The P&L Sheet
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Has the emergence of rock star librarians hurt
our professional discourse?
Every few months the notion of celebrity librarians (cele- brarians?), sometimes em- barrassingly referred to as “rock star librarians,” appears on our radar. Who are these librarians? Look no further than your local,
state, or regional conference, where one
of them is likely delivering the keynote
speech, typically with the message that
libraries must change to avoid extinction—this, despite our burgeoning usage
statistics and the obvious exhaustion of
the audience members sitting in front of
them, worn out from toiling in overused
and understaffed libraries.
Such library stars typically cultivate
large followings on social media, especially Twitter, where they exercise great
sway. And while it’s not exclusively a boys’
club, it sure seems like a disproportionate
number of these stars are white men.
These star librarians often come under
attack these days, especially when the
guys behave badly. In May, Stephen
Abram, a conference mainstay, jokingly
trotted out Dan Aykroyd’s “Jane, you
ignorant slut” while moderating a recent
panel at the Canadian Library Association. It wasn’t funny on Saturday Night
Live back in 1977, and it certainly isn’t
funny today. Abram’s remark, and his
subsequent apology, drew a firestorm
that all but drowned out the coverage of
CLA’s other program items.
And recently, Joe Murphy—a young
star of the conference circuit—faced a
barrage of criticism over a defamation
suit he initiated against two librarians in
Canada. According to the Statement of
Claim, one librarian had posted a tweet
suggesting that Murphy was a “sexual
predator” while another had published a
blog post making, to quote the suit,
“additional false, libelous, highly dam-
aging, outrageous, malicious statements
against the plaintiff alleging the com-
mission of sexual harassment and sexual
abuse of women.” Murphy is seeking
$1.25 million in damages. The case has
become a bit of a cause célèbre, and a
petition asking Murphy to drop his suit
has reportedly attracted over 1,000 sig-
Both Abram and Murphy blew up
social media among librarians, and on
the positive side, they succeeded in generating long overdue discussions about
gender and privilege, power and harassment. You would think these issues
would be meaty enough to keep the
library community engaged for months.
But no, the conversation has also turned
to an examination of the nature of “
celebrity” in libraryland—and the social
media–driven star system that can propel
people into positions of great professional influence.
Many librarians are quick to point to one
major source for the star system: Movers
& Shakers, Library Journal’s annual issue
celebrating librarians. But I think pointing a finger at Library Journal is just silly.
(Full disclosure: I was an editor at Library
Journal when Movers & Shakers began in
2002, and over the years I wrote many of
the profiles and sometimes edited the
publication. My observations here, how-
ever, are from after 2011, when I had left
the magazine and returned to library
I love Movers & Shakers. To me, the
program opens up library buildings and
tells the stories of the dynamic people
working inside them. Suddenly librarians are visible, and stories of innovation
can be told in the context of an individual’s life, stories which we don’t get to
hear about often enough. Even in the age
of Facebook and Twitter, where it sometimes seems the entire library community is in one continuous discussion, I
always discover new people and projects
in Movers & Shakers.
What surprises me, however, is the
amount of tsuris the annual announcement of Movers & Shakers generates.
Many librarians who have been moving
and shaking for years—and who should
be secure enough without the recognition—still carry a chip on their shoulder
that they’re not included. Meanwhile,
the generic blog post about “why I’m
okay with not being a mover and shaker”
has become all too common.
There’s regular debate on the effect
that being a Mover & Shaker has on
careers, as well as the selection process.
And Movers themselves don’t always
have it so easy—some have reported that
the recognition has caused them some
But I guess such uneasiness is inevitable. Librarianship has always had a
deep strain of selflessness, a placing of the
institution above the person. We’re a bit
like the Abnegation faction in Divergent.