Politics, Personal Views, and Librarian Rhetoric

A blog post by Rick Anderson on six mistakes the library staff are making [when negotiating with vendors] has shown up in a few places in my personal information universe. The first five activities, if or when they occur, definitely seem like mistakes, but the sixth activity is questionable, at least in the way it’s framed, and framing the issue in as neutral a way as possible would help the discussion.

One of the mistakes, we are told, is “Putting political library concerns above patron needs,” which he admits is a controversial claim and promises to expand further in a later post. The claim is that “too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service.” However, this isn’t a claim about politics in the general sense conflicting with the librarian’s mission. “By ‘politics,'” he says, “I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.”

Instead of arguing with the claim that librarians put political library concerns above patron needs, I’m more interested in showing the rhetorical moves here. First, let’s consider the word politics, which is a very loaded word, and which has negative connotations even within the world of real politics. How many times have you heard some politician criticize another for “playing politics” or for “politicizing” an issue that’s already inherently political? So to characterize the activities of some librarians as essentially “playing politics” with vendor relations is an example of poisoning the well and persuasive definition, both typically considered informal argumentative fallacies. Merely characterizing the activity as “political” biases us against it before we even consider the details. Elsevier funding members of Congress to vote for the Research Works Act is playing politics, for real.

The attempt to define “politics” makes a contradictory, but still questionable, rhetorical move. Politics is by definition public, shared, and social. Etymologically, it’s thinking and arguing about the polis or city-state. Defining “politics” as “personal views about how the world ought to be” is already altering the meaning. The activity of politics might involve the clash of people motivated by personal views, but it’s not about personal views as such. Instead, it’s about dispute over the views that a community must share.

Even if I’m wrong in this interpretation, defining the activity as the result of “personal views” further disparages the activity and defines it in a way that is already biased against it. The connotation is usually that a “personal view” is merely a personal view, and thus has no place in the professional world we inhabit. However, support for open access scholarship, which I assume is an example of “politics” at work here, isn’t a “personal view,” but a professional opinion backed up with various arguments. Thus, one’s professional commitment to open access scholarship as “how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured” is never a “personal view,” and not necessarily even a political view in any ordinary sense. It’s a professional opinion about a relevant economic, educational, and social matter.

One might even question the use of the word ought here: “how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” To criticize people for acting on beliefs about “how the world ought to be” implies that “the way things are” is somehow good or worthwhile or at least tolerable. However, all ethical action is motivated by a belief about how the world ought to be. I try to be courteous to people in public, or show up to meetings on time, because I think that’s the way the world ought to be, even though we know that’s not always how the world is. “How the world ought to be” isn’t necessarily the fanciful dream of the fanatic, but a typical motivating factor for action. Again, when Elsevier funds politicians to vote for the Research Works Act, they are acting on a view of how the world ought to be.

He says that “the question is: To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” This is an important question and one worth discussing. However, using the labels “politics” and “personal views,” and implying that acting on a belief of how the world “ought” to be is problematic rather than typical, privileges the corporate view as the only “professional” view and the status quo as a desirable norm before the discussion even begins.

One thought on “Politics, Personal Views, and Librarian Rhetoric

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric Matters | Peer to Peer Review

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