Killing Fear part 7: Speak.

[Part one is here. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.]

So, what our undiscussables? Here’s one. Talking. Speaking where we might be heard is a point of our professional fear.

In the past few years I’ve publicly griped about the American Chemical Society (hi, ACS guys! *waves*), Elsevier, EBSCO, Proquest, the quality of LIS education in America, Taiga, bad information policy legislation, the professional skill set of new librarians, whatever has me enraged at the moment. And some people have openly warned me off talking about these topics (hi ACS guys!), saying I should consider my actions before committing such a political act. And I say that saying true things, in public or in private, is not a political act, or a wrong one.

But we, librarians, seem to think it is. In fact, in June of 2012 at an ALA ERP training for librarians who want to participate in the work of our Committee on Accreditation, someone said that if a program has challenges, the ERP can say so, because it’s okay to write down true things. This was said to a group of librarians who had volunteered to participate in the evaluation and judgement of our graduate schools, and yet the panelist felt strongly that the group needed to be told it was totally okay to say true things in that context. In what world is it NOT OKAY TO SAY TRUE THINGS? Not one I want to live in.

An Inside Higher Ed essay says some interesting things about organizational change: “Meaningful organizational change requires five elements, and unless all five of them are present, the organization — whether a department, school, college, or university — remains static.” The piece argues that all five of these are necessary:

  1. Ability to change. You simply must be able to do the thing. (I cannot wish my hair straight.)
  2. Belief in the ability of the institution to change. Whether or not an institution is able to change, in order for it actually to change, its key stakeholders must believe it can. (Dumbo, you can fly without the feather!)
  3. Desire to change. Some institutions are able to change but, for one reason or another, the critical stakeholders don’t want it to. (I could become a marathon runner, but I don’t actually want to push myself that hard. True fact.)
  4. Desire to appear to change. Sometimes what halts modification of an institution is fear of the appearance of change. (Depending on which friends I visit when I’m in Illinois, I try hard to appear to be the girl I was 15 years ago, because I don’t want to lose my valued connections to old friends – even though I haven’t been that girl in ages.)
  5. Courage to translate ideas into action. (Knowing what to do and then bringing yourself to actually do it… that is hard.)

I think these all apply, in some way, to the way librarians move through the world, and how we choose to speak.

[image source]

We are a timid lot, afeared of rocking the boat. Why? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of changing? Are we afraid of appearing to change? Do we not believe we can be something other? And why is truth now political? Where is our professional courage and self-confidence? If we’re going to muster the courage to translate our ideas into action, I strongly believe that we must acknowledge our culture of silence, and of fear, and the timidity of action that results.

I’ve been glared at and talked down to for daring to say true things in public, and I know others have had worse happen to them. But still, even so, a hundred other librarians could be talking, if we weren’t so scared of the consequences. More voices could be speaking in their own ways, measured, wild, or somewhere in between, if the powers that are in librarianship weren’t stifling them. We are all capable of speaking up, so I ask librarians to please consider: why aren’t you? Do you know why you’ve made your choices? Do you know what the worst is that could happen, and if you could handle it?

And library leaders, my peers, I ask of you: why aren’t your people speaking up and speaking out? Do you know what you’re doing to others by your actions and attitudes? Have you looked at, questioned, and affirmed your decisions lately?

Some librarians have asked and answered these questions already. Some have really valid reasons for their silence, and I respect that. I know we are not all empowered to shout from the hilltops, and doing so is unwise for many. What I also know, and don’t respect, is that we have a culture of silence by default, propagated and promulgated by the leaders in our field. So to my peers in positions of power and authority I say: stop that. Stop stifling open communication. Stop enforcing awkward silence on our profession. To librarians, I ask: consider where your fears are rooted, and consider whether that’s where you want to settle.


  1. YES! I have often received “the glare” for speaking truth in meetings where everyone else kept quiet and let shallow thinking and even untruth go unchecked. (Such comments have also garnered the only criticism on my annual evaluations.) I’m pretty heavily introverted and do not spout off easily–I suspect librarianship has an atypically large proportion of similarly reticent personalities. But to anyone who is silently considering what you might have said if you were to speak your professional expertise, I remind you as I remind myself: listen to the people who ARE speaking–usually a lot, and loudly–and be sure they are really communicating what needs to be heard. If they’re not, you gotta make those comments and accept those glares. If you don’t speak, there are always other people whose words will speak for you.


  2. I’m so tempted these days, whenever I hear someone express fear that some change might work out badly, to grab them and say, “SPECIFY. Articulate for me what exactly it is you are so afraid will happen.”

    I get the feeling there’s not enough specificity under a lot of that fear. Or that the fears, when specified, will prove prima facie absurd.


  3. (That’s not to say I don’t sympathize with the fear, or that I don’t think people’s emotions are important to take into account. But man, a lot of nebulous fears used to hold me back from a lot of stuff I’m now doing, and it turns out nothing bad has happened — often quite the contrary. I spend a lot of my time afraid. I no longer treat it as a valid excuse.)


  4. OK as long as I’m spouting off because I’m passionate about this topic 🙂 —

    1) I agree with Tedd. Along those lines, “Listen for what’s not being said, and then say it” has often been my most effective meeting technique. It often turns out there are a lot of people not saying it, and they’re grateful someone did.

    2) This reminds me of Bethany Nowviskie’s code4lib keynote on lazy consensus (, SO GOOD). If you start from the default assumption, not of “I have to get all this permission”, but of “I’m going to do this thing unless someone stops me”, then suddenly people need to articulate those fears in defensible ways. “But — but — but — something maybe bad!” is not a valid counterargument. (And on the flip side, the necessity of articulating something reasonable because it’s the only way to stop someone might actually drive people to examine those fears and find important truths that *should* stop you from doing something — and that’s good too. I ❤ valid criticism. But not bowing to unarticulated fears.)


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