourselves, “Why don’t they listen when library workers disagree or try to enlighten them?” Do we really need to, though? They don’t want to listen. They don’t like library people and they come into it already thinking they know better. There’s no there there.

Another piece of this worth examining is the tendency of bystanders to leap in and trash-talk library workers. I’ve noticed a few patterns with these incidents; you tend to get the “pronouns in bio” crew, comments on appearance, or “all library workers are just bad people”-type comments. Often, they’re not directly related to whatever the OP said; they’re just random insults. Some other tertiary reactions I’ve seen recently were especially disheartening. A researcher working on social media and bullying chimed in on a recent Library Twitter pile-on, saying library workers missed “context” about the original posts, but never acknowledged that the library workers’ own context – their knowledge of the very jobs they go to every day – even existed.

The word “context” is getting used in some interesting ways online these days. A Library Twitter tussler, one who came under fire for unnecessarily criticizing libraries for closing during a snow emergency instead of opening as a warming shelter because of dangerous road conditions, recently posted Fobazi Ettarh’s iconic paper on vocational awe without understanding the central argument, but with a whole lot of insults for the library workers attempting to explain it to her. She told them they didn’t understand “the context;” a few people leaped in from the sidelines to shame the librarians without “reading comprehension skills.” It was truly something to see, an attempt to transform the misreading of an important paper in the field of LIS–one many librarians have thought about and discussed for years–into yet another thing library workers just don’t understand.

If the last couple of years are any indication, we will be seeing a lot more of this library baiting and hating on Twitter (and undoubtedly other social media platforms I spend less time on).* Given that, I’d say do what thou wilt, o menace that is Library Twitter. I’ll never post things negating your desire to make fun of these dipshits because they do deserve it, and heaven knows I’m not gonna stop dragging these fartknockers. But it seems wise to keep in mind that in all kinds of insidious little opaque ways, Twitter is temping us to act like that. I’m not scolding or telling anyone to stop anything; just encouraging a certain mindfulness to try to counter the social media brain-warp effects. As long as engagement is rewarded in this way, we’re stuck with these assholes. I guess we could try to get comfortable and accept it for what it is.

P.S. That book warehouse guy is a supermassive transphobic asshole.

* The original language here before I edited it: While I doubt even I will hold myself to this because of the gross Internet-brain drive for getting in scuffles with these people, I do think the best thing for all of us is to stop engaging with it in the way they want. I will never, ever shame anyone for feeding the trolls; I do it myself often enough. But looking at this with the question of “Why do they hate us so much?” in mind, I worry that if we continue to pounce, we’ll keep giving them reasons to dislike and resent us, and there will be a vicious cycle of these garbage takes from an ever-increasing number of tools who think you can judge a whole swath of humanity based off one anonymous interaction. I’m not saying that’s a valid reaction from them; I’m just always wondering about the ways our brains are getting warped by these websites attempting to “normalize” communication (particularly during a pandemic, where communication is degrading faster than you can say “hey, can you see my slides?”).

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