I’m pretty sure I’ll never be famous, and by famous, I mean “famous” in that librarian kind of way: well known throughout the profession, popular speaker, etc.
This isn’t something that bothers me much, but I was thinking about it last week. Last Friday I gave a talk at a small regional conference. I don’t speak often and almost never seek the opportunity out, but when I can manage to get myself up in front of an audience things seem to go well. One person even said she found my talk inspiring, but I have a feeling she was being overly kind. Nevertheless, when I compare my speaking abilities to other librarians, including some of them who seem to be everywhere at once, I think I could hold my own when it came to style. Though I always feel sick before speaking, once I start everything seems fine, and I get a performance high by the end. Teaching affects me in much the same way if a discussion has gone particularly well. I craft my talks, engage my audience, get some laughs, just like the big boys and girls do. So style doesn’t explain why I’ll probably never be famous.
It’s most likely not substance, either. Most of the presentations I see librarians doing are based upon things they do in their job or as a hobby. Most of these topics aren’t things that require years of intensive study before presenting on them. Some of the hot topics of years past—like Library 2.0 or virtual reference or some others—I already know quite a bit about, both theoretically and practically, and sometimes when I’m watching a presentation or reading something on a library topic, I do think to myself that I could probably do just as good a job with it. As with my talk last Friday (on building librarian-faculty relations), I could probably come up with a hour of material on just about anything related to my work and at least keep the audience from being bored.
Besides my general lack of ambition to be famous, I think the problem might be one of the hedgehog and the fox. Isaiah Berlin notes in his essay of that title that, “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’” (The Proper Study of Mankind, 436). In his essay Turgenev is the fox, Tolstoy the hedgehog. It seems to me that the most famous librarians, especially the most sought after speakers, are hedgehogs, whereas for better or worse, I’m more like a fox.
This may sound critical or even dismissive, but that’s far from my intention. The famous librarians often have a shtick or a brand they push: that’s the One Big Thing they know. It’s not that they don’t know other things, it’s just that for the sake of public consumption everyone associates them with the one big thing. When people want them to speak, it’s because they know the person can speak well about that One Big Thing, whatever it is. “You’re planning a panel on X? I heard so-and-so speak on X and she was fabulous!” I don’t think I even have to name names. Everyone can probably associate a few One Big Things with particular people. I’m almost positive some readers of this blog are themselves associated in the librarian hive-mind with one big thing.
I wouldn’t necessarily mind being associated with One Big Thing, but I have no idea what that thing would be. This presents a problem if I wanted to be famous. I know about a lot of topics, but I’m not sure there’s any library topic I know more about than any number of other librarians. Plus, I’m not very focused; just consider this blog. That has always my problem as an academic as well, which is partly why I’m now a librarian. I had too many intellectual interests to spend five years focusing on one of them long enough to get through exams and a dissertation, and I couldn’t find any way to reconcile them. Thus, I’m an intellectual dilettante who prefers the more neutral term of generalist.
About the only thing I do that other librarians don’t is think about certain library issues in unusual, irrelevant (and some might even say inappropriate) philosophical ways: for example, classical teleology and library missions, Rawlsian political philosophy and collection development, Aristotelian virtue ethics and reference work, Hayekian social theory and the Wikipedia (as well as, coming to you from a webcast at ACRL next spring, organizational development). While I may be able to cobble together a book one day, this is hardly the sort of approach that becomes a Big Thing. “Oh, you’re planning a conference on esoteric and impractical ruminations about librarianship? I saw Wayne speak on that at ACRL and he was fabulous!”
I’m definitely not envious, but I do admire the technique. I’m not envious because first, I don’t think being a famous librarian means that someone is any smarter or more capable or a better librarian or even any happier than me, and second, I would definitely rather stay home with the fam than do as much traveling as I know some librarians do. I have a good friend who has done library-related jaunts in China and Nigeria and other places, and while I admire her drive I don’t think I would like that life at all. Even with domestic travel, if it requires me to jam my long legs into an airplane seat, I’d usually rather stay home. However, there is something admirable about the ability to seize the day that some librarians have, to exploit the coincidence of the moment and their One Big Thing. Regardless of whatever abilities I might have, it’s clear I don’t have that particular ability. Whatever it is—the drive, the desire, the knack, the energy, the focus—I obviously don’t have, but definitely notice it in others and wonder if they feed on it and grow stronger, or if it all just seems old after a while. I suppose I’ll never know.
I like this, though maybe I’m just saying that because I could have written it. I often refer to librarianship as “the last refuge of the generalist”, and in a way I think it’s true.
It can also be frustrating–realizing how much there is to know, and how nobody can ever know all of it. And then I realize that that’s why we have disciplines and fields of study and scholarly communities, and then I feel a little better.
One thing that bugs me a bit is what feels like a strong bias toward social sciences-type research in our profession. When I studied research methods for my MLIS, that’s what it was all about–yet I’ve discovered from talking with an anthropologist on one of my faculty committees that I have only the barest notion of how social science research works.
My favorite scholar in the profession is Patrick Wilson. Maybe I should go back and get a philosophy degree, to better understand all this source criticism literature I’m reading.
I had a similar class, and learned just enough about social science methods to know that I’d never be doing any research like that and that many humanistically educated librarians weren’t doing it very well, either. That’s one reason I haven’t published much, and didn’t write much before I started this blog. There’s just not much space in the literature for humanistic writing. That’s why I like the blog. I can write what I like, and occasionally come up with something worth reading.
I almost wrote a comment yesterday beginning with essentially the same first sentence as Genevieve. But I was going to do a post on my own blog giving my own take on it. Still might happen, but maybe not just yet.
Your post is useful in understanding why I’m even less in demand as a speaker than I used to be: I’m not The Expert on anything. (Well, I also don’t do canned speeches or usually use PowerPoint, and may in fact be a mediocre speaker, but “not The Expert on anything” is kinder.) I’ve managed to assemble a reasonable writing career out of many different professional interests, but never had a single focus to earn guruhood.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
Guruhood. Good word. I’ll definitely never earn guruhood.
While you can definitely get some fame for one big thing that is usually only a temporary thing. I’ve seen speakers very quickly become the in demand speaker because they established some expertise for CD-ROM training or using RSS feeds. But once that one thing becomes yesterday’s news or is so saturated that no one wants to hear about it anymore the fame phase is pretty much over.
So there have probably been lots more one hit wonders in this profession than speakers or authors with real staying power. Walt is probably a good example of that because he can write or give you a presentation just about any topic you might have in mind. I much more admire those who have been able to adapt over the years to the changes in the profession, and develop new areas of expertise – even if they aren’t the famous ones. For those folks, I don’t think it gets old after a while. I think for them is about taking on the next challenge and taking it to the next level – for personal reasons and not to be famous. You get published in LJ. Next you aim for an article in American Libraries (or the other way around). You give a paper at your state conference. Why not try to get accepted at ACRL? There is probably always one thing beyond that you can try to do. Set it as a personal goal. Try to make it.
So to my way of thinking those who build a lasting reputation as a good, sought after speaker – call it fame if you will – are not about one big thing but a series of many different and perhaps smaller things. Personally I like the challenge of being asked to talk (or write) about something beyond the boundaries of what I normally cover – rather than always sticking to just one thing.
But I agree with you in that if you really want to gain the fame you have to be willing to constantly make yourself available and be willing to run to wherever to give a talk – that’s how Stephen Abrams does it I imagine. If you stick to a really limited number of talks and you say no, you probably won’t get asked that much and you don’t get the exposure.
don’t know how i found your blog, but i’m delighted to have found it. in college i took a career test that based its measures on matching the interests of the person taking the test with the interests expressed by more than a hundred professionals. i took the test twice, the first because i was in a 4th year i don’t-know-what-to-do-after-graduation crisis and the second time because i thought the test might have been hokey and looked at it like some magic 8 ball that would give me a more lucrative career the second time around. both times my interests matched librarians more than any other career. reading this post i see why i may be called to librarian work one day, being a jack-of-all-trades master of nothing.
just wanted to make clear that in my last post i refer to myself as a jack-of-all-trades master of nothing, not librarians in general. didn’t want to offend any librarians out there that regard themselves as hedgehogs. in short, i am a fox. then again that sounds conceited too.
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Wait, I wanna hear about Hayek and Wikipedia!
Andromeda, this post was so old I had to go back and reread it to make sure about the Hayek. A few years ago I gave a presentation at the virtual ACRL conference called Cultivate Your Bottom, using Hayek to make an argument for development of frontline staff. It took me a while to find the slides, but now I’ve posted them online here:
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