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.