Another Essential Skill for All Librarians

Once you get on the guru train, it’s hard to get off. That thing just barrels along regardless of reason and good sense. So here goes one more guru post. The title promised a skill, but as with rhetoric, it’s really more that you develop a set of skills through this line of study. Analytical skills, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills. Surely these are necessary for all librarians, and if you want to develop them to your utmost, you’ve got to study philosophy. When a lot of people think about philosophy, they think of great historical philosophers, or perhaps of something like a “life philosophy.” But philosophy is also, perhaps mostly, a method, not a body of knowledge. It’s a method for thinking clearly, asking questions, and solving problems.

To get an idea of what sort of skills philosophy can develop, we can do a brief survey of some philosophy department websites that try to explain the benefits of philosophy over some supposedly more practical major. Here’s what they say at Harvard:

Philosophy is a discipline requiring skills in reasoning and writing. Thus, the study of philosophy helps a person to develop the abilities to:

  • Read texts closely
  • Analyze positions critically
  • Uncover tacit presuppositions
  • Construct cogent arguments, and
  • Explain and argue in clear persuasive writing.

These skills are extremely useful in many other disciplines beyond philosophy and for a range of careers, such as law, computer science, business, medicine, writing, the arts, publishing, and many others. The abilities to write well and to “think outside the box” are in high demand from employers, and will serve students well in their post-college life.

 

Don’t those sound like skills that would be useful for librarians? Here’s another list from Florida State:

The study of philosophy enhances one’s ability:

  • To think, speak, and write clearly and critically,
  • To communicate effectively,
  • To form original, creative solutions to problems,
  • To develop reasoned arguments for one’s views,
  • To appreciate views different from one’s own,
  • To analyze complex material, and
  • To investigate difficult questions in a systematic fashion.

Communicating effectively? Forming solutions to problems? That’s pretty much my job. Are those skills as well developed in you as they could be after a rigorous study of philosophy? I suspect not, which is why you should go study philosophy, after you study rhetoric but before you study something else, because this is my guru train and I’m not allowing any other riders. Regardless, you can’t know until you do it, so do it. If you’re not yet persuaded, here’s another good list of reasons to study philosophy. It teaches you:

1. How to read critically (i.e., a book, magazine article, newspaper, P&L statement, web traffic report, etc.).

2. How to write well. (this could be an email, letter, report, blog, or living will).

3. How to debate and speak in front of large audiences.

4. How to create impromptu arguments and analysis (this may be the number one business skill of all time and Iíd hire someone with this skill set versus a Harvard graduate any day).

5. How to figure out what is right and wrong (ethics) and identify with different sorts of people and cultures (this is critical in the modern workforce, think how different your job is from what you see on Mad Men each week).

6. How to apply logic to any problem.

7. How to think strategically or see the “big picture.”

8. How to think about a problem by deconstructing the big picture and looking at the details.

Isn’t that what we want? Big picture librarians who can also look at the details? People who can create impromptu analysis or apply logic to any problem? People who can identify with different sorts of people and cultures? All these are essential for effective librarians. Finally, here’s a summary from the Princeton philosophy department about the study of philosophy and your future:

Skills acquired by concentrating in philosophy can thus be useful for a variety of careers. But the main benefit lies in learning to think in an organized way about confusing and controversial questions; to treat one’s beliefs as serviceable as they are but capable of improvement; to react to criticism not with outrage or fear but with a willingness to state the grounds for one’s views and to listen to and learn from the views of others. These are habits of thought useful not only in a career, but in life.

Imagine if more librarians could react to criticism not with outrage or fear but with a willingness to state the grounds for their views and listen to and learn from the views of others. That would be refreshing indeed. Useful not only in a career, but in life. All I can say is hear, hear!

So we have a range of skills developed through the study of philosophy: critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, clear and organized communication, a balanced temperament to criticism that ultimately leads to better solutions to problems. Every one of these are essential to a career in librarianship, and the rigorous study of philosophy improves these types of skills perhaps more than any other field. Critical thinking, communication, and problem solving: boiled down to its essentials, that’s what my job is all about. That’s probably true for a lot of you as well. Thus, to be a better librarian, you should go study philosophy. Right now. Every one of you.

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Now, it might seem that with the post on rhetoric and this one on philosophy, I’m merely talking about areas of study I’m relatively knowledgable about, emphasizing skills that I’m relatively good at, arguing the almost irrefutable point that everyone would benefit from having these skills, and then telling you every librarian needs these skills at a high level. That’s exactly what I’m doing. That’s how the guru argument works.

Let’s go back to the example that started me off on this little series, whether all librarians need to learn how to code proficiently. I say no, and I’ve yet to see a persuasive argument for that position. What I’ve seen are librarians saying how useful coding skills have been for them. How could I argue with that? I’ve seen librarians saying coding skills might be good for all librarians to learn. Okay, I can possibly agree with that. Lots of things might be good for all librarians to learn, like rhetoric and philosophy. I haven’t seen this particular claim, but I might even agree that all librarians would be improved in some way if they learned to code proficiently. Every acquired skill enhances us somehow, and teaches us to view the world differently and increase our ability to function and solve problems. But none of those claims support the view that all librarians need to learn to code proficiently.

The same claims could be made about numerous skills, in particular the kind I’ve been talking about in these last two posts. There’s a difference between saying, “learning this might benefit librarians,” and saying, “all librarians need to learn this.” The first is moderate and potentially good advice. The second is immoderate guru-speak. “I do this. It helps me. Everyone else needs to do it, too.” The problem is, we have a finite amount of time, lots of things to learn, and specialization within libraries that doesn’t require everyone to have the same skills in the same capacity. I was speaking about this with one of our digital projects coders last week. We concluded that just as I don’t have to be able to write code proficiently, he doesn’t have to be able to teach research skills to students effectively. (He also, by the way, thinks the job ads are increasingly looking not for librarians with some coding skill but for people with hard core coding skills to then come work in libraries, which reframes the whole librarian coding argument into one about “feral librarians.”)

What I’ve been trying to do is expose the problematic reasoning behind guru-type claims about any skills or knowledge or future predictions for librarians. They’re all suspect, and the more hyperbolic they are the more suspect they become. I don’t see how you could reasonably deny that the skills I’ve addressed in these last two posts would benefit you both professionally and personally if you spent years acquiring or improving them. And yet you still probably think that you have better things to do, and that you know what’s better for you in your job than I do.

You might be right, but by guru logic you can’t make that claim, because the guru knows best. All such claims rest on something the guru can’t prove but that you can’t quite disprove. After all, unless you know what the guru knows, how can you really know that you don’t need to know what the guru knows? You get along fine in your job without learning some particular set of skills? No, you just think you do!

Instead of wading into pointless arguments, I want you to see beyond the hype and curious reasoning, and have been trying to show you how. Oh, and the reason I’ve been able to do this? Rhetoric and philosophy. Go study them. Every one of you.

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