No Talking Please

24 May

There’s something odd about using the words “library” and “exposé” in the same sentence.  Libraries are by definition, quiet and often unassuming places.  Yet, the New York Public Library has found themselves in a bit of a pickle.  It seems that librarians have been given hush money.  No, seriously.  Librarians willing to leave their employee (during budget cuts of the past few years) were given severance if they signed a “no disparagement” agreement.  Forgetting for a moment that we are talking about a prestigious (and massive) institution dedicated to free access to information, wouldn’t you love to make people sign a no disparagement agreement?

Ex-partners, former friends, colleagues, family members, that stranger in the hotel bar?  They could all be forced to say only lovely things about you forever more.  We would become so adept at the no disparagement clause that we wouldn’t even need paperwork anymore, just a knowing look.  Picture cutting off someone in line or stealing his/her parking spot.  You’d simply glance at them and communicate; “When you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”

But back to paying off employees to keep their mouths shut.  There are scenarios when in fact this practice makes all the sense in the world.  You wouldn’t want people leaving certain government offices and blabbing.  It wouldn’t be sporting to leave an industry dependent upon patents and then go squeal.  The same is probably true in industries of money, such as investment banking.  Mum needs to be the word for the sake of fair-ish competition.  But when institutions of intellectual pursuit or information communication have hush clauses, well that might just be a horse of a different color.

The N.Y. Public Library has no competitor of which I’m aware.  Nor does the New York Times (which also uses hush clauses, but not for journalists.)  It seems likely that the motivation to hush former employees is that you are leery of what they may say about the institution.  NYPL is embarking on a renovation that has rankled some (they are transforming the landmark 42nd street research library into a circulation library; a rather dramatic turn of events.)  Hushing former employees in the midst of what could be a contentious business decision speaks to a certain whiff of insecurity.  At the very least, it’s not a wise public relations move.

There are no institutions, really, just people who work in them and make decisions on their behalf.  There are boards, there are patrons, but there is no great wizard.  Regular old mortals make decisions that collectively add up to the policy and mission of an institution.  Outsiders often, understandably, assume that cultural, education or other institutions of thinkology, are populated by the greatest minds our nation has to offer.  Those smarties are there.  They are.  But many times they are not the ones making the majority of the operational and administrative decisions.  Administrators are doing that.  Some of these people are very talented, some are very credentialed, some are even both, and some are neither.

This is not to suggest that anyone at the NYPL is less than stellar.  Not at all.  It is only to remind us that our nation’s greatest academies are only as good as we are.  Innovation is key to the sustainability of some of these institutions.  Leaders must be visionaries and smart, ethical and strong managers must surround them.  A charismatic leader must have people in their inner circle who will tell him/her when he/she is not wearing any clothes.  Hushing librarians (librarians!!!!) in the midst of a contentious building project is the ultimate naked man in the room.

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Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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