So, a new friend -- and already a dear one -- has asked me whether "subversive librarian" might be an oxymoron. Fair question. Since it's been a while, I'm re-posting one of my earliest posts that addressed that very subject..
The Subversive Librarian
“The subversive librarian.” Now, that's an oxymoron . . . . or is it?
The archetype librarian is about as subversive as, well, spinster Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We all know the stereotype, and there’s no point in flogging it to death here.
Librarians take great pains to prove that we’re really nothing like our stereotype. In fact, listen in on a library listserv and sooner or later, someone will start a thread about how utterly cool we really are. First, there will be a picture of a librarian on water skis. A flurry of comments and photos will quickly follow. Before it’s all over, somebody will post a picture of a half-naked librarian sporting his huge Marilyn Manson tattoo and multiple tongue piercings. Ok, I concede. There are some cool librarians.
Unfortunately, none of that silliness undermines (or subverts, if you will) the one stereotype about librarians that has spawned all the rest: Librarians love their rules – at least when it comes to books.
This rule thing has nothing to do with coolness. I don’t care if your librarian did get arrested in Juarez last May for peeing in the fountain at Plaza de Armas. He’s still not going to let you check out more than two books with the same call number. Why? Because it’s the Rule. And that’s why the words “subversive” and “librarian” just don’t seem to go together.
I’m not here to defend your librarian’s peculiarities. I’ve been to library conventions and frankly, some librarians are just plain weird. Especially law librarians.
But (and isn’t this predictable?) I do want to tell you why I think librarians are cool. Our coolness lies not in our hobbies, or what we look like, but in the profession’s fundamental subversiveness. And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.
What does it mean to be subversive? Well, according to my Brand X dictionary, to “subvert” is to destroy completely; to undermine character, morals, or allegiance; or to overthrow completely. I checked a couple other dictionaries and they said basically the same thing.
But that’s not what subversion means to me. The word “subvert” comes from the Latin sub, meaning below, and vertere, to turn. To me, that doesn’t say destroy. To me, it says dig, explore, and turn the soil if you need to. Even – especially – if someone says you’re not supposed to. And isn’t that just what librarians do?
I’m not the only one that thinks librarians are subversive. Author Michael Moore thinks so, too. We revealed our true nature after a publisher threatened to drop his book because it contained comments criticizing the President:
I didn't know who any of these people were. They -- this one librarian found out about it, and she got in a, I don't know, library chat room. Or she sent a letter out to a list of librarians, and they sent it out to a bunch of people, and the thing kind of mushroomed from there. . . . I really didn't realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. . . . They are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them.
Now is that cool, or what?
Of course, some people are afraid of subversives, but that just means they think we’re powerful. A few years back, the American Library Association came out opposing mandatory Internet filters on library computers. Dr. Laura Schlessinger accused the ALA of “boldly, brashly contributing to sexualizing our children. . . . [a]nd . . . mak[ing] sure your children have easy access to pornography, under the guise of free speech." We did all that? Of course not. But I figure if we got that kind of reaction from Dr. Laura, we must be doing something right. By the way, whatever happened to her?
At any rate, that makes at least three people – Michael Moore, Dr. Laura, and me – who know just how subversive and powerful we librarians are. And while I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I sort of like being feared for my unbridled power.
My job as a librarian is to help you dig and explore so you can turn the soil if you think it needs turning. It’s really none of my business whether you want to start a new chapter of the Communist party or just find a recipe for cabbage au gratin. Do I make judgments about you? Well, yeah! But do I tell you what I think, or discourage you from digging, or censor what I give you? Nope. I just give you a wise and mysterious look – kind of like the Mona Lisa – and wonder why on earth you would eat cabbage if your mother isn’t making you.
Still, what’s so subversive about that, and what’s so cool about being a librarian? I mean, aside from the fact that last year I got to go to a seminar on mold prevention (as if that weren’t enough!).
There will always be someone who doesn’t want you to know something. In some cultures, women are prevented from reading – supposedly for their own good. The entity that’s trying to keep information out of your hands claims to have good reasons too. But being sincere doesn’t make it right.
Librarians get to right the wrong. We get to put the decision-making process back in your hands, where it belongs. We get to provide the digging equipment, let you find what you find, and let you decide what to do with it. And sometimes we get to watch your garden grow, knowing that we helped plant the seeds.
And if it’s bad? Well, then, soon enough, another of you will come looking for a way to fix it, and we get to help plant those seeds as well. In fact, every once in a while, librarians are the only ones willing to help you start digging. And if the government will let us (and for some librarians, even if it won’t), we even get to keep your secrets.
Quietly subversive. Just powerful enough. And very cool.