Guest Post: Three Punk Rock Lessons for Surviving 21st-Century Library Hell

Posted on October 25, 2010


As someone who proudly works for librarians, I reserve the right to pass the mic now and then to my librarian friends who have much to say about the things that matter to anyone who cares about books and music. Here, then, is Justin Hoenke, Teen Librarian of the Portland (ME) Public Library, holding forth on how you deep-fried, stressed inside-out pros and parapros can save yourself with the very practical and sustaining principles that gave rise to punk rock.—Heather

There ain’t no need for ya, go straight to hell, boys.—The Clash, “Straight to Hell”

In case you haven’t heard, dear readers, we librarians on both sides of the Atlantic are facing massive budget cuts and potential layoffs on top of the usual bureaucracy that stymies our attempts to provide the best service to our communities. Add to that the controversy over ebooks, and it looks as if we’re being forced out of our profession and large parts of America and Europe are at risk of losing their public libraries.

Under such complex conditions and with so much at stake, it can be painful to just get by. Certainly, it would be much easier to say fuck it and become a house husband. Undoubtedly, I would sound idiotic trumpeting the redeeming powers of punk rock in this situation, but I’m going to do it anyways because there are real lessons buried in the tired old generalities that get bandied about.



Reading Steve Blush’s revised edition of American Hardcore was a bit of a mindfuck. While I’ve never been able to get into hardcore music, I can say that it taught me a lot about working to change the world. Lesson: You have to do it yourself,* or plenty of other people will be more than happy to act in their own interests while pretending to represent yours. It’s a cliché, but it’s one that deserves another airing because it’s never been more relevant.

For an example, I’m going to turn to Twitter. Just two years ago, I was a librarian in South Jersey tinkering with tweets, not knowing at all what I was doing. I took it upon myself to understand the strange little-big world of hyperlinks and handles. There were days when I didn’t get it and tweeted too much or avoided it out of a lack of confidence. But I kept pushing and experimenting. What finally happened reveals the true beauty of the DIY concept: suddenly (so it seemed), I had built a community that shares my goals, a mini revolution in my web browser. Today, I’m connected to a couple thousand amazing people who inspire me to do my job better.

Feeling powerless for more than five minutes is pretty much inexcusable now, though I still do it. It seems ridiculous, but “giving up” always seems to result in more confidence in myself and in my initial investment in social media. Flash-back to two weeks ago: I was in a terrible headspace. An average of fifty to sixty teens were flooding the library in the afternoon, and I was at a loss of how to manage the wrecking ball of awesome that is adolescent energy without driving it away entirely. Being a staff of one most days, I felt overwhelmed, tired, and confused. Then I remembered my online support system. I tweeted for advice, and they bestowed upon me a treasure trove of the stuff along with the digital equivalent of a bear hug.


The Clash was a pretty extreme band. They adhered to the three chords played fast/get out of the way, or I’ll run you over ethos adopted by most of their 1970s punk contemporaries. The difference with them was they saw how their movement could be very one-dimensional and insular. Not content to be a bunch of sneering haircuts, they broke free of the confines they’d inadvertently helped create with the force of their combined personalities. Reggae? Politics? Dub? Hip-hop? The Clash mixed all of them, and damn they did it well! Take a moment and listen to this (a favorite from Heather’s Video Library):

It’s clear to me that this was a gang that had passion up the wazoo. They weren’t performing and touring to just get girls and pay the bills (they wouldn’t be comfortable financially until after they’d broken up). They had a fire not only for making music but also for expanding and spreading culture. They cared; had humanity—like many of you, I’d wager.

Strummer, in a still from Alex Cox's Straight to Hell, telling you to get off your ass or else

As I grow as a librarian and a human being, I’m starting to see that my personal goals align with what The Clash was doing way back in 1980. Social media has helped me achieve on a much smaller scale what four men from Camden did globally. I’m not the most eloquent writer, the greatest debater, or the strongest leader. But I’ve got a passion for people, and that doesn’t mean I’m all about disco music and giving out free hugs. What I do, day in and day out, on Twitter, Facebook, and beyond, is honor the interactions I have with all walks of people. This is an important skill because you’re never going to build a tribe by putting yourself above or below anyone else.

Humanity needs to be reminded it’s human, flawed but still gorgeous; that’s what I’m here for, and the longer I do it, the more rewarded I feel.


Can’t change your godawful workflow or pulverize your relic of a boss? Modify your reaction to those adverse work conditions and channel your energies into projects where you can get results. As the great poet He-Man once said, “I HAVE THE POWER!”

When I dove into the world of video games in libraries, I felt very alone. There were many wonderful people who inspired me—Eli Neiburger, Jenny Levine, Beth Gallaway, and Liz Danforth, I’m pointing at you—but I just didn’t feel a part of that scene. After I met JP Porcaro at the first beer-filled New Jersey librarian tweetup in October 2009, things changed. Instead of bowing out because I had missed librarians’ foray into gaming, I began talking to JP, and together we came up with in December 2009.

Justin Hoenke will slay you with his video game thingy

We didn’t know what to expect, let alone even know how to run a “library blog.” We relied on our instincts to expand the discussion of video gaming in libraries in the hopes of rendering it a legit service, not solely the realm of acne-covered, Mountain Dew–drinking teens. Library tattoos as promotion? An ALA Dance Party at the hottest gay bar in DC to intermingle the members of our growing tribe? Video game lesson plans based around Pokemon? Sure, sure, sure, and why not. Now we’re just a year shy of our first birthday.


I’ve whined more than a hundred times how music was never the same after punk. Yeah, yeah—death to bland pop radio, boy bands, and Nickelback. But even more so, long live the DIY ethic! Take the story of SST Records and Greg Ginn. Basically, Ginn had a band and wanted to release a record. When he couldn’t get a record deal, he released it himself. The rest is punk music history, and I hope we’ll be able to say the same with libraries thirty years from now.

Blogging soundtrack:

  • The entire Sandinista! album by The Clash
  • “Straight To Hell” by The Clash
  • Life at the Outpost” by The Skatt Brothers
  • The theme song to the TV sitcom Mr. Belvedere

*You don’t really do it yourself. You give the initial push, but ultimately it is the community you surround yourself with that gets the work done. Nothing great is ever accomplished alone.