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.

10 thoughts on “Reflections on ACRL 2013

  1. Yes, there is an Indianapolis (not just Indiana!) accent that sounds southern. The bars probably do close early, but not that long ago, they weren’t in downtown Indy. Ah, change!

    • Thanks, Edi! That helps to explain why I kept hearing these vaguely southern accents but couldn’t begin to place the region. This was my first trip to Indiana, so I hadn’t heard any of the local accents before.

  2. Excellent blog post. I do think there is an over emphasis on IL to the point that it drowns out other fruitful avenues of exploration. For instance I’ve always wondered why we (Librarians) shy away from theory (outside of empiricism).

    • The IL issue puzzles me only insofar as librarians use a phrase that has no currency among professors and then get frustrated when they get so little attention. I can certainly understand the concern with the practical, and indeed I attended a couple of practical sessions at ACRL myself. As for the dearth of theory, I assume it has something to do with the training of librarians and then their relative isolation from theoretical issues, but I’m just guessing.

  3. I second the notion that there is an Indiana accent that sounds southern. Not all Hoosiers sound southern, but Indiana is sometimes referred to as the “northernmost southern state.”

    And you caught me a bit off-guard (and perhaps, a bit “in my cups”) with your follow up about the Chuang Tzu and professional philosophy. But this is actually a pretty rich topic that I’d like to dig into at some point. Certainly the usefulness of uselessness and wu wei plays a strong role, but also important were some of the different understandings and problemizations of mastery and knowledge (for example: the cook – it takes a lot of work to become great at something). However, I really like the story about Chieh Yu’s denunciation of “bogus virtue” and not trying to govern the external world. Just make sure what’s supposed to work is working.

    Also, I often fondly think of the story of the turtle and Chuang Tzu’s demand to “let me drag my tail in the mud.” Not that anybody’s asking me to administer a realm.

    • That probably wasn’t the most opportune moment to engage in philosophical conversation, but I’d been meaning to follow up. There’s certainly a lot in there about action and mastery that is applicable. And the tail in the mud story is great. Nobody’s asking me to administer a realm, or thus far even a library, but it’s worth remembering. That “Libraries and Enlightenment” book is looking better and better, although “The Tao of Libraries” isn’t taken yet, either.

  4. Pingback: DIY Collections – a case against that term | Start an Archives!

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  6. For what it is worth – doing a proposal related to information literacy probably doesn’t increase your chance of being accepted if my experience is worth anything. In my experience as a reviewer, the competition for IL folks is higher because … well, if you think the % of presentations on the topic is high, you should see the % of proposals. If sessions were at the same % as proposals, they would hardly be any other topics on the agenda. But, having said that, I think there is an advantage info lit folks have – we work all the time with writing outcomes, convincing others they want to hear us speak (teach), etc. That may benefit info lit people in that the conference proposal process bears more resemblance to that work than balancing budgets, selecting materials, etc. FWIW.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I was sort of joking, just because there were so many infolit type presentations. I went to some, because I, too, teach in addition to collection activities. I’ve only applied to speak at ACRL twice, and both were abstract, theoretical topics. I was rather surprised that the first one was selected for the virtual conference 4 years ago, but then got some indication the reviewers thought I was doing something more practical. This time I submitted a very theoretical proposal that I was pretty sure would be turned down. I did so because it was the germ of a larger project I’ve been considering doing, and I thought if it was accepted it would give me the motivation to do the preliminary research. Oh well.

      If I was desperate to speak, I’d propose something practical with as wide an audience as possible. Maybe next time!

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