The following story is a cautionary tale for all of those people who say that the internet has replaced the reference collection and that Google has replaced reference librarians.
On a cheery morning in late April 1992, I had a flight of whimsy. I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping outside and thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a tongue-in-cheek survey on the subject of librarians and sex for my monthly column in the Wilson Library Bulletin?”
I can’t think of a column that I’ve had more fun doing. Among the questions: “What Shakespearean title best describes your first sexual experience?” and “If there were a nuclear war and you and Pee-wee Herman were the only survivors, would you have sex with him to repropagate the human race?”
You get the picture. The survey was an attempt at humor, not scientific data collection. At the time, librarians were in the middle of a heated crossfire in the cultural war between social conservatives and intellectual freedom radicals. Some humor, I thought, might be therapeutic.
However, the joke went very sour very quickly. Wilson ran the column in its June 1992 issue; a week later I was fired from my 12-year stint as a columnist and the unsold copies of that issue were recalled. A short kerfuffle ensued in which the Wilson company was roundly criticized, resulting in librarians threatening to boycott the magazine (American Libraries, July/Aug. 1992, p. 543). Wilson Library Bulletin died a merciful (and unrelated) death three years later.
Fast forward 18 years to a cheery morning in April 2010. I wake up to the sound of birds chirping outside, eat some breakfast, log onto my blog—and notice that someone has left a comment asking whatever happened to the results of the infamous 1992 “Librarians and Sex” survey. In the next couple of days, several other commenters pick up on this thread and I am asked to publish the full results.
Reluctantly, I post the results a few days later.
Here’s where things get very interesting. The first thing I notice is that my daily reader count jumps from 5,000 to 10,000 just like that. Something weird is going on. I check my blog-referrals page and realize that my survey results have gone viral. Over the next four weeks, the survey reaches over 200 sites, 40 of which are international. My “data” (if you want to call it that) also finds its way into several mainstream news sources, including UPI, and a number of newspapers—more proof that the mainstream media is now following the internet for its “news” stories.
When I begin to check these sites, I quickly note that these survey results are being reported seriously. The assumption seems to be that, back in 1992, I had conducted a legitimate scientific survey with a carefully selected random sample of librarians. The statistics, which sprang totally helter-skelter 18 years ago from a joke survey, are now being reported by source after source as fact.
Next, I begin to get called by various radio stations, podcasts, and even Yahoo News for interviews. I quickly caution everyone that this survey was a joke, was not intended to be taken seriously, and was not conducted with even a whiff of a scientific methodology. Interviewers basically respond in one of two ways: 1) What is a scientific survey? and 2) No one really cares.
Here’s the final kicker: Most of these internet and news sources referred to the survey results as “never before published”! Actually, the results were published right here in the pages of American Libraries back in March 1993 (p. 258). But back then, AL readers took the survey for what it was: a joke.
Draw your own conclusions.
Will Manley has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.