Postmodern Librarians as Bricoleurs

Fortunately Stephanie the CogSci Librarian commented on a post of mine last week, or I wouldn’t have discovered the debate regarding better instruction or better interfaces that was going on within Facebook last week. Maybe I should hop onto the Facebook bandwagon and try to make more Facebook librarian friends. On the other hand, while the debate was going on I was helping prepare a Halloween party for my daughter. When it comes to an interesting library discussions versus party planning, I’m not sure where my loyalties lie.

My own preference would be for better interfaces, but it seems we have so little control over them. The world of information is so chaotic these days that sometimes I don’t even think better instruction will work well. A couple of weeks ago I gave research introductions to some juniors as they prepare to begin researching their independent junior papers, and unfortunately I had to acquaint them with the chaos without providing much order. I’m not cynical enough to think they all want to search nothing but Google, because I don’t find that to be the case with students I talk to. They perhaps all want to search Proquest and JSTOR, but even then they’ve moved beyond thinking that everything is on the free Web. Then I had to bring them back to the Web to show them how to find what we couldn’t find with traditional tools.

Teaching the traditional tools doesn’t bother me, either. Librarians for decades have tried to bring order to chaos, and scholars are familiar with catalogs, subject headings, and other standard library fare. The traditional tools still work up to a point, and they have to be taught, because otherwise much will be missed. In the world of printed books, still of great importance in the humanities, catalogs still serve a useful function unlikely to be usurped anytime soon. The structure of traditional indexes still works to some advantage. As painful as it might be for students, and I share their pain, to find some resources efficiently it’s still necessary to think like a librarian.

Add to this all the other useful ways to find books and scholarly information, from web-searching to footnote-chasing, and it’s easy to understand why students may be overwhelmed and want simpler, better, more powerful interfaces that organize information more effective. I do, too. I just don’t see how that can come about for a long time, if ever, what with so much undigitized information, so much proprietary information, so much expensive information, so much information, period.

It was typical that in a demonstrative search on one of the juniors’ topics we found a great article indexed in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts that wasn’t in full-text, and that the library didn’t subscribe to, and that didn’t show up in Google Scholar, but which did show up in Google and turned out to be in an open access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal. What lesson does this teach us?

The only hope might be more and better instruction, and even then the battle might be a losing one, because to thoroughly search these days requires becoming a Juke Box Hero, not a Guitar Hero, and who besides the serious scholars have the stamina for that? Most students have no desire to be serious scholars, and they never will be. I don’t think we can blame them for that. Try as we might, there’s only so much of the chaos we can teach students to control. That’s not a reason to get rid of instruction, just because it’s not perfect, but it might be a consolation for our inevitable failure to turn everyone into a human search engine.

As a postmodern librarian might say, or might have said back before we gave up postmodernism for whatever we have now, the grand librarian narrative that made sense of information has collapsed, and we live among the wreckage. One of the few useful terms I picked up from my mostly wasted years of studying postmodern theory was the concept of bricolage. Here’s the definition from the Wikipedia, which might be as good as any:

“Bricolage … is a term used in several disciplines…to refer to:

  • the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available;
  • a work created by such a process.

It is borrowed from the French word bricolage, from the verb bricoler - equivalent to the English “do-it-yourself”, the core meaning in French being, however, ‘fiddle, tinker’ and, by extension, ‘make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand (regardless of their original purpose).’

Bricolage as a design approach – in the sense of building by trial and error – is often contrasted to engineering: theory-based construction.

A person who engages in bricolage is a bricoleur: someone who invents his or her own strategies for using existing materials in a creative, resourceful, and original way.”

We are the postmodern, or perhaps post-postmodern, librarians. Of necessity we are bricoleurs. We use what tools we can and build where we are able, putting pieces of the information universe haphazardly together for each research project, organizing the chaos where we can, inventing our own strategies in creative and resourceful ways because we no longer have the safety of using only the old, known ways. Despite improving interfaces, my suspicion–neither a fear nor a hope–is that this will be true for a long time to come, until the World Brain digests and organizes all knowledge.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bricoleurs can be artists practicing a useful trade or creating masterpieces. But it does mean giving up some amount of authority and control, which is alien to the librarian mindset. We like authority and control over information, but if such authority and control are these days necessarily limited, it does us no good to bemoan the fact. Rather than nostalgia for the days when we could master (or pretend to master) the information universe, instead we can get satisfaction from our bricolage, knowing that we’re doing what we can.

5 thoughts on “Postmodern Librarians as Bricoleurs

  1. Hi Wayne — I’m glad I saw your posts from last week before I posted mine. :-)
    My newish mantra is “good enough.” If I can get someone to use Academic Search Premier rather than Google, in many cases, that’s good enough — and it’s pretty darn good.
    See you ’round the blogosphere!

  2. Just recently I’ve been thinking about the web of “stuff” students have to wade through when they start their research. I kept trying to remember what from my past life as a literary theorist (in training) this process mirrored, and you’ve hit it on the head! Only you did a *much* better job of unpacking the concept than I would have. What a wonderful post.

  3. Wayne, you said “It was typical that in a demonstrative search on one of the juniors’ topics we found a great article indexed in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts that wasn’t in full-text, and that the library didn’t subscribe to, and that didn’t show up in Google Scholar, but which did show up in Google and turned out to be in an open access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal. What lesson does this teach us?”
    Do you recall the name of that article? I would love to use this for a discussion I am having on just this topic!
    Chris
    quarxis@shaw.ca

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