Notes on Truth and Librarianship

In a blog post at Sense and Reference, Lane Wilkinson asks whether misinformation is information, and proposes a project over the next few weeks that shows “how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet” Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I look forward to following the progress of the argument.  If, like me, your recall of the Information Literacy Standards is fuzzy, I should remind you that according to Standard Three, “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.” According to Wilkinson, though the ACRL Information Literacy Standards don’t mention truth, Standard Three requires an account of truth. (One might add that the Information Literacy Standards require a missing account of information as well.) Librarians sometimes have the oddest beliefs about truth, as Wilkinson shows in this excellent pair of posts on Wikipedia and truth.

The post also references an article on truth in librarianship that Wilkinson finds less than compelling, to put it mildly: The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship, by Labaree and Scimeca. He promises to dissect it for fact-value conflations and anti-realisms, which I also look forward to. In that article, the authors evaluate three traditional theories of truth–the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories–and conclude that since none of them are adequate for a conception of libraries as a collection of the historical record, they must introduce a supposedly new theory of truth, the “historicist” theory, inspired by the historicism of Herder. I’m assuming it’s this new theory, or perhaps the belief that this is a theory of truth at all, that Wilkinson finds ridiculous, which makes sense when we see that the historicist theory of truth is merely the suspension of belief in truth, supposedly because a belief in truth might cause us to eliminate parts of the historical record that we consider untrue. From the article:

Our suspension of truth value does not arrive at epistemological certainty about the propositions contained in the many volumes housed in a library but rather at certainty that the historical record has not been compromised by the elimination of any these volumes. In other words, librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood. As Herder states: “If history in its simplest sense were nothing but a description of an occurrence, of a production, then the first requirement is that the description be whole, exhaust the subject, show it to use from all sides”…. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind. Only in a free and open society could Herder’s historicism become possible for scholars to use.

One might be tempted to read this as blatant, though well intentioned, nonsense. One should not resist that temptation. This “theory” of truth is not only incompatible with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (no great sin there), but with any intellectual standards at all. It asserts that for librarians to do their job well, they must cease to believe in the truth or falsity of anything in their collection. The published results of a falsifiable and replicable astronomical experiment have the same truth value as a Renaissance book of astrology, or rather, if we believe that one is in fact truer than the other then we can’t responsibly build library collections. The problem is that the authors of this paper don’t provide much of an argument for our suspension of belief.

As I said, this is well intentioned. Their claim is that if we believe that X book is true and Y book is false, then we might be tempted not to collect Y, or not to keep it, which would in essence be to destroy it for future generations to study, just as, for example, medieval scribes would scrape classical texts from vellum to give themselves a clean surface to make another copy of the Bible, because the Bible was true and valuable, while Cicero or Aristotle were not. Or like the legend that Caliph Umar destroyed the Library at Alexandria, because if the books agreed with the Koran they were unnecessary, and if they disagreed they were heretical. Thus, it is only by suspending our belief in truth of individual items in the library collection that we escape the desire to destroy falsehoods.

This assumes that such a cavalier attitude to library collections was motivated by a theory of truth as such, which isn’t the case. Totalitarians don’t burn books simply because they believe those books are false. They burn books because they are motivated by ideologies that require the destruction of any alternative points of view. They don’t burn outdated works of science that have been superseded by more modern studies; they burn books containing worldviews antithetical to their own. Medieval scribes scraped classical works from their vellum not just because they believed them to be false, but because they believed them to be unimportant, the way we throw away takeout menus when maybe we should be collecting them.

What’s different for us isn’t that we don’t believe some works are true and others false, even in areas that lend themselves to easy dispute such as politics or religion. Religious non-believers consider the truth value of the Bible or the Koran to be nil, but in the liberal Enlightenment worldview that provides the framework for modern libraries, that consideration is unimportant. Our “historicism” doesn’t dictate that we don’t believe in truth, but that we believe we want to understand the past, and we believe the way to do so is studying as many documents as possible to come to a true understanding. We attempt to comprehensively collect the historical record in ways that previous eras didn’t, but it’s not necessarily because we have different theories of truth, it’s because we believe different things are true, which isn’t the same thing.

Modern scholars and academic librarians tend to believe that the following statement is true: “Understanding the past in as objective a way as possible is valuable for us in some way, and understanding that past requires saving all the documentary traces it leaves behind.” Totalitarians, book burners, and the like believe this statement to be false. Thus, when we build library collections, we don’t suspend our belief in truth; we just believe that untrue documents can also give us a sort of truth. It should be clear that I’m not objecting to isn’t so much the spirit of this article, but its letter. I agree that building comprehensive library collections is important, and even for the same reasons, but I don’t believe it’s true that we need a new theory of truth to justify this. We don’t really need a theory of truth at all. We just need to collect.

Which brings us back to the Sense and Reference post. Wilkinson believes that Standard Three requires a theory of truth, in particular a realist theory of some kind. That sounds plausible to me, at least for parts of Standard Three. We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?

With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?

Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship.

Despite recent claims that American college students don’t learn much, what “information literacy” they do learn takes place outside the library for the most part, in classrooms, dorm rooms, coffeehouses. And the part that takes place in libraries takes place without librarians. All that reading, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing necessary for understanding and knowledge is far beyond what librarians see.

Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.

Or maybe not. I’m still working my way through this one.

6 thoughts on “Notes on Truth and Librarianship

  1. Thanks for jumping in on my hare-brained scheming; I’m glad you agree about the theory-laden ridiculousness out there. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that instruction-librarians are in the business of leading students to truth. But, librarians are in the business of knowledge: collecting it, organizing it, teaching methods for analyzing it, leading students to better justificatory practices, etc.. So, maybe truth doesn’t figure into a research methods class, but theories of truth do play a role in how we create professional standards and how we create curricula. In other words, it isn’t the instructional librarian’s place to say “These are the facts”; but it is among our responsibilities to say “There are facts and here is how you can find them (or, at least, justify your beliefs in and about them)”.
    Great post, either way! It’s food for thought I’ll be sure to address in the near future.

  2. I’m not sure if I agree yet or not that we need an explicit theory of truth for librarianship, and am looking forward to the development of your argument. My hesitation is probably motivated by my general resistance to metaphysics. But it’s also that the academic library is part of the larger academic enterprise that already assumes such a theory of truth, that there are facts you can find and justify believing in. Otherwise, why would we investigate and experiment to create new knowledge. Would there be anything specific about libraries that would separate them from academia in general? I would think not, which would mean that any theory of truth for academic librarianship would also be the same for academia.
    It might also be that the theory of truth is less important than the things we believe to be true. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that academic research relies on some realist theory of truth. That still doesn’t explain why academic research takes place, or why academic libraries collect things. That would be motivated by the belief that understanding the world and the creation of new knowledge is somehow good for us, which would be more an ethical than a metaphysical proposition.
    Right now it’s the larger motivation for research and libraries I’m thinking about. It could be I’m not sure yet what I think about this because it’s in an area outside my philosophical interests.

  3. You’re absolutely right that a particular theory of truth need not be the motivating factor in librarianship or any other discipline: the motivations for research, collection, etc. are wildly divergent. I’ll even go as far as to say that I can’t figure out how a particular theory of truth could even be a motivating factor in academic research or library collection development…it sounds like a category mistake (i.e., our motivations are intentional states; truth is a semantic property).
    In any event, I agree that the answer to why we should pursue knowledge is, as you said, a normative issue and therefore a different can of worms. But, how we create new knowledge is a separate concern where truth does become relevant.
    Again, great food for thought. I’ll be sure to incorporate your concerns in future posts.

  4. I think you do need a working theory of truth for this reason: most libraries, academic, public, and other, including mine, have a limited acquisitions budget. In order to use that budget most wisely, it seems that we need to acquire those items which we believe to be nearest to truth, plus items representing competing viewpoints. There’s no formula for it, but I have this idea in my mind of a continuum of truthiness, where we start at the center (i.e. close to “truth”) and move out until we run out of money.
    This limit doesn’t apply so much when it comes to teaching students about evaluating information on the internet, but the continuum idea still seems valuable to me: if our students can learn to place sites on the continuum (where here truth has some relation to authority), they will have learned a valuable skill.

  5. I think that makes sense, and seems more or less what any given library does now, with the faint hope that collectively we’ll have enough stuff in future to accurately represent the past. I certainly practice something like this myself. Having a few volumes of awful vanity press “philosophy” should be enough to show such existed if anyone ever cares, but I wouldn’t waste too much money or space on it.
    Then again, I’m still wondering if “truth” is really the issue, or something else. Take philosophy as an example. I think every academic library should have the primary works of every major philosopher from Plato to Derrida, not because any of them are “true.” Likewise, research libraries should collect heavily in the scholarship of fields relevant to their universities, but we’re still hoping for “truth” in the aggregate, not in the truth of any given work. Scholarship is a process, sometimes successful, often flawed, and libraries accumulate the results of that process, even when they’re flawed, since we won’t necessarily be able to tell. We rely on the mechanisms of scholars themselves, like peer-review, to gauge some things we might not be able to understand ourselves.

  6. Wayne: “if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that ‘truth’ isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.”
    Thank you for providing a more philosophically and logically compelling formulation for my growing conviction that teaching students information literacy has become an overly ambitious project for libraries and librarians. It is difficult for me to read information literacy competencies as anything other than “a complete liberal education without necessary reference to subject expertise.”
    Grace: “In order to use that budget most wisely, it seems that we need to acquire those items which we believe to be nearest to truth, plus items representing competing viewpoints.”
    I think collection development is more concerned with relevance than with truth. By which I mean, acquisition priority is more often about the importance/prominence of a work within one or more ongoing scholarly conversations than its inherent worthiness. Librarians have wiggle room and responsibility to collect worthy but marginal works, but ultimately, it is the job of a field’s scholarly community to judge the truth of any given evidence or argument within that field, not the library’s.

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