Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Final Thoughts on New Librarianship, the Wrap-Up Post

In order to have a "New Librarianship," there must be an old version or versions to replace. And yet, if one looks around, much of what R. David Lankes terms New Librarianship has been with us for a while. There is a certain amount of forgetting that goes into New Librarianship, and Lankes knows this, as he mentions it in the preface to his Atlas and he links to Elaine Harger's Progressive Librarians Guild review (pdf) of the Atlas during the final week of the course. An atlas is, after all, a collection of maps. Maps illuminate some things, but obscure others, and deliberately so.
I have to admit (as Lankes himself frequently does) that there is much here that is not new to librarianship at all. (Harger, page 92)
Indeed, a cursory glance at the discussion board for the course reveals that librarians have been practicing New Librarianship for some time now. To wit, the discussion of librarianship as a (false) choice between remediation and advocacy is filled with stories of New Librarianship in practice as well as nuance that rejects Lankes' binary language.

What Lankes has done here, and to be fair, this is by no means all he has done, is to name it and codify it. This behavior, New Librarianship, is now a brand. New Librarianship is observed and named by Lankes. That is, New Librarianship, with conservation theory at its center, is based on empirical evidence.

Again, to the Atlas, which, on page 14, shows that Lankes has a mission first and foremost, and needs a worldview that fits the mission. He works backwards to get to ontological and epistemological issues, rather than using it as a starting point. It is an interesting choice.

Taken from the Atlas website.

New Librarianship is an inductive approach posing as a deductive one because the latter is seen as more scientific, more prestigious. This makes the use of Conversation Theory all the more puzzling. Though it posits that knowledge is created through conversation, there are other worldviews that support Lankes' mission, librarianship serves communities while simultaneously being a part of those communities, and the "grand challenge" that accompanies it.

Take, for example, Jurgen Habermas' work on the public sphere, which could comfortably fit libraries and librarianship, while also discussing, and see below for more, class.
  • Libraries house and further rational discourse through the organization of collections coupled with the principle of unfettered information access. 
  • The field enacts the principle of critique and rational argumentation through the commitment to balanced collections, preserving them over time, and furthering inclusion through active attempts to make collections and resources reflect historical and current intellectual diversity. 
  • By their very existence libraries potentially verify (or refute) claims to authority in making current and retrospective organized resources available to check the bases of a thesis, law, book, article, policy etc. continuing the process of debate which lies at the heart of the public sphere and democracy. 
  • By policy and practice, my field has sought to reach out to those not served - or sometimes not wishing to be served! - to make access to information and education more widely and universally available. (John Buschman, On Libraries and the Public Sphere)
Alternatively, (post)structural approaches deny Habermas' rationality and complicate not only the relationship between libraries and communities, but also Lankes' views on how conversations influence our behavior.
  • The library-community interplay shares a natural affinity with Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "field." 
  • Conversations can be treated as micro-dialectics. Neo-neo-Hegelianism, anyone? Or at least a discussion of how outside forces, slightly more on this below, effect librarianship. 
  • Feminism
In addition, though not (post)structuralist, there is a lot of John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Robert Dahl in what I term "democratic approaches" to librarianship. It is also worth asking, as at least one librarian has, if we need more or new theory, as opposed to refining what we already have.

While Lankes is explicit about both rediscovering practices that never went away and about the origins of his thought process, but then seems to forget them throughout both the Atlas and the course. These "rival" approaches all share an ideological transparency that is missing from Lankes' course and Atlas. They show their work and directly promote a worldview from which all else flows, whereas in this course it is usually unclear on whether theory informs practice or vice versa.

Lankes' relationship to observable, empirical phenomena is no doubt informed by his worldview, but he selects the former before the latter, which confuses many a librarian who's taken the course. Two other conflations, facts with behavior and constructivist theories of learning with constructivist worldviews, also mar the course. Lane Wilkinson has done masterful work tackling the latter of these. For the former, at times it seems as if Lankes himself is still unsure of the distinctions.

Labeling his librarianship as "new" also allows Lankes to designate some practices and behaviors as old, implying, or explicitly stating, that they are not worthy of continuation. Take the concept of collections, for example.

Over the past few months, numerous librarians have called for explicit agendas for librarianship. There is much about New Librarianship that needs to be made (more) explicit. To that end, Lankes' course is most welcome, but more work needs to be done, as much of this course and the book it comes from seems to take place in a vacuum, impervious to or ignorant of the outside forces that really will shape librarianship, as they always have: economics and politics.

In this vacuum, given conversation theory as applied to libraries, what are the theories and testable hypotheses that follow? What would be, what could be, to use Lankes' words, "well validated" in this barren world?

Lankes graciously links to his critics, but he can afford to. After all, he's the one with the Atlas, with the brand. And he's done a tremendous service to the profession with this Atlas, the course, and his generosity in discussing them. I can't recall the last time I saw so many librarians energized by something in the profession.

Finally, much digital ink has been spilled, and I'll link to none of it here, about Massively Open Online Courses as "disrupting" education. There is nothing remotely disruptive about this MOOC. There are lectures, readings, and assignments. All that's missing is a physical location. Online education, based on my small sample size of this course, webinars, and my online Masters of Library and Information Science program, looks very much the same as online education in 2005, when I helped to develop a distance-learning version of a Political Science course for a DC-area university. And in turn that looks similar to a "regular," brick-and-mortar course.

More thoughts on New Librarianship here.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post on New Librarianship. Or, should I say "new" librarianship?

    I think you've hit the nail on the head here: Lankes has spent a lot of time explaining and promoting newlib, but very little time defending and justifying it as an alternative to more robust theories. Hopefully, some enterprising librarian out there will one day work on fleshing out newlib and making it a more coherent and consistent theory. Maybe we'll start seeing newlib defended (rather than just mentioned) in the scholarly literature? Until then, there's just Lankes and his critics and I worry that, without more support, newlib won't find solid footing in professional practice.