Stories We Tell Ourselves

During my travels to and from ALA I read a fun new book, Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. This is the latest example I know of in the genre of books about pseudoscience, although it differs significantly from the ones I read over Christmas break and blogged about here. Storr’s book is more informal, with his personal views and demons inserted alongside the reporting about various groups, from parapsychologists to alleged Morgellons sufferers (that was a new one to me).  This turns out to be a good thing, as his troubled mind and basic decency come through to allow the subjects of investigation to be seen with as much respect as possible. People who claim to suffer from Morgellons, for example, may indeed actually suffer from delusional parasitosis, but they get a fair shake from Storr.

Also, while he is clearly on the side of science and the skeptics, he’s not afraid to expose  dogmatic skepticism when it rears its supposedly rational head. A number of skeptics loudly declaring homeopathy to be bunk (which Storr and I both agree it is) don’t like to be asked whether they’ve read actual scientific studies on homeopathy, and if so which ones.  The harshest treatment anyone gets in the book (and that isn’t very harsh) is when Storr catches James Randi up in a number of potential lies about his past. Apparently the hero of the skeptics isn’t always a paragon of honesty. None of us are, though, which is one of the points the book makes. A tour of concentration camps with the Holocaust denier David Irving is less disturbing than it might have been because of Storr’s focus on the illogical rather than the horrific. At one point Irving declares that a gas chamber couldn’t have been used for executions because there are handles on the inside doors, although he fails to notice that the locks to the room are all on the outside. Another luminescent moment is Irving’s declaration the he doesn’t want to be anti-Semitic, but “the Jews don’t make it easy for” him. We see what we believe.

The Irving chapter is an outlier of sorts in a book devoted to science and pseudoscience, but that’s because unlike some such studies, Storr is very much concerned with how the mind works and the tricks it plays on us. Even the skeptics can become quite dogmatic without being able to point to evidence for their beliefs. Storr tries to take the perspective of the agnostic, saying in effect, “I believe I’m right, but I could be wrong, and if possible I withhold judgment until I have real evidence.” It’s not very easy to do, if it’s possible at all, but Storr does a better job than I’ve seen in books like this. (His book Will Storr Versus the Supernatural, which I started reading after enjoying this, is much the same.)

The conclusions he reaches through readings and interviews regarding cognitive psychology I found the most interesting, and reminiscent of several articles I have read about such studies. Instead of explaining, I pulled out a few representative quotes summing up some of what he found out about cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, confabulation, the Hero-Maker, and the stories we tell ourselves that make us out to be better and more moral than we really are. I pulled selectively in the order they appear in the book:

Humans are subject to a menagerie of biases, a troubling proportion of which hiss seductive half-truths in the ear of our consciousness. They tell us that we are better looking, wiser, more capable, more moral and have a a more glittering future in store than is true. (110)

 

We typically have a bias that tells us we are less susceptible to bias than everyone else. Our default position tends to be that our opinions are the result of learning, experience and personal reflection. The things we believe are obviously true–and everyone would agree if only they could look at the issue with clear, objective, unimpeded sight. But they don’t because they’re biased. Their judgements are confused by ill-informed hunches and personal grudges. They might think they’re beautiful and clever and right but their view of reality is skewed….

Most of us think we are the exception. This most disturbing of truths has even widely demonstrated in study after study. When individuals are educated about these ego-defending biases and then have their biases re-examined, they usually fail to change their opinions of themselves. Even through they accept, rationally, that they are not immune, they still think as if they are. It is a cognitive trap that we just can’t seem to climb out of. (112)

 

Just as the knifefish assumes his realm of electricity is the only possible reality, just as the hominin believes his tricolor palette allows him to see all the colours, just as John Mackay is convinced that lesbian nuns are going to hell, we look out into the world mostly to reaffirm our prior beliefs about it. We imagine that the invisible forces that silently guide our beliefs and behavior, coaxing us like flocks of deviant angels, do not exist. We are comforted by the feeling that we have ultimate control over our thoughts, our actions, our lives….

There are seven billion individual worlds living on the surface of this one. We are–all of us–lost inside our own personal realities, our own brain-generated models of how things really are. And if, after reading all of that, you still believe you are the exception, that you really are wise and objective and above the powers of bias, then you might as well not fight it. You are, after all, only human. (113)

 

But all this is not enough. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the brain’s desire to have the outer, real world match its inner models of it–it takes us part of the way there. It tells us that a properly functioning brain cannot be trusted to think rationally and, because our minds play these tricks without telling us, that owners of brains cannot be trusted to judge their own rationality. (224)

 

We are natural-born storytellers, who have a propensity to believe our own tales…. A series of remarkable scientific discoveries, going back to the nineteenth century, have bolstered this view. They have assigned it a word, which describes what we do when we unknowingly invent explanations for behaviors and beliefs whose causes we are actually ignorant of: confabulation. (234)

 

The stories that we tell ourselves are another essential component to all this. The model of the world that we build for ourselves to live within is made of observations of cause and effect that are soaked in emotion. These micro-stories, whose purpose is to explain and predict the world, can grow into staggering tales of magnificent drama and complexity. In _The Political Brain_, Professor Westen writes ‘research suggests that our minds naturally search for stories with a particular kind of structure, readily recognizable to elementary school children and similar across cultures.’ In this structure, a crisis strikes a settled world, heroic efforts are begun to solve it, terrible obstacles are surmounted and dreadful enemies are battled, until a new and blissful state is achieved. According to Professor Westen, the political left and the right each has a ‘master narrative’ that relects this structure–a grand, over-arching plot that comes loaded with a set of core assumptions, that defines the identity of heroes and villains and promises a paradisiacal denouement. (254)

 

The Hero-Maker tells us why intelligence is no forcefield and facts are no bullets…. Facts do not exist in isolation. They are like single pixels in a person’s generated reality. Each fact is connected to other facts and those facts to networks of other facts still. When they are all knitted together, they take the form of an emotional and dramatic plot at the center of which lives the individual. When a climate scientist argues with a denier, it is not a matter of data versus data, it is here narrative versus hero narrative. David versus David, tjukurpa* versus tjukurpa. It is a clash of worlds.

The Hero-Maker exposes this strange urge that so many humans have, to force their views aggressively on others. We must make them see things as we do. They must agree, we will make them agree. We are neural imperialists, seeking to colonise the worlds of others, installing our own private culture of beliefs into their minds. (384)

 

*Tjukurpa: Every Aboriginal newborn is assigned a ‘tjurkurpa’–a story from the time of the world’s creation which, in its details, will tell them everything they need to know about where to find food, medicine and water for hundreds of miles around. It will teach them about magic and spirits and detail an elaborate moral code. (372)

We all tell stories about ourselves where we’re the heroes, other people are the villains, and our heroic acts save the day somehow. Well, we don’t all tell such stories. Apparently, really depressed people tend to have a more realistic understanding of their own lives than the majority of us who can believe our own hero narratives. There are a couple of ways to look at this. Modern psychology seems to be in the business of tricking our brains back into believing we’re living meaningful lives and not thinking about what relatively insignificant specks of matter we are in the universal scheme of things. The other way out is to try to back away from conventional views and interpretations of the world and just accept it as it is, understanding as Nietzsche put it that “it’s only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world and existence are continually justified.”

What we shouldn’t do is believe that modern psychology is coming across something so startlingly new about our self-narrative skills that the knowledge is completely unprecedented. It seems to me like we’re finally starting to understand the details of things that even some ancients understood in very broad terms. At least two ancient philosophical traditions–the Daoist and the Stoical– seem to have been aware of just how tricky and biased the mind can be when interpreting reality, only instead of being suspicious of reality as the Platonic tradition was and positing some more real reality beneath the appearances, they recommended not allowing conventional knowledge and prejudice to judge that reality.

For example, here’s a passage from the Stoic Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (the OUP Farquharson translation), Book 8, section 49:

8.49. Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report. You have been told that some one speaks evil of you. This is what you have been told; you have not been told that you are injured. I see that the little child is ill; this is what I see, but that he is in danger I do not see. In this way then abide always by the first impressions and add nothing of your own from within, and that’s an end of it….

Marcus’s point seems to me to be a similar understanding of the ways we bring our prejudices and biases automatically to help us interpret the world. Say something bad about me? I’ll hate you for harming me! The relevant Greek here is: μένε ἀεὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πρώτων φαντασιῶν, literally “always stay with first impressions,” or perhaps “appearances.” (I double checked that one with our Classics librarian. Thanks, Dave!) If the scientists Storr consulted are right, that might not be possible to do, since even our awareness of our biased brain isn’t enough to make us think we’re not biased. It also seems true that intelligence as such is no corrective. Even philosophical training, which helped shake loose a good number of my childhood prejudices, doesn’t keep up from telling biased and heroic stories about ourselves. (For some evidence, follow the self defensive moves in the Colin McGinn scandal within philosophy. You might conclude, as I did, that sometimes a handjob is really a handjob.)

The same general idea shows up in the Handbook of Epictetus (translation from the Everyman edition)

45. Does someone take his bath quickly? Do not say that he does it badly, but that he does it quickly. Does any one drink a great quantity of wine? Do not say that he drinks badly, but that is drinks a great quantity. For, unless you understand the judgment from which he acts, how should you know that he is acting badly? And thus it will not come to pass that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to different ones.

The Daoist tradition makes what to me looks like a similar demand to the Stoics. Here’s a passage from stanza 3 of the Dao De Jing (the Ames and Hall translation.)

They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones,

Ever teaching the common people to be unprincipled in their knowing (wuzhi)

And objectless in their desires (wuyu),

They keep the hawkers of knowledge at bay.

It is simply in doing things noncoercively (wuwei)

The key term here is wuzhi, which Ames and Hall translate as “unprincipled knowing,” although based on their explanation I prefer the phrase “unprejudiced understanding,” as in trying to understand something without the biases and judgements we bring to everything. In the introduction, they analyze the “wu forms”:

Wuzhi , often translated as “no-knowledge,” actually means the absence of a certain kind of knowledge–the kind of knowledge that is dependent upon ontological presence: that is, the assumption that there is some unchanging reality behind appearance. Knowledge grounded in a denial of ontological presence involves “acosmotic” thinking: the type of thinking that does not presuppose a single-ordered (“One behind the many”) world, and its intellectual accoutrements. It is, therefore, unprincipled knowing. Such knowing does not appeal to rules or principles determining the existence, the meaning, or the activity of a phenomenon. Wuzhi provides one with a sense of the de of a thing–its particular uniqueness and focus–rather than yielding an understanding of that thing in relation to some concept or natural kind or universal. Ultimately, wuzhi is a grasp of the daode relationship of each encountered item that permits an understanding of this particular focus (de) and the field that it construes. (40-41)

At least as I’m understanding it, practicing wuzhi would be akin to relying upon Marcus’s proton phantasion, or first impressions. This might be ultimately impossible, and after his investigations Storr seems to think so. Even if we’re aware that we have biases, prejudices, or “principles,” we can’t necessarily be aware of what they are, and it could be we’re no better off than we were before.

This is the point at which I’m torn. Perhaps we are the center of the stories we tell about ourselves and we tend to dismiss those unlike us and secure ourselves in a cocoon of self-congratulatory good feeling, but couldn’t an awareness of that as constant as possible be helpful in our dealings with others as well as our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world? We might not be able to escape the mind’s trap, but if we know we’re in a trap we’re maybe a little better off, or at least a little less arrogant and cocksure. An awareness of the problem all round can only help communication.

I was going to apply some of this to various library disagreements I’ve encountered recently, but I’ve gone on long enough and will save that for another post or column. It does have application to problems in the profession and the workplace, but right now I’m still pondering. It’s a lot to think about.

Predictions of the Library’s Future

I’m working on another library history project and having fun reading through some old library literature. Here’s a good example of librarians trying to predict the future, from a 1933 Jesse Shera article in the Library Quarterly, “Recent Social Trends and Future Library Policy.”

With the older people constituting an increasingly larger percentage of our population, the demand for leisure-time activities and the services of the librarian should increase, while the children’s librarians, relieved of the burden of ever increasing numbers to serve, can shift their attentions from quantity to quality. Further, the curtailing of immigration will not only be reflected in our rapidly falling birth-rate, but our population will more and more become racially homogeneous,* so that library work with the foreign born will become decreasingly important.

*T. J. Woofter, “The Status of racial and ethnic groups,” Social trends, I, 553-60I.

He sure got that one wrong.

On Librarians Writing

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

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.

Reading Everything

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.

Reading Critically

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.

Revising

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.

Walt Crawford’s Big Deal and the Damage Done

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.

Libraries and the Enlightenment Now Available in Japanese

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.”

On Big Name Librarians

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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ithaka Survey

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%).[2] 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.[3]

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 [99] 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.

Edwin Mellen Press Threatens to Sue Again

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.]