Review: Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science

If you’re not familiar with the thought of Jesse Shera, you should be, and an easy place to begin that familiarity is Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science by H. Curtis Wright. This was originally published as Occasional Research Paper no. 5 by the School of Library and Information Science, Brigham Young University in 1988, and is now reprinted with a new introduction and index by the Library Juice Press.* Since the library school at BYU has been closed for 20 years, I’m assuming this has been out of print for a long time. Welcome back.

Some might call it a biography, and a review of the first edition in 1988 criticized it as a “run in attempt” at a biography. However, biography is the wrong word to describe the book. Yes, we find out a little bit about Shera’s childhood history and early manhood and a little bit more about his early career in libraries. However, the bulk of the study isn’t about Shera’s life, but his thought, specifically his intellectual journey from believing information science provided the theoretical foundation of librarianship to his belief that “symbolic interactionism” instead provides that foundation. This is combined with an extensive, possibly exhaustive, bibliography of Shera’s 57 years of publications. Of the 120-or-so page book, roughly half is the lengthy essay on Shera’s thought and half the bibliography. The combination makes this an indispensable volume to begin a serious study of Shera.

Early exposure to librarianship in the 1920s convinced Shera that librarianship as it had traditionally been practiced was a cramped and overly practical affair, and he spent the rest of his career trying to reform the profession, at first from the inside, later as a professor of library science at Chicago, and finally as the Dean of the library school at Case Western Reserve. During the 1940s and 1950s, Shera came to believe that the theoretical salvation lay with information science and technology. He was a cofounder of the reorganized American Documentation Institute, and cheered on the impressive gains of information science during the period. Eventually he changed his mind, saying much later that “twenty years ago, I thought of what is now called information science as providing the intellectual and theoretical foundations of librarianship, but I am now convinced that I was wrong” (41).

He changed his mind because he came to believe that librarianship is a humanistic affair involved with human communication, knowledge, and ideas. Information science is no such thing. While information science can provide useful tools and improve processes, it can never be the theoretical foundation of a field primarily involved with humans communicating ideas. “Information science . . . deals with only a part of what the librarian does” (45). Regardless of the prevalence of information science and technology useful to librarians, Shera believed that “the social purpose of the library remains unchanged–to bring the human mind and the graphic record together in a fruitful relation” (44). Thus, while librarianship might make use of science, it isn’t itself a science, and it has little to do with the information in information science.

At this point in the argument it might be useful to define terms for those unfamiliar with the debate. Most librarians believe we’re in the information business. We even have desks that say “information” on them, so that everyone knows what we do. And, in a sense, we are in the information business. However, the “information” in information science isn’t the same thing as the “information” that librarians trade in. (For a lengthy discussion of what “information” means to information scientists, I recommend James Gleick’s The Information. For a totally unrelated adventure story about a woman who trades in information in the sense librarians deal with, you might try Taylor Stevens’ The Informationist.) Here’s a key paragraph from Wright:

It was librarians, Shera reminds us, who “eagerly seized information science as potential supports to their . . . professionalism.” But information science, he says, has “misinterpreted [Claude] Shannon and [Warren] Weaver’s specialized use of the noun information and assumed that it related to the communication of knowledge rather than the transmission of signals.” This has created a genuine problem for libraianship, because Shannon was interested solely in creating a theory of pyhysical signals for describing “the message-carrying capacity of a symbol, a telephone wire, or any other medium or channel of communication.” (47)

Information science is concerned, according to Shera, purely with the transmission of signals, while librarianship is founded in human interactions and is concerned with ideas and knowledge as well as information. While the efficient transmission of signals or the storage of information in the IS sense is a necessary part of librarianship, it’s not as sufficient part.

Shera’s finally believed that “symbolic interactionism” should provide the theoretical foundation of librarianship. Symbolic interactionism is a theory borrowed from George Herbert Mead. Supposedly, unlike information science or systems theory, symbolic interactionism “investigates the psychophysical interaction of the empirical order and the ideative order in human beings by studying the relationship between the physical symbol and its symbolic referent” (55). While I accept the humanistic nature of librarianship, I wasn’t convinced that symbolic interactionism as such provides a theoretical foundation of the profession, and there wasn’t sufficient argument in the book to persuade me. It is perhaps the one flaw in the book that Wright, a friend and former student, provides little critical distance from Shera, because precisely at this point I would have preferred a little critical analysis in addition to the clear explanation of Shera’s thought.

However, that wasn’t the purpose of the book. There was enough to explain what Shera believed and to some extent why, and ample resources in the bibliography to follow Shera further if I cared to argue with him. So, overall, a satisfying volume, a quick read, and a passionate introduction to Shera’s thinking. Anyone concerned with what librarianship is or should be would profit from reading the book.

*[Disclosure: Library Juice Press published my book Libraries and the Enlightenment.]

Opting In

Back from a long vacation, caught up with work that piled up while I was gone, and ready to catch up on my library lit reading. So I started reading, backwards from this to this to this to this. I can say one thing for Rick Anderson, he knows how to get a debate going.

The debate concerns an Ithaka “issue brief” by Anderson called Can’t Buy Us Love. The basic thesis, as I understand it, is that research libraries should devote more resources to digitizing their special collections and making them discoverable. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that claim, which is probably why there’s not much discussion of it. This increased emphasis on special collections will require a shift of resources away from something, and for Anderson that something is “commodity documents,” by which he means documents easily available cheaply elsewhere, especially “trade books that are produced in large print runs.” The recurring example is a 1975 printing of East of Eden. If I’m reading it right, he’s saying that research libraries should maybe buy fewer popular books published in America, devote fewer resources to housing them indefinitely, and devote more of that money to special collections processing and digitization. That seems to me a plausible interpretation of the basic argument, which isn’t especially provocative even if one disagrees with it.

The controversy seems to be about two issues: the question of what constitutes commodity documents and their relationship to the mission of research libraries, and the claim that focusing on special collections and moving away from “commodity documents” somehow opts out of the so-called scholarly communications wars, because digitizing our own special collections “is neither undermining the existing scholarly communication system (except to the extent that it pulls collections money away from commercial purchases) nor supporting it.”

Anderson claims that, “With the advent of such internet-based outlets as Amazon Marketplace and, however, every home with an internet connection has direct access to the holdings of thousands and thousands of bookstores around the world, and the likelihood of finding a remaindered or used copy—often at a price of literally pennies, plus a few dollars in shipping—is very high.” It seems to me that the scope of “commodity documents” is pretty small compared to the breadth of research library collections. Anderson already eliminates the budget busting scholarly journals. University press publications aren’t nearly as cheap and readily available as old bestselling novels. Foreign publications aren’t so accessible after a while. Trade books in large print runs aren’t a huge percentage of a lot of research libraries’ expenditures, but possibly buying fewer of them, or perhaps keeping fewer of them as they get older and less used, would provide some savings that could be devoted to special collections. So what if it might be true, as Anderson claims, that “the library’s role as a broker, curator, and organizer of commodity documents is fading,” if commodity documents as such are a relatively small part of research library collections, which I believe to be the case. On this one, I could agree with his basic claim without thinking it particularly radical or controversial.

The other controversy about “opting out” of the scholarly communications wars could be puzzling, because as it’s framed the proposal has nothing to do with the scholarly communication wars. Whatever wars there are concern commercial scholarly journals, almost all STEM titles, and these are deliberately left out of the scope of discussion. That claim is simply irrelevant to the main argument about special collections versus commodity documents.  Reread Anderson’s article without the “Opting out of the scholarly communications wars” section, and see if that harms the piece at all. The key, though, is that the argument is framed to avoid problems in scholarly communications, except that can’t really be done.

Instead of being an unnecessary diversion, the section about scholarly communications wars is more a sleight of hand. It’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while ignoring the elephant in the room, if I can mix my cliches. The basic claim is that libraries should digitize and make available more of their unique content, which, of course, lots of libraries are already doing. The resources to do more of that have to come from somewhere. Libraries could buy even fewer popular books than they already do. Or, maybe, they could opt into the scholarly communication wars, do their best to promote green OA, and reduce the stranglehold of commercial STEM publishers, because that’s where most of the money goes. When it comes to discussing where resources go within libraries, nothing escapes the scholarly communications wars. You can simply refuse to talk about it. You can claim that librarians doing so are putting politics above patrons. You can pretend that budgets for books and other resources just gut themselves. But you can’t have an honest discussion about where scarce resources in libraries should go without talking about problems in scholarly communication, whichever side of the issue you’re on.

Like It Was Written Yesterday

Another part of historical change rhetoric I’m looking at is the persistence of themes. Read these quotes and see if you could tell when they were written purely based on the language:

Applying technology is not a “one time” event, it is a continuing activity, since technology, whatever form it takes, is constantly changing. This reality is a key aspect of librarianship today and helps explain why our profession is clearly in transition….

Even without our deliberate choice, changes are being imposed on our working environment by technology as well as by other pressures external to and within our profession. In the past decade librarians have discovered that we must either initiate change or adapt to it. We simply can’t ignore new developments and hope they will leave us untouched. An ostrich-like attitude is downright dangerous….

Perhaps, as is already true in some specialized library service assignments, advanced degree studies in addition to MLS/information science type training will be frequently expected. Position ads in current library journals already show quite a variety of preferred background qualities….

Those are from an article in the Library Journal from 1985, “Managing Change: Technology and the Profession” by Karen L. Horny. The “past decade” in which librarians discovered they had to change was a big decade for library automation, although Horny also does a pretty good job of predicting how the rise of personal computers, the digitization of content, and the ability to do things “online” will change libraries and information. (“Perhaps electronic readers will become so compact and legible that it will be possible to curl up with a good online novel!”)

Statements almost identical to this appear in the current library literature all the time. The age of such themes–combined the significant changes that have occurred in libraries over the last 30 years–seems to me an indication that angry or frustrated attacks on current librarians as hopelessly resistant to change don’t have much evidence to support them. The elder librarians around today were the very ones implementing all the significant technological changes that resulted not from the Internet or the rise of social media, but from the initial automation of catalogs and indexes starting in the 1960s. It seems to me that wave of technological change was much more shocking for librarians of the time than our current situation, which is more or less a steady development building upon the drastic and rapid change that really happened 30 or so years ago. As people get older, perhaps they get more resistant to change, or perhaps not, but the retiring generation of librarians certainly lived through and implemented significant and rapid change.

Here’s another quote I left out because of the date:

It has been especially rewarding to see that some of a library’s longer-term employees have the greatest sense of the new technology’s benefits, since they can recall, often quite vividly, the limitations of former manual operations. It is also true that for most people who have entered the library field since the early 1970s, change is the accepted norm.

I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the exact same sentiment among librarians writing today, except the time frame is since the beginning of the 21st century or some such. Librarians without a historical knowledge of how technology has affected librarianship for the past 45 years or so are always in danger of making foolish claims about the current state of the profession.

30 Years of Change and Hype

For a possible research project, I’m reading around in the historical library literature about change in libraries. Here’s a great quote from John Berry in a Library Journal editorial from 10/15/83 about the first LITA conference:

The usual band of cheerleaders delivered typical, often condescending, pleas for everyone to get on this or that automation bandwagon, and the usual “experts” delivered typical indictments of working librarians who offered any resistance to the cosmic imperatives of the new age.

I’m trying to get an idea of just how long hyperbolic change rhetoric in librarianship has generated a specific kind of criticism, not of the change, but of the rhetoric. Now I know it’s been at least 30 years.

Mac: For the Middle Aged Librarian

Generally I take devout advocates of just about anything with a grain of salt, and in the tech world there are no more devout advocates for anything more than for Apple products. It’s not that I think Apple doesn’t make great products; it’s more that I don’t think their computers are three times better than some competitors, which they should be to justify being three times the price. Also, I object philosophically to worshiping commercial products, companies, or CEOs. It just seems wrong.

Over the years I’ve owned numerous Apple products as well, so I’m not an anti-Apple purist, although I have on occasion poked fun at Apple purists. I got my first computer 28 years ago for my 16th birthday. It was an Apple IIc, and it didn’t do a whole lot. Fortunately the only thing I needed it to do was process words, and I wrote like a demon on that thing for eight years, when I replaced it with a Mac Color Classic, which was a great computer. If the Internet hadn’t come along and ruined things for it, I’d probably still have that computer. That lasted four years and I only upgraded because I needed something Internet-capable. Ever since then I’ve had a series of Windows desktops and laptops, most of which I’ve been happy with. Being cool or having a computer with a slick chassis just didn’t seem worth the price. I’ve used enough devices over the years that I’m pretty OS-neutral at this point, so that’s not a factor either. I also had an iPhone, but I never liked it as much as I like my current Samsung GS4. And although I have a 7″ tablet computer, I use it almost exclusively to watch Netflix while on my treadmill, so I’ve had no desire for the much more expensive iPad.

Thus, I’ve been coasting along for years without any reason to love or praise Apple, but then something happened. I got old. Specifically, my eyes got old. After a five-year hiatus I had an eye exam a couple of months ago. I hadn’t even been having problems and only went because I was taking my daughter and thought what the heck. The heck was that my eyesight had deteriorated such that they prescribed me trifocal progressive lenses. When I put them on the first time and started looking around, I thought I was going to throw up. It’s made worse by the current vogue for glasses with short lenses. I wear a comfortable pair of plastic frames much of the time, and my optician could find only one pair with temples long enough for my large head, and they have a short span from top to bottom, meaning that each of the focal lengths has a really small vertical span.

Suddenly, I had trouble seeing lots of things, but especially my computers, which is a serious problem given how much time I spend every day interacting with one. The only screens I could see at all well were my 27″ iMac at work, my 1080p, 15.6″, 6-pound Asus laptop at home, and my phone, and with the computers my horizontal vision has narrowed enough that I can only really use part of the screen comfortably and just keep shifting windows into that portion. My lighter, smaller netbook that I like to carry around the house, travel with, etc.? Things were looking very dim, especially if I moved from a higher resolution device. The larger computers are both good machines and I’ve been happy with them, and I’ll be using both for serious work where I have a lot of windows open, but I needed something more portable for everything else, and something with a keyboard because of all the writing I do.

So, since I have another birthday this month and got a promotion I decided to splurge a bit and got a 13″ Macbook Pro with the Retina display. And I have to say, in all honesty, this is the best ultraportable laptop a middle-aged librarian with dodgy eyes and a weird eyeglass prescription could ask for. Apple is welcome to use that quote from me for advertising purposes. It’s an even higher resolution than my Asus laptop, plus a lot lighter and smaller. I wrapped it in one of these obsidian babies so that I don’t even have to pretend I’m trying to be a cool Mac owner (having avoided the covers where the ratings said things like “and the glowing apple still shows through!”). It also looks like the one the Winchesters have on their Macbook in Supernatural, and my daughter and I have been enjoying a Supernatural marathon on Netflix Instant (which is a show that could make for an interesting discussion of research methods, if you ask me). After so many years of gently mocking friends and family for their blind allegiance to Apple, I finally can wax enthusiastic about something from Apple that no one else I know of is offering. If your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and you spend a lot of time reading and writing with computers like this middle-aged librarian does, and you want something very light and portable, you can’t go wrong with the 13″ Macbook Pro Retina. Praise doesn’t get any less qualified than that, at least from me.

Putting Things in Perspective

For some reason a couple of older posts have been getting some recent traffic, one from a few months ago where I wrote about big name librarians and another much older one where I meditated upon my lack of fame. That last one is almost five years old, and while I’m probably better known among librarians than I was then, I don’t think I’m any more famous in any of the ways I wrote about. Still, after rereading those posts I felt like there was at least one more thing to say.

Some things have changed for me since I started this blog six years ago. My first post came on the day I officially received a promotion to “librarian with continuing appointment.” That’s our non-faculty-status equivalent of associate professor with tenure, and comes with more or less the same benefits. This month I officially received promotion to “senior librarian,” which is our equivalent to full professor. It was a nice honor, plus I got a higher percentage raise than usual. All to the good.

Also, since I started the blog, I’ve had a lot more opportunities to write and speak than before, and I’d have to credit this blog for leading to a lot of them. A blog post here inadvertently led to the book deal with Library Juice Press, and writing Libraries and the Enlightenment was the most professional fun I’ve had. It probably had something to do with being invited to join the great group of Peer to Peer Review columnists at the Library Journal. Possibly the name recognition has helped me win some elections within ALA that have been beneficial for my career. Good things have flowed from it. However, although I’ve done the writing, even the blog has benefitted from the person in OIT who supports WordPress and from all the other people I’ve interacted with online over the years.

I could focus on the me, me, me part of all this. I’ve had some success and I’ve also done a lot of work for it. In a sense, whatever success I have managed to have I’ve deserved, one could say. And I’m not saying I don’t deserve it. Those who know me well know that modesty isn’t exactly one of my strengths. Earning this recent promotion took a lot of work on my part. Some things I did deliberately over the years with the chances of promotion in mind, and some things just sort of happened, but nevertheless I wasn’t slacking. Just gathering up materials for my dossier took a lot of time.

On the other hand, what has struck me most about the whole process was how much the responsibility for it rested in other people’s hands, in fact a lot of other people’s hands. The more I consider it, the wider the circle of people and institutions that contributed gets. It’s kind of staggering when I start to think about it.

Just considering the promotion process directly, my supervisor had to write on my behalf. Somewhere between 10-20 other people in the library, a couple of academic departments, and across the profession wrote positive letters of reference for me (at least I’m assuming they were positive). That alone was one of the best parts of the process, knowing that so many people were willing to write on my behalf, and I’m very grateful to them. A group of my colleagues had to read all that stuff and make a decision, which other people had to approve.

But it keeps on going. One of the factors was probably having a book published. Rory Litwin is responsible for offering me the contract and support through the process, but I could never have gotten the book done on time without two research leaves from the university, which required other people writing on my behalf or agreeing to grant them. Sure I wrote the book, and it was a lot of work, but without Rory and the Dean of the Faculty it wouldn’t have happened.

Another thing I assume played a role was my leadership within ALA. I know I’ve done some good work in the organization, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the generous conference travel support I’ve had my entire career, both at Gettysburg and at Princeton. Without that support, my career would have been very different. I wouldn’t have worked with as many good people over the years and wouldn’t have had the opportunities to do the things I have. There are also all the people within the organization who helped me out, taught me stuff, worked with me, and enabled me to do what I did. I’ve written before on how to run a good ALA committee meeting, but to get anything done you’ve got to have the actual committee. It’s not a one-person operation.

Keeping the faculty and students in the departments I serve happy is one part of my job, and a couple or professors probably wrote on my behalf. Typically that role for the faculty involves either buying stuff or solving problems. Buying stuff is a lot easier when you have generous acquisitions budgets, as I generally have had. Even with the buying, I’m just the middleman. There’s a whole team of people who make the actual purchases, catalog them, link to them, make them accessible, and often quickly so that faculty and students get things as rapidly as possible. It’s unfair that I probably get more of the credit for that than I deserve.

Solving problems presents the same situation. I “solve problems” usually by being a conduit between the professor or student with the problem and the person in the library who actually solves the problem. Database isn’t working right? Well, I can diagnose and troubleshoot, but if there’s a bill to be paid or tech support to be contacted, I’m not the one doing that. OPAC glitch? Um, yes, we have people for that. I’ll contact them. Whatever the problem is, unless it involves a research project of some kind, my role is to find the person who really can solve the problem. I’m not saying that doesn’t take some knowledge and skill and that I’m not a responsive and capable liaison. I’m just saying that without all those other people, I’m pretty useless for a lot of things and I know it. I’m pretty good at what I do, but without a whole bunch of other people being good at what they do, I couldn’t be as good.

There are a lot of things I do more or less on my own and I could write about those things, but my goal here is to remember just how much I can’t. Thus, back to “big name” librarians, or “famous librarians,” or the amusing category of “rock star” librarians. I’ve never met any librarians who seemed especially stoked about their own alleged fame or celebrity status. They’re possibly out there, but we don’t run in the same circles. It’s always like that with me and celebrities, I guess. I’ve lived in New Jersey for eight years and have yet to socialize with Bruce Springsteen or even the cast of Jersey Shore. If they are out there, it would be impossible for me to take them seriously. For one, they’re still just librarians. Mostly, though, I know that however externally successful you are, and no matter how great you might actually be, you’re dependent on opportunities you didn’t necessarily create and a whole network of people who enable you to do what you do. Even real rock stars need great sound engineers.

I Don’t Appreciate that Fact

I’m learning all sorts of new things reading Will Storr Versus the Supernatural. From page 273:

‘Do you believe in heaven and hell,’ I ask [David Vee, the Founder of Ghosts-UK].

‘No,’ he says, ‘people were seeing ghosts BC–Before Christ–so that rules that one out totally. The earth is millions and millions of years old. You know, I think the Bible is a damn good book, but it’s nothing like the original translation. How can we translate that when we still have difficulty translating the original Latin, which is only five hundred years old? It’s very difficult, because it has so many syllabuses and nouns and whatever. It’s like the voices on the EVPs I’ve recorded here. Most of them are in German Latin, which is what people spoke until the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until eighteen-twenty-something that we began to speak English. A lot of people don’t appreciate that fact.

I read through that paragraph a couple of times trying to make sense of it but eventually gave up.

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.

Perpetual Complaints

This quote complaining about library administrations and services might sound familiar:

The chief librarian who cares about college students and appropriate library and information services for them will endeavor to establish an organization that can identify and be responsive to user and nonuser needs and requirements and then proceed to staff the library with knowledgeable, service-conscious librarians. While imaginative and inventive leadership may be lacking at the top of the organizational structure in academic libraries, there is immensely rewarding growth among younger and beginning level librarians, especially in adopting new work roles in servicing student and faculty information needs. On a recent visit to a community college library I was impressed by the library and information services offered. The entire staff seemed to enjoy working with students and faculty. The library functioned not only as an educational media center, but also as a social and artistic focal point for the campus.

–Haro, Robert P. “The Floating Academic Librarian.” American Libraries 2, no. 11 (December 1, 1971): 1170.

The “younger and beginning level librarians” Haro was so enthusiastic about are starting to retire, and they seem to be the object of the same complaints.

On a different note, his “analogy between the war in Indochina and our program or policies of attending to student and faculty library and information needs” was not as informative as he had hoped. However, the notion of a floating academic librarian with a portable media base operating outside of library buildings just needed the advent of laptop computers and the Internet to be an easily viable reality. Complaining about the old guard is perpetual, but the floating librarian concept was rather creative.