Thoughts on Authority

I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts about Authority after the Wikipedia post. I guess if my thoughts were too organized, I’d write up the idea for an authoritative peer-reviewed journal instead of blogging it.

Academic librarians are very un-postmodern. They like Authority, at least in some senses, and have never subscribed to the “death of the author” proclamation once so prominent in literary critical circles. The notion of Authority helps up both in academic collection development and in reference. We don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything we buy or recommend, so we often rely upon some authority to distinguish the best material.

But what are we doing when we use Authority as a criterion for scholarly materials? Surely none of us believe that because Renowned Professor A published this article in Standard Scholarly Journal B that the article is thereby true, even if we believe in notions of truth. If we do, then what do we make of the undeniable fact that Acclaimed Scholar C has refuted Professor A’s claims in great detail in her most recent book from Outstanding University Press? The scholarly conversation captured in books and journals and even blogs isn’t necessarily any better because of who wrote it or where it was written, but we often act as if it is, using Authority as a metonym for something else. I’m not sure what that something else is, though. Truth? Probably not. A certain standard of scholarly rigor? Maybe.

I hope most librarians only use Authority as a criterion early on in the research process, and don’t try to teach students that only certain authoritative sources are good. Even very short source evaluation guides like this one go a little bit beyond who wrote or published the source, but it might be better if such guides regularly included more on content analysis, like this one.

But I’ve seen that in a lot of standard introductions to students, evaluating information often boils down to authority of some kind, rather than if the work is well reasoned or carefully researched. We just hope that if the writer and press have Authority, then the rest will take care of itself, and without becoming experts on every topic that’s often the best we can do. (It’s not just librarians, though. I was teaching a research session where the young instructor more or less said that any books not published by either Oxbridge or Ivy League presses or by professors from or at least with PhDs from such universities were suspect until proven otherwise.)

Tips for evaluating websites usually have the same approach. Who wrote this? What’s the url? Where is the page from? Does the author have the right credentials? I’m not saying this is bad. I do the same thing myself. (My writing students and I compare and evaluate two websites on the World Trade Center: this and this. The results of our comparison might make its own blog post.) But is this anything other than a shorthand way of evaluating something without reading it? Would what I write, for example, be any different, any better or worse, if the url of this blog were different or if I had a different job title?

When we challenge students to evaluate information sources, the “authority” of the source should only be one method to evaluate the source, and even then only if it’s a relevant criterion. We need to emphasize that “authoritative” means that a work has met some standard of criticism and has been judged a worthy entry into the scholarly conversation by someone or some group, but that it doesn’t mean the source is “right” or “true,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean other sources aren’t also useful or reliable.

We also need to understand when the notion of authority has no relevance (as when there is no author), and when we have to substitute some other standard of value instead. For Wikipedia and other wiki products, what would that standard be? Or perhaps a more relevant question — what can the shorthand criterion be if we can’t use Authority the way we’ve been used to?