“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?

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