Why I Ignore Gurus, Sherpas, Ninjas, Mavens, and Other Sages

I read Roy Tennant’s recent post on why you shouldn’t learn HTML with some amusement, since I would have given the same advice in the late 1990s when I was starting library school and Tennant was writing his book on helping librarians learn HTML. When I was in library school, there were advocates, possibly inspired by Tennant’s example, who were pretty sure that we’d never be successful librarians without knowing HTML, which at the time wasn’t the quaint idea that it seems now. With reluctance and curiosity, I attended a couple of workshops that were going to teach me HTML and provide me with the necessary skills to become the successful professional librarian I hoped to be. I even have a book on the shelves in my office on HTML, acquired during library school and quite possibly unopened until this day. My HTML knowledge then and now consists of being able to steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter with a web editor or content management system. I can’t remember the last time I needed even that much knowledge.

The advice to learn HTML (or CSS, or [insert the code du jour here]) is well meant, and possibly well taken. Every once in a while I get the urge to pick up a new skill and give it a try. Last January I signed up for one of those learn-to-code websites (Codeacademy, I think), and I went through the first few lessons before I assured myself that a) it bored me and thus held no inherent interest, and b) I don’t need to learn it because I don’t see a need for it. I don’t need to learn it, and I didn’t need to learn it 15 years ago, because there are other people and other tools that learned it for me. I didn’t need to learn much HTML because I had Netscape Navigator, with its combination browser, email client, and HTML editor (for you younger librarians who might never have used Netscape Navigator, you can try SeaMonkey to see what it was like. It’s a continuation of the Netscape project and gives that old school Navigator feel). Then I had Dreamweaver. Now I have LibGuides or Google Sites or SeaMonkey.

I also ignore the advice of the gurus et al. because I knew early on that if people had to learn how to code to use computers, the personal computer business would never have been successful. I can even roughly determine when I came to this realization: the fall of 1985, during which I was enrolled in my high school’s mandatory computer science course. It was also just after I had been given my first personal computer, the pitifully weak but durable Apple IIc (discontinued by Apple in August 1988, but discontinued by me at the end of my first year of grad school in August 1993, when it was replaced by the boxy little Apple Color Classic that carried me through 1997).

The teacher assured us that the class was necessary so we could learn about computers so we could get good jobs someday, because computers were the future. Something or other is always the future. In order to guarantee our place in the competitive future, we learned to program in BASIC and FORTRAN. No, I shouldn’t say that. We were taught to program, but we didn’t all learn. I learned important skills, like getting really cute girls who were into computer programming to help me with my homework, but I can’t say I learned to program very much. I learned how to tell my computer to stream “HELLO” across the screen, which is pretty much the extent of what I learned to do during last year’s brief excursion into codeland. Back then, I knew what I needed a computer for, mostly writing, trying (and failing) to play text-based computer games, and viewing the most ridiculous pornography I’ve ever seen (and that includes the kind with people dressed up like animals or superheroes). None of those things required me to learn to code, just like none of the things I do with computers now–which is a lot–requires it.

If I’m a heavy computer user who doesn’t need to know that stuff, and most people who use computers don’t know or need to know how to code or even have extensive computer knowledge, why are there always people telling us that we do? It’s the same reason why social media “gurus” or “sherpas” tell us that we need to embrace some new social media site or risk…really, I don’t know what we might risk, but it’s supposedly something dire. I guess we’ll risk not being “with it” or “happening” or whatever the current slang is to describe people desperate to seem acceptable to some in-crowd or another. The reason isn’t because we need to learn how to code or embrace Twitter or whatever. It’s not that we need to learn something; it’s that they need to say something.

Sometimes this thing they say is instructive, insightful, and honestly felt. I can’t find it now, but before I tried my last coding jaunt I read a great article by someone who pointed to all sorts of practical uses he had for his coding knowledge. Some program wouldn’t work, he would work around it. He had some tech problem? He would code his way to a solution. I was impressed, and thought, yeah, that sounds really smart. And after a few lessons I realized he was a man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. He solved problems with code because he had code in his toolbox. He probably solved problems I would never realize I had, because he could. This isn’t to take away from his knowledge and skill. I was impressed by both that and his argument. It’s just that I don’t have those problems, and if I do I’d solve them some other way.

Based on my experience, I know the gurus’ giving advice about things I must learn is wrong. I can learn those things, and I might even benefit from that learning, but I don’t have to and will probably do just fine without learning them. I don’t follow sherpas and gurus because I prefer to go my own way. Leaders need followers, but I’m not much of either. I’ve found that it’s much easier to develop skills as I need them than to be told that some skill will benefit me because the teller has the skill and reaps benefits. If I had needed to learn to code for work, I’d have done it. The thing is, that’s true for most skills. I can’t code worth a damn, but I write pretty well and am a tolerable public speaker. Yet I would never tell people that unless you learn to crank out a coherent thousand-word essay quickly or give a good impromptu talk, you’ll never be much of a communicator and thus not much of a librarian. It’s important, because communication is the future.

Communication is the future. That sounds pretty catchy. Maybe I should try this guru thing after all.

17 thoughts on “Why I Ignore Gurus, Sherpas, Ninjas, Mavens, and Other Sages

  1. I recently read ‘Mindstorms’ by Seymour Papert (1980), which argues that children should learn to code because it will change the way they learn and think. That is, as an *additional* way of thinking. I’m telling you about it because I, too, need to say something, natch.

    Papert was one if the inventors of the LOGO programming language, which can be used to draw pictures on a screen and also to give instructions to physical robots. He was also a disciple of Jean Piaget and as such, is interested in how children learn, in particular as related to math and computers.

    Papert is also interested in the intersection of computers and the humanities. He quotes the inscription above Plato’s door, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter” (discussion: http://plato-dialogues.org/faq/faq009.htm) as proof that this is the way things were always meant to be.

    Sorry I can’t say more about the book, it was an ILL and I’ve sent it home.

    It strikes me that so much of the discussion around coding and around teaching children (or librarians or anyone) to code is centered on developing skills for the job market. And what discussion of education can escape that trap today? But it is one I’d really like to see re-framed.

    I was interested in reading Papert’s book because LOGO was a big part of my own learning as a child, and a big part of the reason that I enjoy coding to this day. When I hit things with my code hammer, it breaks them as often as it does repair them, but I always learn something about how they work.

    I’ll agree with Tennant that web development has moved beyond what librarians have the time and training to do efficiently and effectively, but as a tool for learning, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

    Librarians should love learning, and that is why it is worth learning to code.

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  3. Caleb, thanks for the comment. My only issue is with this statement: “Librarians should love learning, and that is why it is worth learning to code.” It implies that people who don’t spend time learning to code don’t love learning. I could just as easily apply that statement to some of my own areas of interest: rhetoric, political philosophy, existentialism, the Enlightenment, or my current interests in the relationship between Stoicism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism. All of these have helped me understand the world or libraries. But what if I said, librarians should love learning, and that is why they should learn the political philosophy of John Rawls, or the philosophy of Nietzsche, or the work of Chaim Perelman, or the intellectual history of the 18th century? My point wasn’t to disparage learning to code, and certainly not learning in general. It was merely that what other people say I should learn based on their own experiences and values isn’t particularly relevant to my own situation.

    • Yes agreed of course.I tried to write my comments up to the last statement to demonstrate that I was implying no such thing. I failed perhaps.

  4. I’m never going to argue that everyone has to learn to code.

    I will argue that being able to see and solve problems you didn’t know you had is *fun*, and empowering, and I don’t want the fun and empowerment to be reserved for a tiny and largely homogeneous group. And that it’s better to have expanded your toolkit, and made the conscious choice that this tool isn’t particularly well-suited to your style — as you did — than it is to not have the option of making that choice.

    • Andromeda, agreed! I would even go so far as to say it’s worthwhile for librarians to give it a try given the numerous technological developments in the field. That’s why I tried it myself.

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  6. Hey Wayne! Great post. I realize your argument is really about whether we should put stock in the portentous solutionism of gurus and sherpas and I absolutely agree with your assessment. We absolutely must be skeptical of any purported teacher making universal claims about merely possible futures; anything less is gullibility. But, there’s also an undercurrent in your argument questioning the necessity of strong coding skills in librarianship and I used that undercurrent as a springboard for a post over at my dinky little blog. My overarching argument is that while coding isn’t essential for librarians (i.e., the gurus are wrong), coding is essential for libraries…and the same is true of every other practical skill we encounter in librarianship. Basically, the gurus, sherpas, ninjas, and mavens are committing a category mistake by conflating the needs of the librarian with the needs of the library.

    • Lane, I agree completely. And I’d read your post, but with one thing and another hadn’t gotten around to commenting. It could certainly seem that I was equivocating on the necessity of strong coding skills for libraries, although I didn’t mean to. I mention the very reason that I don’t need them is that other people already have them. In my library, we have a digital projects unit full of people with such skills. While I have done a bit proposing and coordinating digital projects, I definitely wouldn’t be able to do any of the coding work myself. Fortunately, I don’t have to!

      I was trying to argue against the statement that you also argued against, that any particular set of skills wasn’t necessary for all librarians, which is the usual implication of the gurus and sherpas. I considered following up with a more satirical post about how every librarian should know [insert something I know really well], but work and life have been too overwhelming lately to think of anything at all clever.

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