I surveyed a number of librarians for the article I wrote about library-oriented blogs and zines on the web that appeared in the September 15 issue of Library Journal (available with free registration at http://libraryjournal.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=
article&articleId=CA155178&display=searchResults). I was especially interested in the answers I got from Brian Smith, creator of three web sites, and he's allowed me to share his comments with you.
Marylaine: Why did you create your sites?
Brian: I started The Laughing Librarian (http://www.laughinglibrarian.com/) mainly because I'm a lifelong smartass. I've written and drawn parodies and other funny stuff on occasion for as long as I can remember. I think kids get kicked out of school now for writing the kinds of things I did when I was in grade school and high school.
Linda Absher's "Lipstick Librarian" site (http://www.lipsticklibrarian.com/) was an influence for The Laughing Librarian. Not only was it was the first really original library humor site I can remember seeing, but the American Association of Law Libraries got a lot of complaints when they ran an excerpt from Linda's site in their Spectrum magazine. The librarians who said things like "that kind of stuff is inappropriate and unprofessional" didn't seem to realize how unprofessional their whining was. I see the ability to laugh about the conventions and other aspects of our field as a sign of confidence and security, and therefore "professional."
The main purpose of The Laughing Librarian is to poke fun at some of the conventions and contradictions of library work, and to serve as a central directory for esoteric library humor. A lot of the library humor I had seen made fun of "stupid" things that patrons did. It seemed to me that, in many cases, the situation really arose out of a failure on the part of the librarian, and that laughing at the patron didn't make sense. Although patrons do sometimes ask funny questions -- someone once asked me why the drug "placebo" wasn't listed in PDR -- I find it much more interesting to look and laugh at the silly things we do in our jobs. After all, we all have decent educations and ought to know better.
I think that librarians often try to pretend that certain things don't happen and to ignore contradictions in librarism. For instance, there's a lot of fudging on the conflict between the ideal of providing "free and equal access to information" and the common tendency to avoid controversy. And certain attitudes I've seen or heard expressed by librarians aren't conducive to providing excellent service to the public. I'd like my visitors to think about some of these things, in addition to having a laugh.
Although I started drafting some material right away, I didn't get around to creating the site for a couple more years, after I had left my employment in a law firm library for my local public library. One night, I woke up with ideas for funny bookmarks and couldn't get back to sleep until I fleshed them out. The next day, I decided to get moving on creating a site. I never would have thought of a lot of my material if I hadn't made the job switch.
I also probably wouldn't have created filteReality http://www.filtereality.net/) if I hadn't been working at the public library. I had gotten involved in some discussions of the filtering issue on public library e-mail lists, did a lot of research that no one else seemed to have done, and realized that a lot of nuances were regularly overlooked. I wrote my filteReality site to fill what I thought was a big gap: there was no site which took a comprehensive, rational, and politically moderate look at the issue of Internet filters in public libraries. I didn't see much serious examination of the constitutional issues. There were a few well-balanced articles available, but most sites either came from either the far right or far left or did not address important facets. A lot of the stuff was false or misleading . I thought it was important to express an anti-filter position which didn't come from the left wing, and which could even be seen as politically conservative in some ways. In a nutshell, I put together filteReality in an attempt to make the filtering debate more honest and rational. I thought that it added a voice that had been missing in the public discourse.
I created librarism.com (http://www.librarism.com/) as a venue for things I didn't think belonged on the other two sites. It's kind of a mess of personal and library-related stuff.
Marylaine: How has your venture changed in response to its users?
Brian: I try to keep the convenience of visitors in mind. After all, one of Ranganathan's five laws is "save the user's time." I redesigned the home page of The Laughing Librarian to reduce its load time, and I gave the quotations and links pages some sort of organization. I added a search function to the site and put links to new stuff in a blog format.
Marylaine: what does web-based publishing offer that standard library publishing doesn't or can't? Do you see it as a potential threat to standard library literature?
Brian: Other than reviews and how-we-did-it articles, I'm not sure that many librarians pay much attention to standard library literature. A lot of librarians don't pay attention to geeky librarian websites, either. If it doesn't make your job easier or life better, why bother reading it?
One area in which sites like LISnews (http://www.lisnews.com/), librarian.net (http://www.librarian.net/), Library Stuff (http://www.librarystuff.net/), and NewBreed Librarian (http://www.newbreedlibrarian.org/news.html) replace the function of print is in the reporting of current events in the library world. By the time something gets written up in one of the journals, it's old news on the Web.
I've been invited to write humor pieces for conventional library publications, but a lot of the stuff I do on The Laughing Librarian would never get published if I hadn't put it on my own website. American Libraries included the text of some of my bookmarks in a humor feature they did last year, and they used tame ones rather the some of the nastier and funnier things. I like just being able to stick whatever strikes my fancy on my site.
Marylaine: Are you promoting an agenda for changing the profession or the culture of librarianship?
Brian: My agenda for The Laughing Librarian and filteReality is to encourage librarians to use their brains and to take their jobs and roles seriously. This partly involves cultivating an awareness of what ought *not* to be taken seriously. After all, how can we be trusted to deliver useful and reliable information to the public if we can't recognize things that are false, nonsensical, unproven, counterproductive, etc., within the sphere of librarianship?
Marylaine: You're not making money doing this, and it probably gobbles up lots of your time. What makes it all worthwhile to you?
Brian: I created my sites as vehicles for some of the ideas bouncing around in my brain, and there's a great deal of satisfaction in seeing those ideas come to life on the computer screen. There's also the fun of veering off on a tangent that pops up while working on something, and of finding something new and unusual to add to the links pages. I see this as a relatively inexpensive hobby. It's fun to do. Prior to creating The Laughing Librarian and filteReality, I spent quite a bit of time looking at what was already out on the Web. I set out to make my sites the best of their kind, and I like to think that I've succeeded. That's a matter of personal pride.
I suspect that everyone you ask for your article is going to say that one of the big pleasures is getting feedback from visitors. It's nice to get both positive and negative feedback, especially since the negative responses to The Laughing Librarian are usually from people who just don't get it, so they're pretty funny. People complain that the bookmarks on the site aren't appropriate for them to print and use in their libraries. Duh-uh! It's also kind of a kick to get e-mail from a stranger on the other side of the world. I'll do an occasional round of ego-surfing , and I'm amazed at some of the sites that link to me (for some reason, a disproportionate number of Scandinavians link to The Laughing Librarian).
There's also the warm and fuzzy feeling of being a member of the informal society of nerdy librarian webowners. I'd bet that most of us whom you're interviewing read or have at least looked at most of the others' sites. Sometimes it's interesting to see how an article or something is mentioned on one site and gets picked up by everyone else within a week or so. It's nice to know that visitors appreciate what I've done.
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COOL QUOTE (if I do say so myself)
Library publishers could well do what the traditional news media did when the web came along: take advantage of the possibilities it offers for interactivity and reader responses to articles in the magazine, because the new generation of web-based librarians doesn't want to just read an article or discussion, they want to contribute to it. Publishers could use their web sites for lively opinion, discussion groups, and spot surveys. By combining peer-to-peer journalism with traditional library journalism, they could smoothly transition a new generation of web-based librarians to their magazines.
If that happens, librarians could have in one package the best of both worlds—the reliability of serious and systematic research and problem-solving, from some of the most knowledgeable librarians in the business, with the immediacy, playfulness, diversity of voices, and complete interactivity of the zines and blogs.
Marylaine Block. "Communicating off the Page." Library Journal, September 15, 2001.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2001.
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