Reflections on ACRL 2013

Last week I attended the ACRL conference in Indianapolis and have had a lot of thoughts rambling around in my mind since then.

The reception was at the Indiana State Museum. There I discovered that Indiana state history is about as interesting as the history of any other individual state–not very. However, I learned a lot about how state history museums put together exhibits from a librarian who used to work for one. It was very educational. Thanks, Josh!

At the reception, I met two different people whom I had apparently met before and didn’t remember. (Technically three, but one of them didn’t remember meeting me, either.) Saying “I’m bad with faces” might be a reason, but it’s not an excuse. Some people develop techniques for remembering the faces and names of people they meet in passing at conferences and such. I should do that. Anyway, if you’re reading this, sorry about that, and it won’t happen again. At least for you two.

I met someone who introduced herself as a “fan” of this blog. I don’t get that much, and it was rather enjoyable. All writers like to hear from people who like their work. Maybe if I posted a photo of myself on the blog more people who like the blog would see me and say hello. But then there might also be people who see me and say, “So you’re the jerk who said librarians should never learn to code!” [Note: I never said that.]

Hotel bars in Indianapolis don’t seem to stay open past 11pm. For a city hosting a conference of librarians, that just seems wrong.

I kept hearing accents in restaurants and hotels that sounded southern, but I couldn’t place them. Was I encountering southerners who lacked a distinctive regional accent, or is there an Indiana accent that sounds kind of southern? (And for non-southerners who think southerners all sound the same, we/they don’t. Not that I have many remnants of a southern accent. When people find out I’m from Louisiana and ask why I don’t have an accent, I tell them that everyone in Louisiana sounds like me.)

The most poorly represented track was probably Collections. You couldn’t do a whole day going to sessions on collections, whereas you could easily do that for Teaching and Learning. Since faculty and students routinely value the stuff libraries provides over the services they provide, it’s curious that librarians routinely reverse that emphasis. I think I know why it happens. Of course, the ACRL conference doesn’t have to emphasize everything. For librarians interested in collections, there’s always the Charleston Conference.

MOOCs came up a bit, always in a neutral tone. Some librarians are trying to find ways to integrate librarians into MOOCs. I don’t think there’s much future for that, mostly because of licensed content and the sheer scale, but good luck to them. Hopeful academic trendspotters think MOOCs are the higher education of the future. I doubt that. Instead I think MOOCs might be the last semblance of higher education in the future for those below the upper-middle and upper classes who are being steadily priced out of traditional higher education as state governments decide it’s better to slash taxes than educate their citizens. The liberal education necessary to provide free and critical citizens capable of lifelong learning is expensive, and what politician wants free and critical citizens? When we see the children of the rich relying on MOOCs and distance education degrees with no professors and no classes instead of heading to Ivy League universities, I’ll have been proven wrong.

Of the presentations I saw, only one got me thinking, “WTF? They rejected my contributed paper proposal for that?” That’s not too bad a ratio, I suppose. If people are going to get a line on their CV from presenting at ACRL, the least they could do is a little preparation so they don’t offend their audience. After looking through all the presentation descriptions, I also figure that my chances of being accepted would improve if I did something practical and related to information literacy. But everyone else does that, so what’s the point.

One of the more interesting presentations was by Brian Mathews, the Ubiquitous Librarian, who did indeed seem ubiquitous on the program. His talk on The Art of Problem Discovery (longer version here) was thought-provoking. I especially liked that he addressed technological and other disruptions to academic libraries and higher education while avoiding focus on specific trends, skills, tools, etc. Instead, he discussed broader approaches such as ways of thinking about problems, which in the longer article he terms “thinking lenses”: e.g., systems, integrative, design, lateral, agile, and computational thinking. This sort of approach seems much more productive in the long run than getting trapped into specific tools, trends, or skills. Perhaps I find the approach more compelling because I was promoting the same broadness myself when I argued that rhetoric and philosophy were more important “skills” for librarians than many others. In a discussion not about skills, I would instead have talked about rhetorical thinking or philosophical thinking. Indeed, in discussing how to make contacts with units outside the library and persuade people of the value the library can bring to them, Brian was engaging in some rhetorical thinking himself, and it sounds like the “problem literature” is mostly philosophical in nature. Now I’m thinking that if I were more focused and more ambitious, maybe they’d invite me to speak at ACRL. Probably not going to happen.

I didn’t attend the DIY panel, although I have read Brian Mathews’ comparison of DIY with Startup thinking (which was another panel I didn’t attend). Maybe it’s because I was put off by part of the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog post announcing the topic, particularly this bit (which Brian quotes in the comparison “Survival vs. Reshaping”):

DIY activities are always creative by nature, but DIY culture in libraries is less about creativity and more about basic survival. A traditional library is a dead library. We know this: if libraries don’t change they will fade away, eclipsed by the free, the instant, and the easy. The mantra of twenty-first century librarianship is and must be: change, change, and more change.

DIY might be the latest movement for librarians to get excited about, but two parts of that statement bother me. First is the assertion, “We know this: a traditional library is a dead library” (my emphasis). Do we really know this? How do we know this? Can you prove it? It sounds more like an affirmation of faith than a reflective statement about the future of academic libraries. I gather from a tweet about the panel that someone said: “Academics critically reflect–DIYers don’t. They whack it up into shape, fix it, or move on.” I think I’ll stick with critical reflection.

The second part that bothered me was this statement: “The mantra of twenty-first century librarianship is and must be: change, change, and more change.” I’ve nothing against mantras as such; they can be very soothing. However, the repetitive insistence on “change” is both vague and ahistorical. Everyone seems to think nobody before them had to deal with change. John Cotton Dana published an essay called “Librarians Should Respond to the Changes that Time Brings.” That’s solid advice…from 1925. I realize that responding to the changes that time brings could be considered reactive. How about librarians being “change agents”? That phrase has been in the library literature since at least 1968. Here’s another great reminder that libraries need to change or die:

Any institution which does not change too, adapt itself to the times, and become part of the onward “drive of change,” will be pushed aside to be left perhaps for a time to make a harmless life of its own.

That’s from a 1934 Library Quarterly article. (There’s more of the quote and some writing about libraries and change rhetoric in my post Libraries Never Change.) Believing the claim that libraries are obsolete or dying or whatever is a matter of faith, not reason or evidence. If anything, the lesson of library history shows us that libraries do adapt and change. We can be optimistic about changes in libraries or apocalyptic about the future, but I’m not sure we can do both. I guess apocalypse sells.

ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group Update

Apparently my attempt at a provocative proposal for a discussion topic was a bit too provocative for ACRL, and I’ve been asked to change it for reasons I understand. Thus, this update.

Although I don’t have the room information yet, the Philosophy, Religion, and Theology Discussion Group will be meeting on Sunday, June 30th from 4:50–5:30pm at ALA Annual in Chicago. The new proposed topic for discussion is:

Are publishers suing or threatening to sue libraries or librarians threats to academic freedom for librarians?

The ACRL PR&T DG has a Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/ACRL.PRT. I’ll be posting updates and announcements there, so “like” us if you’re interested in hearing more from the group.

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.]

@acadlibrarian

After the announcement by my lover and tormenter Google about the impending demise of Google Reader, I decided it was time to broaden my distribution channels for the blog since RSS might be in flux for a while.  Thus, I have finally started a Twitter account for distributing links to posts here as well as my occasional columns at the Library Journal and possibly other stuff as time goes by. The Twitter page is here: https://twitter.com/acadlibrarian. I’ve tweeted the last few blog posts and columns to get started, and will continue to do so in future. So if you want to follow me there instead of just visiting or relying on RSS, please do so.

Some seem to think Google’s announcement means the end of RSS, although given the panic by so many people after Google’s announcement, I don’t think it’s dying. I just think that Google isn’t making money off it, which isn’t the same thing. Along with everyone else, I’ve been trying to find a replacement. After trying several options, I’ve settled on Newsblur for now. I got the premium account for the librarian-friendly rate of $12/year. The first couple of weeks it was slow dealing with all the new traffic, but it’s sped up after some back end work and is quite responsive now. Google’s announcement was the gentle push I needed to keep steadily diversifying my online life so that I’m not so reliant on one Internet giant. I’m now reliant only Google for only Gmail and Bookmarks, although I fear Bookmarks might go the way of Reader and all the other abandoned Google Projects.

I have a very tightly controlled information gathering system set up with RSS that is high on signal and low on noise because my goal is to get the best relevant information while spending the least possible time. Based on my experience with Facebook, I’m wary of Twitter as an information gathering tool on par with RSS, but if you have any suggestions of library/information professional people to follow who post good professional stuff with a minimum of personal stuff, please let me know and I’ll give them a try.

Another Essential Skill for All Librarians

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The study of philosophy enhances one’s ability:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. How to apply logic to any problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Essential Skill for All Librarians

If I can’t beat the gurus, sherpas, and assorted sages, I’m going to join them. Today I’m going to tell you, fellow librarians, the most basic, core skill that all of you need, more important than coding, cataloging, database searching, or anything else. It’s a subject barely taught in library schools, and yet mastery of it will do more for your career than just about anything actually taught there. What is librarianship really about? It’s about communication. And where there’s communication, you need rhetoric.

Rhetoric has a bad reputation among people who don’t know better and people who should know better. It’s probably because of that hypocrite Plato, who maligned rhetoric as supposedly less ethical or true than philosophy while using numerous rhetorical techniques to communicate his ideas. Consider the Allegory of the Cave: brilliant, effective, and a total rhetorical manipulation of the audience. It’s why Plato is so much more pleasurable to read than Aristotle, even though Aristotle was a lot more savvy about rhetoric.

What is rhetoric? Aristotle defined it as ”the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Thinking of it as a form of argument, we might add Chaim Perelman’s definition of argumentation from The Realm of Rhetoric: ”The aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent. Such adherence never comes out of thin air; it presupposes a meeting of minds between speaker and audience.” But rhetoric is much broader than just argumentation and persuasion. The rhetorician Andrea Lunsford defines it as ”the art, practice, and study of human communication.” (See some more definitions here.) As the art and practice of human communication, what could be a more basic element of librarianship than its study.

Think about all the communication that goes on in libraries every day: phone calls, meetings, emails, IMs, negotiations, reference questions, performance reviews, grant proposals, instruction sessions, research guides, cover letters, job interviews; every one of these interactions is about communication with an audience for a purpose and could benefit from improved rhetorical skill and knowledge of rhetorical theory and techniques.

One of the simplest rhetorical skills is often the most forgotten: consider your audience. Good communication is all about connecting with a particular audience, but plenty of librarians when writing or speaking think it’s about conveying information. If they write it or say it, that’s enough. I’ve seen this numerous times in library instruction sessions over the years, where librarians think their duty is to present information, when really their job is to connect their audience to the information presented. There’s a difference.  How many librarians have you seen go into a room of 18-year-olds and deliver a canned talk in a monotone? Or bury a LibGuide in an avalanche of dense prose? Or write and publish a dreary article no one would every want to read? Or give tedious and irrelevant answers to questions during a job interview? Painful stuff from people who haven’t considered their audience.

Consider other rhetorical concepts, kairos for example. Kairos is, roughly, knowing when to speak. It’s knowing the proper time to intervene in a conversation or a crisis. People who just blurt out what they’re thinking whenever they think it aren’t as effective in persuading others as people who join the conversation at the proper time with a proper consideration of their audience and their purpose for speaking. How many librarians deliberately think about the proper time to speak and then do so? How many of you think about the distinction between the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals and when to use the appropriate ones when working with other people? Or think about the assumptions behind people’s writing or speaking, or the patterns of their arguments that are often more revealing of their motives and goals than what they seem to be saying? That might sound abstract, but thinking about that stuff and applying it can be very useful in understanding and operating in a workplace or organization.

I can say with some assurance that my study, teaching, and practice of rhetoric has helped me more in my career than anything else I’ve ever learned. My ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing has been essential and beneficial to my work. Whether it’s participating in meetings, working with students, or stymieing machinations, rhetorical techniques have always come into play. There is no escaping rhetoric. There’s only good and bad rhetoric. And yet probably 99 out of 100 librarians haven’t read Aristotle or Perelman or Lunsford or Corbett any other rhetorical theorist, much less deliberately practiced rhetorical techniques. Even some of you right now are probably thinking, oh, that might be important, but surely not all librarians need to study rhetoric. Yes, you do. Every one of you.

Think about some policy or service you want to implement. It doesn’t matter how good it is, someone in charge has to be persuaded to implement it. That’s your audience. Think about what it’s like to be that person. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and ask what would persuade you then. Everyone wants something, but they all want something different. Change too little or too slow angers one group in the library; change too much or too fast angers another. Who’s resistant to the change you want to make, but whose consent you need? Are they not persuaded by your passion for change? Is the problem their conservatism or your rhetorical failure? I know what you’re going to say, but can you be sure?

Before you learn whatever new thing you’re planning to learn, learn rhetoric first. Then practice it for a few years. You’ll thank me later.

Wandering Free and Easy

This is sort of a follow up to my post on ignoring gurus and sherpas, which one person described as “odd” while reading it got another person “hot under the collar” and made yet another person “cranky.” Since the last two people seem to more or less agree with me, then I must be doing something wrong. One problem is that there were two discussions going on in the post, one about coding for librarians and one about not following gurus and sherpas. They got mixed together, and as often happens when I say that I don’t do whatever tech thing someone thinks I should do and yet I get on just fine, people get cranky because they think I’m claiming that no librarian should do that tech thing or perhaps even that I think that thing isn’t valuable for any librarians to do. I truly don’t understand that interpretation, but there it is. Maybe it’s my tone.

So let’s avoid the tech talk. Here’s really why I don’t follow sherpas or sit at the feet of gurus: I, in the  words of Fleetwood Mac, go my own way. I march to the beat of my own drummer. I follow my own muse. I cultivate my own garden. I live and let live. Okay, I’m out of cliches. As it’s put in what’s becoming one of my favorite books, the Daoist classic book of Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu), I wander free and easy, wander where I will, or go rambling without a destination (depending on the translation).

That means I don’t follow conventional wisdom or the wisdom of crowds. I don’t do things because they’re cool or trendy or popular, nor do I do things because they’re traditional or conventional or just the way they’ve always been done. I don’t do things because someone who isn’t me and doesn’t live my life tells me they need to be done even when I’m pretty sure they don’t need to be. I also don’t fall into the hipster trap of reacting against the popular or the trendy and trying to be ironic while still actually being concerned with what other people are doing or thinking. I honestly don’t care. I’m not a follower or a fan boy or a fashionista. My mother used to say in exasperation, do what you want to do because that’s what you’re going to do anyway. I did and I do.

This isn’t a professional position so much as a personal disposition reflected in most areas of my life, and I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. Even in high school the bulk of my learning was done outside school, and I followed my passions without a concern for what the world or the culture thinks is important. I don’t judge myself by other people’s standards, and I try (and this is much harder) not to judge other people by my standards. If I’d lived my life by what other people thought I should have done to be “successful,” I wouldn’t have majored in English in college, and then double-majored in philosophy. How impractical! I wouldn’t have gone to grad school in English. Even more impractical! Library school was practical, but it’s not exactly what the culture considers the beginning of worldly success. As long as I have access to a research library and the opportunity to learn about whatever I want to learn, I don’t really care what the world thinks is successful. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and a research library beside me in the wilderness, then wilderness were paradise enough.

In my personal life, it’s led to me espousing unconventional views and having unconventional habits. For example, I don’t eat meat because I have ethical objections against factory farming and the treatment of animals (and yet I don’t think animals have rights as such, which makes me unconventional even in unconventional circles). I don’t proselytize about it or try to make other people feel bad for eating meat, and yet over the years I’ve encountered many people who seem to be personally offended by my not eating meat. Those people weren’t wandering free and easy. I haven’t watched a television show with commercial breaks since 1987. I don’t like anything interrupting my narrative and I refuse to pay for cable and Tivo, so until the rise of Netflix I just didn’t watch any TV. And yet, as with not eating meat, I’ve met people who seemed to be offended that I didn’t do the popular thing they did. They took my lack of interest in conventional activities almost as an affront, as if I’m judging them harshly for doing whatever it is that I don’t do, when really I couldn’t care less how they spend their time. Those people weren’t wandering free and easy. People like that seem to validate their own beliefs and actions by the standards of other people. I don’t bother and am much happier for it. We won’t even get started about my religious or political beliefs.

In my professional life, this attitude has manifested itself in various ways. I avoided tenure-track librarian jobs because I didn’t want people telling me that I had to write library literature or get fired. When I write, I write because I want to, and I write what I please. I’ve thwarted tyrants and fomented rebellions to make sure people don’t impose conventional or trendy nonsense on me. I’ve fought hard for things I believe in and fought just as hard against things I don’t believe in. When left alone, I leave alone. When pushed, I push back.

This isn’t to say I’m a sociopath or a rebel. If I believe rules and conventions are good, I follow them. One of the things I like about working in academia is that I believe in the mission of higher education and of the libraries that support teaching and research. I never have the thoughts I’m starting to notice in some friends as we approach middle age, that maybe what I’m doing isn’t worthwhile. I think it’s worthwhile work, and if I didn’t think so I’d do something else. I do what I do because I believe it’s worth doing, not because social convention tells me it’s what I should do. Living in the world without compromising (another bit from Zhuangzi) isn’t a matter of fighting everything the world has to offer. It’s about finding the place in the world where you feel most comfortable, adapting the world as you can, and letting the rest go.

I’ve gone my own way and followed my own interests with little regard for what others think I should do for my entire life. And you know what? It’s worked out pretty well for me, even by the conventional worldly standards that I don’t care that much about. I’m healthy and happy. I have a loving family. I have a great job that I like a lot and that I’m pretty good at. I have good friends and good colleagues. I continue to learn, grow, and develop in ways that I enjoy and that benefit other people. I look around, see what I think is worth doing, give it a try, and then continue or not as I see fit. And I think that whatever conventional success I have achieved has a lot to do with how I’ve lived my life. I was never a grade grubber or a self promoter or a status seeker.  I don’t deliberately seek the approval of others, but I’ve found that if I do what I think is right and appropriate as the situation arises and try to do it well, the approval often comes. Wandering free and easy has led me to many good places, and I’m unlikely to give it up now.

That’s why I ignore anyone or any group that tries to define me or what it is that I do, or to tell me against my better judgment that I really should be doing what they think is important instead of what I think is important. I’m happy to learn from anyone willing to teach, but I  ignore anyone trying to preach. And I decide who’s worth learning from and what’s worth learning. The preachers don’t work my job or live my life. There’s no way they can know what I need to know better than I do myself.

If I were a guru or sherpa, which I assuredly am not, I’d tell you that you should live your life this way, too. It’s psychologically freeing. A lot of the stuff that people fear or fret about or get upset over don’t bother me at all. As Groucho Marx says, they roll off me like a duck. If other people do things differently than I do, that’s fine with me. However, it’s not up to me to tell other people how to live their lives or do their jobs. Live as you please, work as you like, preach all you want. Just try not to be to upset when I don’t follow you, think like you think, or do as you do. I’ll do the same.

 

The Basic Skills of All Librarians

In response to my last post, someone asked me “what are the basic skills that all librarians should have, if any?” There are several possible responses to that. The evasive response would be that if library schools can’t seem to figure out that question, the I certainly won’t be able to do so. However, I find that I can’t answer the question as it’s phrased because it needs more clarification. The phrase “basic skills” is deceptively simple, yet I think it can cover at least two different meanings which both determine how one might respond and lead to confusion and disagreement where perhaps none exists. Both basic and skills need some clarification. So here goes.

Basic in the phrase “basic skills of all librarians” can mean either 1) a basic set of skills that all librarians should have, or 2) a set of skills that all librarians should have at a basic level. I might disagree with either interpretation, although I agree with Lane Wilkinson’s argument in response to my last post that there are probably sets of skills that all libraries should have available. Though I might disagree with either interpretation, I’m more open to the second interpretation, which means we have to define what we mean by skills.

As with basic, there are at least two different meanings of skills at play here, a hard sense and a soft sense. In the hard sense, to have a skill means to be able to do something, it means knowing how and not just knowing that. In the soft sense, it means something more like knowing that, or knowing a bit about, or even being aware of. For example, let’s take a skill common in and essential to academic libraries: cataloging. To have cataloging skill in the hard sense, one must be able to catalog materials with some proficiency and efficiency. Cataloging in the hard sense is a skill developed over time and presumably improved over time. Cataloging as a skill in the soft sense means something like knowing how catalogs work, being aware of minimal cataloging standards, or something along those lines. It’s the kind of knowledge of cataloging that, say, reference librarians would need to get the most of of searching OPACs.

We can also interpret coding as a skill in a hard or soft sense. By coding as a skill, we can mean that the person is fully capable of efficiently and proficiently writing code to develop some digital object, OR we can mean that the person is aware of the basics of coding. For example, I couldn’t just sit down and start writing code of any kind. However, I know how code works and generally what it does. My last post mentioned html, and I know a bit of that as well. Just yesterday I had to go into the html of a website I was making and adjust the html because there were some problems with the margins that the editor wasn’t fixing right. I couldn’t write it, but I knew what to look for, I spotted the problem, and I fixed it. Does that mean I have “skill”? I usually interpret skill in the hard sense, so I’d say no. I do a lot of things well. That’s not one of them. Someone totally unfamiliar with how any code or markup language works might say yes.

With these distinctions in mind, let’s break “basic skills of all librarians” into two phrases: 1)  Basic Set of Skills of All Librarians, and 2) Basic Skills of All Librarians. Let’s interpret the first phrase in the hard sense, that is, a basic set of skills (in the hard sense) that all librarians should have. This means that all librarians should have these skills, and they can actually employ them usefully, efficiently, and proficiently. Let’s interpret the second phrase in the softer sense, meaning that there are some number of things that all librarians should have at least a basic minimal knowledge about. As for coding, personally I don’t have skill in the first sense, but I do in the second.

We can apply these distinction to the initial question. Now, are we asking (in my terms) “What basic set of skills should all librarians have?” in the hard sense, or are we asking “What are some basic-level skills of all librarian?” in the soft sense? Our answers might still differ, but at least we’re clearer on what we’re talking about.

Answering the first question, I’d have to say “none.” I can’t think of any library-specific skills (in the hard sense) that all librarians should have, while again agreeing that there are skills that all libraries should probably have. No library operates on this principle, and the larger the library the more specialized the skills get. In smaller libraries, librarians might need minimal proficiency in a larger number of skills, but no one will achieve complete proficiency (skill in the hard sense) in everything necessary to run a library. There’s neither the time nor the necessity. If that’s what people mean when they say “every librarian needs to learn coding,” then it’s very easy to point out the fact that every library in existence gets on without all the librarians having this skill (in the hard sense).

If instead we’re asking “what are some skills or knowledges that librarians should have or be aware of in at least a minimal sense?”, then my answer might change. I would still be very reluctant to claim that there were too many skills in the soft sense that all librarians should have. The world of librarianship is too complicated and diverse for there to be many. I might include things like knowing how catalogs and databases work, understanding the role of libraries in the support of students and faculty, or some other very general things. Regardless, it’s this second question that I think is the most useful one to discuss. Coding might be a good candidate for inclusion in that list, but only if we’re clear on what we mean by basic, skills, and even coding. I’d still say no, but I’m much more likely to be persuaded by others if this is the sense we mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMP Drops the Lawsuit; Richardson Doesn’t

Edwin Mellen Press dropped the lawsuit against Dale Askey and McMaster University, saying “The financial pressure of the social media campaign and pressure on authors is severe.” I’m glad I could contribute a little to that campaign.

[Update: shoot, I wrote too soon. EMP dropped one of the lawsuits, the one naming McMaster and Askey. There's another one  by EMP founder Herbert Richardson just naming Askey, but no word on whether it will be dropped as well. We can only hope common sense will prevail.]