Thursday, July 9, 2015

I Got Soul, But I'm Not a Soldier: On "a quiet culture war in libraries"

University of Utah Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections Rick Anderson has published an opinion piece in Insights, titled "A quiet culture war in research libraries – and what it means for librarians, researchers and publishers." This article is illuminating and instructive, but not, I suspect, for the reasons Anderson intended. Rather than revealing or elucidating a problem – the author offers no evidence beyond his opinions as the first comment on the article points out and cites only himself – it is a useful look into the mindset of a dean, one that I suspect is shared by others, as well as university and associate university librarians throughout North America. The article can also be read as an apologia for the current state of scholarly communication and library and information science (LIS) practitioners' roles in that.


Anderson posits a spectrum from soldier to revolutionary with regards to how academic librarians and library staff approach their jobs, and that the tension between these mindsets drive much of the labor in academic libraries. To wit:
The soldier can be thought of as generally operating under ‘marching orders’, which he takes from his institution’s mission and strategic goals, and tends to focus mainly on local needs, the impact of library services on current patrons, and the library’s alignment with its institutional mission. Those with a predominantly soldier mindset will tend to think of the library primarily as a service and support program for its host institution.
The revolutionary mindset thinks less in terms of marching orders than in terms of global vision. A librarian with a predominantly revolutionary mindset will tend to think more about the library’s effect on the global scholarly community, its potential role in solving global and systemic problems, and the long-term impact of its collections and services in that context. The revolutionary will tend to think of the library less as a service than as a leader and educator on campus.
Anderson is rightfully careful to note that soldiers and revolutionaries operate on a spectrum, but by focusing on the extremes, "two different orientations," he writes, or at least the Weberian ideal types, the article gives the appearance of binary thinking and false dichotomies. His use of "spectrum" and "continuum" as cover are not unlike a lawyer who introduces something for the jury to hear, knowing it will be stricken and thus resonate.

The multiple uses of "war" are worth examining. Soldiers protect and defend, while revolutionaries take, using tactics that are sometimes outside the norm ("Man the barricades!"). Soldiers, viewed here, are drones, executing a mission, a mischaracterization of what actual soldiers do, and the discretion they exercise. The title of the article, however, postulates a different kind of war, one that will be familiar to students of United States' politics and history, a culture war. This phrase has a particular meaning, left-right/liberal-conservative.

This is a profoundly unserious analogy and metaphor, as the culture war in the United States had, and has, very real victims: poor people, single parents, the LGBT community, women seeking abortions, and people of color who used drugs, among others. However, it is because of these victims, and the co-option of militaristic language by the right in the United States that we must take it somewhat seriously. After all, if Anderson wanted to he could have used the principal-agent problem from organization theory to make the same, still unserious, point. That he chose to use the language he did is telling.

Soldiers defend the status quo (right/conservative), while revolutionaries seek to overturn it (left/liberal). As it pertains to scholarly communication, here is what soldiers are defending:
A professor publishes something, using the labor (librarians) and capital (materials purchased and leased) of the institution. The library, as an arm of the institution, then must pay for that article (again!), often as part of a "big deal" package of databases. 
It's a heck of a system to defend, and a great many people in higher education and publishing would not agree that the current political economy of scholarly communication is worth defending. Yet Anderson seems to treat the status quo as the correct, proper, and neutral system; a defense from someone who knows firsthand how tenuous the political position of academic libraries can be on a campus. Running an academic library is a fascinating middle-management experience; perhaps many library and university administrators expect soldiers while fearing or silencing revolutionaries. Yet when administration and the library align, which can be often, it's a beautiful thing. At one former place of work, I presented to faculty on open access and open educational resources (OERs), then worked with faculty and administration on assigning OERs instead of textbooks, and helped bring about a policy change in the university regarding required texts. Soldiers and revolutionaries look less like a spectrum and more like a Venn diagram than Anderson acknowledges, though there is some overlap on one of his matrices.

If there is any value in rescuing Anderson's soldier-revolutionary continuum, it is that they are not mindsets, but rather a series of practices that are contingent on a host of factors, both local and global, that would be difficult to pseudo-scientifically chart, plot, or graph. Library and university administrators can foster such practices or suppress them; some tech companies tout an 80/20 or 90/10 work schedule that gives room for practices Anderson deems revolutionary.

Stuck between university administration and the revolutionaries he sees online, Anderson may have internalized the mindset of the former. This is the writing of a person who views himself as under attack, both professionally and personally, in libraries, politics, and society. To the extent that others in positions of power in libraries share this mindset, this evidence-free article made it through the peer review process, after all, it is worth exploring.


Anderson's scholarship is a self-referential meta-communication, more #critlib than #critlib. Time and time again Anderson has attempted to police the bounds of discourse he deems acceptable in the LIS community, particularly as it pertains to open access and scholarly communication. For someone who seems closed to the works of Michel Foucault, it is an interesting turn. Anderson continually attempts to create "truth," what is or should be accepted as reality, in his writings on Scholarly Kitchen, and this article can be read as an extension of that.

No doubt Anderson has observed the revolutionary mindset on twitter, and I suspect he has built this mindset inductively from his time on that site, a Burkean watching the new media revolution. Yet Anderson does not like to interact on twitter, finding the 140 character restriction to be limiting, lending itself to attacks rather than debate, which gives no credit to interactions like #libchat, #snaprt, and #critlib. He is happy to mine twitter for content, and to stereotype, but not to participate in community-building and learning networks.

Anderson positions himself as someone with answers, someone who sees the big picture and lays it out, never mind that the current model is increasingly unsustainable, which people realize, which is why we are seeing more big deal cancellations and open access mandates. Helpfully, however, Anderson has published this opinion in a web-based, open access journal, itself a revolutionary practice that is becoming more normal. This, too, is telling. After all, if scholars want to reach the most people, open access publications are the best scholarly medium for doing so.


Anderson writes, "We are now working in an information environment that makes it possible for each library to exert a global influence in unprecedented ways. The desire to do so is both praiseworthy and solidly in keeping with many of what most of us would consider core values of librarianship." And yet so much of this article is not about those values, but how those values pertain to monetary value. Return on investment, time is money,... the monetization of all aspects of librarianship, the tension between these mindsets, is what this article is about, not our values. Anderson asks that we consider the trade-offs, the consequences, of his mindsets, but it certainly seems like economic scare tactics to this reader: that one should be more a soldier than a revolutionary.

In the end, it is not the soldier and revolutionary mindsets, nor the spectrum of the two, that matter here, but Anderson's. To the extent that other library and university administrators share his, this article is a valuable look inside, behind the curtain. It is worth reading to understand certain strains of thought in higher education and academic libraries, not for the arguments or opinions themselves. Anderson sees himself, his position in libraries and society, and those like him, as under attack. The same is true for the political economy of scholarly communication. He simultaneously shortchanges and overstates the power of LIS professionals (we cannot cajole or coerce faculty into OA mandates without their buy-in, for example), on social media and in their workplaces. There is danger therein, as is often the case with those who feel threatened. This application of organic statism to academic libraries concerns me, and I wonder what kind of candidates the University of Utah will get for open positions if Anderson's opinion is widely read. Be that as it may, I commend Anderson for showing us his thought processes in an easily accessible journal, and I wish other deans, university librarians, and administrators would do the same.

Elsewhere on this site concerning this author:
A Rant on Vendor-Librarian Relations
Your Special Collections Won't Save You