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I Don’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing

25/03/2014

After roughly ten years of working with marginally library-esque things, I’ve finally become an academic librarian.

Which got me thinking about how I got here: a decade of banging the gong of Open Access, advocating the virtues of Open Source software, trying to start my own company, writing software for both public and private organizations, and just generally trying to make the world a better place in the small way that I’m passably equipped. And in that time, I’ve come to the growing conclusion that the library profession is broken. I’ve tried to share this message as clearly and as widely as my little circle of influence has allowed, and it has always been surprisingly well-received. I am, it seems, not the only one who feels this way.

Let me step back for a moment. I have dysthymia, which basically means I spend much of my time trying to convince my brain that I don’t actually want to kill myself. It also makes socializing remarkably difficult — something which I managed for several years by living as a recluse and working from home as a contractor. What I’ve come to learn more recently is that it also affords a liberating sense of perspective; never knowing whether today is the day I pitch myself in front of the subway train has a way of doing that. It was Steve Jobs who famously said,

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

So when I say things like “the library profession is broken” or “this software is total crap” or “vendors are largely greedy bastards”, some may see them as exaggerated or melodramatic. In fact, what they are is honest, authentic, and unfiltered. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. They are simply how I see the world, and I don’t care what you think of that, because I am going to die. I have nothing to lose.

In the past year, however, something strange happened. I started working in a real library, with real people. I had to interact with them every day. I had to pretend I wasn’t a self-hating emotionless robot. And they were nice. They barely even knew me! How could they be so nice? And I made friends on Twitter, more than I have in my physical life, and they were nice. They lived in different countries on different continents in different timezones, and when I was overwhelmed by my life and had to retreat and focus on staying alive, these stranger-friends said “hey, I don’t know you, but I hope you’re OK. I would love to help if I can.”

To them I say: thank you.

And somehow I managed to survive not just in the world, but as part of it. And what always seemed to buoy these connections was when I said these blunt, candid things. People called them inspirational and provocative and thoughtful, which was a bit bewildering, but always positive. So I think I should probably keep doing that.

The library profession is broken, in a myriad of ways that any single librarian could recount. It is insular. It is conformist. It is conservative. My goal is to help facilitate and hasten the transition of this sick and dying patient into the afterlife, and I suspect once again there are others who feel the same way. As I’ve learned, there are wonderful and smart and brave and insecure and frightened people who are fighting through their own battles to make the world a better place in the small way that they can. They love the ethos of libraries as I do, if not the profession.

To them I say: be unafraid, you are going to die.

As Dorothea Salo said so beautifully: aim to misbehave, because believe me, sisters, brothers, I got your back for as long as I’m around.

A Call to Arms

13/01/2013

Aaron Swartz has committed suicide.  He was 26.

Unlike many people trying to make sense of this upsetting news who were close to him, I only corresponded with Aaron a handful of times during some work with the Open Library.  I cannot attest to the person that Aaron was; but I can say with some certainty that I know the kind of person that he was.  He was very much a “hacker” in the original sense, and not at all a “hacker” in the contemporary, usually criminal sense.  It’s important to me to explain this, because the media, intentionally or not, usually gets it wrong.

I know the kind of person Aaron was because, like myself and many of my friends and colleagues (eg. in the Code4Lib culture), he was a child of the Internet.  Someone who got involved as a young teenager in an environment that could be changed, built upon, improved.  Someone who possessed that crazy, reckless naive optimism that all that was required to make things better was to take direct action.  And for reasons that don’t matter now, Aaron was one of the few who, probably inadvertently but certainly deservingly, gained some notoriety for his work.  What is most crucial to understand is that he had the honesty, the courage, the sheer gall to look at something and say: this is wrong and it needs to be made right.

Others who were more intimately involved in his legal situation, both personally and professionally, have already commented on the morality of his actions, and the simple, obvious fact is that the proposed penalty — three decades in a prison with rapists and murderers — is far, far more immoral than any act Aaron was ever capable of conceiving.  Even the organization that he essentially gave a digital middle finger to, JSTOR, has been relatively civil and respectful about these sad events (discussion).  What is truly disturbing is the hypocrisy in such an aggressive prosecution from a country that proclaims “bullying is bad” and “freedom is good”.

None of us will ever know why he decided to take his own life, but as someone who has struggled occasionally for years with my own depressive demons and sometimes missteps of judgement, I can understand how someone facing Aaron’s plight would see no other option.  That the actions of a corrupt publication industry, a damaged political system, and a backwards legal system, would unthinkingly drive a powerful young contributor to the global information commons of our time to that point; it makes explicit what many of us children of the Internet have quietly known for some time: this is an act of war.  Those of us who have dedicated our lives to openness, to learning, to sharing, to freedom — we have lost a comrade and a brother in the name of lobbyism and profiteering.

As others have said, “the dead are dead. Expressing love for their memory, support for the person, doesn’t have much value, because they are not here to receive it”.  Aaron proved that actions matter, and now more than ever, when our opponents have blood on their hands, we must channel our sadness and anger into action.  I never knew Aaron, but I was glad to know that he existed, someone with the talent and the chutzpah to do what is right.  Now he is gone, because we let him down.

Aaron’s death is wrong, and it needs to be made right.