On Big Name Librarians

While catching up with my RSS feeds after ACRL and trying to avoid all the horrible news being reported this week I ran across a post by Jessica Olin at Letters to a Young Librarian about Cults of Librarian Personalities. It addresses “the Rock Star Librarian / Cults of Librarian Personalities phenomenon.” Apparently, there was a Rock Star Librarian who spoke at ACRL and I didn’t even realize it, or at least someone Jessica considers a “Big Name in Libraries, a Rock Star Librarian, an inspiration for a Cult of Librarian Personality.” I took a quick look through the conference program to try to figure out who she means, but since she also thinks the person is an “utter tool,” it’s probably best not to speculate, at least in public.

The thing is, I have different reactions to such people depending on whether we think of them as Big Names in Libraries, Rock Star Librarians, or the leader of a Cult of Librarian Personality. The phrase “rock star” applied to any librarians has always struck me as sort of funny. In the big scheme of things, librarians are such relatively marginal professionals that to think of any of them being actually famous is strange. What librarian could say, echoing Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ve seen a millions faces, and I’ve provided information to them all!” A cult of librarian personality is maybe even stranger. Do librarians have groupies? Or dedicated groups of admirers? Fan clubs? Or even people who dote on their every word? I’m not aware of any who do. Or is the suggestion that there are some librarians who would like a cult of personality to form around them? That might be true, if a bit creepy. Maybe the problem some people have isn’t with Rock Star Librarians as such, but with librarians who are deliberately seeking to be Rock Stars. On the other hand, groupies would be nice, if for no other reason than carrying my stuff around for me at conferences.

Then there’s the Big Name in Libraries designation, which seems to me much less loaded a phrase. But what makes a Big Name in Libraries? The Big Name at ACRL apparently writes articles, blog posts, and books, and also obviously speaks at conferences. Is that what makes someone a big name? I do that kind of thing but wouldn’t consider myself a Big Name. Maybe the Big Name has to be somebody on the conference circuit. I’ve done some speaking at conferences, and am slated to do some more (ALA Annual 2014 about library values; put it on your calendar!), but I don’t try hard to get speaking gigs. In fact, I rarely speak unless invited, and I’m just not invited that much. So the Big Names are probably those who you can’t go to a conference without escaping, whereas I am imminently escapable. Everyone can just not read a blog, but if you go to ALA or ACRL, there are names it’s hard to avoid seeing if you look through the conference programs, even if you never go hear those people speak. Those are the people I usually think of as Big Names. But are they Big Names because they’re speaking all over the place, or are they speaking all over the place because they’re Big Names?

Or is it the people who have a “brand”? I’ve written before about fame and hedgehog librarians, the librarians who know One Big Thing (or rather, are publicly known for knowing One Big Thing). Sometimes these librarians seem to spring from nowhere to librarian fame quickly and almost without effort. They do just the right thing at the right time, and suddenly everyone wants to hear from them. And sometimes these librarians are just persistent, even if ultimately no one cares about their One Big Thing. Persistence counts for a lot. If you have a coherent message and write enough and apply to speak at conferences enough, eventually you’ll be heard, or at least seen. You’ll at least be “famous” as that librarian who always speaks and writes about that One Big Thing. That post was written almost five years ago, and back then I opined that I’d never be librarian famous because I couldn’t stick to One Big Thing. Even though since then I’ve managed to write a book about libraries, and have even identified a couple of areas I could make into One Big Things if I chose, I think that analysis probably still holds up. I don’t have the concentration for the One Big Thing, but I do think that’s what helps make Big Name Librarians.

Jessica asks in her conclusion, “What do you all think of this phenomenon? Do you avoid Big Name Librarians at all cost? Seek them out because you love to hate them? Have a true fondness for one or more of them?”

I think it’s less of an issue than some librarians might, and I tend to see the so-called Big Name Librarians as people passing through the limelight on the way back to relative obscurity. Sure, some will stay well known throughout their careers, but even in my brief time in the profession (if 13 years can be considered brief), I’ve already seen some stars shoot and then fade away. Plus, in the end they’re still librarians going back to their libraries and doing the same sort of jobs we all do. I definitely don’t think about Big Names enough to avoid or hate them. It wouldn’t occur to me to like or dislike someone for being popular at the moment, although I might avoid them because advocates of One Big Thing tend to grow stale after a while.

I need to reorganize my home library soon. Now I’m thinking librarian groupies would be perfect to help with that. Maybe I should reconsider the librarian fame game.

3 thoughts on “On Big Name Librarians

  1. Pingback: Library Schism: How Do Librarians Define Their Profession? | Eduhacker

  2. Thanks for further fleshing out my ideas. My post was written in response to watching certain behaviors at ACRL, but I was also thinking about interactions I’d had prior to that conference with these librarians who, as you so succinctly put it, “you can’t go to a conference without escaping.” I know people who do love to hate them. Personally, I can take them or leave them. I listen to their ideas, find the pieces that work for me, and move on.

    Again, thanks Wayne.

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