Friday, July 12, 2013

Thoughts on New Librarianship, Week One

Many moons ago, when I was in a political science PhD program, a group of us critiqued each other's prospecti. A colleague proposed a study of presidential nominations for positions to be approved ("advise and consent") by the Senate, which would confirm. I argued that presidential nominations already took into account the likelihood of a successful confirmation, so the real story was in the why and the how of whom the president chose in the first place, not in the actual nomination. Granted, a president could nominate someone with no chance of confirmation and then propose a second solution, not unlike a child asking for a pony and "settling" for a video game system, but I find that unlikely given the political capital one would put at risk. The initial choice is what matters, and here it was going unexamined.

R. David Lankes' Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) on "new librarianship" suffers from a similar problem. First, I am asked to assume Conversation Theory, a worldview that supposes that knowledge comes from conversations and dialogues, be they internal or external. This, too, goes unexamined. Why chose this worldview, what are its strengths, its weaknesses? What is being revealed, and what is being obscured by using this worldview? Who benefits from it?
The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion. 
- E.E. Schattschneider
Lankes want to have this conversation. In doing so, he's attempting to determine the scope of the debate, via their audience (of which I am a part).*
In this MOOC, I am already forced to agree with things that I don't, or things that I may not, but haven't had the time to properly examine. Take, for example, Lankes' mission statement for librarians, which doubles as the answer to a multiple choice question in a testing module.
"The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities."
- R. David Lankes
In a testing module, participants are asked what the mission of librarians is. The answer you are supposed to give, whether you agree with it or not, is above. I find this problematic.

Second, in this course, Lankes takes for granted that there's some intersubjective, agreed-upon "improvement" for a given society, and in doing so, reifies the community itself, ignoring the very real battles that take place therein.

Discussions over the values and philosophy of librarianship won't take place via just this course. Rather, a larger discussion of a philosophy of librarianship will take place in a world in which not every, and indeed not most, librarians are in it, or participating in the #newlib twitter back channel. We have societies, communities, to answer to, and to discuss with. There are many roads to Damascus. Librarianship is multifinal, from a path, from a philosophy, there are many potential outcomes, some of which I may like, others I may not. Alternatively, assuming a worldview may limit these options and may impose path dependence rather than healthy experimentation, and may create a situation in which some strategies and tactics are more equal than others.** Having talked to Lankes, I know that alternative theories and worldviews will be discussed later.

Conversation and dialogue are not the only sources of knowledge. I say this as someone with only a tenuous connection to positivism and objectivity. Yes, there is an objective reality full of true facts out there, but for the most part I think that reality is mediated by ideational, ideological, historical, and social constructs. This explains why we fear the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea's nuclear stockpile, but not that of Great Britain. "Ideas, most of the way down," if you prefer.

For me, the real success of week one of the course is the excitement with which I see people approaching librarianship, and discussing their worldviews. That is, to me, a worthy goal in and of itself. Let's see where this excitement takes us.

* If the off-set quotes and subsequent line looks familiar, it's because of this.
** In which I rework what I wrote in the above link, beginning at "Discussion."


  1. One of the difficulties of organizing any class is pacing and structure. My original intent was to open all the content simultaneously. However, early testing showed folks were overwhelmed, and/or didn’t know where to start. Hence the weekly format. This means, of course, that next week I talk about “improving society” and in week four criticism to the approach and alternate views.

    One of the criticisms discussed in week four is a sense of one definition of “improved” applied to all communities. Nothing could be further from the truth. For me the definition is a negotiation with the community (of which librarians are a part). That said, however, librarians do not enter this conversation in an unbiased or neutral way. All too often I see librarians stepping away from this vital conversation because they won’t take a position.

    As an example it drives me nuts when librarians do not take part in conversations on alt metrics and scholarly publishing because that is the domain of scholars…they’ll just wait to be told what to collect (true story). Librarians have an important perspective on scholarly communications, and need to be an active part of those conversations.

    When I started the Atlas and new librarianship I made a very conscious decision not to simply document the plurality in librarianship…a plurality based on everything from theory to advocacy to tradition to fear. There are plenty of those works out there and they are very well done. I believe that there is an obligation in scholarship and librarianship to not simply document the world, but seek to make it better. That means taking a stand and providing guidance. It also should be based on a deeper foundation than tradition or a collection of functions. As in all of science, the perspective put forth is the best answer for the moment, with a willingness to change in light of evidence.

    I very much appreciate your willingness to engage and advance this conversation.

    1. And I very much appreciate your willingness to engage and advance this conversation as well, in many media.

      It's interesting that you brought up fear and not taking a position. The Library Loon
      and the Taiga Forum appear to be tackling those unfortunate aspects of librarianship.

      Like you, I'm not content to wait to be told what to collect, and I also want to make librarianship better. But I also want to know what "better" means before I sign my name to it.

      My apologies for my critique getting ahead of the course. This is good to know.

  2. Also, fair comment on the should read "in new librarianship, the mission of a librarian is?" I'm going to review the future tests.

  3. Jacob, please disagree! Coming at a topic from different perspectives/sides can be very useful. Some of our great advances in society were born out of disagreement.

  4. Thank you Jacob for pointing out the fly in the ointment of "new librarianship." Beginning with a posit that there is one correct world view of librarianship is like the "When did you stop ....?" question that assumes one ever did.

    Like you having an issue with conversation being THE fundamental means of creating knowledge (which I totally agree is an unbelievably narrow perspective), I have a major issue with librarians being activists. Librarians, in the majority of librarian positions, are public servants paid from public tax dollars. Who wants the clerk at the DVM to be an activist and maybe ethnically profile applicants for a drivers license? Who wants the manager of the county water works knocking on their door and admonishing them for sprinkling their lawn? Who wants the local high school teacher admonishing the parents of a student for letting the kid stay up past 11:00 on a school night? Obviously, NOBODY!

    While library leaders within a community need to have a voice, that voice needs to be an unbiased one in support of the community's goals and aspirations - not a voice with its own aspirations for the community. Once the library leader offers all the benefits and services the library can provide, it's up to the community to either accept or decline them - not have them rammed down their throat.

    Book Review: R. David Lankes – The Atlas of New Librarianship
    Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship

    1. I have no issue with librarians as activists, whether they lobby taxpayers and governments for increased funding or speak out against unconstitutional surveillance, among other examples. We're not DMV clerks or county water work managers, though I support the rights of people employed in those professions to be activists as well.

      Librarianship is not just the study of what is for libraries and librarians, but what should be. There is a normative aspect to "library science" that is missing, at least in explicit definitions, from the natural sciences. This may manifest itself in discussions with and among a given community.

      Elsewhere I've written: "Information, and access to it, is a powerful leveling tool. By teaching patrons to access information, librarians and other library staff make it possible for patrons from traditionally underserved backgrounds to have the same access to information as more advantaged groups. This equality of opportunity also plays an important role in civil society and democracy."

      If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here.

    2. I believe that as well Jacob, and I don't see any reference to librarians being activists in that credo. Empowering people to find information is drastically different from telling them what is "the best" information to have. One is a simple ability, the other is a biased judgment. That seems to be where David and I differ drastically.

  5. Hi Steve, this is always fun.

    I believe that unbiased is a wonderful goal to strive for, I just feel it completely unattainable. But putting that aside, if you want to present the ideas of seeking community in the extreme (ie., ramming things down throats) as opposed to my negotiated sense of coming up with a community definition of it, let's do that for a moment. Because I am having trouble reconciling the idea of libraries holding the value of being unbiased, and their need to obey the community.

    Imagine the mayor walks into the public library and asks that all the books on homosexuality be removed, and references to this material not be made in reference transactions. As an unbiased civil servant that is ok? Or if a principle tells a school librarian to remove all fiction from the collection, because we just want students learning facts?

    You see, my understanding of the term unbiased as used in the library literature over the past 50 years is to present multiple, relevant and opposing viewpoints. In fact, looking at it's sibling value of intellectual freedom, a professional librarian needs to stand up against censorship...which sounds remarkably like an activist call.

    In essence, I see the idea of unbiased, and the definition and practice of it as being very much from a perspective.

    I actually think that when the water department bans sprinkling of lawns in a drought...which happens where I be a good thing, because they are seeking to maximize the utility of a community resource. I appreciate when schools offer seniors lock-in proms to minimize teen drinking. I hope that if a public servant sees the abuse of governmental power they would seek to stop the process.

    I appreciate that there is a difference between the obligation of a civic institution and it's workers, and that of a professional, and there is a constant pragmatic dialog between the two. However, the idea that librarians are skilled workers without opinions or evidenced convictions, to me, demeans the profession to little more than clerks and functionaries.

    1. Hi David, I hope you're well. We apparently have different definitions of fun also, but I think sharing differences of opinion is certainly healthy. Maybe unbiased is not as unattainable as you think. I suspect that George Zimmerman was hoping and praying that the individuals on his jury were unbiased, and that is certainly one place where people should strive to achieve it.

      I must have missed your latest definition of "seeking community [through] negotiated sense of coming up with a community definition." I guess I'm still stuck on the Saul Alinsky definition you adopted on Pg 74 of your book: "Alinsky would say the evil is when you don't have power. Without power you don't make decisions, things are decided for you. Librarians need to be powerful. They need to be able to shape agendas, lead the community, and empower members to do the same. We seek out power not as an end but as a means to make the world a better place. To serve, to truly serve, you need to be powerful so you can steward the community."

      Actually, I'm not sure we are that far apart on the concept of unbiased librarianship. I agree that "present[ing] multiple, relevant and opposing viewpoints" is a good thing and does represent a degree of unbiased professionalism within the purview of librarianship. I think where we greatly differ is your assertion that librarians should be "community activists," which to me has a completely different connotation and represents an Alinskyian extreme in the profession.

      Unfortunate as it is, mayors have the legal authority to tell the library what it can or cannot include and exclude from the collection. I agree that it is morally wrong, but such things can and do happen, even in this 21st Century. Advocating that the librarian lead the protest marches against their employer is both impractical and immoral in my opinion.

      Maybe our philosophical difference about librarianship comes from you seeing a librarian as a person with a moral civic obligation to be a community activist who just happens to be a librarian, where I see a librarian as a professional employee with a moral obligation to their employer and those they serve who pay their salary. Maybe you've been in academia so long you've forgotten what it's like not to have the freedom and protection that tenure provides, of which people in the real world don't have the luxury. We all have opinions and convictions, but it is prudent to express them in the proper circumstances and still not be judged for not being an activist about them.

  6. It is immoral to encourage people to protest an immoral act? Or encourage someone to utilize their democratic rights of protest (after all civic employees do not surrender their rights, they simply cannot use taxpayer resource to do so). After all, if people of all stripes did not do this there would have been a Zimmerman trial at all in the Jim Crow south. The Nixon tapes wouldn't have come to light.

    Once again we must make a difference between librarians and libraries. Also it might be useful to put some context in the quote. It is talking about how we view literacy. Three paragraphs later I write:

    "In the Rules for Radicals, Alinsky lays out characteristics of a good leader. The first three? Curiosity, irreverence, and imagination. Want a radical text? Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, Twilight, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead (for me in high school, it was My Name Is Asher Lev). Even a Danielle Steele novel can tell us something about ourselves (what we like, what we hope for, the escapes we seek). Fiction is every bit as empowering and radical as any manifesto. I’m not saying that all reading is deliberately targeted toward 'fighting the man.' I am simply asking that you think of literacy not as a pleasant activity or even a socially agreed-on skill. Rather, I ask you to see literacy as a proactive act of power, a necessary skill in service not to some larger societal ideal, but for the power of the individual."

    I ask again...if libraries seek to empower, how can they do so if they have no power to share?

  7. You obviously confuse empowerment with power. As I stated in our exchange two years ago on this same topic, citizens acquire their own power through acquiring literacy and information, which libraries offer free of charge, and it is their's to use or not, and even acquire or not. That is not a library's or librarian's to share. People acquire their own power through empowering themselves.

  8. I assume that also means if they do not gain any power it is their fault as well?

  9. That's the way the world works.

  10. Steve, my response was simply too big to fit in the comments section, so I posted to my blog: