Practicality and Adaptability

Since this post is inspired partially by a brief mention of my ACRL Virtual Conference presentation, I want to begin by thanking those of you who responded with advice on that presentation when I asked for it. Some I ignored, some I took to heart, but I carefully considered it all. Especially useful was perhaps Steven’s caution to remember that in a virtual presentation like this, the audience has nothing but the slides and my voice. That was a little strange for me, and helped me realize how much I depend upon immediate audience feedback both to guide my presentations and to end with a performance high. I thought the presentation went reasonably well, and people stayed until the end and asked questions, so at least they didn’t fall asleep during my talk. (The slides are here, if anyone’s curious; at some point I’m planning to write up and develop the notes.)

The Library Journal gave a short roundup of the virtual conference, and had this to say about my efforts: "’Cultivate Your Bottom,’ had a clever title but, as even the speaker himself acknowledged, focused on what many people would consider obvious: it’s important to focus not on leaders but librarians and staffers at the bottom of the hierarchy, empowering them to act, and ensuring that they share their knowledge. Only near the end of the session were concrete examples—e.g, seminars, wikis —offered."

Though I’m not sure how much I said was really that obvious, my caveat with the description, which for the most part seems accurate, is the word only." "Only at the end of the session were concrete examples…offered." The assumption here seems completely unwarranted. Are conference presentations supposed to be only lists of practical and specific things to do in your library? Is abstraction bad? If so, then there were certainly worse "offenders" than me. Jim Neal’s portion of the "Subject Liaison 2.0" presentation, for example, was very theoretical, his assumption I’m sure being that if we consider certain generalities about what to look for in a subject liaison, then the particulars of any given librarian will obviously fit or not fit the theory.

The "only" bothers me not because it implies a judgment on my presentation (it does, but it’s not a severe judgment, and not one that would have changed it). Instead, it bothers me because it bespeaks an undercurrent I sense in the entire profession. We’re all supposed to work within the dominant pragmatic ideology and make little effort to theorize or philosophize about our practice. Theorizing is supposed to be left to someone else, though I’m not sure who that is. LIS professors, i guess. This anti-theoretical stance that seems so practical is, however, highly impractical. It assumes that we can act responsibly without having reasons for why we act, or that we can act coherently without understanding the theoretical coherence behind our actions. I’m just not satisfied plunging ahead with every gimmick and trend without knowing how they fit into the larger scheme of goals to be achieved and problems to be solved.

Once the theoretical framework is in place, the practical implications seem easy enough to work out. If, for example, one believes an organizational problem is to figure out how to maximize and exploit the knowledge dispersed throughout an organization, then specific practices are rather easily judged in light of this theory. Administrative decisions that don’t take into account the knowledge on the ground: bad. Training sessions that share knowledge among colleagues: good. Organizational structures that depend upon one person or a small group of persons to have the relevant knowledge and power to act: bad. Empowering knowledgeable and well trained frontline staff to act: good. The list could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.

What seems to be common throughout the profession is an overvaluation of practical tips and a resistance to abstraction. I’m not criticizing practical tips, but a bullet point approach to library  education isn’t the best way to develop thoughtful and adaptable librarians. Specific daily practices or technical solutions become outdated. Adaptability requires us to evaluate the usefulness of practice within a broader theoretical framework, to focus less on the concrete details of library practice and more on the reasons why we do what we do. If we keep in mind the reasons we act in certain ways, then it’s easier to change those actions when they’re no longer relevant or appropriate. If we act without reasons, we’ll never be able to adapt easily to new circumstances, nor justify our existence to ourselves or to anyone else.

3 thoughts on “Practicality and Adaptability

  1. Not being a librarian myself, it nonetheless seems as though the critic has failed entirely to apprehend the purpose of library science conferences. Surely one does not attend with the expectation of receiving lists of “practical” solutions, separated from reason, to his problems? What, after all, is so impractical about imparting a theoretical framework with which to achieve staff harmony? Are not librarians especially omnivorous, capable of responding productively to a broad range of ideas, both theoretical and otherwise? I applaud your presentation for its intellectual vigor as much as its real pragmatism.

  2. Not being a librarian myself, it nonetheless seems as though the critic has failed entirely to apprehend the purpose of library science conferences. Surely one does not attend with the expectation of receiving lists of “practical” solutions, separated from reason, to his problems? What, after all, is so impractical about imparting a theoretical framework with which to achieve staff harmony? Are not librarians especially omnivorous, capable of responding productively to a broad range of ideas, both theoretical and otherwise? I applaud your presentation for its intellectual vigor as much as its real pragmatism.

  3. Wayne,
    I’m with you. However, when you say:
    “If we act without reasons, we’ll never be able to adapt easily to new circumstances, nor justify our existence to ourselves or to anyone else.”
    …it seems to me that you are being much to rational and rigorous given today’s environment, which is basically more like this:
    http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/the_great_seduction/2009/03/i-had-an-interesting-conversation-about-the-future-of-writing-last-night-on-twitter-it-began-with.html
    Just keep that in mind and keep your sophistry skills us (“make it up as you go”) and you’ll be in a much better position and get the respect you deserve.
    -Nathan

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