I just received the ALA Annual meeting list with location information. The ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group meeting info:

Sunday, June 30
04:30 pm to 05:30 pm 
HYATT-Soldier Field

The proposed topic of discussion is:

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

All are welcome.

Smart People Doing Foolish Things

Many of you probably saw the article in Slate a couple of weeks ago arguing passionately that nobody should go to graduate school to study literature. The author’s experience is typical for most people who graduate with PhDs in literature in that she hasn’t gotten a tenure-track job. She earned her PhD in German literature in 2010, so she might some day find that elusive TT job, but it doesn’t sound like she’s planning to stick around academia working for below minimum wage as an adjunct instructor. And good for her. The week after brought this insightful analysis at Aljazeera of the “adjunct crisis,” from another recent PhD who also can’t find a TT job. It’s much more analytical and less emotionally wrought than the Slate article, including speculation (and that seems to be all that’s available on the subject) of why presumably intelligent and well educated people would submit themselves to adjunct conditions.

One political scientist argues that it’s “path dependence and sunk costs.” Once people have spent so much their lives and money aiming for the TT job, it’s apparently hard to realize that you rolled the academic dice and came up craps and should just move on. Indeed, that analogy is rather poor, because if the 6% chance of finding a TT job in literature that the Slate article estimates is correct, you’ve a far better chance of beating the house at craps than you do of getting that job.

The Slate author provides a psychologically devastating alternative to relying on statistics:

During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why.

My only criticism of the statement is that I believe she put in the second person what was obviously a personal experience. I’ve known people with PhDs and no TT jobs and none of them thought themselves worthless, regardless of whatever bitterness they might have had about the experience. Several of them were philosophers, so maybe that makes a difference.

Based on a lot of people I’ve met, it’s not that they view themselves as worthless; it’s that they view any other work than traditional professorial work as worthless, or at least beneath them. This attitude shows up occasionally in librarianship, where people with PhDs who will never get TT teaching jobs sometimes decide to “settle” for librarianship. One person told me to my face that with his PhD in philosophy he couldn’t get a decent teaching job, but since he was willing to settle for being a philosophy librarian he wanted my advice on getting one of those jobs. Talk about rhetorically challenged. I didn’t feel particularly resentful, because I have a great job and he doesn’t. I told him there really weren’t many jobs for philosophy librarians as such, and I probably should have added that with that attitude he probably wouldn’t get any available ones anyway.  Tens of thousands of highly educated people with that attitude would rather work for low wages and no benefits than do anything else.

That attitude puzzles me, but then again I never had the sense of entitlement some people seem to have about graduate school. It’s that entitlement that provides me with brief moments of irritation in what is generally a sympathetic assessment of the plight of adjuncts and what their plight says about higher education, namely that it’s being priced out of the market for the vast majority of Americans while its quality is being reduced by reliance upon poorly paid contingent instructors the universities view as disposable. If there’s an economic term for something that’s increasing in price while decreasing in quality I’d use it, but I don’t know what it is, unless it’s “scam.” Or, more likely, “bubble.” Regardless, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone so obviously intelligent and well educated who then whines and complains about how much worse her life is for pursuing that education.

It’s also difficult to understand how someone could have begun a PhD in 2005 without knowing what was going on in higher education, but that seems to have happened. It puzzles me that so many people finish humanities PhDs and only then realize they won’t get jobs, because people not getting jobs was the most obvious part of my graduate school experience. I started grad school at a top-20 English department in 1992. By 1994 two things were obvious to me: first, I found the study of literature increasingly boring, and second, that even if I finished a PhD I almost certainly wouldn’t find a good TT job. I didn’t have William Pannapacker around to clue me in. All I had to do was look at the jobs people in my department were getting, or not getting. One year the best job someone acquired was in Arlington,Texas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Arlington as far as I know, except that it’s hot as blazes down there in the summer and I’d left the south partly to get away from the excruciating summer heat. But when you’re on the academic job market, you don’t get to think about things like that. You go wherever you’re fortunate enough to land a job. Another person got a job teaching a 5/4 load at a regional university in a much cooler state. I wouldn’t have minded at all going to that university, but a 5/4 load? That’s brutal, especially when every class is going to have 25 or more students. No, thanks. And most of the people weren’t getting TT jobs at all.

This wasn’t some hidden conspiracy. Everyone knew about it early on in their graduate school career. Is that not the case now? Heck, my first year in grad school the department had a meeting of faculty and grad students just to talk about the problem. (Besides the general sense of malaise, the only thing I remember clearly about that meeting is that some sexagenarian associate professor hired in the 1960s complained that new assistant professors were making more than he was. He didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing.) Given that a lot of programs don’t publicly give out their placement statistics, it might be understandable that someone would start a program with a naive hope for the perfect TT job, but once you’re in a program all you have to do is look around. Are people getting jobs or not? It’s an easy question to answer, and your likely fate should be pretty clear. Someone should do a study on why so many people continue while knowing the odds are against them rather than just speculate.

It was very clear that my chances of getting a job I’d want in a place I wouldn’t mind living were almost nil. So I desultorily finished my MA work and started teaching rhetoric as an adjunct while also working halftime at the local public library as a circulation clerk. I didn’t feel bad about myself, or feel that it was somehow beneath me to have an MA and be checking out videos for $10/hour alongside people with high school educations. A job’s a job. I also didn’t resent the department I left. They let in a lot of grad students every year to teach first-year courses, many more than could ever find TT jobs. It was a bit of a racket. On the other hand, I got a lot of good teaching experience and a few years free to read a lot. I didn’t make much money, but then again I didn’t need much money. I’d never had any money anyway. And it certainly never occurred to me to be resentful of the system as such, even though it puzzled me why so many people stayed the course, finished their PhDs, and then stayed there teaching as adjuncts making the same thing I made teaching as an adjunct, all the while complaining about not getting a job.

There was possibly no resentment because I didn’t bother finishing a PhD and didn’t “settle” on being a librarian. I just sort of stumbled into it since Illinois’ library school seems to suck in a lot of humanities grad students looking for something to do. The years I spent teaching and studying have been highly useful for my library career, so it would be foolish to resent the fact that while I at one point wanted to be a professor, and still think I would have made a pretty good one, academia didn’t owe me a TT job. Graduate school turned out rather well for me. I had no money when I graduated college, and neither did my parents. I was able to go to school for free, get some experience, find a wife, make some friends, and get paid $10K a year to teach four courses. It seems like a pittance, even though 20 years later it’s still what a lot of adjuncts make who aren’t in their early twenties as I was. Because of that opportunity and the ways I’ve exploited it, I’m a first generation college student from a poor family in the south who works at an Ivy League university library. My wife, an ABD dropout from the same program, now works as a test developer for ETS. There are worse fates. Almost up until she died, my mother would ask me whether I thought grad school in English was a waste of time. My answer was always definitely not, even during the time I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Education is always good. You just have to know what to do with it.

So all this overheated rhetoric about how foolish it is to go to graduate school doesn’t do much for me. By smart people doing foolish things, I don’t mean that the foolish thing is to go to grad school or even earn a PhD in a field without jobs, but to feel sorry for yourself and complain about it afterward. To turn the historically rare privilege of advanced education into an excuse to complain shows a lot of arrogance but not much perspective. A couple of years ago someone was asking around for advice about her daughter going to grad school in some humanities field. My advice: if she’s interested in the subject, the school supports her with a stipend or assistantship, and she can get a degree without going into debt, go, but assume that a tenure-track teaching job is not going to happen and plan accordingly. Graduate school is only a negative experience if your expectations for where it leads differ from the well known statistical likelihood that you won’t get a TT job, and even humanities grad students should have a basic grasp of statistics. There might be social, ethical, and political issues with the increasing use of contingent adjuncts in higher education, but seeing grad school education itself as the problem is a personal issue. I never thought I’d say this, but going to grad school in English was one of the best decisions I ever made.

On Big Name Librarians

While catching up with my RSS feeds after ACRL and trying to avoid all the horrible news being reported this week I ran across a post by Jessica Olin at Letters to a Young Librarian about Cults of Librarian Personalities. It addresses “the Rock Star Librarian / Cults of Librarian Personalities phenomenon.” Apparently, there was a Rock Star Librarian who spoke at ACRL and I didn’t even realize it, or at least someone Jessica considers a “Big Name in Libraries, a Rock Star Librarian, an inspiration for a Cult of Librarian Personality.” I took a quick look through the conference program to try to figure out who she means, but since she also thinks the person is an “utter tool,” it’s probably best not to speculate, at least in public.

The thing is, I have different reactions to such people depending on whether we think of them as Big Names in Libraries, Rock Star Librarians, or the leader of a Cult of Librarian Personality. The phrase “rock star” applied to any librarians has always struck me as sort of funny. In the big scheme of things, librarians are such relatively marginal professionals that to think of any of them being actually famous is strange. What librarian could say, echoing Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ve seen a millions faces, and I’ve provided information to them all!” A cult of librarian personality is maybe even stranger. Do librarians have groupies? Or dedicated groups of admirers? Fan clubs? Or even people who dote on their every word? I’m not aware of any who do. Or is the suggestion that there are some librarians who would like a cult of personality to form around them? That might be true, if a bit creepy. Maybe the problem some people have isn’t with Rock Star Librarians as such, but with librarians who are deliberately seeking to be Rock Stars. On the other hand, groupies would be nice, if for no other reason than carrying my stuff around for me at conferences.

Then there’s the Big Name in Libraries designation, which seems to me much less loaded a phrase. But what makes a Big Name in Libraries? The Big Name at ACRL apparently writes articles, blog posts, and books, and also obviously speaks at conferences. Is that what makes someone a big name? I do that kind of thing but wouldn’t consider myself a Big Name. Maybe the Big Name has to be somebody on the conference circuit. I’ve done some speaking at conferences, and am slated to do some more (ALA Annual 2014 about library values; put it on your calendar!), but I don’t try hard to get speaking gigs. In fact, I rarely speak unless invited, and I’m just not invited that much. So the Big Names are probably those who you can’t go to a conference without escaping, whereas I am imminently escapable. Everyone can just not read a blog, but if you go to ALA or ACRL, there are names it’s hard to avoid seeing if you look through the conference programs, even if you never go hear those people speak. Those are the people I usually think of as Big Names. But are they Big Names because they’re speaking all over the place, or are they speaking all over the place because they’re Big Names?

Or is it the people who have a “brand”? I’ve written before about fame and hedgehog librarians, the librarians who know One Big Thing (or rather, are publicly known for knowing One Big Thing). Sometimes these librarians seem to spring from nowhere to librarian fame quickly and almost without effort. They do just the right thing at the right time, and suddenly everyone wants to hear from them. And sometimes these librarians are just persistent, even if ultimately no one cares about their One Big Thing. Persistence counts for a lot. If you have a coherent message and write enough and apply to speak at conferences enough, eventually you’ll be heard, or at least seen. You’ll at least be “famous” as that librarian who always speaks and writes about that One Big Thing. That post was written almost five years ago, and back then I opined that I’d never be librarian famous because I couldn’t stick to One Big Thing. Even though since then I’ve managed to write a book about libraries, and have even identified a couple of areas I could make into One Big Things if I chose, I think that analysis probably still holds up. I don’t have the concentration for the One Big Thing, but I do think that’s what helps make Big Name Librarians.

Jessica asks in her conclusion, “What do you all think of this phenomenon? Do you avoid Big Name Librarians at all cost? Seek them out because you love to hate them? Have a true fondness for one or more of them?”

I think it’s less of an issue than some librarians might, and I tend to see the so-called Big Name Librarians as people passing through the limelight on the way back to relative obscurity. Sure, some will stay well known throughout their careers, but even in my brief time in the profession (if 13 years can be considered brief), I’ve already seen some stars shoot and then fade away. Plus, in the end they’re still librarians going back to their libraries and doing the same sort of jobs we all do. I definitely don’t think about Big Names enough to avoid or hate them. It wouldn’t occur to me to like or dislike someone for being popular at the moment, although I might avoid them because advocates of One Big Thing tend to grow stale after a while.

I need to reorganize my home library soon. Now I’m thinking librarian groupies would be perfect to help with that. Maybe I should reconsider the librarian fame game.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ithaka Survey

The Ithaka US Faculty Survey 2012 is out, possibly making some librarians who read it fret that the library isn’t the center of the faculty universe and librarians are hovering on the margins of that universe. Given that “the role of the library” occupies eight pages of a 79-page document, that’s hardly surprising. This year they asked a new question apparently designed to make librarians feel bad about themselves. Here’s the summary of the question and response:

Finally, we asked scholars to rate how important it was to them that “the library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.” In the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010 of deans and directors, when this role was first introduced into this module, it was rated as very important by virtually all of the library leaders who responded. Among faculty, however, only slightly over half rated this role as very important…. In general, a substantially smaller share of faculty members rated each role as very important than did library deans and directors; the only role on which there was agreement was the library’s buyer role.

“Virtually all of the library leaders” thought this was important but “slightly over half” of professors. I’d be curious whether the response would change if “critical analysis” and “information literacy” were dropped, the former because librarians play relatively little role in this compared to coursework and the latter because nobody besides librarians knows what the heck information literacy is. Would “librarians help students do library research” have gotten a better response?

Not that there was a lot of response, as Barbara Fister points out in A Surfeit of Surveys and Three Short Questions. A 3.5% response rate. Is that good? I’m no social science expert, so I turned to Wikipedia, which tells me that while a higher response rate used to be considered a sign of higher accuracy, “such studies have finally been conducted in recent years, and they are challenging the presumption that a lower response rate means lower survey accuracy.” Here’s the supporting evidence:

One early example of a finding was reported by Visser, Krosnick, Marquette and Curtin (1996) who showed that surveys with lower response rates (near 20%) yielded more accurate measurements than did surveys with higher response rates (near 60 or 70%).[2] In another study, Keeter et al. (2006) compared results of a 5-day survey employing the Pew Research Center’s usual methodology (with a 25% response rate) with results from a more rigorous survey conducted over a much longer field period and achieving a higher response rate of 50%. In 77 out of 84 comparisons, the two surveys yielded results that were statistically indistinguishable. Among the items that manifested significant differences across the two surveys, the differences in proportions of people giving a particular answer ranged from 4 percentage points to 8 percentage points.[3]

So if response rates near 20% were more accurate than response rates near 60-70%, does that mean a response rate near 3% is even more accurate? I guess by the time you get down to just calling that one professor you met that time and asking questions the accuracy should be just about perfect. It’s just possible that this report has no scientific or even social scientific validity. The other issue with reports like this is that they never tell you anything specific or applicable to your own campus. Thus, it could be that the survey isn’t valid and it has nothing to say about your campus.

Fister suggests that since so many faculty believe that librarians have no role in student learning librarians “should stop writing so many articles about information literacy for other librarians and think about reaching the faculty. Just a thought.” Someone commenting on her post agrees:

You offer a suggestion that I’d like to pick up on – that librarians should be writing about information literacy to professors, not to fellow librarians. Agreed, but the fact is that there is no market for it. Higher education journals rarely include anything on information literacy. I tried to sell a book manuscript on information literacy to a higher education publisher whose products are low-cost and accessible. The publisher’s senior higher education editor described my manuscript as “impressive and significant” and then turned it down. Why? Because “there’s no market for information literacy books among educators.” I later published the book with a library-oriented publisher, hoping (and having some success at it) that professors will read it.

What we could take away from this is that no educators care about the things librarians do, hence the lack of a market. Or, and here’s the more optimistic interpretation, there’s no market for books about information literacy among educators because it’s librarian jargon nobody else uses. To take a phrase only librarians use and then complain that nonlibrarians aren’t interested in it is frustrating and counterproductive. What about books on things other academics think they know about? Library research skills, perhaps. There seems to be a market somewhere for books like that. OUP published Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models and Princeton University Press published my colleague Mary George’s The Elements of Library Research. Neither are exactly bestsellers, but they’re both still in print and they belie the claim that there’s no market among educators for works about what librarians do. Some instructors assign Mary’s book to students, so some educators must know about it. Maybe the problem isn’t the content, but the phrasing. Unless librarians learn to talk like other academics, they will be much less likely to be listened to.

Nevertheless, librarians might find other reasons to fret. The situation reminds me of Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism, because why not. In section 12 of The Will to Power (or 11 [99] if you have a copy of the Writings from the Late Notebooks handy], Nietzsche describes what he believes are causes of nihilism. First, “nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a ‘meaning’ in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged.” Nietzsche was talking about meaning in the large sense, the meaning of life, the universe, etc. If we believe that the meaning of life is to dedicate ourselves to doing good works to please the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and we find that Pastafarianism is in fact false, we might become discouraged. The second form of nihilism comes when we believe the world has value because of some unifying source out there, like if we thought the world was worthwhile because we could become one with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Then we find out there’s no such thing, and believe life and the world are valueless. First we might come to believe the world has no overarching goal for human beings, and then that there is “no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.” If we believe that life has meaning only because of something we no longer believe exists, or that life is only bearable if there is a supreme being for us to immerse ourselves in but then we cease to believe in that supreme being, then we might be frustrated.

Okay, so what does this have to do with librarians, information literacy, or the Ithaka Survey? Let’s think about the frustrations of librarians with libraries, the academy, or even the world as they find them. Frustration often occurs because of a difference between our expectations about the world and the world as we find it. We base our value and meaning on something we expect or hope to find in the world; we don’t find that thing; so we begin to doubt ourselves.

Librarians are sometimes frustrated that faculty don’t use librarians as much as librarians would like to be used; that faculty don’t see a value in information literacy; and that faculty think of the library as a place that buys stuff and makes it available, not as a place where librarians are supposedly just as engaged in the teaching and learning enterprise as they are. (Obviously by faculty I mean those members of the faculty who are not librarians. That’s a different thorny issue I’ve been staying away from.) Often enough the response is sheer surprise. “But I do so much!” Yes, you do a lot. Sometimes the reaction is a pledge to do more outreach to make the faculty aware of what librarians can do. All well and good.

But what if we acknowledge that the faculty, such that are left, know what they’re doing and know what they need from the library. Let’s look at it from their perspective. They have PhDs, have completed dissertations, published articles and books, are either on the tenure track working like crazy for tenure or else contingent faculty teaching like crazy for food and rent. They’ve been using libraries successfully for a long time. Who are we to tell them they don’t know better? They don’t want services, they want stuff. That’s just the way it is. They don’t need you like you want them to think they do.

And their perceptions of what librarians can do for students? So half of the survey respondents think that librarians have no role to play? Well, that’s just the way it is, too. Professors aren’t  there when the befuddled student wanders up to the reference desk to ask a question. They’re not with librarians engaging in research consultations trying to reconcile a class assignment with a doable research strategy. They’re not there when a consultation turns into an advising session on the topic of the essay that really the instructor should be doing.

Or there’s the frustration that professors won’t let librarians into their classrooms. This is pretty common. Even one of my former library school students who was himself a professor admitted he didn’t let librarians in the classroom. Why is that, we might wonder? Well, based on my experience and a brief analysis of courses in the humanities where I work, the reason might be that most courses don’t really have a library research component. A lot of undergraduate classes don’t require research essays as such. They require essays, but the point of the essay is to show that students have mastered a certain amount of material and can write critically about it analyzing and synthesizing as appropriate. That’s why if they need sources, they tend to ask their professor or use course readings. A recent Educause study on undergraduates and information technology claimed that, “it is interesting to note that when students were asked ‘When it comes to your success as an undergraduate, what is the one website or online resource you couldn’t live without?’ the most frequently cited sources were Google (33%) and Blackboard (16%); both of these significantly outranked students’ citing the college or university library website (5%).” It’s only interesting to note if you’re not a student and everything you need to know to complete all your courses isn’t on Blackboard. Librarians want every course to require library research, but library research as such is a small portion of what students are expected to learn in four years.

There are areas where libraries and librarians can demonstrate their value, but being highly thought of as information literacy providers or educators by most of the faculty isn’t one of those areas. If we assume that libraries aren’t the center of the faculty universe and that librarians are never going to be generally seen as equal partners in the educational enterprise, then the sort of results we find in the Ithaka and similar reports provides us no basis for concern. If those sorts of results upset you at all, the problem could very well be with your expectations about the world, not the world itself. So even if the survey was statistically valid, which it probably isn’t, or said something specifically applicable about your campus, which it probably doesn’t, there’s really no reason to worry.

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: 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.]


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: 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.


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.