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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.

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