Melissa K. Aho and Erika Bennet’s anthology The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders is pretty good for what it is, in some ways better than I expected. It’s a guide for maneuvering office politics and advancing your agenda, big and small, with the stakeholders and influencers that matters in your environment. Sadly, this book fails for what it isn’t: a book that tackles the issues and trends where librarians really need to advance our agendas and make ourselves key “thought leaders” and “influencers.”
The book is a collection of 25 chapters, each presenting the authors experiences and views on applying the principles of Machiavellianism to the library world. Of course, a quick trip through Wikipedia (sorry…) gets me up to speed on Niccolò Machiavelli and some of the thoughts and philosophies in his most famous work, The Prince. Machiavellianism seems to be mostly about “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.” Some further poking around gets me to the psychological concept of the Dark Triad with its three basic personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The Machiavellian trait is defined as “by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.”
Heavy stuff for librarians, I guess, but on the other hand I guess we live in a world where you have to Machiavelliate or be Machiavelliated.
But let’s get back to the book. To get a sense of where they take it, here’s a few chapter titles:
- One Machiavellian librarian’s path toward leadership
- Weasels and honey badgers: networking for librarians
- Influence without authority: making fierce allies
- Prince or plebe: success at all levels of the library hierarchy
- Mixed monarchies: expanding the library’s sphere of influence to help student-athletes
- Breading the mold: winning allies via self-discovery
- Slybrarianship: building alliances through user engagement and outreach
You get the idea. While mostly focused on academic libraries other setting are featured and most of the advice and recommendations are broadly applicable. Generally, the individual articles are pretty good: lots of serious thought and effort went into them without a doubt.
And that thought certainly shines through in what’s good about this book: practical real world advice on how to work the system and make things happen, mostly through outreach, hard work, gentle and not-so gentle persuasion. For the most part, the individual articles are well written and make compelling cases, either in a general way or connected to a particular real-world experience of the authors. A couple of them might make good Harvard-style case studies in fact, the kinds of things that could be analysed and dissected in library management or marketing classes. The focus on assessment and self-study, while a bit unhinged at times and not always applied critically, is also a positive. Many of the articles try to make sure the maneuvering is grounded in some sort of data or community research. Gathering information, looking inward as well as outward, are fairly common strategies for the Machiavellian planning process.
And a lot of being in the right place at the right time, especially in the sense that we should always keep a keen eye on making sure we’re in the right place at the right time. In a sense, this is a book that doesn’t believe in luck so much as making your own luck. It’s all in the title. It’s about winning, combating and influencing. Making sure the library is there to fight, influence and come out on top when tough decisions have to be make. And you, the librarian, you can be the hero of this story, the one that plants the library flag on the hilltop, that vanquishes the enemy.
So yes, this is a bit of a book on how to weasel your way into becoming the hero librarian of your institution’s story. And while “weasel” is a tough word to use, part of making sure you’re there when the deeds get done requires being a bit pushy and perhaps a bit sneaky. Something the book doesn’t shy away from at all — weasel is in one of the article titles after all.
Because at the end of the day, many of these articles are little more that “just-so” stories of “how I did good winning the day against the forces of evil.” Which is a grand tradition in the library literature to be sure, but a little unsatisfying in the end. Because sometimes that end seems to justify the means. These tales of librarian heroism may be “just-so” but they are also the winners’ version of their particular history. Not surprisingly, we don’t get the version of history written by the colleagues, community-members and most of all the employees who were the subject of these experiments. No one wants to be “that person” in an employment setting, but some of these stories seem to be encouraging a kind of uncritical zeal for success.
None of which come easy for the stereotypical librarian, of course. One of the areas touched upon but not explored as fully in the book as it needed to be were some of the gendered aspects of the kinds of power dynamics involved in being sneaky and pushy and Machiavellian. Power dynamics generally could have been explored much more critically.
But perhaps where the book comes most short, as I imply way back at the beginning of the review, is again all about what isn’t explored.
Have you heard me mention scholarly communications? Open access? Publishers? Recalcitrant faculty? Author rights? I searched through the text of the book — the advantage of ebook copies for reviewers — and my initial reading impressions were correct. These concepts are almost completely absent. In my humble opinion, for academic libraries these issues are at least as important as any other when it comes to using our powers of persuasion and manipulation. American Chemical Society vs. SUNY Potsdam? The Research Works Act? Big Deal journal pricing deals? Ebook licensing insanity? Encouraging, implementing and enforcing institutional and national open access mandates? These are some oft the issues that I would really have wanted to see attacked and persuaded. And I’m sure librarians in other contexts, such as public, institutional or corporate librarian may have also wanted to see a few different case studies explored too
Wait a sec…oh yes. Now I recall. The publisher of the book is Chandos, a imprint of Elsevier. It all makes sense now. They certainly don’t want librarians to train our Machiavellian powers back on them. Blowback, as it were.
Now the scholarly communications issues are just the ones that are nearest and dearest to my heart. There’s a much larger world out there in which librarians can have an important impact. How about larger social issues like climate change or vaccination denialism, the digital divide, economic and gender inequality, ubiquitous government surveillance? All of these are issues that are pretty well ignored in the book. The explicit focus of Machiavellian Librarian is library stakeholders, so perhaps these are issues for another book, but I couldn’t help but notice their near complete absence.
I will cautiously recommend this book for LIS collections, both at library schools and libraries which support their staff of librarians librarians. There’s enough good for educational use and it’ll spark some ideas and conversations among practitioners. Individual librarians may want to pick this up and flip through it for ideas, but there are likely better leadership and entrepreneurship books out there.
Aho, Melissa K. and Erika Bennet, editors. The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders. Oxford: Chandos, 2014. 340pp. ISBN-13: 978-1843347552