23 Oct 2015

The bad librarian

After reading Martin O’Connor’s recent post, the good librarian, I thought about the opposite: who or what is The Bad Librarian? What do they look like? What do they do? Who do they do it to? How bad do you have to be before you’re struck off by the LAI? So in the first of a series of loosely Halloween themed libfocus posts*, I sought to investigate.

The idea of a bad librarian conjures a simplistic vision of frumpy, unhelpful reference desk staff confusing users with in-house jargon. Basically a variation of the stereotype that real librarians roll their eyes at. I’ve been working in libraries for nine years now: surely I can articulate a clearer vision of this? So I used my research skills to look into this in a bit more detail:

And mostly what I found was either covers from vintage smutty books or a few videos attempting libraries + humour (very difficult to do). A few librarians have blogged about it, but they were just describing bad reference service again.

If we look at the historical record, we'll find that such questionable characters as Mao Zedong and J. Edgar Hoover were librarians but they lacked commitment to the profession and soon moved on, so they are of little help to us here.

Then I asked Twitter:

And I got a bit more detail here. The responses I got back (thanks to all concerned) would suggest that a bad librarian is :
  • apathetic
  • negative
  • is not user-focussed, or at least is only focussed on what users wanted twenty years ago

Which doesn't sound that bad: it just sounds like me having a bad day, to be honest. So I think there’s a bad librarian in all of us. It isn't an extreme, needs-to-be-sacked sociopath. It’s any of us when we forget about why we got into libraries in the first place or have gotten stuck in a rut and forgotten how to keep our jobs interesting. I would suggest that if you can read Martin’s article and you find you’re not ticking many of the boxes there then maybe you're losing your spark and your inner bad (but not evil bad) librarian may have taken over.

*probably not.  


  1. Cheers for that Jack. They're a nasty bunch indeed ;-). Acquisition librarians can also be "bad" in the sense that there is, arguably, a tendency to frequently acquiesce to expensive tastes of faculty.

    John Hubbard put this nicely as per below:
    For decades, libraries have tried to wean their readers off expensive but popular and prestigious journals. We’ve gone hat in hand to departmental meetings imploring authors to support Open Access publications. There’s been some slow traction, but so far this is still the exception to the intransigent practices of many scholars. You have to publish in costly journals to get tenure, and those journals are pricey because people write for them. We can’t break that cycle by merely asking this generation of researchers to change their stripes.

    It’s easy to make collection development decisions based on how many squeaky wheels insist certain titles are vital to their studies. But there’s also simple equations that can be applied to determine the costs per item, and ideally per use, to justify expenditures. With the possible exception of curating special collections, you don’t need to bankrupt your organization buying overpriced materials, no matter who needs them. Acquisition choices are often more complex and nuanced, but they don’t have to be. If something costs more than what it should be worth, don’t engender price gouging by purchasing it.

    What’s astounding is how the same academic librarians who have no qualms about telling students wanting to be handed five articles on their topic that they must instead do their own research themselves have no such sense of tough love in applying equitable service policies when treating faculty members’ demands for journal subscriptions from profiteering publishers as unquestionable gospel.

    source: https://medium.com/@hubbard/the-right-of-no-sale-academic-publishing-is-broken-and-librarians-are-to-blame-c7ebcfad4a0f#.wjnz3s77n

  2. Thanks, Alex. I had read John's piece. It reminds of way back listening to Paul Sheehan (then head of DCU Library) delivering a joint presentation on the launch of IReL (€€€ from State to publishers) and DCU's institutional repository and acknowledging the contradictions in it.

    And in my own case, yesterday I was measuring up some journal requests from Faculty. All of them ranking as bad value for money according to http://journalprices.com/. What would a good librarian do?

  3. hi Jack. Love the post - disappointed there is no mention of Chainsaw Sally - now she was an evil librarian - so bad and evil that I can't find a PG link to the films... but to be serious...
    I agree that there is probably a bit of the bad librarian in all of us - or the possibility of those qualities in us and we can have bad librarian days. But that doesn't make us a bad librarian. But I would suggest, and you're probably more diplomatic than I, that there are bad librarians - and they wouldn't have good days. They would be the ones who would be apathetic, negative, not user focused and the opposite of the good librarian as laid out by our colleagues in my original piece. And I would call those librarians who Alex mentions - bad librarians. They are not fulfilling the library role - they are looking after the interest of a tiny cohort of users. And wasting money like that, as in the example you both provide in the comments - is the trait of a bad librarian.