The Juvenal of Librarianship

I’m currently writing an article about the Annoyed Librarian and her role in debates within librarianship. In fact, I just finished it yesterday and after finishing, I started reading some library blogs. Imagine my astonishment as I went through the feeds in my Google Reader list and discovered that everyone seemed to be writing about the Annoyed Librarian at the same time. Just of the blogs I subscribe to, the AL and her recent post on the Cult of Twopointopia was a topic of discussion at David Lee King, Free Range Librarian, Librarian.net, Library Stuff, Information Wants to Be Free, and Tennant: Digital Libraries.

Of the various criticisms, I think Meredith Farkas’ and Steven Cohen’s come closest to my own opinion, but since I have been thinking about the topic a lot recently, I wanted to put forward what I recently concluded in general about the Annoyed Librarian and what she offers to debates in librarianship. Of course, I might be wrong.

The Annoyed Librarian, at least writing as the Annoyed Librarian, definitely represents the extreme position of whatever debate she enters. In the political battles, she is completely against the SRRT and offers no compromise, much like some of her critics. Her criticisms of the ALA, Internet pornography in libraries, the alleged librarian shortage, the banned books movement, and the Library 2.0 phenomenon have been relentless. Many have taken her arguments at face value and wondered why anyone who was so aggressively opposed to so much in librarianship would remain a librarian. On the other hand, many of her regular readers provide a cheering section and seem to agree with just about everything she writes. As a regular reader, I am somewhere in the middle, mostly because I recognize, or at least I think I recognize, what she is trying to do. Since she has no professional reputation to make and writes pseudonymously, she does not need to be consistent. She does not need to be polite. Yes, the positions the AL takes on various issues are often extreme, I think designedly so. She offers the most extreme argument she can muster against whatever annoys her at the moment, and this very extremity helps to clarify a problem. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein says somewhere that his philosophical work attempts to sweep away the debris that accumulates around philosophical arguments so that we may see them clearly. This, it seems to me, is also what the extremity of the AL’s positions does to debates within librarianship. By posing her arguments in the starkest terms, she often shows what is really at stake in a debate, then lets others wrestle with those arguments to come to a more sensible middling position. Even for her staunchest opponents, she often presents strong arguments they would do well to consider.

While clearing away the debris, she is often satirical as well. In a profession sometimes given to uncritical and humorless jingoism, the AL provides an antidote with her satire. But satire has a purpose; it does not exist merely to make people laugh. Satire aims to correct abuses, and it is often extreme. Consider, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Some satire is gentle, and some harsh. We usually categorize gentle satire as Horatian. While the AL does sometimes adhere to the Horatian dictum to teach and delight, her satire is far from gentle. No, it is more Juvenalian, exposing abuses with biting wit and moral indignation. Juvenalian satire is so alien to the profession of librarianship that many readers do not understand what is going on. How could someone be so bitter? Why doesn’t she stop criticizing people and go do something else? Why does she remain a librarian? These are responses to her work that I have seen, but these responses miss the point. Some seem to think this Juvenalian satire from the Annoyed Librarian is a sign that she thinks librarianship is worthless, and that she should thus cease to be a librarian. But that shows a misunderstanding of the moral purpose of satire. We do not satirize that which is beneath contempt or that which is unimportant. We satirize abuses to things that we value. The moral purpose of satire is to criticize vice to protect the virtues of things we love. Considered in this way, it is just possible that far from finding librarianship or librarians or even the ALA worthless, the Annoyed Librarian instead considers them very important, important enough to be saved from the follies that sometimes beset them.

13 thoughts on “The Juvenal of Librarianship

  1. While I agree that debates, especially some of the ones we’ve conducted in the library profession (the ref desk, IL, future of the building, etc) are good for polarizing the issues and helping all us to better understand the issues – even though we know the debaters are taking stands that are “black and white” and ignore all the gray areas of controversial and complex issues, I ask why you are promoting this particular blog. Personally I have a real problem with any blogger who criticizes the work of others (as the AL blogger criticized Cohen’s 2.0 article – which I really don’t care for myself but respect her right to express those views) from behind the shield of anonymity. I think it’s cowardly. I think we should ignore those who are afraid to stand behind their words and convictions with their own name. All of the recent discussion just serves to gives more attention to those who write without the courage to tell us who they are (how do you even know it’s a “she” – because that’s what it says?). I think we’d all be better off to just ignore this blog, and then it will just fade away.

  2. I’m not sure I’m promoting the blog so much as analyzing it. I wrote the article because I was asked to, and I agreed, knowing that I might myself become a target of some criticism. I’ve been proved accurate, it seems.
    Regarding the anonymity, I don’t understand why people make such an issue of it. Words are words. Arguments are arguments. Having a name attached to them doesn’t change that. No metaphysics of presence will guarantee the meaning or authority of the writing. I have noticed that only hostile readers seem to care who the real author is, which itself is interesting. I don’t think the real author matters, because I don’t think the AL is a person, only a persona, which I consider the Juvenal of librarianship.
    Everyone’s free to ignore it. It’s only a blog, after all. No one’s forced to read it. But obviously plenty of librarians find something useful, compelling, interesting, or fun about it, because from what I can tell it grows more popular all the time. I certainly wouldn’t mind have so many bloglines subscribers or such a high technorati ranking. Rather than attacking or defending it, I’m more interested in why it’s so popular and what role it plays in the library blogosphere.

  3. In your comment you say:

    Words are words. Arguments are arguments. Having a name attached to them doesn’t change that.

    Yet in your post you say:

    Since she has no professional reputation to make and writes pseudonymously, she does not need to be consistent.

    Consistency may be overrated, but I think that AL’s anonymity allows him/her to stake out those extreme positions without the burden of actually having to provide an “argument.” Then when people try to argue with AL directly, AL and his/her minions can simply sidestep the issue by saying “it’s just satire! It is supposed to be extreme! You are a jerk for even trying to argue with me!”

  4. You may very well be right about the quality of the arguments, though I think the defendability of the AL’s arguments depends on the issue. Regardless, it’s beside the point to argue with satire. Does one argue with Jonathan Swift that no, the rich shouldn’t eat the babies of the poor?

  5. No, I wouldn’t argue with Swift. But did Swift have a bunch of people saying “baby eating, that’s the ticket!” in the way that AL seems to on most threads? Makes me think perhaps AL’s mode is simple overstatement and exaggeration for effect, rather than satire.

  6. Interesting post, Wayne, thanks.
    I’m curious about some of the comments of objection: would a pseudonymous (not anonymous) blogger acting as a cheerleader be a good thing then?
    Personally I don’t have a problem with AL acting behind a mask because the whole point of her blog is to rail at some of the sillinesses of the library world. Many of us can identify with this, even in extremis, because we’re working in library environments that are very far from ideal, with the ideals often betrayed by people who pride themselves on their ‘professionalism,’ and there are times when only a rant will do (the word ‘Annoyed’ is a clue, by the way.) If the rant jolts us out of our complacency and makes us check that our chapels are on firm ground and our graven idols kept firmly in their appropriate places then that’s no bad thing.
    Can you sign me up for the baby-eating event when the arrangements are finalised? Thanks!

  7. I was a bit taken aback by the comments as well, especially Steven Bell’s. I thought I’d read an article he published recently complaining that there wasn’t enough criticism in the profession of librarianship, and yet he hopes we all ignore the only library blog almost completely dedicated to criticism.
    I read it mostly as a diversion. I’m not sure why people take it seriously enough to argue with, but it’s clear they do. It’s a rant. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. If it has a cheering section, which obviously it does, it seems to me that means it represents in some way a lot of voices that are usually silenced in librarianship. Perhaps a lot of librarians prefer it if those voices are silenced. To be fair, a lot of the voices are scary, but perhaps it’s better to know your enemy.

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