“Rockstarism” and Librarianship

Am I a rockstar librarian or just a rockstar? Doesn’t matter. L J just named me a Mover & Shaker even though I haven’t done shit. How awesome is that?!” – Mr. Library Dude

Like many fellow librarians this summer, I have been participating in Dave Lankes’ Master Course on the New Librarianship MOOC delivered through the iSchool at Syracuse University. Dave has also been interacting with participants and other interested professionals on Twitter using the #newlib hashtag. On Wednesday, Dave offered the following tweet:

@mciszek @librarian_kate I have no probs w rock stars who perform. My problem is with the entitled and jealous on the other end.

— R. David Lankes (@rdlankes) July 24, 2013

which set off a massive Twitter discussion about what I like to call “rockstarism” in librarianship and the role that Library Journal‘s (LJ) annual Movers and Shakers (M&S) list plays into this “-ism”. I captured the Twitter discussion in Storify and it can be found here, if you would like to get the background on this. I had promised in the Twitter conversation that I’d lay out my arguments against rockstarism and the issues I have with the M&S list, so here goes.

I’d like to first define rockstarism as the belief that in order for one to have professional worth, one must be “famous” or well renowned in the profession. Often this fame or renown comes without a body of work backing it up, leading some to wonder why a colleague is so “library famous” without ever “having done shit” as so eloquently put in the Rockstar Librarian quote above. Additionally, marking certain librarians as rockstars without a good explanation why the profession believes them to be rockstars leads to jealousy, hard feelings, and general animosity within professional circles. Rockstarism makes us bad colleagues, fame-driven professionals, and ultimately poorer librarians.

Don’t get me wrong, I think professional accolades are a great thing. Peer recognition is also something to be commended. We should highlight colleagues that are doing good work in libraries and in society and upholding the values and principles of librarianship. I also think that many librarians on the M&S list are doing just that, but there is a danger, as I describe below, in how this list is created and used in our profession. The M&S list is not the “end all, be all” of what makes a good librarian. Not by a long shot.

When the M&S list was first announced by LJ over 10 years ago, I thought that it was odd that a commercial trade magazine would be selecting professionals and holding them up as “the best and brightest” of librarianship. After all, LJ has a commercial interest in librarianship and is hardly either a “neutral party” or “peer driven”. LJ’s purpose is to sell advertising space and sell subscriptions to libraries and library professionals. In my dealings with LJ during my time in vendor-land, I know that LJ would often give better treatment of vendors who advertised heavily in the journal. It was very hard for small or up-and-coming vendors to get any “good press” unless they had a personal relationship with LJ and its writers and editors. While I don’t think that monetary economics are at play in who makes the M&S list, I suspect that those that have relationships with LJ staff or at institutions who have relationships with LJ staff could be given preferential treatment when the M&S list is formed.

Therefore, I think it’s fair to say that the M&S list is not a “peer recognition” award. While librarians and other library professionals nominate people for the M&S list, it is ultimately LJ staff who pick the finalist for the list. Journalists and editors are not peers with librarians, no matter their degree or interest in the profession. Peers typically are the same level, working in the same field, with the same values and interests. I see no way that we can call the M&S list a “peer recognition” award. Furthermore, for M&S to have more value to the profession, I would expect greater transparency on how the list members are chosen and the criteria used to create the list. List members tend to work in very tech heavy areas of librarianship and members on the list who are doing more cutting edge projects and work seem to be more represented on the list.

Additionally, I have heard the M&S list used in some very detrimental ways in the profession. Friends and colleagues tell stories of feeling worthless or dejected because they do good, solid librarianship on a daily basis, serving patrons and building the profession in positive ways, but are not in typical positions in tech, marketing, administration, and the like that garner interest from the M&S selection team. I know of two colleagues that have been nominated multiple times, yet have never made the list in over 10 years. I know of others who have had supervisors question their work because they were not a rockstar or on the M&S list yet. I know of at least 3 people who were on the list at various times, and lost their jobs, not because they were bad librarians, but because they were not living up to “rockstar” status.

So how do we fix this? How do we move away from rockstarism to recognizing librarians in a fair, transparent, equitable, peer-reviewed manner? Here are my suggestions:

  • Create an award or an annual list managed, reviewed, and granted by librarians to recognize exemplary work in the profession
  • Base this award or list on criteria honoring the values of the profession: Diversity, the Public Good, Intellectual Freedom, and the like
  • Be transparent in who is selecting the awardees and how they are being evaluated
  • Work harder as a profession to recognize the “unsung heroes” in our profession who may not be working in the “sexiest” of positions, but is providing top-notch service to patrons and improving the profession in a thousand small ways
  • Strive to value every member of the profession, regardless of accolades, as a professional and one called to this vocation of service to the public we call librarianship

Together we can combat rockstarism and truly honor those making a difference in the world and in our profession. We all need to “shake it up” and truly get “moving” to make this happen. Will you join me?

About Matthew Ciszek

Librarian and scholar at Penn State University, diversity advocate, LGBTQ activist, partner to Michael Wachter, parent to a mini schnauzer and all around nice guy!

Posted on July 26, 2013, in Librarianship, Profession and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I can only speak for myself, but there are a couple of things I’d like to point out, and I do think they apply to many library “rockstar” types.

    1. I didn’t strive to be recognized as a M&S. I did good things and worked hard to serve my organization and profession. I think that’s what most of us do. The fact that it because high profile enough to gain attention of nominators and LJ is secondary.

    2. I’ve been called a “rockstar”, but I didn’t ever call myself that. I mean, who does that? (Call yourself a rockstar) That’s a label people give you either because they’re trying to be complimentary or because they want to be sarcastic and tear you down (usually behind your back). Most of the “rockstars” I know in libraryland never gave themselves that title.

    3. LJ is trying to sell magazines by making a buzz. Which this does. So take their recognition for it for what it’s worth.

    4. I’m tired of talking about this, and I’m sick of the crap that gets heaped on the folks that win awards or have a high profile in libraries. To me, continuing this discussion heaps one more penalty onto the already huge mountain of punishment people in this industry get when they do great work and have the nerve to be proud of it.

    • Emily: Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your perspective and your comments. I doubt that anyone strives to become a M&S, and there are many great librarians and library workers on the M&S lists. While it may have seemed that my primary complaint was with the M&S list itself, I feel that how the list is used in the profession is the much bigger issue.

      I have seen some take on the mantel of rockstar and use it as a weapon to make others feel like crap. I have seen others feel like crap because they do great work and are stellar librarians, but never get nominated and are made to feel less of a professional by peers because of this. I have seen a handful of M&Sers who crack under the pressure of living up to expectations, or those in supervisory positions that look down upon those who do not make the list even though they are great librarians.

      I fully understand why LJ does this, and I do not pretend that they do this out of care for the profession or the public good. They’re a commercial enterprise, and M&S sells magazines. My issue is the importance that some sectors of the profession put on this award and the expectations that some who have won this accolade have faced.

      I will never heap scorn upon anyone winning an award, accolade, or recognition. I congratulate *all* those who have been named M&S. My discussion is not intended to heap scorn upon those who are M&S or Emerging Leaders or any other professional accolade. The point of discussing this now was to deflate the myth of rockstarism in the profession and to offer some solutions to move past this myth. I apologize if my post was heaping penalty on you or any of my cherished and valued colleagues in the field. If this is the case, please accept my sincere and deep apology.

  2. Matthew – Thank you for writing this and clearly stating your views on the subject. While I disagree, I do think it is a topic that should be discussed, and I especially liked your suggestions on how to move things in a better direction.

    I agree that a commercial trade magazine is an odd place to have an award. However, I have always thought of it like any magazine’s Top 10 of something (Businesses, Things to Look For, etc.).

    One question I have is on M&S being the “end all, be all” of award recognition. I have not encountered others sharing this believe. Where have you heard that this is indeed the crème de la crème of library awards?

    The suggestion without evidence that LJ is only awarding those that they have a relationship is unsettling. I’m not sure if you have heard or read something that has led you to this conclusion, and admittedly it’s an interesting angle, but I would like to hear how you have come to this conclusion before I start grilling LJ on their process.

    As for the “peer recognized” label, I’m torn. I agree that the winners being chosen by the staff isn’t process I’d deem most fair, but I do think it can still be considered a “peer recognized” award if the nominees come purely from peer recommendations. In my mind, technically, it’s an accurate term.

    I have never encountered anyone that has been ill treated because they have not won a M&S award, but that is not to say it hasn’t happened. However, I’m not sure what a good solution would be to stop that line of thinking except to try and get the people who think like that out of a supervisory position. Even if we followed your suggestions (which, again, I think are steps inthe right direction) there still would be those that say, “Look, you didn’t get on this list of recognition. We need to let you go.” I feel the basis that determines if someone keeps their job is if they are contributing to the mission of the library and furthering the services to their community, not awards.

    Finally, and this is what bothers me the most about the debate over the M&S Award, is that who exactly knows who should be recognized or not? The people that have previously won did something that their peers recognized and admired, so they decided to nominate that person. I’ve read such vitriol flung at those that have won, people saying that they are not deserving. But how would they know exactly? And yes, SO many people in this profession, whether they are actually professionals or not, do outstanding work and should be recognized.

    I’m not sure what is a more fair and balanced way to recognize those in the profession. Your suggestions might be the way to do it, but I think there still would be a backlash because people would question why THEY weren’t given recognition for what they do. I agree with more transparency about the process, I agree that those that are recognized for things they did not do is wrong, but I’m not sure we can determine, in this profession, what deserves recognition over others. Either there will be an imperfect system (like now) or no recognition at all.

  3. Ryan: Thank you for your insights and contributing to the conversation. I wrote this post not to heap scorn or ridicule on the M&S list or those who have been named to the list. I support and welcome any professional accolades. My point, rather, was to call out those who use this list in ways that I feel are anything but professional.

    As far as how the M&S list is being perceived, used, and thought of as the “top of the profession”, I offer the following links to commentary over the years:

    http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/article/my-professional-heroes
    http://magpielibrarian.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/i-neither-move-nor-shake-on-awards-and-front-linetrenches-librarians/
    http://libraryattack.com/?p=353
    http://freerangelibrarian.com/2008/03/19/movers-and-shakers-and-candlestick-makers/

    A Google search of “movers shakers library” will offer a bevvy of press releases and write-ups about various M&Ss over the years where LJ is praised for being “among the most trusted sources in the profession”. I think the idea that the M&S is important to the profession is well established.

    As far as some M&Ss having a relationship with LJ outside the award, I prefer not to call individuals out in a public manner. I will say that in at least two of the bios I read for last years’ M&S list, there was a mention of how a spouse or partner was a reviewer or staffer for LJ. This is what leads me to this conclusion.

    I’m not going to split hairs about whether the M&S list is truly a “peer recognition” or not, but the standard of peer review, as I understand it, would truly mean that librarians would be selecting those on the list. How hard would it be for LJ to set up an advisory committee of librarians and library staff to pick the winners? If that were the case, I’d be much happier calling M&S a “peer recognition”.

    I agree that recognition awards are always going to have “winners” and “those who did not win”, and I the only great idea I have to make this more “equitable” is to have librarians and library staff in the position to chose those receiving the accolade. I also think that having a clear and detailed criteria for selection is another great step.

    Finally, I do agree with you that imperfect recognition is better than no recognition at all. I think as librarians and as professionals, we can do better to fix imperfections and make these type of awards better. We’ll never be perfect, no award or recognition ever is, but we can do better.

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