We Live in a World of Bad Text

 Obamacare vs The Affordable Care Act

Fake news versus propaganda . . . (one more)

Altright versus white supremacist

ripped from the womb vs late term abortion

* * *

There is power in names, in language, in how we describe things and what we call them. When female authors  write under male pen names (or just use their gender ambiguous initials); when you call grown women girls; when you describe a medical procedure in sensational and inaccurate language; when you write about people of color using only food-based descriptors you’re doing your audience a disservice and, in the end, damaging our society as a whole.

* * *

Out of all of Strunk and White’s solid words of advice, perhaps none need to be heeded more strongly these days than “[u]se definite, specific, concrete language.” What is more specific and concrete, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? Alt-right or white supremacy? Fake news or propaganda?

* * *

When I consider the power of specific language, I remember how during an exit interview after leaving a particularly abusive work environment, I had to tell the director of the library about the unethical actions of my immediate supervisor, since those actions were largely the cause of my leaving. I told the director that by not allowing me to order a certain series of books for my teen patrons, my manager was a censor, and practicing censorship. I calmly and deliberately used those words. The director said something to the effect of, oh, don’t you think the word censor is a bit strong?

I agreed. It is a strong word. Moreover, it was–and is–an accurate word.

I was escorted out of the building by the secretary. It was a glorious feeling.

* * *

To support these specific words, we will need specific–and accurate–sources. To defend these specific words, we need to accurately record any misuse or abuse against them.

This is what we’re here for, librarians, by whatever title or name you go by. This, right now, is the call we need to answer.

“Nothing, no one, is too small to matter. What you do is going to make a difference.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

re: the title of this post. Years ago, almost ten, I watched a show on PBS about writing, and the only thing I remember from it is the quote “we live in a world of bad text”. I have no idea what the show was or actually about; if anyone can figure it out, let me know. 

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Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

Oh, dear sweet baby Picard Jebus, there’s a rage making thread on pub-yac about a children’s department being forced to do all of their storytimes the same. Here’s a quote:

[…A]ll the storytimes for one age group should be the same because:
Patrons get disappointed when they can’t get into a certain storytime because its registration gets filled.
Using personal props, puppets or flannels is shunned because you may leave the library one day and the library patrons will be familiar with those items that were personally yours.
If you are out sick, another librarian will need to cover the storytime and the patrons will be disappointed if “Miss Tina” isn’t there and the librarian covering the storytime will feel bad, because the group is disappointed.
That the staff of librarians have different levels of performance ability and because of  that they should all work together to be about the same or at least contain the same materials.

My first flippant thought was, “Welcome to Camazotz storytime. All storytimes are equal. Now for 1.5 minutes of literacy time.” My second, equally flippant thought was, “Sounds like Amendments 211, 212, and 213 got passed at this library. Soon we’ll be seeing library job postings for a staff Handicapper General.”

When I was still working as a preschool teacher, there was a big movement away from genuine praise–instead, we were supposed to say things like “You did it!” No qualifiers, the only thing we talked about was done and not done. Which also ties in with our current climate of “Everyone’s a winner!” “A+ for trying!” And I can understand the impulse. You don’t want kids or people to feel bad. But by making everyone equal, we’ve done the exact opposite– when we don’t allow children, or staff members, to find out what they excel at, then we have a society full of people who aren’t really good at anything. Not allowing people to fail has caused so many people to never find out what they are truly good at, and by making everyone equal, we’ve inflicted a great injustice on many.

Equality isn’t about what we are–it is about how we are treated, and how we are utilized in society. Those who have talent and work hard at developing and applying it should be lauded, of course, but not at the detriment of others.

Forcing more talented staff to perform at the level of your least talented staff is demoralizing for all involved. Why would anyone do this? I think a smarter approach would be for your staff to try out presenting different programs to different groups and seeing what works. Not every group wants or needs a high energy, jazz hands style presenter. I actually think baby time/lapsit benefits from a calmer, more methodical approach, perfect for shyer or perhaps older librarians.

If you end up with a staff member who is incapable of successfully presenting to any group, in any style, well, then, that’s another discussion. But stifling the creativity and joy of your other staff to meet imagined needs of a public is simply poor management. If I were working with whomever created those guidelines above, I’d be on the lookout for a better situation.

This situation also reminded me of Mel’s recent, excellent series on the elements of storytime, which is as elegant and perfect and precise as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I highly recommend anyone who currently performs storytimes or wants to in the future read the entire series. And library school educators, you might just want to incorporate it into your curriculum–with proper credit, of course.