Geeks and Nerds Battle for the Soul of Librarianship
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing librarianship is one that is unlikely to receive serious scholarly attention. It is, to put it simply, a battle presently being fought between two camps of librarians. Some may cite generational conflict as the primary conflict in librarianship today; baby-boomers representing traditional knowledge of librarianship as well as bibliographic knowledge, and GenXers representing facility with technology. There is some truth to that picture, but it is primarily a distraction from the real conflict. That conflict, I submit, is the battle between geeks and nerds.
“Geek, nerd, what’s the difference?” some might ask. Well there is a definite difference; in fact there is little overlap between the two groups, although there are a few characteristics in common. I will summarize the traits of geeks and nerds for you. I may offend some people in doing it, but if you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.
Typical traits of a geek:
- Very techie
- Identifies with science
- Into science fiction, fantasy, and/or cyberpunk literature
- Possibly into live action role playing games
- Possibly into BDSM
- Possibly into graphic novels/manga, etc.
- Knows how to program a computer and does it often
- Has a blog
- Interested in popular culture
- May or may not have done well in school
Typical traits of a nerd:
- Reads a lot: philosophy, serious literature, science, history, academic subjects
- Unusually excited, passionate, worried and/or earnest about intellectual matters that most people find boring or irrelevant
- Got straight A’s in school
- Not interested in popular culture, except possibly in a truly anthropological sense
- Prone to injuries associated with excessive or intense reading
Nerds and geeks both:
- Are bad dancers
- Are bad at sports
- Have trouble getting a date, even with other nerds/geeks
Now you may recognize in my description of a nerd some of the characteristics of a stereotypical librarian. In fact, librarians are traditionally quite nerdy. This has recently changed, however, as a result of an aggressive advance by the geek front within the profession. Now it is not so clear whether librarians, especially younger librarians, are typically nerds, as perhaps they should be, or geeks, as the character of the “biblioblogosphere” might represent us as being.
At this juncture I must make an important point of disclosure: I myself am a patriotic member of the nerd nation. I think librarianship is an intellectual profession, and I think bibliographic knowledge is more important to our ability to serve patrons and students than knowledge of technology. I think that the current advance by the geek front within librarianship is succeeding in replacing an important intellectual knowledge base – that is, a store of bibliographic knowledge combined with knowledge of the principles of librarianship – with a technical knowledge base that is already quite well-established by other professional groups, namely web designers and programmers. Thus, it seems to me that the success of the geek army in the battle against the nerds may end up being a losing battle for the profession of librarianship as a whole, once the bodies are counted, the damage assessed, and the spoils taken.
I say this as a nerd who has made a concerted effort to understand my enemy. I am more computer savvy than most of my fellow nerds. I can do a little programming, and I have not just one but several blogs. In my library job I am exploring applications of new technologies brought into our field by messengers of the geek tribe, and I am not unhappy about this. Geeks have important contributions to make within the profession. The problem is that they want to take over.
Now, if this were a real, non-metaphorical battle, it would be no contest. Geeks are more practical. They are capable of manufacturing powerful weapons. They are also experts at military strategy, having tempered their skills in the fires of all-night D&D sessions. Geeks may be terrible at diplomacy, but nerds are only slightly less bad, and therefore would not be able to pre-empt the great war via the necessary sophisticated political maneuvering. Geeks are also better funded, backed as they are by the deep pockets of the information industry. If it were a matter of warfare, the nerds wouldn’t have a chance against the geeks.
The thing is, perhaps it isn’t a battle, or even a contest. Perhaps it is, or has the potential of being, a rational discussion about the future and fate of the profession and its role in society. In rational discourse, I believe (and I recognize that most geeks, treating everything as a computational question, would disagree) nerds have the advantage. Therefore, the hope of the nerds in librarianship, who represent its traditional values, lies in true rational, professional discourse, rather than in technological pressures backed by finances and fear.
So the important thing, in this situation, is to know where you stand: to know which side you’re on and who your friends are. If you feel like you’re not sure if you’re a geek or a nerd, because maybe you have some of the characteristics of each group, you should begin asking yourself what knowledge and skills are really most essential to librarianship, and what is being done as well or better by other people?
Perhaps there is as yet a peaceful resolution to be found.