The erasure of records, digitization, and 1990s Hollywood films

Gif of one of the scenes from Hackers (1995)

In the past week, I’ve watched a number of 1990s Hollywood films, such as Sneakers (1992), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), and My Fellow Americans (1996), where the “everything’s on the computer” state of records, as stated in passing in The Andromeda Strain (1971), has been reached. All of these films share a similar theme: the erasure and change of records (mostly digital), which has an increased relevance as archival institutions continue to digitize more and more of their records, although not everything, as I noted in my post about challenges of archival digitization in late April.

Looking at the 1990s films

Let’s start with The Net, since it was the first of these films that I watched, computer with bulky hand-held phones and dial-up computers. In this film, Sandra Bullock plays an isolated middle-age White woman (Angela Bassett) who is a “program systems analyst from Los Angeles” who lives most of her life online, talking on chat rooms and ordering pizza. That all changes when she takes a trip to Cessna (before which there is a computer malfunction which screws with flights), Mexico, meets a man who basically seduces her in order to get control of a virus which is on a floppy disk, of all things. This plan fails, however, as she realizes, after literally sleeping with him for some reason, that he wants to kill her, so she gets away in a dingy that crashes on rocks, knocking her unconscious. She wakes up three days later in a hospital and the disk has been destroyed. As she is about to go back into the country, after a record was changed that checked her out of the hotel, she is told to sign a temporary visa document which states that her name is Ruth Marx.

As the movie goes from here, she realizes that her identity has been stolen by an imposter, with the change of records by the villains who want to make profits off their security technology and gain access  to every system possible. With this, the movie is a bit of warning that it is very easy for someone to be digitally erased with so much of our lives online, with which you don’t even have to spoil the ending. Clearly there are inept secondary characters (police officers, nurses, and jailers), many of whom, like sole archivist Madame Nu in Attack of the Clones think that records are inviolable and cannot be changed. The partially inept villains are even able to kill a few people, like the  Undersecretary of Defense by falsifying a report saying he has AIDS and a friend of Bullock’s character. At one point, she says that “our whole lives are on the computer, and they knew that I could be vanished. They knew that nobody would care and it wouldn’t matter.” Later she adds to the inept court-appointed lawyer, who believes in the inviolability of the records in that they cannot be tampered with, to defend her from false charges:

Just think about it. Our whole world is sitting there on a computer. It’s in the computer. Everything. Your DMV records, your Social Security… your credit cards, your medical history. It’s all right there. Everyone is stored. And there’s this little electronic shadow on each of us… just begging for somebody to screw with. They’ve done it to me, and they’re gonna do it to you…I’m not Ruth Marx. They invented her. They put her on your computer with my thumbprint.

There were some similar themes in the 1992 film, Sneakers, which starred Robert Redford. The film focuses around attempts to create a black box which would crack American codes, allowing access to any American security system. In the process, a team tries to steal the box back and one of the characters purchases blueprints from the county recorders office for $50.00, leading the movie to be cited as an example of “the use and portrayal of records in film.” [1] With the information from the county recorder’s office, and their own observations, they are able to break-in to the company of the villain and get the box, but before it is handed to the NSA of the characters removes the main processing chip.

There is more than that. Redford’s character is basically a hacker, as was his friend Cosmo (who is the film’s villain) who was arrested and thrown into prison for computer crimes. The black box has a similar power to malicious code in The Net. Again, the focus is that records can easily be changed, or in the case of this movie, mimicked, to certain ends. Like the previously mentioned film, the cast is mostly White, but a bit more diverse in that they have a former Black CIA agent on the team of the “heroes.”

There’s one other film which has similar themes: Hackers, which features Angelina Jolie in a starring role. It focuses on a group of teen hackers who work to take down a villain who wants to sink a few oil tankers while getting wealthy in the process. In this “cult classic” film, as some places call it, there are computers running on dial-up (like in The Net), huge portable phones, people in some of the nerdiest clothes ever, and moving of information around on…floppy disks! In fact, the virus itself is on a floppy disk.

The altering of records is a key part of this film as well, as the villain alters criminal records of the male protagonist and his mother to list them as criminals, blackmailing him to give up the floppy disk. In the end, this group of hackers, all men except Angelina Jolie’s character, and all White except one kid with dreadlocks, sets out to take down the servers of the villain’s mega-corporation,  succeeding thanks to help from two Japanese hackers and their subsequent “electronic army” of hackers. Somehow they basically get off from their prison sentence thanks to a television broadcast from one of the hackers, which seems strange as he could be utterly lying. As with most movies of this nature, the plot doesn’t always completely add up.

Finally, there is a bit of an outlier: the 1996 film, My Fellow Americans. This is perhaps the most hokey film of all, although archives is a main part of this film. Ex-Presidents, played by James Garner and Jack Lemmon, discover a scandal in the current administration. Lemmon discovers that conspirators have altered his official records, at his presidential library archival vault, in order to “erase traces of a meeting.” At another time, Mark Lowethal’s character goes to the National Archives, finding that the presidential appointment log does not show this meeting. [2] It turns out the culprit behind these changes is the current sitting present, the former vice-president, with his chief of staff being the one whom “doctored the Archives log and the log in Kramer’s library.”

In this case, the film does not involve the changing of a digital record but only the changing of a paper record. Still, this has a similar theme to the other three movies in that records can be doctored, manipulated, and changed to the benefit of certain individuals. Although, this can be, at times, easier to do with digital records than with paper records. I would also say the theme that records can be changed, erased, or rewritten follows through the Halt and Catch Fire series, along with shows like Mr. Robot, going into its last season this coming fall.

Why do these films matter?

“If  I  could take  all the  things  that  I  am, all the  feelings  I  have, all the  things  that  I  want,  and somehow  get  them  on a  computer  card, you would be  the  answer. I  don’t  know  why  or  how  you’ve  come  along at this  particular  point  in my  life. See, that’s  the  magic part. I’m  not  gonna  let  you  go.”- Dr. Sidney Schaefer talks to his girlfriend (who ends up being one of the people who is spying on him) in The President’s Analyst, a 1967 film

They matter because more and more of the records held by archival institutions are digital, specifically “born-digital” (like tweets, Facebook posts). Of course, they are a bit dated, as they came out between 1992 and 1996. However, the point that records can be changed and manipulated should be considered. There should be measures in place to make sure that the records, especially digital records, are not tampered with. Perhaps this would require fixity checks, but also could necessitate rules on the usage of records themselves.

At the same time, the archives themselves should not be like the dark and haunting Thatcher Memorial Library in Citizen Kane, which has what some have described as having one of the world’s meanest archivists, played by Georgia Backus, with hair up in a bun “and an intimidating stare on her face, a real dragon lady at the gates of knowledge.” This is not the type of archives you want to go to! This is not the image which should be projected. [3]

What I have said so far is only scratching the surface. These 1990s movies have standing importance because born-digital files which are entering archives across the world, like some in New Zealand, include “photos, radio broadcasts and documents,” requiring appropriate workflows. Margot Note, a prolific writer in this field, described that as a former lone arranger who directed all archival management at an organization she launched a project to digitize a set of records, creating digital surrogates of 2,000 of the collection’s best images, adding that such surrogates are superior to past formats like microfilm since they can be delivered through networks “offering enhanced access to simultaneous users around the world.” In the same article she advocated the importance of digital collections, saying they grant “valuable remote access to the information contained within the original records” if they are created within the appropriate archival infrastructure, with metadata and search functionality, indexing. She adds that digital collections of archival records can not only provide for “multiple points of access and enhanced image details” but it can allow for more in-depth study than analog originals, increase interest in items which have often been ignored,and it can also act as “an advocacy tool for an archives.” She also argues that different types of digital surrogates of records can be created, either for web display, storage, or print reproduction. She ends by saying that while “electronic copies suffer no degradation through the duplication process,” a copy of a digital photograph is “indistinguishable from its source” meaning that the “original” loses its meaning, and that with digitized images, “researchers risk losing information that enables them to understand how the image was accessed and how its physicality changed over time.” As such, there should be efforts to limit or eliminate such a loss.

But there is another aspect to archival records. Librarian Carrie Wade argued back in December 2018 that information is political with information loss affected by federal funding decisions of research repositories ruining the work of professionals. Similarly in the case of archivists, they should not be completely neutral not only because who “we elect impacts our ability to do our jobs well and the access that people have to information,” as she argues, but they literally cannot be neutral as they are human beings with viewpoints, emotions, and thoughts of their own.  Building upon this, there are clear archival silences or “gaps in the archival record,” with these silences “created and enforced within archives” as a result of practices that are  “central to the work of archivists.” Digital records, whether born-digital, like social media posts, or digitized paper records, can help bridge this gap. After all, paper or analog records can be digitized in ways that allows access to them through online channels while originals are restricted.

All of this is relevant to the 1990s films I referenced in the first half of this post, as it requires having effective records management programs. The policies regarding records not only in Hackers and The Net, or even My Fellow Americans and Attack of the Clones were clearly outdated, and should be taken as a warning to have correct policies. This also requires taking into account challenges with capturing resources that are born-digital and making it available, effectively curating this information for the user. Furthermore this is important as a major trend in libraries is collection of data to prove their value even though this has its downsides especially when it comes to ethical concerns with data mining and big data, even though this can be useful. At the same time, how material is defined for easy access is a challenge “to every content owner,” as is choosing the right metadata, with “important detail work” in this process. The same is the case for finding more “accessible ways for people to find and scan content” and ways to share these “images with your target audience.” [4]

Concluding words

All of this ties back, of course, to the classic animated sitcom, Futurama, with its mentions of “technical support,” CDs, CD players/CD racks, and floppy disks (some of which are 15-inch). In fact, in one episode, “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” (season 2, episode 15), the last half of the episode is about going into the central bureaucracy to get back a disk with Bender’s brain on it, which is floppy disk. Others mention existing government records, databases, a record vault (safe  box) and an arrest record. In one episode Fry even declares to Bender that “I’m not a robot like you! I don’t like having disks crammed into me” while in another he downloads “a celebrity from the Internet” from a parody of Napster, which is kidnapping celebrities and illegally copying them, with the “backup disk” being a floppy disk. Others focus on big data and concentration of information, digital cameras and operating systems.

I mention all of this because it shows the relevance of record erasure, digital archives, digitization, and the changing digital environment. This requires of course that you don’t have “unauthorized data access” like Fry accessing the computer connected to the brain spawn. In the end, while these 1990s Hollywood movies are dated in various ways and problematic in others, they still have relevance connected to present developments of archival institutions in response to new technologies and making records more accessible to online users.


Notes

[1] Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist of the Peel Art Gallery Museum & Archives also argues that there are archival themes in The Dark Knight (2008), The Avengers (1998), Chinatown (1974), and Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011).

[2] This reminds me of a major plot point in Thrill Seekers, a 1999 TV movie, where the protagonist finds out that there are people who travel in time (from the future) to disasters and serve as tourists, disgustingly watching people die. In the process, the researcher on staff at a local newspaper, a bit like a records clerk, has databases of newspapers on her computer, which he searches to find information, which she lets him use even though she just met him (not good records management). Ultimately she says that she will go to the National Archives to find the original images, proving that he was not lying about the time travelers. Later, the protagonist goes back and time and saves her. But, I thought I’d just mention this, as the fact she is a bit of a records clerk brings in line with the records clerks in Erin Brocovitch (2000) and Chinatown (1974). The former has a clerk who flirts with a law firm filing clerk (Erin Brocovitch) who uncovers wrongdoings of a water utility company on her three visits to the records office of the Regional Water Board, letting her into “a records storage area, piled high with files, papers and binders, where she proceeds to copy water records,” allowing her to complete her work. The latter has a sullen young man who does not like his job, grudgingly providing assistance, with Jack Nicholson’s character “tearing out part of a page from a record book by covering the noise with a cough” after he is told he cannot check out the volume.This clerk, as one reviewer puts it, has “a well crafted scene presenting a stereotypical records keeper” with the clerk/archivist as “an impatient, unhelpful civil servant guarding over his records domain who treats the public as trespassers” while the “records are in long aisles in bound volumes.” Some have compared Erin Brocovitch to another film with records as central, specifically A Civil Action (1998).

[3] The same goes for Hollywood images of old archivists like in Vampires (1998) where the church archivist is introduced, a “slight, bearded man with glasses” whom is sent along on a quest,” in They Might Be Giants (1971) where a wealthy lawyer, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes, teams up with a psychiatrist “to try to rid the world of evil” and in the process, one person plays an aged archivist who, despite his problems, “does come across as the sanest person in the movie and he finds clues to track down Moriarity,” or in Amityville II: The Possession (1982) when a father uses a local archives to find out about a hosue causing trouble for his family, and in the process he is helped by an elderly archivist, a person who says “I’ve worked here for 25 years.” There are other mentions of archives, but without archivists in Arlington Road (1998), Batman Begins (2005), Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), Broken Lullaby (1994), GoldenEye (1995), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger) (1969), L.A. Confidential (1997), Message in a Bottle (1999), Ninth Gate (1999), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2017), Secret Nation (1991) [Canadian film], Shooting the Past (1999), Smila’s Sense of Snow (1997), The Dark Knight (2008), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Phantom (1996), and The Shadow (1994). Also, there are said to be flirtatious archivists in Carolina Skeletons (1991) and Just Cause (1995), along with helpful ones (either initially or ultimately) in Cloud Atlas (2012), Deceived (1991), Quatermass and the Pitt (1967), The Fugitive (1993), and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). There are also a number of films which have archivists in the background: Charlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959), Macaroni (1986), Red (2010), Ridicule (1996), Rollerball (1975), and The Age of Stupid (2009), and those that are said to have nasty or mean archivists: Blade (1998), In the Name of the Father (1993), Scream 3 (2000), The Nasty Girl [Das Schreckliche Madchen] (1990), and The Watermelon Woman (1996). Please, do not constitute this as an endorsement of any of these films, as likely they are mostly terrible.

[4] Also see articles about how libraries lead with digital skills and a cryptic finding aid.

Interpreting history: thoughts on History Day

This post originally had thoughts on my presentation at the iSchool symposium, which has been incorporated into an upcoming e-book.

I’d like to talk about some thoughts on Maryland History Day, for which I judged this past weekend, including as a chief judge in the morning for senior individual websites. They included topics ranging from, as I noted on Twitter, the Apollo Missions to the Atomic Bomb. I also did runoffs for documentaries, with topics including “Cocoanut Grove, Stonewall Riot, Thalidomide tragedy, ACT-UP, the Osage indigenous people (and oil), and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” some of which I had not heard of before. As I awaited the winners, I already knew that the group documentaries I had reviewed had won, documentaries like “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” (by Aidan Goldenberg-Hart, Daniel Greigg, Eli Protas, Joey Huang, and Charles Shi) which got first place, and “From Inefficient to Inspiring: How the Stonewall Riots Changed LGBT Activism” (by Pallavi Battina and Amulya Puttaraju) which got second place. However, when it came to individual websites, one of the ones I reviewed got first place! It was titled “Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: How Their Investment in People Led from Tragedy to Triumph” and it was by Matthew Palatnik. None of the websites my group had nominated for special prizes won. So that was positive.

History Day made it clear to me that even the topics often written about can be talked about in a new way, with a new interpretation, with these students entering the process of historical research, so I wish them the best in the days going forward. In June, I will serve as a judge on the national level of History Day at College Park, which should be fun!

In closing, there is a strain that connects the visualizations I made this semester and Maryland History Day: the importance of history and interpretations of what happened, allowing for new insights and thoughts, enriching how our collective past is understood.

Librarians should not be “everything to every community member”

From the “I Love Lisa” episode (s4, e15).

Recently, on Twitter, there was justified consternation with what a library director, named Justin, wrote about librarians on May 3rd. I’m only new to the library and archives profession, although I am planning to work in an archival institution rather than a library, and my hope is that others in the profession could build upon this post with their own experiences and thoughts. I am also posting this because Justin the Librarian locked his Twitter account, raising the question that he does not want his opinion to be challenged! This post is not meant as an attack on Justin himself, but rather a challenge to him (and others who feel the same), that they should change their views on libraries. Additionally, I understand, as Stephanie Crawford put it on Twitter, criticizing this post, “public libraries are often places for people to stay warm, to use the rest room, to job search, to do hw, to print resumes, to check email, etc” and do not intend to paint those who are poor as “an unwanted burden,” but rather are talking about responsibilities librarians should have to their respective communities. The socioeconomic class of patrons of libraries is clearly important, and I have tried to incorporate that into this piece, but it should also be acknowledged that I am mainly talking about the role of the library profession, rather than the patrons, in this post, so that leads some aspects to fall to the wayside.

After saying how public libraries have changed a lot since 2009 and that there will be changes in the future in these “great place[s],”adding that “this is a time to celebrate and also a time to think about the future,” Justin declares that “if you’re working in a public library now and you’re not enjoying it maybe you shouldn’t be working in a public library” which implies that everyone in a public library will enjoy their jobs and that no toxic environments exist, which is clearly incorrect. [1] He followed this with the most jarring statement of his post:

If you feel grumpy about your day to day work, if planning and hosting events isn’t your thing, and if you’re just not ready to be everything to every community member that comes through your doors, this public library thing just isn’t for you in 2019. And honestly, it’s just going to continue to be less of a thing for you as public libraries move ahead. The public libraries that I see existing today in 2019 will continue to be improved upon and become even more community focused in the next ten years. Libraries are on the right path these days, one that is fully focused on their communities. Do you want to be on that path?

The section when he says that librarians should be “everything to every community member” is what angered librarians on Twitter, rightly so, with Alexis Logsdon calling it “infuriating.” Why should this heavy responsibility be hoisted on librarians? Why do they need to be “everything”? [2] As such, the idea that public librarians (or any librarians for that matter) should be “everything” to the communities, regardless of their class, race, gender, or creed, they serve should be challenged. I say this, while acknowledging the important role that librarians engage in when serving their communities, especially those who use libraries as a community space to serve their effective information needs, to pull from the titles of one of the courses I took in the fall, which was called “serving information needs.”

The first part of that challenge is to summarize the tweet conversation on this topic. In fact, I thought of creating this piece after reading through the whole thread and responses, beginning with a thread by Julie Jergens. This piece goes beyond “shutting things like this down” and rejecting “this bullshit savior narrative,” to quote her, as I aim to look at various posts he has made, not only one solitary post, to form a cogent argument to counter his points.

Jergens, in her tweet thread, called the statement that librarians should be “everything” to communities is not only “dangerously misinformed” but some “male BS” for a majority-female profession.  She went onto say that relationships where one person or an organization is meant to be everything to another is “unbalanced, unhealthy, and unsustainable,” adding that people are asking more and more of librarians, but not what local jurisdictions can do. With that, she points out what should be obvious: “the library cannot and should not be everything,” with librarians working to serve the information needs of users. But this does not mean that librarians are lawyers, doctors, social workers, or “miracle worker[s]” [3] and that these information professionals should not be told to do more with nothing (or less) or that they are not focused on their community, as they evidently are, on the whole. She added to this by saying that the community she serves “deserves real experts, real services, real care, not just a librarian with access to narcan,” doing what she can to help her community, but is not willing to “sacrifice myself and my staff to be EVERYTHING to EVERYONE,” saying that “does not make me unsuited for public libraries.”

Those that responded to Jurgen had a similar and understandable sentiment, clearly based in reality. Some sarcastically pointed out it was a “great time” with librarians when budgets for social services are being slashed, with job insecurity and low pay, which Justin the Librarian barely talks about, as I’ll note in this piece. Others said that it is wrong to say that librarians who are facing trauma (or stress) from their work are “worthless and not cut out for the job” and that it is dangerous for librarians to think of themselves as everything for their community and patrons without training, as “it’s unethical to pretend we are or can be.” Responses beyond this pointed out that library budgets need to train staff appropriately if they continue to “stay on the front lines of community service,” especially since some people at their library jobs have not received any training, and that there should be efforts to “set boundaries for yourself/your organization.” The latter would use effective “social capital” of libraries to push back. Some added that the idea that librarians should do “everything” is problematic because “working with the public is taxing emotionally and physically,” making it an unrealistic expectation, and that the idea that librarianship is a job “worth killing ourselves for” should be challenged, citing an article by Fobazi Ettarh within In the Library With the Lead Pipe. Additional comments echoed the same sentiments already expressed, noted that this is one of the only professions where an unrealistic “level of involvement is expected and required,” that there should be professional boundaries as “it’s just not healthy or good service to expect library staff to be everything to everyone.” Final comments stated that if librarians are required to “everything to everyone they need to raise your salary” a lot, that people were apparently “misinterpreting” the post, called the thread by Jurgens a “must read” with Jurgens outlining “perfectly what should be done,” and said that the idea that librarians should be “everything for everyone” is a perfect “recipe for burnout” along with being a harmful expectation.

In the case of Justin, his viewpoint as a White male librarian should be no surprise. While you could say he has good intentions in that he wants librarians to connect with the community, out from behind their desks, including his support of efforts to reduce library fines, which are positives that librarians should undoubtedly aim to do in order to cement the importance of their public institutions to the communities they serve, his idea that library materials should be put in public restrooms is a mistake, especially if there are actual materials in those restrooms. I remember when working at the Washington Village branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and there was a key to get into the bathrooms and it was prohibited to bring library materials into the bathrooms themselves. Perhaps he is thinking about pamphlets or something, but this idea, from how I understand it, rubs me the wrong way. The same goes for his “seven things” that he declares libraries should do. He suggests buying/collecting local, making stuff with patrons, building apps, standing up for yourself, exploring new partnerships, collect things the community wants not “what you want,” and be “very nice.” Some may say that this is all hunky dory and that there are no problems with these approaches, especially when it comes to providing new and exciting services for the communities they serve. But, should libraries have their collections solely determined by the community? Shouldn’t they have the ability to choose materials they think are necessary, even if that does not fit with what the community is requesting at the present time? Additionally, the “very nice” aspect (which he brings up in a later post), seems optimistic but also unrealistic. Can libraries afford to be nice to every single person, including those patrons which are problematic or disruptive? Clearly libraries should strive to serve every member of the community they can, regardless of their socio-economic class, race, gender, or other characteristic, but the idea you should be nice to everyone is clearly emotional work/labor for the librarians themselves. At the same time, the goals he suggests could easily cause stress on librarians with increased responsibilities on top of their existing duties. [4]

Justin doesn’t stop there. He writes about e-books, suggests that librarians should stop saying “no” to patrons (whatever that entails), and wrote a chapter of a book on library marketing while also presenting on personal branding. [5] This writings remind me of the Achieving Organizational Excellence I took last semester as part of my MLIS program, with skills that would speak to a manager like himself, but was seen as an annoying and unnecessary class by many of my fellow classmates, from what I recall. I still remember at the beginning of the semester when the professor asked who wanted to be a manager and a few people raised their hands. [6] By the end of the semester, the same question was asked and NO ONE raised their hands, as everyone detested the class and did  not want to be a manager, with most of the class materials written for managers, not for those at the bottom of the employee ladder who could be managers in the future. In this way, his perspective differs from most librarians, many of whom are not managers, since that’s not how hierarchies work. Is it any surprise that Justin the Librarian would push aside planning programs “having grand ideas, and just thinking and talking and thinking some more but not acting as quickly as I could”? Simultaneously he would endorse library programming, which seems contradictory. Furthermore, he seems to be on the “innovation” train when it comes to libraries, seems to think he “knows” how librarians should act at work (compared to how they apparently use their time), and focuses on hiring. As a director, it is no surprise he would write about the difference between management and leadership, declare that libraries need to transform, and say that “working in a public library is not about competition. It is about community.” Some of these ideals, like saying that libraries are about communities, is not necessarily bad and should be encouraged. But, grumbling about how librarians spend their time at work and focusing on transforming/innovating a library is a problem, especially since the latter could cause undue disruptions in the library itself, weakening the role that libraries play as community centers.

Many may say that libraries are for “every single person that comes through the doors of their public library,” which fits with existing concepts of social responsibility that librarians often exude, and that librarians do, on the whole, work which “has a positive impact on your community.” However, the former carries with it various problems, like the issues of Nazis in the library or other bigoted individuals, which none of his blogs, from what I could find, ever address. The closest he gets to this is focusing on having a safe working environment which does not have “sexual harassment, stalking, and inappropriate comments.” Does he never think about bigoted individuals in libraries? His blog indicates that he does not think about this in on a general basis, which is troubling. Similarly, you can say that he is right that every public library should do an annual report. However, this could easily be turned back on the library itself, used by those who want to cut public services and privatize them, so there should be care in compiling these reports, that they don’t result in the idea that libraries can “do more with less” which is inherently destructive, as even Justin the librarian admits, when he says that there’s a limit to that thinking. As anyone who has been employed would know, just because people are nice and friendly to you, they can be sadistic and use the statistics, requirements, and metrics against you and your organization. As such, just because someone is nice, this is no guarantee that those on the other side of the relationship (like those in government or business) will not be jerks.

In other posts, Justin the Librarian says that libraries should be made more simple, focus their services on the “hyperlocal” level, and focus on the community more than anything else, even giving suggestions for small rural libraries with strapped budgets. Again, the first two suggestions are problematic in that it could limit the purview of libraries too much, at worst making them not as much of community centers, allowing them to serve patrons from all walks of life, and centers of learning then they should be. In one post, back in October 2017, he declares that “people don’t come in and borrow books on how to do things/fix things/research things anymore.” I wouldn’t say that is completely true, as people come in and borrow books all the time and that will not stop, even with the advent of the library. Of course, libraries should change over time and not be static, but I think “simplifying” libraries could have problematic elements to them, especially with the incorporating business elements: providing library patrons “with amazing customer service.” I still remember in my exit interview with a HR rep of the Pratt Library and I started talking about patrons and they corrected me to say those were “consumers.” To me, it is deeply problematic to adopt these business terms and concepts in libraries and other public institutions, as you could call those who use libraries as either patrons or library users. There should be a clear wall of separation between public and private institutions when it comes to conceptions used to make a profit. I know there has already been some leakage into public institutions, but it should be limited to the best extent possible.

One of Justin’s worst ideas is not his “summer reading treehouse” which seems a bit silly or even library billboards, but rather library currency. How is this exciting, as he claims? That sounds like a terrible idea that need an extensive infrastructure to put in place. He actually wrote about this idea again, recently, saying that he likes “the idea of a library currency that rewards good library behaviors, engages community members in programs, and helps patrons with library fines” and saying this idea of currency “goes a long way in promoting kindness in the community.” He closes by adding that “this idea may work or this idea may not work. The important thing is to always keep dreaming and to keep on trying new things for your community. They are the most important thing in public libraries.” While I appreciate that sentiment, I’m still not onboard on the “library currency” train, as it seems that it would cause strain on libraries themselves and those that work within them. And with that, I would argue that it seems evident that he doesn’t care as much about those who work in librarians as much as he would think.

Overall, you could say that Justin the Librarian has his “heart in the right place.” However, he seriously needs to rethink many of his conceptions of how libraries work and think not only of management but the legions of librarians who do the on-the-ground work, leading to stress, trauma, and strain, to say the least. The idea that librarians should be able to do “everything” for every community member is a clearly ignorant statement. It should be roundly rejected and replaced with the idea that librarians should do what they can, but never try to be “everything” since it would stretch their personal capacities and the institutions themselves, weakening the profession as a whole, even as librarians work to serve patrons from all walks of life.


Notes

[1] He almost guilt-trips people into working in public libraries, saying: “this is a great time to be working in a public library. Sure, there are bumps in the road but overall your community members value the work you do, from the events you plan to the collections you develop and even the little moments where you’re checking out library materials to a community member. Every step of the way in your work at your public library your community values you. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?” This is utterly disgusting, as it seems to act like those who don’t work in public libraries are somehow bad.

[2] But Justin the Librarian does not stop there. He does say it is fine if you “do not want to be on the path that public libraries are on” and even if you do not like change, there is nothing wrong with you, adding that by asking yourself if you want to work in a public library you can “learn a lot about yourself, grow, and if the need arises move onto something that better suits you.” He ends by saying that if you choose to work in a public library then it benefits the library and the community, adding “be honest and be true to the decision. Be honest and be true to yourself. That’s all you need to be in this life.” You could say these sentiments are, a bit, condescending.

[3] At minimum, we can say that librarians should not be social workers, grief counselors, or financial advisors, to say the least. Perhaps they will be forced into these roles, due to the current strain on social services within the U.S., but this is not an ideal situation.

[4] Justin has probably never read Not Always Right (focused on funny and dumb stories about “consumers”/users across society) and its many stories focusing on libraries.

[5] Speaking of branding, in one post he expresses his anger at social media, yet in another he literally advertises his social media, promoting his own…brand! Clearly a case of hypocrisy, if you ask me.

[6] This was followed by a question of how many will end up being managers, with more people raising their hands than was the case with the other question.