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Confrontational Librarianship

from colodio's photostream

dino fight from colodio's photostream

I channel-surf compulsively. If there’s even a 30 second break in between a show’s segments I’m lunging for the remote, rapidly switching through extended cable. During one of these channel-flipping reflex moments I paused, transfixed, on a promo for The O’Reilly Factor. Politics aside (way, way, aside), the marketing tagline was intriguing: “O’Reilly is the leader in confrontational television.” I had no clue this genre of television existed, much less O’Reilly’s status as its preeminent host.  Yet in the span of just a few minutes I was able to list a dozen tv shows whose ratings thrive on the spectacle of confrontation (I’m thinking of you Real Housewives). I count myself amongst their viewers, enjoying the cheap thrill of a restaurant shouting-match while safely hidden within my cozy living room.

I am by no means a confrontational person–my disapproval over service at a restaurant is usually communicated with what I believe to be my “angry eyes”–but I am beginning to wonder if confrontation isn’t a bit necessary sometimes, particularly within librarianship. Are we replacing the cathartic, sometimes helpful need to engage in confrontational discourse with staged reality tv show fights? Can confrontation be productive?

Battleground Reference Desk

I sometimes feel like an info-maid at the reference desk. Can I help you? Here you go. Yes, I can find that for you. Sure, I can hold your books. I want to be friendly and helpful and alleviate some of the stress and anxiety library patrons may feel, yet sometimes, the demands are simply unreasonable. I can’t in good conscience help a student find articles to support what I know is a terrible research paper topic choice. I can’t just point someone to the books on poetry when I know what they really need is an American poets anthology. I also refuse to let a patron get away with not learning simply because they’ve shoved a piece of paper at me and asked me to “find this.”

Confrontation (albeit reasonable and polite) is good. No one wins when I act like the reference desk doormat.  Sometimes people need to be challenged. Instead of helping a student find articles for a 3 page paper on ALL OF AUTISM, talk the student down a bit (This is a great topic, but it’s really BIG. Let’s think about a way to narrow down your research). Instead of pulling books for a new library patron, show them how to use the OPAC while you look up their requests. Not every reference interaction is a teachable moment, but often times pushing back just a little adds a rewarding piece to your work. Librarians are a helpful bunch, but we aren’t doing our patrons any favors when we intentionally lead them down the path of least resistance.

Workplace Drama

The same can be said for our interactions with our colleagues. Libraries lacking sufficient internal discussion and debate will end up stagnant and out-of-touch. It’s ok to disagree with your colleagues, and more importantly, it’s your responsibility to give voice to your dissenting opinion. Assuming everyone conducts themselves with a decent level of professionalism, confrontation can be a good thing. It can mean the difference between blowing money on a sub-par e-resource or purchasing a collection of e-books most students will use. Debate can help spark new ideas, while surpressed opinions can only lead to feelings of resentment. In short, workplace drama, when done right, can be a good thing.

Scavenger Hunt Meltdown

Perhaps one of the most difficult things an academic librarian can do is confront a professor with a poorly conceived research assignment (aka the scavenger hunt; the use the index that’s out of print assignment; or the we don’t own any of those books review). Here again, by keeping our mouths shut we do our students, the university, and particularly this professor, a huge disservice. If the common goal of any academic institution is to educate students, then confronting someone with a less-than-ideal assignment is critical. Offering assignment suggestions incorporating existing library resources may be an ideal plan of attack, as it focuses on a professor’s potential to engage students in meaning research. Who can argue with that?

No Fist-Fights, Please

Although I won’t be getting into any O’Reilly-style shouting matches anytime soon, I think I can easily say that, done correctly, confrontation can be a force for positive change. My new goal: Speak up at least once a week when I normally would stay silent, seething. It will hopefully prevent some inner dialogue (Why didn’t I say____?!?!) and lead to much needed real-time discussion.

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