While I can’t be certain, it’s likely that some of you reading this were recently asked to write a letter on my behalf. If you did write such a letter, I want to say thank you very much. Also, I’ve been officially notified that the potential event which prompted the request for the letter will indeed come to pass. Thanks again for your support.
It seems to be the month for librarians to write about writing. Within the past week I’ve read three different articles or blog posts about librarians writing: Emily Ford’s Becoming a Writer-Librarian in In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Trudi Bellardo Hahn’s and Paul T. Jaeger’s From Practice to Publication: a Path for Academic Library Professionals in College & Research Libraries News, and Joanna June’s Learn to Write (Well) at the Hack Library School blog. They’re all worth reading for potential writing librarians, and they made me reflect a bit on my own life as a writer. As an experienced writing teacher who has managed to publish some professional writing in a variety of formats, I thought I’d toss out my thoughts on writing as well.
Hahn and Jaeger write for academic librarians wanting to publish research, and their advice is more specific than the other articles. They have a helpful chart of different ways to proceed toward publication, with four categories: A) Highly Competitive Publications, B) Less Competitive Publications, C) Unpublished Presentations, and D) Support/ Service/ Recognition. I’ve done a bit of A, C, and D, and a whole lot of B. Since I don’t care whether my publications are “highly competitive” or not, I can work comfortably in the “less competitive” domain. This is also what they suggest for new librarian writers. “Academic librarians who are just starting out should consider all the options available in column B.” Column B includes articles in non-refereed journals, magazines, or newsletters; columns in a journal or magazine (permanent); guest columns; and blogs among others. That seems like good advice. Looking back at my CV, two of my first three publications were in C&RL News itself, and the next few were guest columns or editorials or entries for a column I edited. I was a librarian for years before I published anything peer-reviewed and I avoided tenure-track jobs so I wouldn’t have to write before I had something to say. They also give the good rhetorical advice that “a highly competitive outlet is not necessarily always the best fit for a project, and the desire to have materials published in a certain type of outlet should not be prioritized at the expense of the determining the most appropriate outlet and audience.” That’s hard advice for someone needing to publish peer-reviewed articles for tenure, but still sound. Some topics need a book and some a blog post.
Ford also gives some good advice. The “Writing is Social” section reports about her participation in Academic Writing Month and Digital Writing Month, which provide social incentives and support for writers. I’ve never been a social writer myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that writers use all kinds of different tactics to be productive. I usually don’t show my writing to anyone before sending it off for publication, but I’m a good self-editor with a lot of experience. Most people would benefit from a “community of practice,” I suspect. “Reflecting on Writing” suggests reading about writing, which might be something librarians don’t think about doing. I haven’t read her suggestions before, but with 17 years off and on teaching writing, I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Ford’s choices seem concerned with making writers more productive or overcoming blocks. I’ve never had writer’s block or difficulty organizing a writing project, so those aren’t issues for me, but I know they are for a lot of people.
However, I also think it’s a good idea for potential librarian writers to read nuts and bolts type books they might otherwise skip. Examples I’ve profited from in the past include: Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct: a Rhetoric for Writers, Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and Diane Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. Hacker is the most basic, and I probably wouldn’t have read anything like it had I never taught writing. However, it’s still worth the time. I’ve encountered lots of writing from students and other unpublished writers that still have basic problems with subject-verb agreement or pronoun-antecedent agreement or who don’t know whether use which and that with restrictive clauses, or for that matter don’t know what a restrictive clause is. Williams’ book is an advanced guide to prose style and Barzun’s is full of solid rhetorical advice. Lanham’s short book is a good guide to revision, which is something lots of writers dread.
June’s short blog post contains useful tidbits for writers: read critically, write a lot, step away from your writing for a while before revising, and proofread by reading your writing aloud. All are sound suggestions.
Ford admits that she always wanted to be a writer. I’m sort of like that. I remember in the 5th grade wanting to be a fiction writer, but as I grew up that goal changed as I studied new subjects. At various times from age 13 on I’ve wanted to be a journalist, a photojournalist, an architect, a musician, a fiction writer (again), and an English professor. But mostly it’s been writer. I still write fiction sometimes, and have a couple of finished novels and lots of drafts, but I don’t bother trying to publish any of it because it takes too much effort and I don’t really care if it’s published because I write for my own satisfaction. Librarianship was what I ended up with after I’d abandoned other ideas., and it’s turned out that librarianship has offered me plenty of opportunity to write anyway.
When you’ve done something for so long, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate how you do it, but I decided to try. Below are the activities that I think have had the most positive influence on my writing.
Teaching writing has probably done more to improve my writing than anything else. My writing was already strong in college, and I got through many a class with an A merely by my ability to crank out thousand-word essays at a rapid pace. However, that ability was mostly because of reading (see below). Teaching writing improved that ability significantly because I did two things I’d never done before: I read a lot of writing by inexperience writers, and I studied the nuts and bolts of writing. People who read a lot learn about what good prose reads like, but they don’t necessarily think analytically about how writing works. As a teacher, my job wasn’t just to grade essays, but to give specific advice for improvement, and to do that I needed to figure out what was wrong. Why didn’t that sentence work? What’s wrong with the organization of this essay? And what specifically can that writer do to improve? Doing that is a lot harder than you might think. Teaching writing gave me a vocabulary for discussing writing that helps with my own writing, but that I might not have gotten otherwise.
Teaching also exposed me to a lot of bad writing. People who read a lot of published prose might not realize how very bad most writing is. Especially in the pre-blog days, truly awful writing was unlikely to be published anywhere with much of a readership. But wade through a stack of 40 student essays and you realize that writing is a far from natural experience. Reading bad writing makes it easier to figure out what good writing is, though. Reading great novels or polished essays critically can teach you a lot (see below), but reading bad writing gives you a new perspective. If you can figure out why it’s bad, you’re on your way to looking at your own writing more critically.
Writers read. This shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, but I can almost guarantee you that if you never read, you’ll never be much of a writer. By reading, I don’t just mean novels or great literature. In fact, unless you want to write fiction, there’s not any need to read a lot of fiction. But it helps to read everything: novels, short stories, poems, essays, new articles, encyclopedia entries, cereal boxes, blogs, tweets, comic books, textbooks, book blurbs, and even scholarly articles in library science. I’ve been an avid and indiscriminate reader ever since I can remember, and every little bit has contributed to my development as a writer.
On the other hand, being an indiscriminate reader all the time isn’t a good idea. You need to learn to read critically. Good writing as well as bad writing can be read critically. Understanding how bad writing works can help you avoid it in your own work, but understanding how good writing works is more important and more difficult. My writing efforts are mostly novels and essays. I’m curious about how both work. My time as an English major and grad student has given me a large vocabulary to understand and describe writing in a critical way, which is sometimes different than how I might think about writing as a writing teacher. Thinking about writing as a critic and thinking critically as a practioner are both helpful.
Writing Every Day
Writers write. This was the advice I once gave someone who was pestering me over drinks about writing. She thought the drunken escapades of her life would make great blog fodder. Maybe. But although writers often like to drink, the most important thing is writing. Writers write, usually every day. It’s a bad sign when people keep talking about what they would write if only they could get around to it. It doesn’t even matter that much what you write. Sure, if you’re working on an article under a deadline, you might focus on that, but writing about anything helps. You can even write about how you want to write and have nothing to write about. It’s still good practice. And if you can just write a page a day on a writing project, that still adds up pretty quickly. Writing has been a daily part of my life for 25 years, and that constant practice is part of what makes it so easy for me.
Writing in my Head
Writers write and read about writing, but a lot of writing looks suspiciously like staring into space, or walking, or (in my case) lying in bed early in the morning with your eyes closed. William Wordsworth used to go for long walks composing poetry in his head. I’m frequently thinking about things I might write, conjuring up thesis and motive in my head, pondering possible organization. The actual typing part is often the last and fastest part of the writing process, at least for me. So while you should write every day, you could also spend time every day thinking about whatever you might want to write.
Accepting Constructive Criticism and Editing
Inexperienced writers are often insecure writers as well. They don’t like criticism. It offends them that someone would think their writing needs improvement. The writers most resistant to criticism are also usually the worst writers. Experienced writers learn that writing is just words on a page,and they learn to appreciate constructive criticism. This is different from merely negative feedback, which can be dismissed. Someone recently in public called a piece I wrote “pure bilge,” but that’s the sort of emotional and derisive comment that makes me question the reader’s judgment, not my writing.
Writers should also learn to accept editing. I write pretty well, but I’ve had numerous editorial suggestions over the years. With very few exceptions, I’ve taken the suggestions and revised accordingly, because good editors aren’t trying to change your message but improve its communication. Sometimes writers resist editing out of pride or insecurity, and sometimes it’s out of exhaustion. Years ago a librarian asked me to read an article he’d written before submission to a journal editor. I agreed. It was an incoherent 50-page article. That was the bad news. The good news was that with a bit of work it could be turned into two very good 25-page articles, and I suggested how to do that. He was exhausted and said he’d just trust the editor. I replied that if the editor was any good he’d say the same thing I did. Despite considering my comment arrogant at the time, he later sheepishly admitted that the editor was pretty good, plus he got two good articles published instead of one.
Some writers can produce polished prose on the first sitting without any revision at all. I can occasionally do that with short blog posts, but for most writing I revise, sometimes a little and sometimes significantly. Even with writing as informal as blog posts, I often reread the piece several times, making major or minor corrections as I go through. This is where knowing the nuts and bolts of writing helps the most. Writing a draft is sometimes mindless, because the goal should be to get some words down, but revising should be thoughtfully done. For blog posts my goal is clarity and coherence, but when writing for publication I spend more time thinking about everything from sentence structure to organization.
So that’s my story. Every writer’s story is a little different, but those are the activities that I think have helped my writing the most.
I bought an ebook copy of Walt Crawford’s new book The Big Deal and the Damage Done and have read or skimmed it all. It analyzes serials and monograph spending from all types of academic libraries every which way. Chart after chart demonstrates the dramatic restructuring of library budgets most likely because of one relatively recent publishing model, the Big Deal. It lends some quantitative support to my contention that Big Deals screw the humanities, and really anything else that isn’t a STEM ejournal. The final paragraph:
What I do believe: If things continue along the same line as they have from 2000 to 2010, the damage done may become irreparable, as a growing number of academic libraries become little more than subsidized article transfer mechanisms. That would be a shame.
If you’re at all interested in the issue, definitely get a copy. I’ll be writing more about it in my Academic Newswire column for next week, so I won’t say more about it now.
Around this time last year Library Juice Press released my book Libraries and the Enlightenment, which, by the way, not nearly enough of you have purchased. It’s had some good reviews, although it hasn’t exactly been a runaway bestseller. Perhaps the reason is because people were waiting for it to come out in Japanese translation. Now it has, from the Kyoto Library and Information Science Research Society. You can purchase it here for 3500 yen.
I’ve never been translated before that I know of, so it’s kind of cool, even if I can’t read the language. According to Google Translate, the title translates as Enlightenment and Library. That seems close enough to me. If it turns out to be a big hit in Japan, maybe I’ll follow Jimmy James’ lead and have it translated back into English and republished. If you don’t know what I mean, find a copy of Super Karate Monkey Death Car, a very funny episode from season 4 of NewsRadio. Jimmy James is the executive in charge of everything, and his Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer was unsuccessful in the U.S., but became a huge hit in Japan. So it was retranslated from the Japanese into Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. The best line from the book at his book reading: “Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans, and pants to match.”
While catching up with my RSS feeds after ACRL and trying to avoid all the horrible news being reported this week I ran across a post by Jessica Olin at Letters to a Young Librarian about Cults of Librarian Personalities. It addresses “the Rock Star Librarian / Cults of Librarian Personalities phenomenon.” Apparently, there was a Rock Star Librarian who spoke at ACRL and I didn’t even realize it, or at least someone Jessica considers a “Big Name in Libraries, a Rock Star Librarian, an inspiration for a Cult of Librarian Personality.” I took a quick look through the conference program to try to figure out who she means, but since she also thinks the person is an “utter tool,” it’s probably best not to speculate, at least in public.
The thing is, I have different reactions to such people depending on whether we think of them as Big Names in Libraries, Rock Star Librarians, or the leader of a Cult of Librarian Personality. The phrase “rock star” applied to any librarians has always struck me as sort of funny. In the big scheme of things, librarians are such relatively marginal professionals that to think of any of them being actually famous is strange. What librarian could say, echoing Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ve seen a millions faces, and I’ve provided information to them all!” A cult of librarian personality is maybe even stranger. Do librarians have groupies? Or dedicated groups of admirers? Fan clubs? Or even people who dote on their every word? I’m not aware of any who do. Or is the suggestion that there are some librarians who would like a cult of personality to form around them? That might be true, if a bit creepy. Maybe the problem some people have isn’t with Rock Star Librarians as such, but with librarians who are deliberately seeking to be Rock Stars. On the other hand, groupies would be nice, if for no other reason than carrying my stuff around for me at conferences.
Then there’s the Big Name in Libraries designation, which seems to me much less loaded a phrase. But what makes a Big Name in Libraries? The Big Name at ACRL apparently writes articles, blog posts, and books, and also obviously speaks at conferences. Is that what makes someone a big name? I do that kind of thing but wouldn’t consider myself a Big Name. Maybe the Big Name has to be somebody on the conference circuit. I’ve done some speaking at conferences, and am slated to do some more (ALA Annual 2014 about library values; put it on your calendar!), but I don’t try hard to get speaking gigs. In fact, I rarely speak unless invited, and I’m just not invited that much. So the Big Names are probably those who you can’t go to a conference without escaping, whereas I am imminently escapable. Everyone can just not read a blog, but if you go to ALA or ACRL, there are names it’s hard to avoid seeing if you look through the conference programs, even if you never go hear those people speak. Those are the people I usually think of as Big Names. But are they Big Names because they’re speaking all over the place, or are they speaking all over the place because they’re Big Names?
Or is it the people who have a “brand”? I’ve written before about fame and hedgehog librarians, the librarians who know One Big Thing (or rather, are publicly known for knowing One Big Thing). Sometimes these librarians seem to spring from nowhere to librarian fame quickly and almost without effort. They do just the right thing at the right time, and suddenly everyone wants to hear from them. And sometimes these librarians are just persistent, even if ultimately no one cares about their One Big Thing. Persistence counts for a lot. If you have a coherent message and write enough and apply to speak at conferences enough, eventually you’ll be heard, or at least seen. You’ll at least be “famous” as that librarian who always speaks and writes about that One Big Thing. That post was written almost five years ago, and back then I opined that I’d never be librarian famous because I couldn’t stick to One Big Thing. Even though since then I’ve managed to write a book about libraries, and have even identified a couple of areas I could make into One Big Things if I chose, I think that analysis probably still holds up. I don’t have the concentration for the One Big Thing, but I do think that’s what helps make Big Name Librarians.
Jessica asks in her conclusion, “What do you all think of this phenomenon? Do you avoid Big Name Librarians at all cost? Seek them out because you love to hate them? Have a true fondness for one or more of them?”
I think it’s less of an issue than some librarians might, and I tend to see the so-called Big Name Librarians as people passing through the limelight on the way back to relative obscurity. Sure, some will stay well known throughout their careers, but even in my brief time in the profession (if 13 years can be considered brief), I’ve already seen some stars shoot and then fade away. Plus, in the end they’re still librarians going back to their libraries and doing the same sort of jobs we all do. I definitely don’t think about Big Names enough to avoid or hate them. It wouldn’t occur to me to like or dislike someone for being popular at the moment, although I might avoid them because advocates of One Big Thing tend to grow stale after a while.
I need to reorganize my home library soon. Now I’m thinking librarian groupies would be perfect to help with that. Maybe I should reconsider the librarian fame game.
The Ithaka US Faculty Survey 2012 is out, possibly making some librarians who read it fret that the library isn’t the center of the faculty universe and librarians are hovering on the margins of that universe. Given that “the role of the library” occupies eight pages of a 79-page document, that’s hardly surprising. This year they asked a new question apparently designed to make librarians feel bad about themselves. Here’s the summary of the question and response:
Finally, we asked scholars to rate how important it was to them that “the library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.” In the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010 of deans and directors, when this role was first introduced into this module, it was rated as very important by virtually all of the library leaders who responded. Among faculty, however, only slightly over half rated this role as very important…. In general, a substantially smaller share of faculty members rated each role as very important than did library deans and directors; the only role on which there was agreement was the library’s buyer role.
“Virtually all of the library leaders” thought this was important but “slightly over half” of professors. I’d be curious whether the response would change if “critical analysis” and “information literacy” were dropped, the former because librarians play relatively little role in this compared to coursework and the latter because nobody besides librarians knows what the heck information literacy is. Would “librarians help students do library research” have gotten a better response?
Not that there was a lot of response, as Barbara Fister points out in A Surfeit of Surveys and Three Short Questions. A 3.5% response rate. Is that good? I’m no social science expert, so I turned to Wikipedia, which tells me that while a higher response rate used to be considered a sign of higher accuracy, “such studies have finally been conducted in recent years, and they are challenging the presumption that a lower response rate means lower survey accuracy.” Here’s the supporting evidence:
One early example of a finding was reported by Visser, Krosnick, Marquette and Curtin (1996) who showed that surveys with lower response rates (near 20%) yielded more accurate measurements than did surveys with higher response rates (near 60 or 70%). In another study, Keeter et al. (2006) compared results of a 5-day survey employing the Pew Research Center’s usual methodology (with a 25% response rate) with results from a more rigorous survey conducted over a much longer field period and achieving a higher response rate of 50%. In 77 out of 84 comparisons, the two surveys yielded results that were statistically indistinguishable. Among the items that manifested significant differences across the two surveys, the differences in proportions of people giving a particular answer ranged from 4 percentage points to 8 percentage points.
So if response rates near 20% were more accurate than response rates near 60-70%, does that mean a response rate near 3% is even more accurate? I guess by the time you get down to just calling that one professor you met that time and asking questions the accuracy should be just about perfect. It’s just possible that this report has no scientific or even social scientific validity. The other issue with reports like this is that they never tell you anything specific or applicable to your own campus. Thus, it could be that the survey isn’t valid and it has nothing to say about your campus.
Fister suggests that since so many faculty believe that librarians have no role in student learning librarians “should stop writing so many articles about information literacy for other librarians and think about reaching the faculty. Just a thought.” Someone commenting on her post agrees:
You offer a suggestion that I’d like to pick up on – that librarians should be writing about information literacy to professors, not to fellow librarians. Agreed, but the fact is that there is no market for it. Higher education journals rarely include anything on information literacy. I tried to sell a book manuscript on information literacy to a higher education publisher whose products are low-cost and accessible. The publisher’s senior higher education editor described my manuscript as “impressive and significant” and then turned it down. Why? Because “there’s no market for information literacy books among educators.” I later published the book with a library-oriented publisher, hoping (and having some success at it) that professors will read it.
What we could take away from this is that no educators care about the things librarians do, hence the lack of a market. Or, and here’s the more optimistic interpretation, there’s no market for books about information literacy among educators because it’s librarian jargon nobody else uses. To take a phrase only librarians use and then complain that nonlibrarians aren’t interested in it is frustrating and counterproductive. What about books on things other academics think they know about? Library research skills, perhaps. There seems to be a market somewhere for books like that. OUP published Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models and Princeton University Press published my colleague Mary George’s The Elements of Library Research. Neither are exactly bestsellers, but they’re both still in print and they belie the claim that there’s no market among educators for works about what librarians do. Some instructors assign Mary’s book to students, so some educators must know about it. Maybe the problem isn’t the content, but the phrasing. Unless librarians learn to talk like other academics, they will be much less likely to be listened to.
Nevertheless, librarians might find other reasons to fret. The situation reminds me of Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism, because why not. In section 12 of The Will to Power (or 11  if you have a copy of the Writings from the Late Notebooks handy], Nietzsche describes what he believes are causes of nihilism. First, “nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a ‘meaning’ in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged.” Nietzsche was talking about meaning in the large sense, the meaning of life, the universe, etc. If we believe that the meaning of life is to dedicate ourselves to doing good works to please the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and we find that Pastafarianism is in fact false, we might become discouraged. The second form of nihilism comes when we believe the world has value because of some unifying source out there, like if we thought the world was worthwhile because we could become one with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Then we find out there’s no such thing, and believe life and the world are valueless. First we might come to believe the world has no overarching goal for human beings, and then that there is “no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.” If we believe that life has meaning only because of something we no longer believe exists, or that life is only bearable if there is a supreme being for us to immerse ourselves in but then we cease to believe in that supreme being, then we might be frustrated.
Okay, so what does this have to do with librarians, information literacy, or the Ithaka Survey? Let’s think about the frustrations of librarians with libraries, the academy, or even the world as they find them. Frustration often occurs because of a difference between our expectations about the world and the world as we find it. We base our value and meaning on something we expect or hope to find in the world; we don’t find that thing; so we begin to doubt ourselves.
Librarians are sometimes frustrated that faculty don’t use librarians as much as librarians would like to be used; that faculty don’t see a value in information literacy; and that faculty think of the library as a place that buys stuff and makes it available, not as a place where librarians are supposedly just as engaged in the teaching and learning enterprise as they are. (Obviously by faculty I mean those members of the faculty who are not librarians. That’s a different thorny issue I’ve been staying away from.) Often enough the response is sheer surprise. “But I do so much!” Yes, you do a lot. Sometimes the reaction is a pledge to do more outreach to make the faculty aware of what librarians can do. All well and good.
But what if we acknowledge that the faculty, such that are left, know what they’re doing and know what they need from the library. Let’s look at it from their perspective. They have PhDs, have completed dissertations, published articles and books, are either on the tenure track working like crazy for tenure or else contingent faculty teaching like crazy for food and rent. They’ve been using libraries successfully for a long time. Who are we to tell them they don’t know better? They don’t want services, they want stuff. That’s just the way it is. They don’t need you like you want them to think they do.
And their perceptions of what librarians can do for students? So half of the survey respondents think that librarians have no role to play? Well, that’s just the way it is, too. Professors aren’t there when the befuddled student wanders up to the reference desk to ask a question. They’re not with librarians engaging in research consultations trying to reconcile a class assignment with a doable research strategy. They’re not there when a consultation turns into an advising session on the topic of the essay that really the instructor should be doing.
Or there’s the frustration that professors won’t let librarians into their classrooms. This is pretty common. Even one of my former library school students who was himself a professor admitted he didn’t let librarians in the classroom. Why is that, we might wonder? Well, based on my experience and a brief analysis of courses in the humanities where I work, the reason might be that most courses don’t really have a library research component. A lot of undergraduate classes don’t require research essays as such. They require essays, but the point of the essay is to show that students have mastered a certain amount of material and can write critically about it analyzing and synthesizing as appropriate. That’s why if they need sources, they tend to ask their professor or use course readings. A recent Educause study on undergraduates and information technology claimed that, “it is interesting to note that when students were asked ‘When it comes to your success as an undergraduate, what is the one website or online resource you couldn’t live without?’ the most frequently cited sources were Google (33%) and Blackboard (16%); both of these significantly outranked students’ citing the college or university library website (5%).” It’s only interesting to note if you’re not a student and everything you need to know to complete all your courses isn’t on Blackboard. Librarians want every course to require library research, but library research as such is a small portion of what students are expected to learn in four years.
There are areas where libraries and librarians can demonstrate their value, but being highly thought of as information literacy providers or educators by most of the faculty isn’t one of those areas. If we assume that libraries aren’t the center of the faculty universe and that librarians are never going to be generally seen as equal partners in the educational enterprise, then the sort of results we find in the Ithaka and similar reports provides us no basis for concern. If those sorts of results upset you at all, the problem could very well be with your expectations about the world, not the world itself. So even if the survey was statistically valid, which it probably isn’t, or said something specifically applicable about your campus, which it probably doesn’t, there’s really no reason to worry.
The curious case of Edwin Mellen just gets curiouser and curiouser. Scholarly Kitchen has removed two posts by Rick Anderson regarding the EMP/Askey lawsuits, although, as Infodocket points out, the original posts are still available on the Wayback Machine. They removed the posts because EMP threatened to “pursue legal action not only against him, but against your organization as well.” They posted the letters from the attorney in their place. Interesting reading.
I wonder what damages a publisher the most: someone writing a critical blog post, or a series of lawsuits and threatened lawsuits that target a number of academic librarians, which then go public and anger the very librarians who buy (or now maybe won’t buy) so many of the publisher’s books? I guess we’ll find out.
[Update: on a somewhat related note, EMP has apparently registered domain names in Askey's name. See the evidence at Roy Tennant: Digital Libraries. Curiouser and curiouser.]
After the announcement by my lover and tormenter Google about the impending demise of Google Reader, I decided it was time to broaden my distribution channels for the blog since RSS might be in flux for a while. Thus, I have finally started a Twitter account for distributing links to posts here as well as my occasional columns at the Library Journal and possibly other stuff as time goes by. The Twitter page is here: https://twitter.com/acadlibrarian. I’ve tweeted the last few blog posts and columns to get started, and will continue to do so in future. So if you want to follow me there instead of just visiting or relying on RSS, please do so.
Some seem to think Google’s announcement means the end of RSS, although given the panic by so many people after Google’s announcement, I don’t think it’s dying. I just think that Google isn’t making money off it, which isn’t the same thing. Along with everyone else, I’ve been trying to find a replacement. After trying several options, I’ve settled on Newsblur for now. I got the premium account for the librarian-friendly rate of $12/year. The first couple of weeks it was slow dealing with all the new traffic, but it’s sped up after some back end work and is quite responsive now. Google’s announcement was the gentle push I needed to keep steadily diversifying my online life so that I’m not so reliant on one Internet giant. I’m now reliant only Google for only Gmail and Bookmarks, although I fear Bookmarks might go the way of Reader and all the other abandoned Google Projects.
I have a very tightly controlled information gathering system set up with RSS that is high on signal and low on noise because my goal is to get the best relevant information while spending the least possible time. Based on my experience with Facebook, I’m wary of Twitter as an information gathering tool on par with RSS, but if you have any suggestions of library/information professional people to follow who post good professional stuff with a minimum of personal stuff, please let me know and I’ll give them a try.
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.
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.
If I can’t beat the gurus, sherpas, and assorted sages, I’m going to join them. Today I’m going to tell you, fellow librarians, the most basic, core skill that all of you need, more important than coding, cataloging, database searching, or anything else. It’s a subject barely taught in library schools, and yet mastery of it will do more for your career than just about anything actually taught there. What is librarianship really about? It’s about communication. And where there’s communication, you need rhetoric.
Rhetoric has a bad reputation among people who don’t know better and people who should know better. It’s probably because of that hypocrite Plato, who maligned rhetoric as supposedly less ethical or true than philosophy while using numerous rhetorical techniques to communicate his ideas. Consider the Allegory of the Cave: brilliant, effective, and a total rhetorical manipulation of the audience. It’s why Plato is so much more pleasurable to read than Aristotle, even though Aristotle was a lot more savvy about rhetoric.
What is rhetoric? Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Thinking of it as a form of argument, we might add Chaim Perelman’s definition of argumentation from The Realm of Rhetoric: “The aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent. Such adherence never comes out of thin air; it presupposes a meeting of minds between speaker and audience.” But rhetoric is much broader than just argumentation and persuasion. The rhetorician Andrea Lunsford defines it as “the art, practice, and study of human communication.” (See some more definitions here.) As the art and practice of human communication, what could be a more basic element of librarianship than its study.
Think about all the communication that goes on in libraries every day: phone calls, meetings, emails, IMs, negotiations, reference questions, performance reviews, grant proposals, instruction sessions, research guides, cover letters, job interviews; every one of these interactions is about communication with an audience for a purpose and could benefit from improved rhetorical skill and knowledge of rhetorical theory and techniques.
One of the simplest rhetorical skills is often the most forgotten: consider your audience. Good communication is all about connecting with a particular audience, but plenty of librarians when writing or speaking think it’s about conveying information. If they write it or say it, that’s enough. I’ve seen this numerous times in library instruction sessions over the years, where librarians think their duty is to present information, when really their job is to connect their audience to the information presented. There’s a difference. How many librarians have you seen go into a room of 18-year-olds and deliver a canned talk in a monotone? Or bury a LibGuide in an avalanche of dense prose? Or write and publish a dreary article no one would every want to read? Or give tedious and irrelevant answers to questions during a job interview? Painful stuff from people who haven’t considered their audience.
Consider other rhetorical concepts, kairos for example. Kairos is, roughly, knowing when to speak. It’s knowing the proper time to intervene in a conversation or a crisis. People who just blurt out what they’re thinking whenever they think it aren’t as effective in persuading others as people who join the conversation at the proper time with a proper consideration of their audience and their purpose for speaking. How many librarians deliberately think about the proper time to speak and then do so? How many of you think about the distinction between the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals and when to use the appropriate ones when working with other people? Or think about the assumptions behind people’s writing or speaking, or the patterns of their arguments that are often more revealing of their motives and goals than what they seem to be saying? That might sound abstract, but thinking about that stuff and applying it can be very useful in understanding and operating in a workplace or organization.
I can say with some assurance that my study, teaching, and practice of rhetoric has helped me more in my career than anything else I’ve ever learned. My ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing has been essential and beneficial to my work. Whether it’s participating in meetings, working with students, or stymieing machinations, rhetorical techniques have always come into play. There is no escaping rhetoric. There’s only good and bad rhetoric. And yet probably 99 out of 100 librarians haven’t read Aristotle or Perelman or Lunsford or Corbett any other rhetorical theorist, much less deliberately practiced rhetorical techniques. Even some of you right now are probably thinking, oh, that might be important, but surely not all librarians need to study rhetoric. Yes, you do. Every one of you.
Think about some policy or service you want to implement. It doesn’t matter how good it is, someone in charge has to be persuaded to implement it. That’s your audience. Think about what it’s like to be that person. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and ask what would persuade you then. Everyone wants something, but they all want something different. Change too little or too slow angers one group in the library; change too much or too fast angers another. Who’s resistant to the change you want to make, but whose consent you need? Are they not persuaded by your passion for change? Is the problem their conservatism or your rhetorical failure? I know what you’re going to say, but can you be sure?
Before you learn whatever new thing you’re planning to learn, learn rhetoric first. Then practice it for a few years. You’ll thank me later.