07 November 2007

Hospital librarians and blogging: conversation or ventriloquism?

Over the past few days I have been reflecting on the recent exchange about hospital librarian participation in the great blog rolling contest. It all started with Melissa Rethlefsen's analysis of the results of the MLA’s social networking survey, according to which hospital librarians are not thronging in sufficient numbers to the blog world, nor are we sufficiently contrite, it seems, for this imprudent lack of interest.

It is generally expected that we should always believe what we read in surveys, as this makes them more interesting. What hay is there to be made from the numbers? Are we a bunch of sad sacks and schlemiels stuck in the Edsel era of librarianship, faded as the cover of a Harlequin romance? Are our work lives a permanent code blue? Are we on the losing side in the class struggle? Has the mirror crack'd from side to side?

Why are we not out with the web and floating wide, like our academic cousins? As a hospital librarian and an academic, I would like to bring my own perspective to the matter. I believe I can speak out of both sides of my mouth ... No, let's try that again. I believe I can save both my faces ... Wait a moment. That doesn't sound right either. Anyway, I'll try to speak blog from my own experience.

We don't want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward. (J. Danforth Quayle)

A disappointed David Rothman asked the question What do hospital librarians have against blogs? (24 Oct 2007). The Krafty Librarian explained the dearth of colleagues in the biblioblogosphere in terms of (a) time constraints, (b) insolent IT departments, and (c) the related implications for suicidality. With his usual incisiveness T. Scott summarized the issue in his comment on that post: "Hospital librarians don't feel that they have as much flexibility over their time, and they don't have as much control over the elements of IT that matter the most to them. . . . Maybe the most important difference is that many hospital librarians don't have the daily support of creative colleagues to help spur their own creativity."

Dean Giustini, in his Blog Malaise post (1 Nov 2007), wonders why there are so few bloggers emerging from the ranks of health librarians, lamenting: "We've had maybe a handful of new medical librarian bloggers in the last calendar year" (yours truly included). Pointing to a lack of scholarly literature about blogging and reflective practice in our profession, he presses a number of hot buttons:
It could be that many librarian bloggers are tired of blogging — and blogged right out. Some have abandoned the practice of daily blogging almost completely. Perhaps it didn't make sense to them to engage in all the chit-chat, or perhaps they didn't get the point or the hang of it in the first place. Other bloggers are not engaged enough in critical reflection of their blogging. . . . Blogging loses its purity and purpose when we focus on remix and pointing readers to existing content elsewhere; for heaven's sake, make some observations of the content you point to!
I can hardly disagree with this, although I have reservations about the reference to blogging's "purity and purpose." (I can see the Chinese government handily making use of that expression.) I would maintain that its very lack of purity and purpose is what made blogging catch on in the first place. All the same, what we have here is a plea for more and better blogs in health sciences librarianship. I can support that.

Blogs are swiftly becoming as important to librarians professionally as the published literature, but they require some effort and the occasional bedewed brow. Blogging should come from a genuine interest in and desire to contribute; and a blog should be something more than an exchange of twaddle and a clickathon of easy links, accompanied by an expletive of glee or otherwise. "Blogging should be an extension of our critical-reflective practices," says Dean Giustini. Right on. I would add, to paraphrase Gore Vidal: Blogging is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.

Ratcatcher entered the debate a few days later, disposing nicely of the "I'm-too-busy" excuse. This invidious, passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace is a defensive adaptation that points directly to an aberration in the evolution of the human brain — a malformation somewhere in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or possibly an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of an underdone potato. The pessimism of some is countered with a reminder that there has actually been an upsurge in medical librarian blogging, something Ratcatcher finds really exciting. I do too.

C'est si difficile!

Having reviewed the thoughtful discussion of my colleagues, I guess it's time to add an idea or two of my own. It's so hard to know where to start. As I began to gather my own scattered thoughts about the web reticence of hospital librarians, I was distracted by some incoming RSS feeds about contamination in the work place. Is it something in the air that makes setting up a Wordpress or Blogger account look so frightfully complicated? Are hospital librarians inhaling something else along with their scented tea? I considered the recent research on ultrafine particles from office printers and Dr. Michelle Alfa's study of the horrifying swarms of C. difficile found to be colonizing most hospital toilets (the latter research project worryingly performed in my very building.) Then I thought about Theodoric of York, who would say we're not blogging enough because we have a toad or possibly a small dwarf living in our stomachs. Not convinced, you say? I didn't find anything in UpToDate either. So I wiped my hands of it all and moved on.

What a terrible thing to have lost one's mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is. (J. Danforth Quayle)

Could the ultimate explanation be found in another malaise: the sense of futility so well expressed in Dean Giustini's post? I thought back to something I read more than twenty years ago in The Listener (March 20, 1986):
The common belief that librarianship is a career is entirely mistaken. It is, like chartered accountancy, a disease which infects its victims with a morbid sense of the futility of life. In the case of accountants, the cause is obvious — it stems from being privy to the pathetic devices by which clients hope to evade the attentions of the Inland Revenue. In the case of librarians, the malaise is more mysterious in origin, but it must have something to do with working in institutions which are, in effect, cold stores for human thought. Staring at serried ranks of unread, or rarely read, books, it must be hard not to be overcome by a feeling that human life is ultimately a waste of time.
Is librarianship bad for our mental health? I'm sure that no one becomes a librarian in the conviction that life is futile, although, like accountants, we too are privy to the pathetic devices by which human beings seek to evade the inevitable: in our case, due dates, accumulating fines, and — ultimate indignity — the bill for a lost book. Consider the tedium of health libraries. All those gruesomely illustrated texts shelved in the W's, all those back issues of Gut. It is exquisite ennui, but sanity requires us to remain mute. That ours may not be the world's most exciting profession must go unmentioned, like rope in a hanged man's home. Yet how profound is our fatigue as we bang on about EBM resources to a roomful of ABH (anywhere but here) medical residents. How bored we are shuffling our 13,000 del.icio.us tags or enduring numerous PubMed arrhythmias in our literature search on Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. How stale the dainties we offer at our open houses and the pointless circumlocutions of the latest strategic plan. Then, just when we have managed to free up a few hours to experiment with Utterz or hooeey, we must hurry off to a dreaded meeting, where minutes are taken and hours wasted. In these ways we have all felt deeply a morbid sense of the fatuity of things.

Stuck in a dank basement steps away from the morgue's cadaver fumes, hospital librarians can be particularly susceptible to this affliction. Why blog, when no one may be listening (certainly not the neighbours), when whatever enthusiasms or insights left in you are like a handful of feathers thrown into the Grand Canyon? Waiting for an echo: that is futility. In The Art of Preserving Health Dr. John Armstrong, whose peculiar poetic talents I have already noted in a previous post, casts his splenetic eye on the fate of the lonely librarius medicus in the cold store of human thought:
Chiefly where solitude, sad nurse of care,
To sickly musing gives the pensive mind,
There madness enters; and the dim-eyed fiend,
Sour melancholy, night and day provokes
Her own eternal wound. The sun grows pale;
A mournful visionary light o'erspreads
The cheerful face of nature: earth becomes
A dreary desert, and heaven frowns above.

Life has become the ideology of its own absence. (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia)

Sour indeed is the fate of the isolated, overworked and left behind. But, joking and poetic fromage aside, this alone cannot be the full explanation for the so-called blogging malaise, which if it exists is really a manifestation of a larger problem. Let us move away from the individual for a moment, and get serious. Many hospital librarians work for institutions that are large, impersonal, extremely complex, and decidedly unfree and undemocratic. Look at one of the comments on David Rothman's original post, which I think comes close to where I'm trying to go with this: "There are a lot of 2.0 tools that I use in my personal life, that I would LOVE to use at work, but have been essentially forbidden from even thinking about it."

Forbidden from even thinking about it. There is an Adorno-like bleakness to this kind of self-closure, the slate-clearing via negativa of manufactured assent, the always-already-erased expression of crimethink. ("In an all-embracing system conversation becomes ventriloquism." — Minima Moralia; "Life has become the ideology of its own absence." — Ibid.) I'll be accused of sophomoric philosophizing, but this, it seems to me, is where we come uncomfortably close to what really lies behind the inhibition preventing many hospital librarians from speaking out, whether among colleagues at work, in print, or in the blogosphere. I'm not talking about the common concerns over the quality of one's writing, saying something foolish (that's my specialty), not being interesting enough, or not being cool with computers.

Except for the odd overworked solo operation with only a dial-up modem, it is not really time or technology that stifles creativity. I would not entirely attribute it to the enervated state of being "blogged-out" and palely loitering in the arid interstices of Web 2.0. Nor is it merely a lack of collegial support. Blogging is not ultimately the issue at all. What is the essence of this ideology of its own absence?

Hospital librarians are often not free and do not feel free to express themselves, especially in large institutions. They must conform, both in dress and manner, to management strategies that tend to include the librarian as little more than clerical support for clinical and research priorities. As Adorno would put it, thinking no longer means any more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think. That, at any rate, has been my experience. There are exceptions, of course. Witness the many articulate and successful hospital librarians. Yet I would maintain that the time for independent hospital libraries is over. When my library joined the University I expected, and to a great extent found, a more nurturing professional climate — and other librarians. That really helped. Academic hospital librarians benefit from faculty status and an environment congenial to intellectual expression. But it's not exactly magic. By and large we are still isolated geographically, and we miss out on that all-important daily contact with co-workers. Universities also have their own ranks of snaggle-toothed IT Orcs and querulous, distracted superiors. Much therefore depends, as T. Scott points out, on the level of support from administration. This is a point I want to explore more thoroughly.

In a state of complete powerlessness individuals perceive the time they have left to live as a brief reprieve. (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia)

Whether we work miles away or two doors down from the big boss, hospital librarians need to be plugged into the power mains. While there is no lack of creative ferment in most of us, if we do not have the support of administration and are denied authentic participation in the life of the organization, more than our motivation is cut off. Since the consolidation of all of Winnipeg's hospital libraries with the University of Manitoba, my co-workers and I have benefited enormously, and so have our patrons. We got connected, and not just to fantastically expanded online resources. I would say there has been a significant cultural change that has encouraged intellectual expression, experimentation in the life of the web, collaboration, and taking chances — it's like graduating from Harlequin to an Ivy League press. This year we joined our colleagues in fighting for and winning academic freedom and annual research leave for librarians in our new Collective Agreement.

University libraries face many challenges, and I welcome them. But as we remake ourselves, collegiality and participation in governance remain crucial. If these means of empowerment are denied us, creative professional work can be pursued only with great perseverance and often at odds with superiors. Without an invigorating dialogue between management and staff, the life of the workplace feels like Adorno's desolate brief reprieve. In whatever form — group projects, teaching, research, writing or webbing — the work of librarians must be nourished and sustained by a listening, caring, collaborative leadership. Otherwise people dry up and the workplace is a dreary desert. In the worst situations, when a regime becomes absolutist, secretive and petulant, people are silenced, conversation becomes ventriloquism, morale plummets, and a baleful inertia predominates. Where staff are corralled and herded into passivity they stay safely and quietly preoccupied with routine tasks. This management style may work well on an alpaca ranch, but in libraries it does little to encourage achievement or profound reflection about our work and our role in the institution.

If there is indeed a blogging malaise amongst health librarians — and I hope we will all be evidence to the contrary — we should look to our organizational culture as the cause. Librarians blog for so many reasons: to participate in the information revolution, to communicate with like-minded colleagues, to grow in the profession, or simply to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind. Libraries that foster a culture of participative governance and collegiality are already revolutionary. They get people talking, contributing, reflecting, writing, laughing. I think the blogging future is here; it's just not distributed evenly.

Those who have laughter on their side have no need of proof.

I'm finished. I just wanted to end this with a happier quote from His Bleakness.


Melissa Rethlefsen said...

Such drama.

"It all started with Melissa Rethlefsen's analysis of the results of the MLA’s social networking survey, according to which hospital librarians are not thronging in sufficient numbers to the blog world, nor are we sufficiently contrite, it seems, for this imprudent lack of interest.

It is generally expected that we should always believe what we read in surveys, as this makes them more interesting. What hay is there to be made from the numbers?"

To be slightly more picky than I'd like to be, I don't think that I or anyone else from the task force made that claim that our results are applicable to anyone but the survey respondents. Nor do I recall concluding anything from the survey, particularly in regards to contriteness. That's where the bloggers come in--drawing their own conclusions. The survey was designed to gauge where the task force should put their efforts, but I just happen to really enjoying making hay from those numbers, so I did. And apparently, it can generate a lot of discussion. :)

Great post, by the way! I found your discussion of librarians and malaise extremely interesting. Is librarianship bad for our mental health? It's a good question.

D.L. said...

"A disappointed David Rothman asked the question What do hospital librarians have against blogs?"

I wouldn't say I was "disappointed". Just curious what might account for the difference.

Thanks for the interesting post, Mark. :)

Karen said...

I just wanted to say I'm glad you avoid both ideological truculence and plodding nugacity. Because those are TOTALLY my pet peeves. ;)

Karen from otstudents.blogspot.com ;)