IOLUG speaker’s notes on online identity

Ages ago I promised some librarians I’d post my speaker’s notes for my IOLUG presentation on online identity.  Here they are, behind the jump.  It’s pretty true to what I said that day; I tend to paraphrase off these writings rather than read straight from them, and this version is missing some anecdotes, but the core of it is there.

Speaker’s notes from IOLUG presentation, 11/13/2009

Jenica P. Rogers, Director of Libraries, SUNY Potsdam

Slide 1: Yes, you ARE speaking in public: Some implications of  building a personal and professional online presence

I’m not going to talk about why having an online identity matters.  I’m not going to stand here and try to convince you that having an online presence is a good idea.  I’ll tell you this up front though:  Without my online identity, I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you.  Chadwick Seagraves put my name forward for this talk because of my online identity.  Though he and I have shared many a meal and beer at conferences since then, we met online.

As a result of my own experiences,  I think that having an online identity, if you are an information professional, is an incredibly worthwhile endeavor.  We are responsible for our own development as professionals, and as a profession, and the communities of practice I’ve found online are astonishingly rich and incredibly beneficial.

Our users are also exploring and inhabiting these spaces, building online presence and identity, and how can you serve users you do not understand?  One way to understand them is by going to where they are, and they are online.

Please also take it as a given that I do understand the digital divide; I live in an extremely rural part of upstate New York, serving the most economically depressed part of my state.  Our students are behind the technology curve for infrastructure and economic reasons.  I, in fact, have a librarian who can’t get more than dial-up at home, so doesn’t bother with owning a home computer.  So I do know that when I speak in broad generalizations about where our users are, I know there are exceptions.

Please take that as a given as I continue speaking; it’s not what I’m going to focus on, but I don’t want those messages to be lost.

Slide 2: Who am I? Google me.

So, normally I’d have a brief “Hi, I’m Jenica” slide here.  It’s my pattern.  But since we’re talking about online identity, here’s a new pattern.  If you’ve got a laptop, feel free to Google me and follow along.  You’re likely to find this headshot — it’s the one I sent to Library Journal for the 2009 M&S spread, so it’s getting a lot of link love.  I do, in fact, look like that, as several people have told me recently when they introduced themselves to me at conferences.

Slide 3: My professional blog

If you’ve spelled my name right, you’ll find my professional blog.  Again with the photo, and this time with a bio, so you’ll learn that I’m a cataloger and collection development librarian by trade, and a manager by desire.  My CV is there, so you can track my career path, my education, my involvement in the SUNY Librarian’s Association, my work on strategic planning committees on my campus, my volunteerism.  You’ll also find my presentation history, so you’ll see that I’ve been very interested in integrating new technologies into academic libraries, and have talked extensively on the topic.

Slide 4: Professional writing

Either from Google or from the blog, you can find my professional writing.  Between these and the blog, you’ll get a good solid sense of how I write, what I care about, and what I’ve taken a stand on.  So far, so good, right?  You’re building a sense of who this librarian is, her skill set, her interests, her accomplishments.

Slide 5: Other Google-able facts

What else is super-easy to find?  More professional quality head-shots, and some nice true facts from a combination of Blogger, LinkedIn, Amazon profiles, LJ and my blog.

Slide 6: So far, nothing complicated

The details are good, I’ve found — people like knowing, after they see my smiling baby-face, that I’m 33.  The youth of my face and the relative shortness of my career leave people wanting to pin me down; so there you go.  I’m 33.  Additionally, we’re librarians, so we like knowing people’s reading habits.  We can’t help it. Generally speaking, we like humanizing details.  We want more than just the CV.

Slide 7: Facebook

So let’s keep moving.  You’re still curious about this woman who was invited to speak today.  Facebook comes up on the first page of Google results.  Again, it has my LJ headshot, two local friends, one friend from high school, a cousin, and two librarians.  Links to the UW-Madison SLIS page, the Library 101 project, and the sadly now-defunct Uncontrolled Vocabulary… and Barack Obama.  You’ve learned more about me – about my grad school, my interests inside the profession, and my politics — but still within the “humanizing and personable” category.

If you were a Facebook friend of mine, on the other hand, you’d see far more stuff – as would my mother, my cousins, my friend from when I was 5, my former boss, a handful of my staff, and massive collection of librarians and other friends.  Facebook is the great confuser, the great blurr-er of lines, the thing which will doom librarians and their love of categorization.  Facebook wants us all to live one big open life, personal, professional, all of it blurred together.

But I’ll get back to that later.

Slide 8: Twitter

Twitter, the ubiquitous short-messaging site.  It links to Attempting Elegance, has my Cindi Trainor headshot again.  Has some personal blather, but you’ll also see that my network is largely librarians.

And you’ll also see that I’ve blurbed myself as “superhero in training”.  So now you’ve probably got my sense of humor pegged at “smartass”, and you would not be wrong.

Your picture of me is getting richer, right?  But still mostly “librarian”?

Slide 9: My Flickr account

OK.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  FLICKR.  That picture, currently [note: at the time of the presentation] at the front of my (well-linked and easily findable) Flickr profile, is of a 15’ x 20’ combat puppet, built by a bunch of theater-tech students, from a live-action roleplaying game I participate in.  To the not-geeky among us, Live-action roleplay, or LARP, is essentially grown folks doing improv theatre a la Dungeons and Dragons, with costumes and fake swords.

And now, I’ll bet, you know more about me than you expected to, and you’re looking at me differently than you did ten minutes ago.  And that’s online identity.

Slide 10: Online identities are blurry, and often unexpected

Parts of you the person will leak into your online identity, even if you try to stay professional.  And if you try to stay personal, the professional will leak in, too.  Why?  Because we are all whole people, not just pieces of ourselves, and we bleed across boundaries.  You talk to your family about work, and you talk at work about your family; online life is no different.  And some of our online tools – notably Facebook – actively promote that blurring of lines.  Facebook makes you WORK at keeping people separate.  Facebook’s privacy controls are complex and hidden and change constantly.  Facebook is becoming ubiquitous, and setting itself up as a conduit, a funnel, that gathers all your information from around the web and feeds it into your profile page, and so the President of my college, my 19 yr old cousin in Italy, my college roommate, and my Library Technology Coordinator all have access to a baffling array of information about me.

So.  You are a person, and you are a professional. If these two things seem to be incompatible for you in your online life, you have to censor something.  So what do you censor?  Your personal life?  Or your professional one?  The choice you make here is linked to why you present yourself online, and how you want to do that.

Slide 11: The good

So why do you want an online presence?

I’m a great test-case for discussion because I started my online presence with a semi-anonymous blog in 2003 because I was moving from Illinois to New York, and wanted to stay in touch with friends back home.  It quickly turned into a hybrid librarian/Jenica thing, and I had to stop and think about these questions.  Why was I blogging?  Because I could already see the benefits, it wasn’t hard for me to break it down. (above).  So that’s the good.  And it’s big good.

Slide 12: The bad

There’s also bad.    The answers to these questions are driven by who you are, and by where you work.  I am an academic librarian.  I am granted academic freedom, and there is little I could do, so long as it’s not defamatory, illegal, or reflects badly on the college, that is likely to get me fired.  It can, however, affect how my colleagues, fellow administrators, supervisors, and students view me.  The things I say on the internet can affect my staff.  The things I post on Twitter can be heard by my students.  And I have to accept that, become comfortable with that, if I want to participate in those social spaces.  Which I do, because I see the value in fostering connections there.

Slide 13: The Ugly

And there is ugly.   …particularly when they’re intentional.  We tell our students to be thoughtful about what they put on Facebook, because it can come back to haunt them.  And when a friend tags a photo of a student that the student is horrified by, well, there’s a certain amount of social forgiveness there — it wasn’t her fault. But when a librarian chooses to have an online identity that stretches our boundaries as a profession, or that reveals what our community thinks is “too much” about personal details, there can be fallout.  We’re control freaks.  I mean, have you ever seen a MARC record?  We like things carefully organized and slotted into labeled categories, and the blurriness of online identities can challenge those expectations and desires.

I was told, for example, by another library director, that I would never have a leadership position in an academic library if I continued blogging and sharing so much of my true thoughts about the profession and our daily work, and about my own daily life online. He seemed terribly threatened by the idea that librarians in leadership positions would speak openly about their thoughts; he seemed to feel that it would threaten the power structure, challenge the status quo, and generally leave a leader vulnerable to … something.

That was three years ago.  I’m proud to have proven that director wrong, because I think transparency and communication are the cornerstone of a strong information exchange, and I’m proud to continue contributing to that.   But I did make changes to how I approached my online identity after the conversation because it was clear that the leadership of the profession was not ready for what I wanted to share.  And it was clear to me that I was going to have to wait.  I dug in my heels, made changes I wasn’t happy with, and said to myself, “I can wait this out.”  Someday, one of three things will happen:  1, all of those cranky old bastards will retire.  2, I will outgrow my youthful rebellion, or 3, the internet will change dramatically and rapidly and my stand on this issue will become irrelevant.

I suspect answer number 3.

Slide 14: Lessons learned; never assume you will end where you start, and plan accordingly

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to lessons learned.  Online identity is fluid.

I started on Blogspot in 2003.  I talked about anything, everything, and all the stuff in between.  It didn’t occur to me that I might not want to share all of those things with my colleagues, because when I started it, I didn’t think anyone besides my handpicked friends would read it.  Well, as the title of this presentation says, yes, you are talking in public when you talk on the internet.  As Heather Armstrong, who writes as Dooce, the blogger who so famously was fired for writing about work on her blog always says, “be ye not so stupid.”  I now have the archives of this original blog tucked away on a new anonymous blog that I still use to communicate with family and friends.  That blog is NOT Attempting Elegance, which looks like it started in 2007.  I’ve been writing about libraries for much longer, but going back and finding all the library-related posts from my blogspot blog and moving them to WordPress was waaaay too much work.

If I’d stopped to think about what I was likely to write about, and considered the way the internet is indexed and crawled, I would have realized that I was going to end up writing about and being found by librarians, that that would be a key part of my online identity, and I could have thought more closely about the implications of mixing my messages.  But I didn’t, in part out of cluelessness (it was 2003?) and in part out of defiance – I wanted to be all the parts of me, all the time, all at once.  I didn’t want any of these artificial separations between personal and private.  I wanted to be on the vanguard of internet self-expression.

But, honestly, we all need those separations.  They keep us sane.  They keep us healthy.  And in our current professional world, they keep us employed.

They’re also a kindness to our audience.  I doubt that 100% of the librarians who read Attempting Elegance want to read about my knitting, graphic novels, video and roleplaying games, my idiot cats, and the trials and tribulations of my ongoing divorce proceedings.  Some things are just best kept separate, no matter how much they’re a part of who I am.  That protects me, and it protects you.  It keeps the message clean.

And, as I just mentioned, as another example of the mutability of public identity, I’m getting a divorce.  I’m de-hyphenating my name.  This is only a problem in that my blog lives at  I now have a key piece of my online professional identity tied to a piece of my personal identity which I am walking away from.  A bit of a challenge, that…

Plan ahead.

Slide 15: Lessons Learned; you will send mixed messages; be ready to defend them.

Wednesday was a state holiday; I technically had the day off unless I chose to work, in which case I’d get a floating holiday.  Since most of my staff were off for the day, I chose to work from home, working on document editing, this presentation, and catching up on email.  I also posted to Twitter about running errands and doing some cooking.  That spawned into FriendFeed and Facebook, and on Facebook, a few of my colleagues in our IT department made humorous responses about my email comment.  But how many of them wondered, “is she really working?”

How often, I wonder, do I post to Twitter while walking across campus, in between meetings in my office, waiting for an event to start… and leave the impression that I’m “not working”?  Having an online presence gives people a window into your world, and as a result, they just simply  know more about you.  And it’s deceptive.  If you didn’t have that window, they’d make assumptions about what was on the other side of the wall. But since you’re letting them see in, they think they know more about you than they maybe really do.  So, sure, people now know that I spent part of Wednesday cooking, doing errands, and handling email.  That’s the tiniest fraction of my day, but when it stands alone as a descriptor, it may convince people that it’s all there was.

Also consider how your broader community – be they students or community members or vendors – might perceive what you write.  It’s very tempting, when you know your audience is mainly other librarians, to get snarky and complain about users, or dumb processes, or irritating vendors. And then, just like the whispered comment at a party that turns out to be not really a whisper and now everyone heard it… you have to apologize.  You didn’t really mean it that way, but in 140 characters or two sentences or even two pages, your meaning got lost because you were talking to one specific audience, and another one heard you.

So you have to think about what you say, and be ready to accept whatever consequences you might encounter.  By tweeting or blogging about your daily work, you may allow colleagues pr students or patrons to see sides of your work life that they wouldn’t otherwise see, and by sharing your personal life in online venues you share information you might not have a good way to share with them otherwise.  But you might also open yourself up to criticism.  I think that’s a natural part of sharing anything about yourself.  Just… expect it.  There’s no need to be surprised by it.

Slide 16: Find your voice and know your boundaries

Whether it’s an email list, a blog, Twitter, or a social network as yet undeveloped, you may think you’re talking to an empty room… but someday you’ll meet people who’ve encountered you online.  And when you do, you’d better hope you look like you’ve said you do, that you sound in person like you do online, and that you say you believe the same things you wrote about believing.  If your online voice and your real voice aren’t compatible, you’ll lose all credibility in your online presentation of yourself.  Everybody hates a poser.  This is one of the moments when having a hybrid online identity can help you; knowing that people can find pictures like that one to complement my professional work makes it more likely that people will expect the entire person that I am underneath the very professional library director.  They won’t be surprised by who Jenica is.  No bad surprises is my goal.

And that goes both ways; think about how you’ll feel if someone, essentially a stranger, comes up to you at a conference or a workshop and says, “Hi!  I just wanted you to know that I think your cat is hysterical!”  (Yes, this has happened to me.) The random pictures and anecdotes about your pets, children, friends, and hobbies take on a new light when you consider the blurring between professional and personal on the internet.  Don’t set yourself up for bad surprises; know the boundaries of what you’re willing to turn into public conversation.

But don’t think it’s all scary; I also had a great conversation at the speaker’s reception at Internet Librarian about scuba diving and rock climbing because I posted pictures like that one to Flickr.  I would never have had that conversation without the springboard of shared images.

Slide 17: Lessons learned; let your voice change over time, either naturally or because you need it to

But once you’ve found your voice, and anchored it in who you are, be prepared for it to change. Your boundaries, too.

Again, using myself as a case in point:  the Director of Libraries cannot talk about the work of the Libraries the way that a librarian can.

The Director of Libraries cannot talk about conflicts with other staff in the way that a librarian can.

The Director of Libraries should not talk about a lot of things that might reflect on her institution in a way the institution would find unsettling.

So as much as I value being transparently and authentically myself, I cannot fully do that, and so my voice, in my professional spheres, has changed.

And you may discover that you yourself change as you write and talk.  You may become a different person.  You may join new communities.  You may find a different purpose.  You might want to be a different kind of speaker and writer.  Honor that.  Stay true to yourself and your voice, whatever that means for you.  Because you always need to know why you’re doing it, and if that why changes, then let the how change, too.

Slide 17: We’re not ready for online identities as a profession

This is my big lesson.

I know that I operate, in some ways, inside an echo chamber.  My professional peers of choice are not my colleagues inside my library or on my campus — at least not for everything.  On campus, we’re engaged in communal work of value, and have a strong group identity, but my tribe — the people I gravitate to — are elsewhere.  Online.  And they understand these things that I’ve been discussing, because they too are living them. And so it’s easy to believe that our way is the right way, the only way.

But we are, almost uniformly, a younger group, newer to the profession, much more comfortable with technology and the internet and all that it implies for our culture and our profession.  And while I work with and admire many librarians with careers far longer than mine for their work in these areas, we still have large numbers of us who are resistant to these changes.

Who won’t willingly put their photo on the library’s website.  Who think Facebook is a timewaster and Twitter is idiotic.  Who can’t understand why you would blog rather than write for a journal.  Who don’t believe that friends met online can be real friends. (which, as an aside, I find baffling; the same people who tell me that my friends and colleagues that I interact with on FriendFeed can’t possibly be “real” friends, or valuable professional connections, are the same people who spent the last 20 years communicating with their professional peers over email listservs.  Tell me how this is different?)  Who tell eager young librarians to stop blogging because no director could retain her power if people knew what kind of person she really is.

And they are shaping our path as much as the technophiles are, because, another generalization here, the positions of power in our profession are not yet inhabited by people who have that comfort level that my tribe does.  So if you want to have a transparent and vibrant online life, you may encounter pushback.  Strong pushback.  You may have to fight, and you may have to adapt, or wait.

Slide 18: We’re not ready, but we need to be.

And that’s a problem, frankly.  Because us? Librarians?  As a group? We’re old, people.

At *33*, I’m OLD.  Think about these facts.

I got my first video game system in 1986, at age 10,

my first computer at 15, in 1991,

I started using the internet as an information source at 18, in 1994,

and I bought my first cell phone at 22, in 1998.

I started blogging in 2003 at age 27,

and I’m an early adopter on a lot of new online technologies at 33.

My online presence and identity are pushing the boundaries of what a lot of my peers feel comfortable with.

Compared to many of my colleagues within our profession, those are early numbers.  I was young, am young, comparatively speaking, in terms of technology adoption, in terms of my professional peers.  So for us, I’m young.

But who are our users? In a college environment, and considering the future of public libraries, the user base is current teenagers and the adults they will become. And they are not us.  They are not me.  They are not you.  They’ve had access to video games, computers, the internet and cell phones since birth, and I’m only exaggerating a little in that many of them started using these things as toddlers.  THEY will shape our information environment, starting any day now, but certainly within the next five years.  So we need to catch up.  (above) We need to join in, and work harder to understand the implications of living in this blended, transparent, and ubiquitous online information environment.  And it’ll be scary.

Slide 19: Do it anyway.

But we’re smart.  We’re thoughtful.  We can each find a way to have an authentic online presence we’re comfortable with, and start to integrate ourselves into the new information landscape around us.  Sure, it’s scary, and weird, and a bit challenging, and sort of alienating.

But do it anyway.  The view from the top is amazing.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, what a fascinating talk. As a new (and relatively young!) professional it’s particularly inspiring to hear about your story; I too am a firm believer in open and transparent communication wherever possible, and I share elements of both my personal and professional life online. Online networking has definitely exposed a blurring of boundaries in terms of what’s work and what isn’t, particularly with blogging, microblogging and publications which are often done out of work time. It’s difficult to get the mix right and at times I have struggled with identity – I’m always me though. 🙂


  2. I’m still in library school but thinking ahead to shaping my current online presence and creating a professional online identity that will be effective (“effective” how? I am not at all sure!) without being entirely sanitized. That said, this is incredibly helpful. Thanks for another really insightful post!


  3. Great post indeed. It helps me understand why I write a blog in the first place. I was looking for the answers I found here, so thank you 🙂

    And by the way, about your pictures on Flickr: I think – and please keep in mind that I mean this as a compliment – you look like Leslie Winkle. I like that 😉

    All the best,


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