Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Librarianship can be so dramatic: see article from portal: Libraries and the Academy

Citation for the article:

Quinn, Brian. "A Dramaturgical Perspective on Academic Libraries." portal: Libraries and the Academy. 5.3 (2005): 329-352.

It is accessible on Project Muse if available.

I finished this article a few days ago, but I needed some time to just think about it a little and reflect on my practice as a librarian and teacher before making a note on it. The title right away caught my eye, and since I studied some drama theory in my previous incarnation as an English studies major, well, it was just up my alley. For readers who work in academic libraries, I think this article will be insightful. I also think it allows us to look at the profession with a different perspective we may not consider too often. The article argues as follows for the importance of dramaturgy in library services:

"Dramaturgy is important because it challenges our assumptions that user activity is motivated largely by logical, rational, instrumental process of information seeking and assimilation, as if users operated in a social vaccuum. It suggests that people in academic libraries are inclined to act the way they do, at least in part, because they are in the presence of other people" (330).

I think that I knew this by instinct as a teacher, so it is nice to see it articulated. Much of what we do, if not all of it, is a performance, and it is a performance dictated by those around us. The article provides an overview of the origins of dramaturgy in the literature review, leading to a discussion of Erving Goffman's book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In the book, Goffman looks at social interactions that constitute dramaturgy. He argues that social life is inherently theatrical, and I am bound to agree to an extent. Goffman further would say, according to Quinn, that role playing is a crucial part of socializing, a process that starts early in life (331).

The article then provides a description of various performances that can occur in an academic library. This part of the article is worth reading not only for the insights it may provide, but it is also worth reading it for the humor of some of the situations. These are situations that librarians have encountered at one point or another, so I am sure many readers will find them amusing as they think about how they interact with patrons and coworkers. For instance, there is the student who comes to the reference desk who only want an answer; they do not want to learn how to actually do a search. If they realize they can get the librarian to just give an answer, they may "play dumb" in order to force "the librarian to spoon-feed the answer by documenting the search in such detail that the answer becomes obvious. Students who are able to play dumb convincingly are able to save themselves the work of searching by making the librarians do it" (333). I am sure a fair share of librarians have fallen for this, heck, I may have fallen for it once or twice. One way to counteract it may be if you go over to their computer terminal and have them do the search as you tell them where to go and give suggestions. Basically, I "supervise" as they do the work. The point here is not to condemn students who may do this performance; it is more to make librarians aware that things like this happen.

Other elements discussed in the article include dramatic realization and concealment. Dramatic realization involves activities "that a person engages in to convey his or her legitimacy and appropriateness in claiming a particular role" (333). For librarians, these are things we do to establish that we are authentic librarians, in other words, show that we know what we are doing. Thumbing through reference books, our presence at the reference desk, teaching are all examples. Concealment, on the other hand, are the things people do not see. For instance, when I teach a class, all the preparation I did in terms of search strategies, including the mistakes I may have made in the process, are not seen by the audience when I do the class itself. I personally find the notion of concealment quite fascinating. I think it is similar to a magician. A magician performs a trick, but a lot goes into the trick that the audience will never see, and if the performance is good, there will be a sense of wonder and no worry over what may have been concealed. Well, just a thought anyways. I have seen teaching as involving a little magic, a little wonder, and a lot of preparation to make it work. This goes along with another idea the author mentions, and that is the idea of mystification, where a performer will try to enhance parts of certain performances while downplaying others. "By maintaining a degree of social distance, performers appear more mysterious and idealized to their audience" (336).

Other interesting ideas from the article include:

  • On teamwork: The author argues that teams will try to convey a sense of harmony and collaboration. They will do their best to hide any disagreements from outsiders. This is common sense. One interesting aspect is the concept of accountability for directors. The argument is that roles become more dramatic as one moves up the command ladder. The interesting idea is this: "in general, the higher up the performer's role in the team, the more accountable the performer will feel to the audience and the less accountable to the other members of the team" (338).
  • On regions and areas of the library. I think this is a bit of an overgeneralization, so I will leave it to readers to decide: "The front regions of the library tend to be clean, comfortable, and tastefully appointed--often in marked contrast to the backstage regions, which may be disorganized, dusty, and full of old furniture and equipment" (339).
  • On library users. This I found very interesting, and I can confirm it from personal experience both at the reference desk and from my close work with students. The author writes, "at times, library users tend to treat librarians like bartenders and provide more information about their information needs and themselves than any librarian would hope--and perhaps care--to extract during a reference interview" (342). If only I could dispense drinks, I think a lot of my work, and theirs, might go along better (haha). I will add that at times, a librarian's role may be closer to that of a confessor. Actually, I have given thought to writing a little piece on how librarians are like confessors.
  • On attributes of skilled performers. As a librarian, you have to be able to think on your feet, especially for times when you may have to cover for a colleague for any number of reasons. You also have to be able to exercise self-control. You also need dramaturgical cisrcumspection, that is, "the ability to understand how to stage an optimal performance and to anticipate any difficulties that may arise. It also entails the ability to select the kind of audience that will be most receptive to one's performance" (344).
  • On information technology and dramaturgy. It is important to be perceived as state of the art (even if you are not). Now, Mr. Quinn says this of some library directors. I leave it to readers to see if they have seen this before: "administrators may be outfitted with the most powerful computer equipment regardless of whether they have any real need for it in their work because the equipment is used for dramatic effect to convey the importance in the library hierarchy" (345). In a worst case scenario, you can think of Dilbert's boss. However, if you see an administrator walking around with a PDA when no else has one, it would be a good example. In this case, the idea is that the equipment conveys power. This part of the paper also discusses the use of computers in the library, in general, and how Web pages are now theatrical pieces.
  • More on information technology and dramaturgy. This one deserves a line by itself. It is the use of e-mail, especially coming from certain people at certain times of the day. One example is this: "thus, the librarian who is anxious to develop a reputation for being industrious and hard working will take care to time his or her e-mail so that it is sent in the early hours of the morning before work or late at night when everyone else has gone home" (347). I bet this sounds familiar to many people. Another way to look at it may be in terms of Star Trek. In the original series, Scotty, the engineer of the Enterprise, once confessed that you never tell your captain how long a repair really takes. If it takes one hour, you say four or five. That way you keep your reputation as a miracle worker. It does not get more dramatic than that.
The author concludes that viewing libraries from a dramaturgical point of view helps us understand ourselves, our patrons, and our libraries. It may help us to see all of this from a new and fresh perspective. I highly recommend the article.

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