06 March 2008

Misconstrual of the month: naked librarians and involving buns

There must be a copy editor job vacancy at the office of Library review. How else to explain the driving sleet of slips, flubs, gaffes, muffs, typos, punctuation misfirings, and hair-raising solecisms in an article that appears in the most recent issue? With an effusive application of that endearing élan and derring-do of the "librarians rule" school to my professional bailiwick, two South Africans work up a mighty sweat as they trample hard over the conventions of English prose and punctuation in their contribution, The naked librarian: health librarians in the modern era [1].

Little more than a collection of boilerplate truisms and trite exhortations, this essay is a roll-up-your-sleeves call to action, a perky if not always entirely coherent ramble through the usual library science banalities, starting with that most hackneyed of clichés from the last couple of decades. Care to guess what it is? A phrase so familiar that we now hear it being solemnly intoned by bakers, candlestick makers and undertakers: "The only constant is change."

That, of course, is the famous quotation from Isaac Asimov. Nothing to misconstrue there. But back to our scantily attired article. For the next five pages we are marched out into the cold courtyard and put through a vigorous drill of platitudes and commonplaces:

Health information professionals have to envision the future and plan from there. We have to get rid of outdated ideas and revolutionize our way of thinking. Shrugging off the old coat of the stereotypical librarian, we must start off in our envisioned future, as 'naked librarians' turning into brand new and constantly evolving [sic].
After a laundry list of the challenges and obstacles, most of them "huge," facing health libraries in the "modern era," we are exhorted to "use the digital age" and "proactively anticipate the future implications." Once we have done all that "we will be educated in the latest technical lingo and sound just like computer scientists." (Now I know why I became a librarian.) But look at what else our naked chefs are cooking up: "One of the less mined (as yet) areas for us to explore and conquer, is how to make raw data available to everyone." Not even half-baked? Instead of worrying about a post-Google world we are exhorted in a memorably mixed metaphor to "step up to the plate, accept these challenges and go with the flow."

Now perhaps I'm being overly critical when I say that we librarians have really had enough of this. As Candy Hillenbrand wrote in her take on librarianship in the 21st century, "Desperate to slough off the old limiting stereotypes of the stern bespectacled cardigan-clad shushing controller of books, librarians are clamouring to convince themselves, each other and the wider community that there is far more to the humble librarian than meets the casual eye" [2]. Are we so hankering for attention that only disrobing ourselves in public will suffice?

Just what is this fixation on ripping off our tweedy garments and emerging unclad into the light, like Blake's Glad Day? Is some kind of mass psychosis making us want to run through the streets in puris naturalibus? I saw a sign the other day advertising evening classes in pole dancing. Is this part of some larger social pathology? Or have librarians been infected by the myriads of spores invisibly rising from the piles of discarded print materials in our denuded workplaces? What next? When the clothes are gone should we move on to trichotillomania? Please, let us put a stop to this depilatory process, expose the abuse, and doff this tired metaphor once and for all.

But back to the rapidly unravelling Steyn and de Wee. In the last section of their article they offer what I'm sure is meant to be an edifying quote from a newspaper column by Shelley Howells [3] that appeared five years ago in the New Zealand Herald. All very cute and fluffy in a condescending way, Howells' piece is an example of what has become a standard mass-media treatment of librarians. We are secret nonconformists, wise as serpents and clever as foxes. We are wily, rebellious and twee — not a stitch left of our old encumbrances. Here is Howells' opening sentence, as quoted by Steyn and de Wee:
Librarians rock. That reputation that they have involving buns, sensible shoes and shushing people is merely a cunning ruse, developed over centuries, to conceal their real lives as radicals, subversives and providers of extreme helpfulness.
At this point, having ploughed my way dutifully through the entire article, I had become accustomed to its many textual difficulties. I was beginning to understand the challenges faced by the squinting exegetes of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For here I was, rubbing my eyes in confusion. There was something very wrong with the passage. How to figure out the thats? What exactly were those buns? And how did involving buns relate to naked librarians? Flushed with curiosity, I decided to check the original newspaper article, hoping its text had not disappeared into the Internet Gehenna of 404 not-found error pages. I was lucky this time and found it. Here is what Shelley Howells actually wrote:
Librarians rock. That reputation they have involving buns, sensible shoes and shushing people is merely a cunning ruse, developed over centuries, to conceal their real lives as radicals, subversives and providers of extreme helpfulness.
The sharp-eyed among us will note immediately that in the original text there is no that after reputation. Oh what a difference one word can make! When I first read the sentence, Steyn and de Wee's slipshod insertion of the extraneous that in their quotation had thrown me off completely. It put a spanner in the syntactical works, so to speak, leading this innocent reader to think librarians' buns were being described in the same way as their shoes — with an adjective. The extra that altered the sentence's focus and led me to think impure thoughts. Was involving a typo for involuted? What would such buns look like? But then I was brought up short by the non-tensed verb phrase shushing people. It didn't seem to fit with the two previous attributes which I thought I was being told librarians possessed.

My apologies to those of you who aren't grammar buffs, but I have to get technical here. After seeng Howell's original text I was finally able to parse the sentence to my satisfaction. Buns is the object of the gerund involving, which may also be described as a non-tensed verb phrase with -ing participle. Buns is not the object of the verb have. Involving is the first word of a participial defining relative clause which tells us that which the reputation of librarians involves. It is not a participial adjective, as in these examples: dangling participles, burning buns, flaming idiots. For more information on all things participial, see the Cambridge grammar of English [4].

Confused by now? I certainly was. Dangled enough participles for today? I'm ready to hit the showers.

But Steyn and de Wee aren't finished yet. Feel the goosebumps rise as you thrill to their final rallying cry: "Let us shrug off our 'clothes' and get into the new gear of the future! ... From naked librarian to formidable information force."

Oh dear. It's -25 outside and I don't want to dangle for long. This radical subversive and provider of extreme helpfulness would much rather stay indoors and fully clothed, thank you.


1. Steyn C, de Wee JA. The naked librarian: health librarians in the modern era. Library review. 2007;56(9):797-802.

2. Hillenbrand C. Librarianship in the 21st century - crisis or transformation? Australian library journal [serial on the Internet]. 2005 [cited 2008 Mar 4];54(2):[about 5 p.]. Available from: http://www.alia.org.au/publishing/alj/54.2/full.text/hillenbrand.html

3. Howells S. The secret life of tattooed and belly-dancing librarians. New Zealand herald [serial on the Internet]. 2003 Nov 28 [cited 2008 Mar 4]. Available from: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/story.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=3536464

4. Carter M, McCarthy M. Cambridge grammar of English: a comprehensive guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006.