Coping with Anonymity

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Picture this: your library has launched a visionary long-range reorganization plan that sparks an anonymous, critical blog from staff members. Or your library appears in an anonymous YouTube or Flickr extravaganza that targets your authoritarian signage, unfriendly staff, and dirty public restrooms. Or your soon-to-be-launched web revamp is reviewed on an employee’s personal blog before the library goes public. Hypothetical? No.

Such events, which have occurred at various libraries, can make for difficult and stressful times. Are they entirely negative? Can transparency and anonymity coexist? Is it better to turn a blind eye to the conversation playing out online?

Progress and perils

Our goal is better libraries-and transparency usually can help. The underlying concept of transparency is an increased (and unfettered) flow of information, but today’s technology allows for unidentified blogs, untraceable survey responses, and the freedom to say pretty much anything anonymously.

If you hold tight to information/plans/new services until the time is right, it may hurt. Control can sometimes stifle creative thought and constructive criticism and thus spur anonymous carping.

Many organizations pursue transparency by creating more open means of communication. Secrets are a thing of the past (within legal limits, of course) and everyone-staff and public-is kept informed as much as is practical.

Major organizational and operational changes are discussed and decided openly, if not necessarily democratically. Long-term projects are managed so that staff have multiple avenues to contribute questions and advice.

Bumps on the road

However, we’ve seen numerous organizations, including several high-profile libraries, hit hurdles that frustrate and demoralize staff. Other organizations where entrenched leaders offer no more than lip service regarding transparency are prodded into transparency by desperate staff or the public. In response, anonymous complaints and concerns may emerge. Such outlets can run the gamut from constructive criticism to unproductive griping or even defamation.

A common anonymous outlet is the pseudonymous or anonymous individual blog. The less common but far more powerful variation is the group or community blog or web site that may be written by several writers but accepts unsigned comments and submissions.

And how about exposure via Flickr or YouTube? What might have taken months to make the rounds through libraryland, or sat at a local newspaper waiting for a decision on whether it was worth publishing, now can spread rapidly across the biblioblogosphere.

A nimble response

Your best response to this new world is to audit signage, library policy, and staff communication. Walking through the library with a customer’s eyes might lead you to change inappropriate signage. A user-centered look at the public policy manual may yield less rule-bound guidelines. Finally, establishing a way for staffers and patrons to comment freely fosters openness. See the Link List for examples.

The response to such criticism can be vital. A defensive stance, accompanied by a “we know and you don’t” attitude, often provokes anonymous critics to redouble their efforts and, in some cases where many people can comment or post, may result in more vitriol.

However, organizations willing to accept some level of criticism in return for ideas, suggestions, and the opportunity to change may be able to turn around a difficult situation. Leaders with a thick skin may be able to discern the legitimate criticism beneath the vituperation. (Purely mean-spirited, nonconstructive posts, however, are best ignored.)
Such breadth of speech can be found in answers to surveys and often deters libraries from conducting broad public (or even staff) polls. Harshly worded survey answers, however, should be simply par for the course; an unwillingness to see and read such commentary only hurts the organization.

A positive outcome to negative perceptions is our goal. It may be frustrating, especially for leaders who strive to make a difference in their institutions, but the benefits of entering the conversation-eyes wide open, carefully listening to the feedback, willing to respond to reproof in the open arena-will make it worthwhile.

Link List

Sheridan Libraries Blog

Wayne State University Libraries

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

January 1, 2008 Library Journal