How Did We Get Here? The Rise and (Hopefully) Fall of Rockstar Librarians

I should start off by saying that my hope is that soon the era of rockstar librarians comes to an end. We brought them into this world and we’ll have to take them out.

I keep racking my brain about this week’s drama in librarianship. One librarian is suing two others. You know the story. I wish it hadn’t gotten to this point and I’m saddened that it has. But maybe it might just be that we can have some open dialogue as a profession and talk about what has happened over the last five or six years and how we got here. I’m writing this really free form and trying to get something out of my head and onto “paper” that’s bothering me. I mean absolutely no malice or offense towards any one.

I think this era of rockstar librarians has directly contributed to the current climate at conferences and the current legal case dominating our professional discourse. I want to try to frame the “rockstardom” without naming anyone in particular. You all know of a person that does a lot of speaking gigs, maybe who holds a lot of sway in conversation on social media, has maybe won awards or whatever. Sometimes they are also a bit of a jerk. In their minds, they’ve become better than others. They start to dominate all conversations, reject other opinions. They become a librarian rockstar. You might have someone in mind who fits this description. For the record, not all are men, in my opinion. How did we get here? I think there’s blame to go around and here are some of my initial thoughts:

  • Our vendors pay money for some people to give talks. Maybe that inflates their egos. Maybe they drop great talking points that get us excited about librarianship. Then another vendor hires them. More ego. I have personally heard “rockstars” bragging about having their rooms paid for at conference and giving talks and getting free dinners and drinks. Those perks shouldn’t mean you can be a jerk.
  • Fine. I think the Movers & Shakers may contribute to this. Please no offense to those who did not let it turn them into jerks. Ditto Emerging Leaders. Anytime you bestow an honor like this on someone in librarianship, there’s a chance it may make them a jerk. (Not all. I know.) But, I will admit to being at a social event at an ALA and hearing a new Emerging Leader (I think the first year or so) bragging about how he wasn’t really doing anything and getting a free conference and getting drunk. And I thought: so that’s worth my dues.
  • Social Media. There is power in thousands of followers. It creates a feeling of self-importance. (Yes, I realize I have them but they are not all librarians. Also, I used to act like a bit of a jerk a lot. I admit that. I’ve apologized. I’m not a jerk anymore and haven’t been for years and somehow they still stay. I’ve blogged about the evolution of my own changing social media use elsewhere.)

So, somehow, these things have helped create a generation of librarians who are extremely popular, both socially and professionally. Again, without pointing out anyone in particular, they are popular speakers and they are popular on social media and the social circuit during conference. Sometimes they are popular mostly just on the speaking front or the social front, but I’ve seen a lot of overlap. A lot of us attend these conferences, go to their talks, and then maybe some of us even hang out with them. So, in part, we’re feeding the beast really.

Some of us have wondered how certain individuals keep getting hired to give keynotes. All flash, no substance. Yet, it happens. Why? Because someone’s attending the talks.

I also really don’t want to turn this into a rant on what adults choose to do at conferences. I have not witnessed the plaintiff in the legal case sexually harass anyone. But, I did witness a different rockstar getting what I would call a little too cozy with a friend of mine, who was super enamored with this person due to their social media presence. That day, I stepped in and got her out of there because I knew she’d regret it. I never said another word about it. But, I think about it at every ALA.

So, librarians, what do we do now? I wish I had answers. I don’t. I mostly just want to have a conversation about the lack of civility and conversation and the aura of rockstar librarians and how it’s turning everything to shit. And then maybe figure out how to fix it.

*Please note: Not all popular librarians that give a lot of keynotes and win awards are jerks. I know that and you do too.

16 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here? The Rise and (Hopefully) Fall of Rockstar Librarians

  1. You helped put my unease into tangible form, thanks! I’m unhappy with the emerging leaders –> rockstar model as well because it seems to play out like a popularity contest, rewarding those who can market themselves successfully. Yes, sometimes the honorific is based on great work the person has done, and some of these individuals are great to listen to and learn from, but I’ve seen also how it can lead to a kind of en masse worship of someone by those who haven’t worked or even interacted with them. It elevates individuals in our profession in a decidedly non-merit based manner.

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve gotten exasperated with the rockstar thing in the library world, mostly because I’ve seen some genuine (but quiet or introverted or not “connected”) innovators and solid, game-changing professionals remain unrecognized or in the shadow of another person’s spotlight. Sadly, this is how it is in pretty much any profession, and I’m not sure there is anything we can do to change it. It’s great to recognize emerging leaders and movers, shakers, disruptors – but maybe we’re overdoing it. Is this another facet of the library profession’s constant need to defend our existence and remind the world of how necessary we are, while sometimes not actually living up to it?

  3. Great post! I thought I was alone in hating the way the “rock stars” have turned librarianship into a bunch of hipster catch phrases. I don’t know how to get rid of them, short of just not taking ourselves so seriously. We’re here to do a job, and we need leaders and innovators, not “stars”.

  4. Thank you for this. I was an EL, and while I met some wonderful people, I also saw a lot of behaviors and attitudes firsthand that left me Less Than Impressed. There are reasons why I am no longer an ALA member, and why I no longer blog about librarianship, and this essay touches on a lot of them.

    Anybody who goes into our profession to become “famous” is Doing It Wrong. Librarianship is about service, not the cult of personality. And I appreciate your being candid about it.

    Aliis inserviendo consumor!

  5. Great post. I too am tired of the rock star idea. It is tired and boring and so full of shit. We are all here to serve our communities. I’ve sadly been labeled as a library rockstar and let me tell you….I hate it. It is a time suck and does nothing for our profession.

  6. Thank you for this post, I have been concerned about the rock star idea since I entered librarianship seven years ago. I enjoy the blogs, get great ideas from them, but on the flip side I feel like I’m not doing enough, being enough that my day to day work as a reference/youth services librarian isn’t enough to make it.

    I’m glad to hear I’m not alone, so thank you again.

  7. How about stepping outside the librarian/higher ed world and trying out other conferences? The level of self-importance and cliqueness that permeates librarianship has always stumped me a little. I always thought librarians were the most inclusive professionals. Nope.

  8. Ok – maybe I’m naive, but I haven’t heard of any of this librarian drama . . . there are something like four “rock star librarians” that I know, and you highlight that list. And you’re not a jerk. Far from it.

    Though, I certainly have seen the rise of the “become incredibly popular among a certain niche” become “douchebag who thinks they’re better than everyone else just because of something silly.” Unfortunately, I think the modern online world makes that pretty gosh-darn easy to happen.

  9. I think you have put into words what A LOT of librarians and library professionals have been saying privately for some time now. Not only does raising the status of certain LIS professionals to that of “rock stars” – e.g., M&S, EL, etc. – fill other individual LIS professionals with anxiety as they feel as if they’re not doing enough but it also undermines libraries at the institutional level as well.

    Aside: Stop rating librarians AND libraries, Library Journal!!! Gosh, I hate that publication!

    Continuing, all it takes is a single public library in a given geographical area to latch onto the “rock stardom” of few individuals for it to cause ripple effects among the surrounding libraries as now those “rock star” libraries are looked upon as leaders of the field. Is there any real data/basis for these recognitions other than the successful marketing/self-promotion of these individuals and institutions? Nope and more likely than not there often seems to be a single degree of separation between rock stars. How adorable.

    Lastly, if I had wanted to be in a profession that celebrates “rock stars” – and could we try and tone down the “hipsterism” running rampant in the LIS world too, mkay? – I would have worked at a tech start-up and NOT at one of the last vestiges of public institutions in this neoliberal dystopia we currently reside in. Just as how billionaire-backed NGOs and their never-ending neoliberal
    schemes for public-private partnerships consistently offer participants the chance to “do good” AND make a lot of money, library “rock stardom-ism” allows LIS professionals the ability to serve the public AND be idolized and popular. Kewel, man!

    Yuck.

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