Books‎ > ‎

Shhhhhhh! Happens

What’s next for libraries now that books are slated for extinction? What’s next for librarians? Confronted by a rapid series of events—from the demise of the card catalog in the La Brea tar pit of inefficiency to the explosion of an asteroid known as the Internet—the whispering handmaidens of knowledge are struggling to decide whether they are a dying breed, an emergent species, or hopefully the third sex. What is the profession’s genetic makeup? How much makeup is genetic to the profession? How does it fit on board the brave new Information age? Or does it? And if so, how many cats should be allowed to come along?

Ordinarily you’d ask a librarian for answers to these questions, and she (or he) would ordinarily recommend—of all things—a book. She might even recommend this one. Except for the fact that, well, you see, once upon a time there was a succubus...

From the Introduction:

This must be how Joan of Arc felt: a voice inside that wouldn’t shut up, saying something she couldn’t ignore.

There are differences between Joan and me, however, some of them obvious. For example, she never faced such big issues as determining adequate double-rub ratings of upholstery fabric for the reading room of a public library. Nor did she ever consider quitting her day job (when it started double-rubbing her the wrong way) to follow the ineluctable career path leading from professional wrestling to action figure to governor. In fact, of course, she did leave her day job, but she made the jump to politics too soon and ended up a martyr, which doesn’t have much to offer in the way of retirement benefits.

Joan, Joan. What a shame she burned out so young! What a crusader she’d be against the McDo malbouffe that threatens French palates. Of course she could still, even at this late date, attempt a comeback by closing a deal with Disney, but she and the mouseketeers are pretty far apart on the issue of her voices and visions. On the one hand, Disney would like to use them as an opportunity for subliminally sky-written endorsements of safe sex. On the other, Joan has a problem with any external rendering of a spiritual entity, which seems to her in effect to concretize the abstract and thereby constitute an ex post facto deconstruction of an immutable meme.

For us too it’s the voices and visions that are the big difference. She didn’t hesitate to follow hers, whereas I don’t hesitate to run away from mine (when I’m not trying to figure out how to shut it out by implanting a pillow in my brain to cover my inner ears). She got grilled at the stake for hers, whereas mine couldn’t convince anyone that I am what people are looking for these days in a good soy substitute. Most importantly, her unshakeable faith very clearly understood that her voices, trailing clouds of glory, were heaven-sent, whereas my unfaithful shakiness makes it statistically likely that the sputtering, noxiousness-billowing noises I hear inside my head come from a succubus.

No, a succubus has nothing to do with decrepit mass transit. For the überwired among us, a succubus is like a computer virus attached to an e-mail that, when opened, melts down the hard drive by dancing around suggestively in front of it to the bump and grind of a down and dirty algorithm. In real-time actuality, of course, a succubus is a computer virus attached to an e-mail that, when opened, dances around suggestively to the bump and grind of a down and dirty algorithm, but it’s all a dream, and it’s your brain that’s melting down, folks. (If you’re doubtful that a dream has the right software to open an e-mail attachment, all I can say is it’s still in beta testing.)

The first time with the voice started out OK. I mean, it was a little weird getting a library science lecture from someone sounding like Margaret Thatcher and looking like Xena in full conquistador mode, and there was that background track—the voice of Elton John Rocker singing in the background about how you should light a candle by preparing kids for the real world with a full battery of ethnic slurs. Still, with the accompanying sleepiness gave it the necessary verisimilitude: library school was all a dream, wasn’t it?

It didn’t stop there, however. The succubus must have been abused with bathos and irony as a child before turning to existential vaudeville for salvation. We’re talking cutesy Sturm und Drang production numbers here that are so Donny-and-Marie-do-Wozzeck, well, when it gets to the point that pop psychoterrorist Dr. Laura Schlessinger comes in to mud-wrestle shlock jock Howard Stern while Dennis Miller reads Goodnight, Moon, you just want it to go away.

But it doesn’t. It clamps its proboscis onto your conscience and snooks away like a grandmotherly vamp cokehead.

The demon must be exorcised. I can’t go on as a librarian if I don’t.

Thank heavens I am a librarian. I wouldn’t be anything else, except maybe an anesthesiologist, which is pretty close to being a librarian when you think of all the people put to sleep by libraries. In this case, though, it is the library profession that has a cure ready to hand, a cure that I have waited far too long to apply. O me of little faith! Too long have I acted in defiance of the precepts of my profession by craven self-censorship, the rotten apple that has fed this worm that I thought I could keep bottled up in a jar with no can-opener holes poked into the lid as if it were a firefly donating its body to childhood cruelty.

Quite the contrary. The beast has flourished on self-censorship. It has grown on this anaerobic Macintosh diet to the threatening proportions of a parade blimp cartoon character. It must be ventilated.

Openness. Glasnost. It was librarianship, not Reagan, that brought down the Iron Curtain.

Yes, thank heavens for librarianship, which preaches loudly and knowingly against the evils of self-censorship, that insidious parasite sapping the vitality of American society by surreptitiously denying it the ideas found in Madonna’s Sex, which is the top of a slippery slope, in fact the pouting, engorged outer lip that opens onto a long, slippery slope down into down into a long slippery sloppery ellipsis slip Madonna sloppery ellipsis lips slip ellipsis yesyesyesyesyes.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Self-censorship. Who needs it?

Be warned, especially if you are a librarian: the result here is a suite of ravings connected, in its own disconnected way, with the library profession by a dim corridor the key to which the hotel staff mistakenly gave you in lieu of an actual key to a sanitized room as part of your attendance package at the National OnLine Update on Confidentiality Kegger (NOLUCK).

Fate makes suckers of us all. You’ve stumbled onto a debriefing.

Not that this warning should be necessary. Librarians don’t expect purgation to be pretty, especially in intellectual freedom cases, with their clotted apostasies and slimy heresies so injurious to doctrinal health, because librarians are always reading about it in the clinical directives issued by the central intelligence office of the professional association, and reading, we all know, is next to cleanliness, which is next to godliness, which is next to … hey, the line’s already getting kinda long. It’s a good thing you brought this book along.

You may be surprised, in fact, to find that all is not pus and bile. Some of it is just gas. The first number, for example, is a trumpeting defense of the library profession against the attempt of Nicholson Baker, in his essay “Discards” (The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, 64-70+ and subsequently collected in a book of essays called The Size of Thoughts), to transform the card catalog into the citadel of the intelligentsia.

Baker’s essay had the influence of a faith healer among the gullible diseased, e.g. a review of the essay (in its compiled venue) in Bookpage that gushed “Librarians you care about still tremble at the mention of Baker's name, and you bang your head on the table in admiration.” As another example, my parents—intelligent, well-read people whose use of the public library justifies the library’s existence—read Baker, because it was The New Yorker, the way a Southern Baptist pastor reads her Bible. Their response, while not one of head-banging admiration, was close enough to head-hanging disappointment at the waywardness of my profession that I was disturbed at the ease with which their opinions had been formed by Baker’s chic chicanery.

But I was silent. As was the profession. At least effectively. There was plenty of muttering among ourselves, but, being a profession that causes other people to bang their heads on the table in admiration of those who make us “tremble,” our muttering was not rendered by the major pipe organs of received opinion.

But the succubus—thinking “Are we not men?” and answering “Thank heavens, no”—perceived a Joshuachite opportunity in the Baker essay’s monumental false façade, so she got together the rams’ horns and hooted and hooted. To no avail. The New Yorker remained aloof, and Baker’s Jericho still stands, but the noise is getting on my nerves, so I’m sending in the parade.

Which goes steadily downhill from there, as far as the library profession is concerned. It is embarrassing to admit that I have been made to think some of these things.

But ideas have a life of their own. Mine certainly did. I knew I had to do something about them when they began sending tendrils out of my ears. Furthermore, who’s to say that there aren’t other librarians out there in the grip of similar heresies who are suffering in silence? How can they be helped?

For despite its rhetoric about self-censorship, the library profession offers no therapeutic program to those suffering from this debilitating malady. To be sure, there is a cure, but there are times when it’s easier to suffer than be healed. Do we expect a shoplifter who privately admits to her guilt and wishes to expiate it, in an area ruled by Islamic law, to cut off her own hand? Similarly, can we expect a librarian unable to make the identification between librarianship and anti-censorship, in a profession ruled by the American Library Association, to remove her own brain?

No. It should be done gradually, gently, in a clinical setting—such as a black vinyl-upholstered black car sealed up on a blazing summer day in some far corner of the parking lot of the Atlanta airport with Marilyn Manson’s version of Chant pummeling everyone’s innards with bass EQ’d to the max—with increasing dosages of witnessing by the professionally pure to the absolute necessity of inerrancy vis-à-vis such documents of faith as the Library Bill of Rights.

But such a program does not exist. Therefore the continuing need for back-alley exorcisms like this one.

At this point the reader should be aware that my demon (why, oh why couldn’t it have been a respectable daimon, or even a daemon?) has resorted to corporeal raiding in order to staff some of these stories, conversations, etc.: the characters of library parapro Zola Hauk and library director Jeb Aubois were looted from the unpublished manuscript of an pseudonymous acquaintance that I happened to be wrestling with at the time these nightmares were conceived. Meaning that I was wrestling with the manuscript, not with the acquaintance, at least not until I showed the acquaintance these pages, at which point we did wrestle, but the idea that intellectual property rights as a concept is part and parcel with censorship endowed me with enough imaginary strength to piledrive my pseudonymous acquaintance and rescue these pages—including “My Lunch with Zola,” which has been optioned to Metallica for a CD—and deliver them safely into the hands of an editor.

Oh no, things are worse than I thought. Did you see what I just said: “safely into the hands of an editor”? The men in white coats will come for me now.

That was part of the problem. Editors. I kept going to editors, unloading these impossible ideas on them, like they were so many therapists who would help release me from this inner banshee. But the editors would either turn and run, when they realized that I had no insurance for Possession by a Heretical Entity, or they would play “tough love” and bat me around like a kitten playing with a mouse before offering me a kill fee (which, to make matters worse, because so tantalizingly suggestive of something beyond the finality of death, was never paid).

I wonder if librarians realize that editors are the greatest censors at work today, next to those who draft platforms for professional associations? I hasten to say that they are necessarily censorious—it’s their job—but they are censorious nonetheless, according to the broad definition of censor prevailing in today’s library world, a definition that encompasses those who deprive the world of useful information by deceptively truncating their middle names into one-letter initials.

There were two exceptions to the editorial failure to ease my burden.

First was the devil’s disciple, by which I’m sure everyone in the library world c. 2000 CE will understand that I mean David Burt, who ran the website Filtering Facts with such single-minded devotion to the ideal of porn-free public libraries that he even came out in favor of federal legislation mandating Internet filters in all publicly-funded libraries receiving telecommunications discounts from the Federal Communications Commission.

This issue turned out to be a litmus test of whether or not someone was a librarian. If you opposed mandated filters, you were a librarian; if you supported them, you were a member of the public at large—Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, prude or pornographer—and you went and banged your head on the table some more.

Burt devised a test of his own: the Hustler challenge. He reasoned that if libraries allowed Hustler-type websites in their libraries, surely their collection criteria should include print pornography. He offered to supply a subscription to Hustler for any library seriously committed to intellectual freedom.

The libraries, stung at the implication of hypocrisy, set out to make mincemeat of this gadfly. They plotted a clever stratagem: they would hold out, biding their time until the right moment, and then they would respond to the challenge all at once. The avalanche of simultaneous Hustler subscriptions would then ruin Burt.

Pressure began to build. No takers on the challenge. Complete silence. When would it happen? The onlurkers of the library world sweated with anticipation.

As tensions reached a fever pitch, Burt swerved. He could see it coming. He’d made his point, but he couldn’t afford to let matters play out. He had a family to support. He bowed out of the profession and went to work for a software company.

(In thus leaving the library profession, Burt entered the pantheon of urban legends, where it is said that the Hustler challenge still exists, or, alternately, that Burt travels around the country, car trunk full of skinpics, bestowing them surreptitiously upon magazine racks in library reading rooms, the Johnny Appleseed of library porn.)

As the editor of a website, Burt proved to be less censorious than his colleagues in the flagship library journals when he accepted “Form Follows Function,” even though the essay does not support his view that filters should be mandated.

The second effort to find some relief was an extension of this moderate position that somehow did find its way into the pages of Tennessee Librarian, which received “Where the Appropriate Things Are” with a profound silence, thereby denoting either intent to publish or, maybe, paralysis by the not unreasonable fear that demonic possession is communicable. The piece is in effect a massive post to that deliciously poisonous froth known as the ALAOIF (American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom) list.

It is well known by now that no such moderate view is tolerable in the library profession, the commissars, I mean committee members, of which have determined softness on Internet filters to be professionally incorrect. Which is why I’m trying to divest myself of these stinking, hellish links once and for all.

“The Idiot and the Ideology” is a circling of vultures, a fable about librarianship’s professional ethics, or lack thereof, now that the thinning herd of aging children is looking for core values that were lost in the haste to follow the political piper out of Hamelin.

“The e-Jack Tales” is an e-mbarrassing e-mission that wouldn’t wash out.

“The Snopes Trial” is a heebie-jeebie foisted on my well-intentioned but unprotected consciousness by the falsely angelic Darwinist choirboy who sang Amahl in Dayton, TN, for the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan College’s 1966 production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Ain’t America great?

Really, you must believe me. I’m a librarian. And librarians aren’t supposed to censor. Nothing. Not even themselves. Ever. The occasional rationalization, maybe. The odd euphemism, perhaps. But censorship? What the coitus do you think we are, people with heads made of feces?

So, if you’re a librarian, remember: there’s aversion therapy in Gilead (although your insurance probably doesn’t cover it, and it’s probably not in your travel budget).

If you’re one of those laypeople who cares about librarians, stop banging your head on the table and use this book instead.