Fifteen Years In

I started my first professional librarian job fifteen years ago this week. Fourteen years and nine months ago I was already making plans to leave either it or the profession, mostly in response to one person who seemed determined to destroy my happiness and career. Fortunately for me, the tiny number of people who have tried that over the years have underestimated my resilience. Professionally, I’ve had such good fortune overall that I don’t even think badly of them anymore when I bother to think of them at all, and their small number is overwhelmed by the many great librarians I’ve enjoyed working with.

When I started drafting this post, it was meant to be a reflection of where I see myself now that I’m a middle-aged, mid-career librarian. However, as the draft progressed, it became as much about how my career has been influenced by the two philosophical traditions that have personally affected me the most–existentialism (esp. Nietzsche) and Daoism–and how they have shaped my career and my satisfaction with it. I’m not sure the two philosophies are completely compatible, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I first encountered existentialism when I was 18 or so, and I generally credit my engagement with it for saving my life, since I was one hopeless, depressed, semi-suicidal mess who didn’t mind believing it was all the world’s fault. At its most basic, existentialism teaches that people are “condemned to be free,” that our very existence forces us to make choices, those choices define who we are and give meaning to our lives, and ultimately we are responsible for those choices, even if we choose not to choose. People often find this anxiety-provoking and they seek to avoid being responsible for their own choices or they believe something else defines them instead. They’re living in bad faith. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a grand ideology, often religious or political, that they believe relieves them of choice. Sometimes they reduce themselves to a limited role where they deny they have choices. Sometimes they conform to the herd, desiring the right job and the right house and the right car and the right clothes and the right lifestyle to impress their fellow sheeple on whose opinion they base their self-worth, or else feeling sad or angry when they don’t achieve those things. Sometimes they believe that they are essentially a certain kind of person (e.g., good or smart or nice) and that this imagined essence defines them regardless of their choices and actions. Sometimes they seek to blame something or someone for their condition: it’s God’s fault, or the Devil’s fault, or the government’s fault, or society’s fault, or their parents’ fault, or their spouse’s fault, or they were just following orders. They believe it’s always someone or something else’s responsibility for their situation and the consequences of their choices, when really it’s the choices we make and continue to make that define our characters.

Everyone faces limitations, and sometimes those limitations can overwhelm us, but we still choose how to respond to our situations. If I’m in a bad situation, and I choose to do nothing to change it, then I’m in effect choosing to remain in that situation, or at least choosing to live in it without protest or without adapting sensibly. Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre lived under the Nazi occupation of Paris. They couldn’t overthrow the Nazis by themselves, but they could damn well join the French Resistance. We’re thrown into existence and the world owes us nothing, and no amount of wishing, hoping, or magical thinking will change that. Regardless, whatever happens, the ultimate responsibility for how I react to my situation lies with me. Do I choose to commit suicide, or to continue living (which Camus considered the only serious philosophical question)? Do I become overwhelmed by a meaningless universe that owes me nothing, or engage in creative projects that give my life meaning? Do I remain depressed about the state of the world and my place in it, or do I accept that life and the world will never be perfect and then suck it up and do what I can? Do I retreat into comforting illusions, or face hard truths? Do I live like “they” want me to live, or do I go my own way? Do I wallow or do I act?

Do I choose to remain a miserable slacker and blame other people for not recognizing my supposed inner worth, or to ignore the herd entirely, to overcome myself, try to “give style” to my character as Nietzsche puts it in this famous passage from The Gay Science (Kaufmann trans.):

One thing is needful.— To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it.

Because whichever I choose is up to me, and the choices I make create the person I am, whatever comforting lies I might otherwise tell myself. While some people find this freedom terrifying, I found it invigorating. I could no longer blame the world for my being in it or indulge some magical hope that everything would suddenly be better someday. It took a while, but eventually I realized it was up to me to become who I am, and instead of killing me it made me stronger.

Professionally, freedom and bad faith play out in various ways. For example, in that first job with the adversarial colleague I had several choices. I could silently submit and believe someone else’s low opinion of me meant I was worth less than I believed, or I could just quit, or I could sit home complaining all the time and blaming that other person for my misery, or I could fight back, or I could try to get a better (and not just a different) job. I chose the latter two (although there was definitely some complaining at home as well). I fought back vigorously and I started looking for a better job. With several criteria for what sort of library I wanted to work in, I applied for only three jobs that I thought suitable, and after three interviews and eleven months of fretting later I got the job I have now, or at least a previous version of it. I have definitely faced some adversity along the way in this job; such is inevitable. However, instead of just sitting around complaining (although I’ve done some of that as well), I’ve tried my best to take action to improve my situation. Sometimes I’ve taken risks, including at least one that could have seriously derailed my career had things gone differently, but if I hadn’t taken those risks I’d have been responsible for choosing not to take them and remaining in a situation I didn’t like but could try to change. I’ve known librarians (and non-librarians) over the years who spend a lot of time complaining and blaming other people for their situations who haven’t done much to change themselves or the situation. Those people are living in professional bad faith.

Sometimes we make all the changes that we possibly can, though, and then we have to decide how to live in the world that remains. Do we keep complaining, or do we just let it go? Do we rage against the world or wander free and easy? That’s where the Daoism comes in. My yellowed copy of the Penguin Classics Tao Te Ching [I use whichever transliteration the edition I’m referring to uses] was with me in college as much as volumes of Nietzsche or Camus, although not as well understood until the last few years. Numerous passages can be related to work, but I’ll try to be brief. Here’s one chapter from the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell trans.), chapter 24:

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. He who has power over others can’t empower himself. He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.

The translations vary, but I picked Mitchell’s because of the emphasis on just doing your job and then letting go. If you can make positive changes to yourself, your situation, or your library, then make them, but at a certain point the ability to make positive changes will stop, and after that it’s best to just let things go. Learning to just let them go has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a librarian and a person, but a lot of times now I can and I believe I’m happier and healthier because of it. Learning to let go is also a choice, and one that can be consciously made, but it has to be made over and over again. And if you don’t want to learn to let go, then you want things to just keep nagging at you. That’s a choice, too.

It’s easier if you don’t get too wrapped up in your own importance. Here’s another translation of the same chapter from the Daodejing (Ames and Hall trans.) that emphasizes arrogance and pretentiousness more:

Blowhards have no standing, the self-promoting are not distinguished, show-offs do not shine, braggarts have nothing to show, the self-important are here and gone. As these attitudes pertain to way-making (dao), they are called indulgence and unseemliness. Such excess is generally despised that even those who want things cannot abide it.

I have many personal vices, but I’ve long tried to follow a basic rule based on this chapter: don’t be pretentious. (I’ve done less well on the arrogance, but I’m working on it.) Don’t puff yourself up or make untrue claims about yourself to make yourself seem more important than you are. A sense of importance and value based on lies will ultimately crumble and is probably already regarded as a farce by those around you. The older I get the more I try to keep in mind (and state publicly): “however externally successful you are, and no matter how great you might actually be, you’re dependent on opportunities you didn’t necessarily create and a whole network of people who enable you to do what you do.” Every moment you spend talking about how great you are is a moment not spent actually trying to be great. And the more important and entitled you think you are, the more you’ll feel slighted by a world that couldn’t care less about you.

Five years ago I wrote a reflective post like this, creatively entitled Ten Years In. In it I discussed not having a long term goal anymore of “moving up,” and wrote that “I think the goal should be mastery. Instead of thinking about the future, I want to do things well in the present and see where those things lead. For all I know, the end goal will be the same, but the path is much more interesting and less predictable.”  More Daoism, which I was beginning to reacquaint myself with at the time.

The Ames and Hall translation of the Daodejing has a good critical apparatus that has helped me understand this better in recent years. This is from their introduction to the translation:

Daoism … expresses its deferential activity through what we are calling the wu-forms. The three most familiar articulations of this pervasive sensibility are: wuwei, wuzhi, and wuyu. These are, respectively, noncoercive actions in accordance with the de (“particular focus”) of things; a sort of knowing without resort to rules or principles; and desiring which does not seek to possess or control its “object.” In each of these instances…, it is necessary to put oneself in the place of what is to be acted in accordance with, what is to be known, or what is to be desired, and thus incorporate this perspective into one’s own disposition.

Without a goal, I still accomplish things. Although I have no destination in mind, I go to good places. There’s nothing in particular I want, but I have ended up with abundance. Without preconceptions and prejudices, I can understand more than I do now.

The Daoist classic The Book of Zhuangzi (Burton Watson trans.) has a famous story about Cook Ding, who is praised by a lord for his superior carving skills. When asked his secret, Cook Ding replies,

A good cook changes his knife once a year—because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month—because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the place is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then they’re plenty of room—more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

I’m not quite sure exactly how the particular talent of Cook Ding applies to library work, but there would be worse things than to be Librarian Ding and work as effectively as possible with what’s there, skillfully avoiding resistance while achieving appropriate outcomes. If I have a goal, that’s it, even though it’s ultimately unattainable.

What this means in practice might not look any different on the outside from the actions of an anxious striver, but from the inside it feels different. After I reached the last explicit professional milestone I had set for myself, I took a while thinking about what I do, making some changes, and trying to come up with another one. What do I want to achieve and by when? That dreaded question in so many job interviews: where do you see yourself five years from now? (To which I always wanted to answer: “um, your boss?”) Eventually I decided that any such goal at this point was unnecessary and I just started working on another project. There doesn’t have to be a larger goal to motivate acting and reacting appropriately to the situations I find myself in. I have some big things I’d like to do, but if they don’t work out, that’s fine, too. Mostly, I want to do whatever I do as well as I can.

Some people inspire themselves with motivational sayings or by telling themselves things like, “I want to be great! I want to do big things!” But you can be great and do big things by just responding to situations as they arise to the best of your ability. If you want something done, do it. If it just can’t be done, let it go. And if you never achieve greatness? Well, few of us do. The world keeps going anyway. As a friend once told me, the library I work in was there before I was born and it’ll be there long after I die.

Professionally, if a better opportunity comes along, I’ll seize it. If it doesn’t, I won’t worry about it. If I achieve greatness, so be it. If not, that’s okay, too. At some point I reached the state where I rarely ruin my present contentment by dreaming about some future where everything would be better if I could just do this or get that or be someone or somewhere else. For most of my young life, and then again for my first couple of years as a librarian, I was that way. Perhaps part of the reason I’m not now is that I’m in a better professional position than I was fifteen years ago, but I know librarians in similar situations who are still unhappy in their jobs or with their lives. For now I just do what I do as well as I can and see what happens. Fifteen years in, it’s a good place to be.

The Murphy Conundrum

I hadn’t thought about the Joe Murphy lawsuit for a while until someone commented a couple of days ago on this post from September. I started to reply to the comment, but my reply was getting long enough I thought I’d bring it to the front page. Here’s the comment, in full:

This whole issue is so sad. but it was much more sad for me when one librarian was called a sexual predator, and almost no librarians stood up to say that was wrong.

 

First, people have said it was wrong. About a month after the story “broke” on blogs and Twitter, the Library Journal wrote an article about the lawsuit. Currently there are 131 comments. There are a number of indignant comments aimed at the defendants for making accusations about Murphy without providing any evidence. Nonetheless, the online commentary I’ve seen has been more against the Murphy lawsuit than against the defendants for calling him a sexual predator. Why might that be? I can only speculate, but here are some of the reasons I think Murphy has taken so much of the heat when ordinarily more people might be supportive. Some of these overlap a bit, but they were the reasons I thought about on my drive to work this morning.

1) The lawsuit trumps the accusation

Most librarians (I suspect) found out about the accusation when they found out about the lawsuit, and the facts of the lawsuit make Murphy look very unsympathetic. Murphy contends that this isn’t a SLAPP suit, but the large amount for damages and the fact that he filed it in Canada rather than the U.S. sure make it look like one. The lawsuit itself is so brazen that it eliminated whatever sympathy some might have been able to muster for Murphy.

2) Librarians like freedom of speech

Calling someone a sexual predator is bad, at least unless it’s true. Regardless, librarians like freedom of speech and they don’t like attempts to silence it. The defendants were speaking freely, if perhaps foolishly, and rather than address them publicly or deny the accusation he decided to sue them in a country with laxer free speech laws than the one he and one of the defendants lives in. I’ve seen numerous comments that hinge on the lawsuit and its silencing effect as the reason they’re opposing Murphy, whereas I’ve seen very few standing up for the rightness of the defendant’s actions as such.

3) Murphy has irritated a lot of people

As I wrote in September, I don’t know Murphy, but I know a lot of people who know him, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything about him that wasn’t derogatory, both personally and professionally. So while people who didn’t know who he was might be against the lawsuit, people who do know him might be unwilling to stand up for him at all. Even if they don’t believe he’s a sexual predator as such, they know that challenging the defendants is equivalent in many people’s eyes with supporting Murphy.

4) This is a very gendered issue

Almost without exception, the comments I’ve seen questioning the defendants or supporting Murphy have been from men, with typical ones being “How do we know? Where is the evidence?,” etc. On the other hand, women seem much more willing to give the defendants the benefit of the doubt or at least be against any attempt to silence them, because they have experienced first or second hand the silencing of women about issues of sexual harassment. The “how do we know?” argument runs both ways, though. Men might say, with some justice, “How do we know they’re not lying? Where is their evidence?” But from a different perspective, we can ask the question another way: “How do we know they’re wrong?” Gender seems to have some effect on the way this question is asked. And until we have more evidence than we have publicly available, we can’t know whether they’re right or wrong, so anyone stating definitively that they’re wrong to make those accusations is making that claim without supporting evidence, which is what many have accused the defendants of doing.

5) This is not about the defendants

It’s very possible to be against the Murphy lawsuit while having no particular sympathy for the defendants. I’ve read comments challenging their motivation, veracity, and even sanity. Let’s say for argument’s sake they’re evil, crazy liars who for some reason decided to target Murphy. Maybe they didn’t like his haircut or his absurd stance on SMS reference and they wanted to go after him. There are more effective ways to deal with such people. Crazy liars can be exposed as such without suing them for $1.25 million dollars. Publicly challenging them and denying the accusation might still make for a messy conversation, but one in which it would be very possible for Murphy to gain some sympathy as a victim of outrageous accusations instead of a perpetrator of an outrageous lawsuit. Suing them in such a way makes everything very public and makes him look bad without making the defendants necessarily look good. In other words, not challenging the defendants isn’t the same thing as supporting their actions or beliefs.

So there are my speculations on the conundrum of why something that might normally be criticized isn’t. Of the various reasons, the first probably explains my writing about the lawsuit without saying much at all about the justness or rightness of the defendants actions. I believe they believe they are in the right, and I know others believe that as well. I have no particular reason to believe them or not believe them, I feel no compunction to defend their actions whatsoever, and I think they could have handled the whole issue in a more effective and less lawsuit-inducing manner.  However, while we don’t have enough evidence to say whether they’re definitely in the wrong, we do know about the lawsuit, the amount Murphy’s suing them for, the country it was filed in, and the general trend of men trying to silence women about sexual harassment, and I have no problem being against that lawsuit rather than for or against the defendants. That’s why what little I’ve written hasn’t been defending them so much as criticizing the lawsuit, and if that’s ever dropped I probably won’t have much more to say about the issue.

The Hyde Park Debate 2014

In my last LJ column I mentioned a couple of presentations I enjoyed at the Charleston Conference last month. Another session I enjoyed was the Hyde Park Debate between Rick Anderson (U. of Utah) and David Magier (Princeton U.). The proposition debated this year was “Wherever possible, library collections should be shaped by patrons, instead of by librarians,” with Anderson arguing the pro side and Magier the con side. In the debate format, there’s an audience vote on the proposition before the debate begins and a vote after, and the winner is whoever swings the most votes. It was a close debate, but Magier swung the most votes and won. I often disagree with Anderson about collections issues and generally agree with Magier (which is convenient, since he’s my AUL for Collection Development), so I enjoyed both the verbal sparring and the outcome. My favorite part of the debate starts with the “Response from David Magier”, which begins:

“Without identifying a single good thing about PDA, Rick devotes himself instead to a new low of dismissive stereotyping and character assassination, a completely fictionalized librarian straw-man to shoot down. He trivializes and slanders the work of librarians, calling us childish (“a collection is to collect”), vain and self-centered (“monuments to our own wisdom”), assured and delusional (tilting towards “comprehensive” collections for the distant future), and wasteful and self-interested (valuing our own jobs over the interests of patrons). This cartoon character villain doesn’t actually exist: no library would tolerate it. So let’s dispose of these distractions and hot air and look at the real world. We librarians are patron-driven: engaging closely with faculty and students every day. We engage in collection-shaping with and on behalf of our patrons, because failing to do so produces negative impacts right here and now, not 40 years in the future!”

It was certainly a change from the typical staid library presentation.

You can see the full text of the opening statements, rebuttals and opening and closing polling results here: http://sched.co/1txrXxm.
You can view the raw video of the entire debate itself, as well as the Q&A session, on YouTube, here: http://youtu.be/6i20chKm74U

Why I Don’t Have Anything to Add about Race in America

I’ve seen a couple of different claims on the Internet that not posting something on social media about Ferguson or Eric Garner or racism in America is itself a sign of racism, or something along those lines. By remaining silent on social media, white people are just part of whatever problem there is. I think that’s a bad argument, but I can understand why people might think that. If everyone posted something on Facebook about every injustice in America or the world, Facebook would be nothing but that. The world can be a shitty place. My constantly acknowledging that on Facebook isn’t going to make it any better.

Just to give some examples of things I hate: continuing worldwide environmental devastation; on-going, pointless, unjust wars America started that have killed tens of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and cost billions of dollars that could have been spent productively; all the wars America didn’t start; Islamist terrorists; American drug policies that have created near-genocidal conditions in parts of northern Mexico and a vastly unjust and expensive prison-industrial complex in the U.S.; the future of children being almost completely determined by their parents’ socioeconomic status; the persistent and possibly unchangable concentrations of poverty in the country; and the de facto unequal rights that oppress millions of Americans and billions around the world every day.

If some people think my sins of omission make me a worse person, then I’ll say something. Just to make those people happy, I’ll provide my completely irrelevant opinion on racial injustice in America. It’s awful. It’s systematic throughout the country. It should be stopped. I have no idea how to do that and suspect it’s impossible because many people are stupid and fearful of people who aren’t like them. The Ferguson grand jury was a farce, and the prosecutor must have been a fool to think that any disinterested person, much less the many interested persons, would be able to look at that process and say, “Yeah! Justice accomplished!” However, I expected no indictment, just as I expected no indictment in the Eric Garner case. I believe, like anyone who has paid attention to racial issues in America should know, when it comes to white people harming people of color, getting justice is very rare. What can I do about that? Not a damn thing.

However, neither the irrelevance of my opinions or the ineffectiveness of my personal actions are why I don’t normally say anything about racial injustice or race in America. It’s because when something like the Ferguson decision happens, I don’t see it as my place to speak. I see it as my place to listen, or at least read. I read the stuff my friends and acquaintances of and not of color post on Facebook. I try my best to understand what it must be like to be the Other in American society, because that’s a difficult enough thing for anyone without expecting some additional commentary that signifies to whomever that I’m a good person or whatever it is someone wants me to be. I’ve always felt like an outsider in American culture, but never an Other.

I even have irrelevant opinions about white privilege, about which I was ignorant for most of my life, but about which I couldn’t possibly disagree with once I understood what it was. Yes, I’m a beneficiary of it, and no, I never felt like one. I’m still not sure what it would mean to feel like you’re the beneficiary of something so abstract, but I acknowledge it exists and I understand how it works. Probably I never felt like it because when I was younger I was relatively poor compared to a lot of my friends. We weren’t destitute (although my parents basically were by the time of their deaths), but we didn’t have much money, and what money we did have was because my parents were extremely frugal. I didn’t feel white, but I sure felt poor.

In addition to being poor, I was also depressed through much of my childhood. I remember my mother saying she was always sad when looking at my 2nd grade school picture, for example, because I looked so sad. By high school I often assumed that one day, if things kept on like that, I’d just commit suicide. I have no qualms about it. If it was good enough for Cato, it should be good enough for me. Not wanting to burden someone with finding a dead body, I even worked out a method that would be painless and leave no trace anyone was likely to ever find. When your mind has been to places like that, it’s sometimes hard to consider other people’s problems as seriously as they should be considered.

This isn’t a pity party for previous me, though. Seriously, to hell with that kid. He was an ignorant fool, even if he couldn’t have known any better at the time. However, for much of my life I was so focused on my own problems that I didn’t think about other people’s problems. I suspect most of us are like that. So I was poor and depressed. I was also a tall, strong, intelligent, heterosexual white male, and decent enough looking that I’d never worry about discrimination because of my looks, which is generally something we only do to women in American anyway. Most people focus on their problems, not their unearned benefits.

Although I was hassled by the police a couple of times as a teenager, I haven’t been as an adult. The last time a cop confronted me I was 19 and walking with a friend on a levee near my apartment about 1am. The cop pulled up, shined a flashlight at us, and demanded to see our driver’s licenses. I told him I didn’t have one on me because I wasn’t driving, I was walking, and I didn’t say it in a subservient way. And this was in the south. What did the cop do? He told us the levees were really private property and that we shouldn’t walk on them, and then he drove away. One can’t say for sure, but I’d bet that situation would have ended differently if my skin had been darker. Did I realize that at the time? Nope. I realized it just now because I haven’t thought of the incident in years. I can walk into almost any public space in America and never be harassed. I’ll never be pulled over or pulled out of a security line because of the color of my skin.

That took me a very long time to understand, because as a member of the default race in American society, I never thought about being white. It’s not like I feel a particular bond with all white people. I’ve met a lot of them over the years, and mostly I’m not that impressed. A lot of my felt relationship to the world has been based more on my size. I’ve never known what it’s like not to be bigger and taller than most of the people around me. When I was a student back at my violent Christian private school (such, such were the days!), if someone wanted to fight or bully me I’d just fight back, and while I had my share of bloody noses and cut lips, I was never beaten up. I had no fear of other kids, just like today I have no fear of other adults. Muggers aren’t going to make me a first choice target because I’m big, just like cops aren’t going to target me because I’m white.

I mention this not to revel in my violent past, because I hated fighting. I mention it because that’s the way I now think about being white in America. It’s like being the bigger, stronger kid on the playground who can walk around being oblivious to what happens to other kids, to the ones who can’t just be the way they want to be. Sometimes that big kid is a bully, but most of the time that big kid just doesn’t have to consider the perspectives of other people. The smaller geeks are being bullied by a football player. Oh well, nothing I can do about that. He wouldn’t dare try that with me after all. Being white in America is like that. Sometimes it’s the bullies who win. They shoot an unarmed black man in the street and they get away with it because, just as boys will be boys, whites will be whites, and it’s not like anyone who counts got hurt, right? When it’s not the bullies, it’s the oblivious ones. I don’t know because I don’t need to know because I can mind my own business and do whatever I want and nobody’s going to say anything. When you’re in that position, it’s really hard to understand what it’s like not being in that position.

I was never the bully, I was definitely oblivious, and now I’m neither. But after that, what could I possibly say? What business does a middle-class, middle-aged, white guy like me have saying anything about race in America? What useful or interesting perspective could I possibly offer? Does my speaking out on social media against racial injustice make me a better person? Is anyone every persuaded by Facebook activism? Are any friends’ minds ever changed, even if I had many friends whose minds I’d want to change? Are my opinions on the matter any more known to my friends than they were before? It’s not like I’m shy about telling people what I think. If I see injustice in person and do nothing, I’m complicit with it. If I’m silent on social media about something I haven’t experienced, then it’s because I believe the best thing to do in the situation is shut up and listen to other people who know more than me about the topic. I’ve been listening, and now I’m shutting up again.

Predators without Prey?

This is an amusing story about how a fake journal article called “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List,” consisting of nothing but that sentence over and over, might be published in an open access “scholarly journal.” It was originally written by someone else many years ago to protest spam conference invitations, and was forwarded to the journal to protest what a professor believed was a spam invitation to publish in a journal. Upon submission, the professor was told it would be published for $150.

What might be funniest about the story is Jeffrey Beall’s email response to Inside Higher Education. (He apparently “broke” the story on his blog, but after my last encounter with some of Beall’s prose, I didn’t have the will necessary to read anything else by him.) Here’s what he wrote to IHE:

“It’s clear that no peer review was done at all and that this particular journal (along with many like it) exists only to get money from scholarly authors. The open-access publishing model has some serious weaknesses, and predatory journals are poisoning all of scholarly communication.”

The first sentence is undeniable. This is obviously a scam journal that just wants to make money from gullible researchers, if it can find any. Any idiot should be able spot that, and the professor obviously did or he wouldn’t have sent the fake article. It’s the second sentence that’s so funny. “Predatory journals are poisoning all of scholarly communication.”

In this case, we have a professor who expected the journal to be a scam, which basically it is. He sent them an article written many years before to protest spam conference invitations. These two taken together imply that spamming researchers predates the rise of the so-called predatory journals, and that researchers can tell when something is a scam. “Poisoning all of scholarly communication” is a ridiculous overstatement on the face of it, but describing an interaction in which everyone, including the professor, knows what’s really going on isn’t poisoning anything. It’s evidence that scholarly communication is working pretty well and that scholars know these journals are questionable from the beginning.

What’s missing from the analysis of “predatory” journals is any evidence of widespread trickery, where researchers who don’t know any better are paying to publish in what they believe to be legitimate peer-reviewed scholarly journals. It’s hard to prove something is predatory if there’s not any prey. The professor in question is the exact opposite of prey, and if anything he’s preyed upon the journal by making it the butt of his joke, but I guess it’s easier to misinterpret evidence that challenges your beliefs instead of following the evidence to form your beliefs. Human, all to human.

The Best that Can be Done

There are a lot of things to love about JSTOR for ejournals. It’s easy to search and has such a wealth of content that I find it easy to understand why for a lot of professors a while back it was synonymous with library ejournals. “My professor told me to search JSTOR,” students would tell me. And for research in many fields, it’s still not a bad place to start. There’s the small irritation of having to click to agree on their terms every time I want an article PDF, but at least when I do it works. And there’s the time I was trying to do an exhaustive literature search and JSTOR thought I was a bot of some kind and shut down the session, but I was able to bypass that in a couple of minutes. Overall, though, a great experience.

Then we get to JSTOR ebooks, and things change. In my Library Journal column on the mess of ebooks, I complained about JSTOR ebooks among others, because after a certain amount of friction trying to download an ebook chapter I simply gave up. It just wasn’t worth it. After that column, a rep called me and we talked about JSTOR ebooks and their many advantages, and they do have some advantages. However, when it comes to downloading, they make the 18 steps it takes to download an Ebrary ebook for the first time look almost appealing.

I decided to give it another try, though. The first time I tried was just an experiment. I didn’t want the book, I just wanted to test the service. Yesterday, I found a book I actually wanted to read, but the print copy was checked out and every copy in the Borrow Direct system was also checked out. The JSTOR ebook came up, because the book was published by the Princeton University Press and we buy the ebooks from PUP. I don’t want to read chapters in the Flash reader online, but If you don’t like the Flash reader, you can download the PDF, supposedly. According to the JSTOR rep I spoke with, that’s available on only 60% of the titles, but it was available on this one. It’s a long book, so I figured I’d download a chapter at a time and read through it when I got a chance.

I went to the page for the ebook. The first thing I noticed was the warning. “This book has viewing and download limits.” That’s for sure. “There is no printing or copying allowed,” because it seems like a good idea to take a potentially useful technology and make it impossible to do simple, basic tasks that everyone would expect it to do. Deliberate hobbled technology makes it unlikely I’ll invest in it, but the ebook was already paid for.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.14.03

I could download a PDF of a book chapter, that is, if I logged in to my MyJSTOR account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.17.00

I didn’t have a MyJSTOR account, because I don’t want one. What I wanted to do is download some of the book the library paid for that says downloads are available. That doesn’t seem like much of a demand. Since completing that simple task was made impossible for me, I spent a few minutes creating an account I don’t want and shouldn’t need, filling in all the blanks with meaningless or wrong information. Then I logged in to the account I don’t want and shouldn’t need. Supposedly, now I can download the book.

Oh, but not yet. Replicating the outstanding JSTOR article platform would be far too harmful for the publishers, I assume, so I get some more friction. I need something called the FileOpen program, because JSTOR ebooks can’t just give me a PDF once the book is purchased and I’ve created this pointless account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.06.56I was already pretty irritated, but what the hell. By then I was suffering from the “sunk costs fallacy,” where I’d invested enough time that I would feel bad giving up, even as my benefit-to-time ratio rapidly shrank. So I tried to load the plugin that’s only purpose seems to be to allow me to open a PDF that I should be able to open anyway if it hadn’t been screwed up by DRM or whatever they did to it. I couldn’t open it without the plugin, that’s for sure.

And finally, success! No, wait. Not success. Here’s what I got next:

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.04.58

If you can’t make that out, it reads, “Note to Safari users: Due to Apples’s updates and fixes it has become no longer possible to view PDF files in your Safari web browser. We apologize for this, and we hope to be able to restore this functionality in the future.”

That was really weird. First of all, I wasn’t using Safari, but Google Chrome. Second of all, here’s a screen shot of me viewing a PDF file in Safari a few minutes after I got that message.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.28.57

Thus, the statement that it’s no longer possible to view PDFs in Safari was a lie. What it seems to mean is that they’ve added so much DRM to the PDF that it’s not viewable by standard web browsers like ordinary PDFs are. Let’s get clear who’s keeping me from viewing PDFs. It wasn’t because of changes that Apple made, or even Google. It’s because of changes to the PDF that JSTOR made. This turned into one of those “don’t pee on my head and tell me it’s raining” moments, only less messy.

I couldn’t view it in Chrome, either, so I went back to the note to Safari users and pretended it applied to me. “For now it seems that the best that can be done is to use Firefox together with stand-alone Adobe Reader or Acrobat.”

Really? That’s it? The best that can be done? Make me create an account, login to that account, install a plugin I shouldn’t need to read a PDF, fail to give me a PDF that I can read, and then tell me to go follow some special instructions and change browsers to view a file format I should be able to view with any standard browser. That’s the best that can be done?

No, that’s not the best that can be done. That’s a non-solution to a problem JSTOR created, no doubt at the behest of the publishers. The best that could have been done is having me click “Download this chapter” and then downloading the chapter. That’s the best that could have been done.Telling me my problem downloading a chapter was something other than their restricted file format isn’t tempting me to buy any JSTOR ebooks for the library. It did tempt me to write this blog post, though.