Thursday, 23 June 2011

Why we need to be talking about the LIS new professionals "clique"

Wow – what an incredible week. The aftermath of the New Professionals Conference is proving to be as lively and exciting as the event itself. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but last night the reaction to my suggestion that the online LIS new professional community might be perceived to be a “clique” exploded on Twitter. At one point pretty much every tweet I could see in my stream contained  the word “clique”. It even picked up its own hashtag (#cliquegate). It was overwhelming and extremely surreal to see such a public debate amongst so many people (both new and experienced) on something that I had said. I found myself apologising for it, which I would now like to retract – I am not at all sorry that I got people talking about the “clique”. The reactions to the idea that we might be a clique were often emotive and defensive, ranging from bewilderment to anger. Many (again, both new and experienced professionals) felt that it was an unfair perception, and that the fault lay with the person who saw us in that way, not with us.

I’m not going to discuss my thoughts on whether we are or are not a “clique”. That has already been done eloquently, thoughtfully and thoroughly by a number of people, in blog posts (by Michael Cook and Stevelin), the Twitter debate which still continues as I type (albeit much less furiously), and the discussion on the LISNPN forums. What I would like to propose is that we need to accept, whether it’s true or not, that somebody perceives us to be a clique, and then we need to move on in whichever way we see fit. 

For anyone who is not aware of the context to the “clique” issue, it arose from the paper that I presented at the CILIP CDG New Professionals Conference on Monday. As part of my paper I presented some small-scale research in which I attempted to discover some experienced LIS professionals’ perceptions of new professionals. Two of my 35 respondents expressed some concern about “exclusivity” in the online new professional community, with one respondent saying that, although they thought they might still fall into the new professionals category themselves, they did not “identify with the current clique”. I suggested that this should be a concern for us, as it is something which could be creating a barrier between new and experienced professionals, and argued that we need to take the lead in engaging with our experienced colleagues, in order to break down such barriers for the good of the profession as a whole. 

One of the criticisms of my findings is that we shouldn’t take the thoughts of one person out of 35 in a survey to be a sign that there is a problem. I said right from the start of my paper that we could not draw any firm conclusions from my survey; with such a small number of respondents, we cannot take the opinions expressed to be representative of those of experienced LIS professionals as a whole. However, the fact remains that someone feels that we are a clique. It is possible that they are the only LIS professional in the country or in the world, or maybe one of two or three, who feels this way, in which case I might agree that they are over-sensitive. But it is also possible that one in every 35 experienced LIS professionals holds this perception, in which case we have a big problem. I suspect that the true figure lies somewhere in the middle of these scenarios. Let’s not forget that the only places in which I distributed my questionnaire were Twitter and the LIS-LINK Jiscmail mailing list, meaning that many of the respondents were probably Twitter users and thus more likely to feel involved in the general online LIS community; is it not possible that there could be many people who feel that we are a clique who did not even see the survey?

Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that someone, who is potentially one of us, sees us as a clique which they cannot infiltrate. I can understand why people feel upset about this; I know that we are a friendly and welcoming group, and I am also one of the many people who puts much of their spare time and effort into helping to maintain this absolutely amazing online community. I was disappointed, upset and concerned when I found the word “clique” in my survey data. I also hate the idea that I am part of a clique because the word makes me think of the popular groups at school, whom I would scurry past as quickly as possible for fear that they would turn their withering, disdainful gaze on me. I am also not accusing any individuals of being cliquey or unfriendly. I am simply reporting what I discovered, and arguing that we cannot dismiss it simply because we don’t like it or because lots of people think otherwise. We know that is easy to join the community on LISNPN and Twitter because we have done it, and we felt confident enough to do it. But do you not remember how daunting Twitter was when you first joined? Can you not imagine how it could be even more daunting for someone who is not hugely confident with the internet or social media in general? When many of us joined, the community was still in its infancy – can you not imagine how someone who wants to join in now might feel?

The argument that there is no room in the profession for someone who lacks confidence and feels unable to get involved has been made. I agree to an extent. However, people often need help to build up this point, and we shouldn’t be immediately banishing anyone for whom the confidence to express their ideas and take action doesn’t come naturally – librarianship is not The Apprentice! I have only become an extrovert in the past few years, during which my self-confidence has grown immensely for various reasons. Confidence can be developed and the ability to engage can be learnt. People may just need some support to get there.

Another point of view that has been expressed is that we have more important things to worry about than people feeling excluded from the online community. I am not denying that our profession is facing some massive obstacles and difficult times, and I do not for a second want to undermine the physical, mental and emotional energy, not to mention the time, that several people in particular are investing in trying to make a difference. However, I would argue that this perception of us as a “clique” is an important issue that some of us should be trying to deal with. Alice Halsey, Simon Barron and Biddy Fisher reminded us at the New Professionals Conference that advocacy starts on a personal level, in the way that we conduct and represent ourselves as librarians to the people we meet. Megan Wiley then pointed out that, in times of cuts, it is more important than ever for us to be communicating our own worth.  So, I would argue, the perceptions that people have of us are actually really important, and for me this includes the perceptions that we hold of other people in our profession; if someone views a particular group of librarians as being a clique, then someone within that group needs to try to change that. I feel that this could be my contribution to library advocacy, and, although I may not be doing anywhere near as much as those people involved in major advocacy campaigns, I could still help the cause. In challenging times, the LIS profession needs to be a united one, in which members support each other, and in order for this to happen we need to deal with any conflict, mistrust or negative perceptions within the membership.

While I do not apologise for raising this contentious issue, I do apologise for anything I’ve said that has made anyone feel offended or undermined. I cannot ignore the perception that was expressed in my survey. As I said at the start of my post, I feel very strongly that we have to come to terms with the fact that someone thinks we are a “clique”, accept it, and move on, in whatever manner we feel appropriate. For me, this is to try to do something about it. I started today, when I fed back material and issues from the New Professionals Conference to a group of colleagues during an internal staff development session. I addressed the issue of the clique head-on, and asked them to accept any offers of getting involved with us. My next steps will be to think and put into action other methods of engaging with people outside of the new professional community, as I suggested in my paper. It is, however, up to you how you want to proceed. I hope that some of you will join me in trying to ensure that we are not seen as a clique. I expect that many of you will feel that your time is better spent elsewhere, and that’s fine too. I continue to believe that we need to break down barriers for the good of the profession as a whole, and I feel that this is the first barrier that I should tackle.


  1. "librarianship is not 'The Apprentice'..." - what a marvellous quote! I confess I watch every week and thank my lucky stars that it isn't.

  2. Absolutely fantastic post Rachel! This brilliantly summed up my thoughts on the aftermath and discussion of the ‘C’ word.

  3. I think this is a brilliant post. Especially the bit about how social networking was closer to its infancy when we all got involved, so it's a more intimdating beast to try and join in with now. Great stuff!

  4. Your posts are great Rachel. Looking forward to reading more! :)