Posted by: char booth | 6 June 2013

when DIY = sigh.

Backlogging again. As time wears on I find I’m starting to rather like being late to the party: not only am I well rested, I can take my time getting ready.


This post follows a relatively recent thread on libraries and DIY (if not exactly in response to it). On the core issue of what-is-DIY-and-why the Lead Pipers, Meredith Farkas, Brian Mathews and others have provided a characteristically compelling/comprehensive spectrum of perspectives, and I’m grateful to them for scoping the issue and providing a bit of vs. dialogue. I suppose that my own meta-take is that DIYbrary is (more than anything) a discourse unto itself, one that encourages librarians and others in rapidly transitioning professions to have important conversations about productivity, power, style, hierarchy, and scrappiness.

make do badge featuring swiss army knife by char booth. In this sense I’m a big believer in doityourselfism. Making/do is a tremendously useful mindset, one that has liberated many forms of closed and credentialed expertise through the collective accumulation of know-how. Many of the projects I’ve loved working on most over my career (particularly at Claremont) have materialized from this orientation: doing for oneself/ves is an empowering recognition of the endless utility of our hands and brains, a celebration of our collective ability to auto-didact, and a practical acknowledgement that developing the wherewithal to bootstrap is often the only way to pull something off.

Which is exactly where DIY-as-movement in an institutional context gets interesting. Instead of adding to the whither-DIY discussion, I’m interested thinking about when and why self-doing does and doesn’t make sense in the context of structured day-to-day work, which (for better or worse) is the prevailing backdrop of library doing. If the root of doing it yourself is old fashioned getting shit done, in a complex bureaucratic organization (read: libraries/higher ed) this almost always requires leveraging local resources and engaging defined layers of collaboration based on some sort of hierarchical structure – or, making the conscious decision not to.  If our autonomous actions are to be intentional and successful, we need to think hard about how DIY orientations translate to individual/collective behavior within organizations that so often expect us and our colleagues to DITY (do it this way).


As Micah Vandergrift notes in a contribution to the pre-ACRL panel ITLWTLP post, the political origins of DIY are rooted in moving outside traditional zones of power/ownership in order to diminish dependence on obsolescent commodities and the overtly complicated (or impossible) means of repairing them. By circumventing that which controls media and messaging, one decreases reliance on the status quo and defines a new space of experience that resists the relentless unskilling of the general population.

Applying this ethic of self-sufficience and structural independence in a bureaucracy comprised of individuals of largely unlike mind doing work along demarcated lines of expertise is fascinatingly problematic. Workplace applications of DIY should raise critical questions about impact and intention: When is adherence to bureaucratic process the best means of doing something, and how do you discern when going it independently is the wisest/only option? Speaking from experience, it often comes down to a negotiation: what, precisely, am I circumventing, and to what end? When does a scrappily successful model project help a mired organization let go of calcified processes in favor of new working models? Perhaps most importantly, Is some part of me forbearing collaboration out of an ego-driven expectation of resistance and/or a need to micromanage outcomes?

the darker side of DIY

I fully acknowledge that in the working world doing it yourself is often the only option on the table when you need to get something done. One of the best faces of self-doism is creativity combined with clear-headed discernment that (especially in a down economy) the resources available to complete a given task may neither be adequate nor aesthetically/politically aligned with your vision of what they should be. In my own work, however, DIY has sometimes devolved into a mantra I mutter to justify my unwillingness to detach claws from every aspect of every project (most often in design and writing). In an organizational context this amounts to antisocial behavior. So ask yourself: when a task you might take on solo/extrastructurally looms, does it make more sense to consider broader engagement or even LSEDIFY (let someone else do it for you)?

The DIY ethic is very much collaborative, but can at times be overly selective in the alliances it is willing to make in workspaces. As the self-identified movement has gained momentum, I have recognized a troubling undertone in some of its (particularly professional) discourse and behaviors. Roughly, it follows that what I do myself will be inherently DISuperior. If I ask for input or permission someone is likely to DIThwart me. This may very well be the case, but part of what is going to keep libraries thriving is a conscious and ongoing effort to radically restructure not only our own attitudes and working models, but those of the institutions we represent. While a Y-focused approach (whether engaged individually or in a small team) might result in a downright awesome end product, it may also underutilize collegial expertise, inhibit skill sharing, speak in unfamiliar terms, and forestall the development of personal and/or professional community. Worst of all, it can come off as DIExclusive or downright DIArrogant.

Like any acronomized cultural gestalt DIY can result in subtle zealotries, such as giving a type-A personality license to thwart what is often the most difficult, productive, and rewarding thing one can do in a working context: reaching out to people who don’t think like you who might bring other skills to the table. This is like wearing blinders to human potential, a supremacy of vision that stunts the capacities others have labored to develop that usually serve to keep them employed. Which is, needless to say, not respectful of community expertise and rarely if ever productive. DIY is a slippery business if it risks refusing to perceive or acknowledge (human) institutional resources out of a fear of shifting, slowing, or compromising one’s vision even slightly.

when not to do it yourself

image of riding bicycle

I need to step outside of libraries for a moment to propose framework for making non-stubborn, human capital-affirming choices about collaboration and outsourcing (e.g., exercising nuance and patience in lieu of ramming something through if/when it makes more sense).

Personally, I love knowing how to do things and learning how to do things I don’t know how to do, but I also love supporting people who dedicate themselves to doing something for a living. Sometimes I know full well that I can do it myself, but I want to pay or barter or work with someone who can often (but not always) do it better because they doitallthedamntime.

An example: I ride bikes. I’ve ridden the same bike, in fact, for over ten years. it is an ugly-beautiful and scary-fast seven speed built for me back in the day by an awesome trans bike racer and mechanic in Portland, whose craft I respect every time I take it out. Because I ride so much and so fast, said bike often needs work. I could tune/fix it up myself, but aside from small maintenance tasks and flats I usually don’t. Instead, I acknowledge the fact that I have accumulated the means to take my busted ride to a shop or friend-mechanic and pay them to work on it. Affirming hard-earned expertise and supporting hard-earned livelihood with hard-earned collateral is just as awesome as getting my hands greasy at home. This does not have to be a monetary exchange, mind. Whether I fork over collard greens or cash, I still revel in the decision to pay someone skilled to DIFM.

surfboard repair

A slightly different example: I surf. I’m also relatively new to the pastime, which means I reliably bash up the boards I ride. Minor dings I have taught myself to repair, sanding and patching jagged fiberglass so it doesn’t cause a cut or waterlog. However, when I, say, knock out a glassed-in fin on the reef, I am forced to admit that I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to gut and fill foam and re-glass. I might seriously wish that I could do it myself due to the expense and turnaround time, but in this case the tools and materials required are simply so expensive/steep that I have to take the project to people covered in toxic dust (hopefully) wearing facemasks.

man repairing surfboard.

image courtesy of the ding king in encinitas, ca.

the joy of LSEDIFY

These are two relatively clean-cut examples of when DIY is not the best (or even a feasible) route. To bang one’s head against work/life projects that could benefit from support or mentorship amounts to a kind anti-inclusivity, and moreover risks damaging the craft economy. Instead of an expression of disempowerment, privilege, or sloth, the LSEDIFY approach can be a way to support a reciprocal network of skills/expertise, and, incidentally, free yourself up to do other things (some of which hopefully involve doing nothing whatsoever). Like surfing when your bike is in the shop. Or writing a post, or sleeping, or meditating… speaking yet again from experience, DIY often results in doing way too much.

Self-doism is about pushing your boundaries in order to revise your view of your own skills. The same thing can be said for outsourcing, collaborating, and co-making, only in reverse: these configurations compel us to assess and perceive the strengths of others and bring them to bear to enrich projects and products. Professionally, building/delegating support for a extra-structural project by engaging existing structural channels (or by advocating for new ones) can make a deliverable stronger while changing the system itself. In life and work, the next time you endeavor to create for yourself consider if there isn’t something about the process that would better be done with (or by) others.

There are gradations of advocating to create the work we envision within any structure or system, and craft in communication and leveraging of local resources are tremendously important habits to cultivate toward this end. The best thing those of us with radical visions for librarianship, etc. can do is understand our organizational cultures and work in smart ways to change them for the greater good. There are so many good examples of this happening in libraryland that listing them is a challenge. One well-documented tech-focused effort is an agile mobile site design project undertaken by cross-departmental staff at the UCSD Library – in essence, Lia Friedman, Matt Critchlow, and Dan Suchy convincingly advocated for their organization’s blessing to circumvent all of its stopgaps in order to create a much-needed project in record time.

starting it yourself

Another instance of DIY-in-application in very different organizational contexts. Self-doism gets a lot of productive play is in outreach and communication/marketing: the source of most of my own makery successes. This is also an area where libraries are finally starting to direct the resources and personnel needed to turn out high-quality materials. The centralized message management that often follows the latter can create the potential for conflict among those who want to self-do and those who want them to self-don’t. The same tension exists in all areas that are professionally designated yet intersect with autonomous efforts: tech, teaching, management. Formal and informal doers in these scenarios can coexist with a little clarity and mutual recognition.

For example: my sister Caroline Booth is Communications & Marketing Director at the University of North Texas Libraries, and since she started her position has led an award-winning team that’s churns out project after awesome project, many of which you can see on the UNT Lib’s FB page. She is a trained journalist and designer, and brings a ton of skills to the table that the average librarian simply does not possess. A difficult part of her job is convincing her colleagues to STOP doing everything themselves so that her organization can market itself with a consistency and style they have seen fit to prioritize by virtue of creating her position. In essence, her job is to be a professional let me do that for youer, determining what people will need to make the most of their services and events and creating into awesome materials/messages to support them. She is charged with keeping an eye on how her organization represents itself, but she will also totally back people who want to create something specialized or makery and even help them pull it off… if they simply ask.

Conversely, at my organization we homegrow most of our marketing materials because we do not have an in-house Caroline. My sister is trained in communications; most of us are not. We slap things together and make do, and also manage to win awards for our efforts (albeit soon-to-be-announced honorable mentions). Our style is a little rough around the edges, which thankfully tends to work for us. We were, however, recently lucky to score a graduate student employee with some graphic design skills, who can take a draft image or flyer and fix it up a bit, thus freeing much needed minutes for the rest of us to do everything else under the sun.

Two perfect illustrations that in a working context someone(s) else can often improve on the things we start ourselves. To achieve a good DIY/LSEDIFY balance is critical to understand the roles of the designated expertise holders and how to work with them (or as respectfully around them as humanly possible). Taking it as far as you can before delegating/inviting collaborators is often just as good (or better) than self-doing all the way.

doing it however

At one point in his startup/DIY post Brian asks “what does an ideal DIYed Library look like?” That’s a fair question and one with about 1 to the 10th answers: to attempt an reply in the abstract is to fall into the more-talking-less-doing pattern. Rather, I think that those of us who DISelfidentify should acknowledge that in the context of formal work we’re embodying more of a mindset than a movement. And if our mindsets translate to behavior in reference to organizational others, we can and should examine the motivations behind our motions to determine if DIY is helping us advocate for a new way of working and breaking down silos of expertise (instead of perpetuating them).

Librarians are by nature aware of cultural currents, and we are given to self-consciously reflecting on that through which we swim. This is a good and useful tendency, and one that helps us understand ourselves in relation to the wider world. However, I have a cautious reaction to movements that edge toward overt self-referentiality and/or oppositional definition. They run the risk of diverting energy into their own crystallization rather than into doing itself, which is a bit like instagramming food until it gets cold. Not to mention that non-inclusive identification with an emerging movement like DIY can sound like a clubhouse door locking to everyone else.

I think I wrote this post because I now find myself in the position of manager and consensus/capacity builder, whereas in the past I was hired to figuratively cowboy things out on the side. This means that beyond small testbed projects that hopefully have a broader impact, I develop initiatives that require the effort not only of myself and a fabulous core team of colleagues but staff from across the organization to succeed. Put another way, I am constantly orchestrating situations that can either feel to others like twisting arms or holding hands. And let me tell you, the latter is so very preferable (if not quite always possible).

What I have discovered is that in an organizational context the way to DIY is to encourage reasonable and collective creativity that checks ego, recognizes resources, and challenges bottlenecks. Building productive community and making smart decisions about getting shit done should mean connecting with those outside immediate political/cultural/professional positions in order to challenge our own exclusivity and broaden the base of engagement. If what DIY in libraries (or wherever) ends up looking like is a inclusive personal orientation to collaboration, autonomy, and shifting (for lack of a better term) the system, it is essential that it develops in close proximity to colleagues and coworkers that might not grammatically or philosophically feel like capitalizing any part of ‘doing.’

Thanks as always to Lia Friedman for untangling this jumble.


  1. One of the key insights I take from Foucault and his ilk is the understanding that there is no outside. We are all inside of the system, and we negotiate with and struggle against structures of power, we resist, and this is how we make ourselves and the things that emerge from our labor. We work, and we work within structures. In my own professional context I sometimes see DIY projects that, because they attempt to circumvent entirely the annoying fact of people with different interests and capacities who are nonetheless necessary to making things work, end up what I’ve come to call “paper empires.” Projects that exist on paper but aren’t really real because they happened in an ‘out there’ that’s really in here. So we have learning communities, but faculty and students don’t know they’re in them. Which is maybe a communication problem or something else, but from where I sit is the result of an attempt to ‘ram through’ rather than ‘artfully negotiate into being in a way, way more frustrating way probably than just doing it yourself but, alas, that is the price of existing in a social world.’ Which is a really just a long comment to say that I think you make some great points in this post. Thanks as always!

    • oh, smart. love this comment – paper empires (or tigers?) indeed. imo ‘the price of existing in a social world’ is steep but (usually) worth paying. xo, friend.

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