On Having Nothing Nice to Say

Within the last week I’ve read about a leftist creative writing professor writing nasty things on Twitter and the ensuing right-wing demand that she be fired or punished, as well as about a feminist journalist in Canada who was vilified and professionally ostracized by other feminists because she wasn’t feminist enough for them. If you don’t want to be terrorized by a mob, don’t take a political stand on anything, because whatever your stance, and whatever your attitude or intentions, there will always be an opposing mob ready to terrorize you online. That’s one lesson to be learned from a social media environment amplifying political vitriol that oft was thought but ne’er so poor expressed. There are other possible lessons to learn, though, both about how to evaluate social media nastiness and how to respond, or not.

Perhaps because I’ve spent my life avoiding angry fanatics, or perhaps because I’ve been academically institutionalized for most of my adult life, or perhaps just because I’m a big white guy who people don’t mess with in person, it’s hard for me to imagine that the online vituperation so common in social media is at all representative of how people behave in person. Do people rant and vent and treat people so awfully online because they’re awful people, or does being isolated from the physical presence of human beings flip off some empathy switch that keeps most of us from being awful people in person? Based on my own experience, I usually assume the latter.

I’m hardly immune to the immediate desire to respond when criticized or attacked, especially if I think it’s unfair criticism. To take a non-political example (if such really exists), a review of my book on libraries and the Enlightenment committed a typical sin of book reviewing by reviewing a book I didn’t write and had no intention of writing; that must have been easier to review than the book I actually wrote. My first impulse was to write a response saying exactly that. My second, and better, impulse was to ask myself why it mattered to me what this person thought or said. Five years later I still remember that review, though. Someone else derisively dismissed a complicated and inconvenient argument from the book instead of attempting to refute or argue with it. Again, I was tempted to respond, but after that treatment I couldn’t take seriously anything the critic said anyway, so why bother to respond? If criticisms of my work are fair and reasonable, I should try to learn from them; if they aren’t, the critic isn’t intellectually or ethically worthy of my engagement. Either way, it’s usually best to remain silent.

Criticisms of my work are rare, mostly from lack of interest I assume, but like most librarians I read things about libraries from librarians that rankle me. Recently I read an essay from last year that I generally agreed with. I could quibble, but it made some good points and the author created a good ethos. In contrast, one of the comments was arrogant, irrelevant, and smug, from someone who’s work, from what I can tell, doesn’t warrant such a grandiose self-assessment. Should I have responded? This post was inspired by that question. What would have been the purpose or consequences if I had? An arrogant, self-assured librarian finds out that another arrogant, self-assured librarian isn’t impressed? The virtual presses don’t need to roll for that.

Aggressive political opinions provoke me as much as they’re probably intended to provoke their audience. My initial reactions are as conditioned by temperament and perspective as everyone else. Sometimes I consider joining the chorus, to express empathy or contempt, and a couple of times during the Presidential election season I did, but there’s really no point. Political arguments are mostly people without shared premises talking past each other about their differing conclusions. Even if people understand the premises behind their political conclusions–which is doubtful–the premises aren’t objective facts that can be logically argued from; the premises are themselves conditioned by our temperaments and perspectives. You might change someone’s mind about politics through empathy, but probably not through argument.

These days online political discourse can become so toxic that engaging in some of it is an exercise for fools or masochists. When the very idea of civil discourse is mocked, as it sometimes is, disengagement becomes the only rational recourse other than shouting; one can’t civilly discourse with those who have abandoned civil discourse. Mockery and ridicule have their place, but if those are the only possible responses I usually see no point. If someone wants to attack me instead of engage in discussion, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I might think, as per Epictetus, that if they actually knew me well they would find much worse things to attack me about.

There are both rational and humane justifications for not engaging either unfair critics or just people with whom I strongly disagree. We could ask the following question about any political, religious, or otherwise contentious disagreement: is there anything your opponent could possibly say to make you change your mind about whatever the topic is? If not, why would you believe that something you say would change their mind at all? And if that’s unlikely, why respond to them? I suggest the answer is more determined by your ego than by a desire for truth, reason, or enlightenment.

One of my less positive attributes is an uncanny ability to find and probe people’s psychological and emotional weak points. Just ask my old friends, I’m really good at it. In fact, I asked some old friends; one said he thought it was my superpower, another said “poke, not probe.” However, it’s a skill I prefer not to exercise, and I try not to usually, even though it can be an easy skill to exercise online. Since nobody ever wins an argument, what’s the best case scenario if I concoct the most devastating takedown of people I might argue with online? That they’ll change their minds? They’re more likely to strengthen their commitment to their beliefs. That they’ll praise me for enlightening them? Never happen. That I’ll change my mind? Not impossible, but unlikely. Thus, it’s irrational to even join the discussion if the purpose is persuasion or enlightenment.

What’s the worst case scenario? That something I write will make them angry, either with me or themselves, perhaps? Or depressed? Maybe they’re ranting because they just had a really bad day and I’m making it worse. Maybe their life just plain sucks and my pointing that out isn’t helping things. Maybe they’ll take that anger and express it on someone they know instead of the faceless stranger who couldn’t care less about them, because anger seeks a target even if the original target is absent. If the best case scenario is that nobody learns or changes their mind and I waste my time, and the worse case scenario is that I make them angry or depressed and they make someone else’s life miserable because of that, the humane and the rational choice is to remain silent. My own irrational anger is likely to hurt no one but me, but my stoking someone else’s irrational anger could have broader consequences.

It could be that lashing out at strangers online just makes some people happy, at least in the moment. Studies of trolls suggest this. In the long term, such behavior is likely a sign of psychological or emotional disturbance that leads to or emerges from misery. To drop into humanistic psychology talk, joyful, self-actualized people don’t feel the need to attack everyone who disagrees with them, and they certainly don’t want anyone to lose their livelihoods over political disagreements in a heterogenous liberal democracy. The opinion of strangers online doesn’t matter to them. But misery, as we know, loves company, and if I’m miserable I want to make others miserable, whether I’m “correcting” the opinion of some political miscreant for being insufficiently conservative or feminist, or joining an “incel” community and viciously attacking women.

What if instead of joining in a hostile social media melee, we instead thought about what doing so says about our character? If we disagree with someone, are we sure we’re right? How can we really be sure? Are we practicing intellectual virtues of caution, open-mindedness, or epistemic humility, or moral virtues of prudence, moderation, benevolence, or justice? Are we acting as the sort of people we would like to see more of, or only like the sort of people we would like to see more of if only they already agreed with us about everything? Is our egotistic arrogance really justified, and if it’s not should we malign strangers online, or listen to them with charity and either engage or ignore them as appropriate? If you answer these questions one way in private but act in a contrary way online, what’s wrong with you and how can you fix it?

In addition to asking questions of ourselves, we could pick role models from various wisdom traditions and try to emulate them. What would Socrates, or the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zhuangzi do? What is the wisest and most skillful way to respond to others online? On the other hand, if you think it’s better for you and the world to vent your spleen on social media about everything that angers or irritates you, if you want to give your ego and sense of entitlement free reign over your good sense or character, you have an excellent role model in President Trump. Others of us might ask, what would Trump do?, and then do the opposite.

Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

This blog is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I realized that its tenth year has been one of silence. Partly I’ve been working (slowly) on another book, partly I’ve been chairing a really busy ACRL committee that produces lengthy documents, and partly I’ve less incentive to blog since one provocative librarian has ceased publishing laughable false dichotomies about libraries and another has ceased all public activity due, supposedly, to “threats and politics.” I feel at my best as a critic. But mostly I’ve turned my mental free energy to other things and have generally found a negative correlation between eudaimonia and social media engagement (the subject of another, perhaps ironic, blog post I haven’t finished).

Of all things I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers by a Medium article encouraging library managers to embed creativity in their libraries. I say “of all things” because I’m all for creativity in the workplace, I’m not a library manager, and I have no particular objection to any advice in the article, with the small quibble that I’m not sure how one can have scheduled time together to “be creative” that has no agenda and can be used for “learning, play, investigation, fun,” but that also needs an “eventual outcome.” That sounds like a hidden agenda, but considering some of the librarian meetings I’ve attended over the years, a hidden agenda is probably better than no agenda at all.

That library manager reports that she’s spoken to “creatives newly employed in the library industry” who find a “dogged unwillingness to change” entrenched, and who “also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.” That’s a pretty serious charge coming from these creatives, to which my response is, 1) I’m completely unsurprised, since even non-creatives like me have found professional lethargy an occasional hindrance; 2) I’m not a manager, middle or otherwise, so I’m not hindering anyone as far as I know; and 3) hey, wait, are you talking about people like me who have never been “nurtured as a professional”? You are, aren’t you. You’re talking how mean I am and psychologizing about my feelings. That’s not very nice.

Probably not many librarians would call me mean. I doubt any would call me nurturing, either, although I do strive to be collegial. I certainly don’t want to defend any mean librarians, because I’ve known a small number who have been downright malignant and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they died slowly and painfully as long as I didn’t have to listen to them complain about it. (A couple of those librarians might indeed call me “mean,” but that didn’t sound mean, did it? I’ve gone unnurtured so long it’s hard for me to tell.) I have even tried in the last several years to encourage some newer librarians (not nurture, but still) in ways I was never encouraged, even if it is entirely in my self-interest to do what little I can to keep smart, engaged people working here. And I believe library managers should be encouraging and nurturing and all that, but I know they often aren’t.

But there’s another, unnurtured, feral part of me, shrugging, humming, and slowly tilting my head from side to side saying, “hmmm, well, maybe there’s another perspective.” It could be that “long term staff members” are being mean; it definitely happens. They could also be bitter or envious as they see enthusiastic newer colleagues and reflect on how little they’ve accomplished in their life and career. However, there is a possible non-malignant explanation for the behavior of long term librarians that doesn’t entail them being mean because they were never nurtured as professionals. They might not be mean, just indifferent, and that indifference might have an understandable existential rationale, which might itself offer some small consolation.

A former colleague of mine once related some advice he received early in his library career. Someone told him that the library had been there long before he was hired, and would be there long after he was gone. The same is likely true for you and your library, and in a case of a library like mine, it was here long before I was born and will likely persist long after I’m dead. And, unless you accomplish something exceptional, your work in that library will leave little to no lasting, significant change. That isn’t meant as an insult. I believe the same thing about my work, and I have a high opinion of myself both personally and professionally.

Our professional lives are as contingent as our personal lives. We were all born through a series of arbitrary events, thrown into a world not of our making, and will die without, in all likelihood, having affected the lives of more than a relatively small group of people, all of whom will also eventually die. Our work is much the same, only shorter. Where we work and what we do is mostly a matter of chance and luck, good or bad, and once we’re gone we’ll be replaced, if we even are replaced, and the workplace will continue to function.

Despite this professional existential contingency, we sometimes think of ourselves as necessary. Sometimes that’s because we’ve identified ourselves with one of the roles we play, like the waiter in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Instead of performing the tasks of a librarian, people play at being librarians, and conflate their selves with their current arbitrary professional roles. You may have encountered librarians who believed that the library wouldn’t run without them, that not just their position, but their person, was necessary for everything else to continue functioning. They need to believe that their contingency is really a necessity, but I believe they’re living in bad faith.

Consider this when thinking about the seeming indifference or resistance of your colleagues, especially the “long term staff members.” One of the things “long term staff members” learn is the contingency of other employees, if not perhaps of themselves. When you’ve been at a library long enough, especially one that employs lots of people, you learn that individual people come and go and yet the library keeps functioning. Sometimes if they leave the library everyone is worse off for a while, maybe a long while, but everyone adjusts. People are resilient, and there’s a lot of ruin in an organization. Thus, it might not be that the librarians who have been around for a while are trying deliberately to frustrate you, it could just be that they know how contingent your professional existence is.

In the wrong frame of mind, this might make you feel bad. Some people apparently feel anxiety at the thought of their own contingency. Why doesn’t everyone recognize my brilliance and defer to me, you might ask yourself. That question is probably even more puzzling if you actually are brilliant and full of great ideas that would make the library a better place for everyone and not just you. Some of the best and brightest librarians I’ve known and respected have been the most frustrated at the “dogged unwillingness” of entrenched librarians to change. I’m not dismissing that. I’ve felt that frustration myself.

If you feel like your colleagues aren’t listening to you and aren’t changing fast enough to suit your tastes or aren’t nurturing you enough, you might find some consolation in reflecting on the contingency of your own life and how it might be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. From a cosmic viewpoint–the “view from above” that Stoics recommend to put yourself into perspective–your life, your work, and your contributions ultimately don’t matter very much, but the same is true of your problems. Something that seems frustrating at work almost certainly isn’t important when viewed from the cosmic perspective. That’s also the perspective that almost everyone else has about you, because while it’s difficult to approach a cosmic perspective about our own importance, it’s relatively easy to gain one about other people, especially people who aren’t your close friends or loved ones.

Now it could be that you’re just a more compassionate person than I am. I’ll grant that’s entirely likely. I won’t fight for the moral high ground here. It could be that you REALLY care about ALL the people you work with, that you consider their well being as much as you do your own, that you’re incapable of viewing other people as anything but visceral extensions of your own emotional state and that you feel their pain as you feel your own. Other people look around the library and can find people they dislike and whose departure would be a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s their asshole boss, or that toxic colleague, or whomever. But not you.

If you’re like that, then you might be incapable of understanding the cosmic viewpoint and putting your problems into a larger perspective. Also, you might be incapable of functioning as a human being. But if you’re capable of feeling emotionally indifferent to the problems of even one of the people you work with, or to any of the 7.3 billion people estimated to be alive right now, then you might be capable of something resembling the cosmic viewpoint, and it might lessen the frustration you have with workplace problems that are relatively trivial.

Being frustrated by the slow pace of change or the indifference of long time staff members to your designs seems to me to be relatively trivial even from many non-cosmic perspectives. Institutional oppression and workplace bullying seem far worse than indifference or resistance. More serious issues emerge as you expand outwards to whatever you’re unhappy with about the state of the nation, human rights violations around the world, global trafficking in humans and weapons, the dangers we humans likely face from climate change, and the current scientific consensus that in about 4 billion years the earth will be too hot to sustain any life and in 7 billion or so it will be engulfed by the expanding sun–and that’s before we even leave the perspective of the earth.

Some might consider this point of view bleak, but I don’t share that interpretation. Worry, anxiety, obsession with others, the fear of embarrassment or failure–these can all thwart our attempts to change our circumstances for the better, and all of them are unimportant from any but our narrow personal perspective. If knowing that the earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun doesn’t hinder your will to act, why should knowing that some of your colleagues aren’t enthusiastic about your views or are indifferent to your contingency hinder that will? If you act to foment change, to improve your professional life or your library, what’s the worst that will happen? People who don’t care about you anyway will get irritated? You’ll fail? The worst that can happen, from the cosmic perspective, isn’t really that bad, so why not go ahead and try?

The people who do most to improve the world don’t worry about the indifference of others. They act to create the world they want to see. Embracing your own contingency and trying to adopt the cosmic perspective can be enervating or invigorating as you choose, and it can prepare you to do whatever you can to change things, and to feel less personal frustration over the things you can’t control.

Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

I just read Beerbrarian’s post on libraries and neoliberalism, partly responding to this post on locating the library in institutionalized oppression by nina de jesus. I wanted to enter the discussion, but then realized I’ve already pretty much said what I have to say on the subject. I’ve addressed neoliberalism and libraries some before, particularly in a post on Libraries and the Commodification of Culture. I wanted to make that a research project a couple of years ago, but frankly after a lot of reading I found the topic too overwhelming. Nevertheless, the gist of that and other writings provides some view of where I think libraries are located in “institutionalized oppression.”

At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.

de jesus says that she has “seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.” The reason for that could be that the library, as an institution, isn’t that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity. That’s a strong and counterintuitive claim, and the burden of proof rests on de jesus. However, there have been two  books arguing just that, both published in the 1970s and both still worth reading (although as you’ll see below I disagree with some of their conclusions). First is Michael Harris’ The Role of the Public Library in American Life, second is Rosemary DuMont’s Reform and Reaction: the Big City Public Library in American Life. Excerpted below are three pages from Libraries and the Enlightenment where I address Harris and Dumont and the possible counterargument to my claims that libraries are institutions philosophically founded upon Enlightenment values of freedom and reason, and are instead instruments of oppression.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

The taste elevation theory has also been criticized for its “elitism” and “authoritarianism.” In The Role of the Public Library in American Life,” for example, Michael Harris argues that the entire democratic argument behind the founding of the Boston Public Library is flawed because of its elitist authoritarianism. By the eighteen forties, Boston had developed into a major destination for new immigrants, who in the opinion of the Standing Committee of the Boston Public Library thought “little of moral and intellectual culture.” George Ticknor believed the massive influx of immigrants could be a problem because, in Ticknor’s words, they “at no time, consisted of persons who, in general, were fitted to understand our free institutions or to be intrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,” and thus the city needed to “assimilate their masses” and accommodate them to democratic institutions, primarily through education. Harris criticizes “Ticknor’s belief in the library’s potential as one means of restraining the ‘dangerous classes’ and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray,” and claims this belief “explains his insistence that the public library be as popular in appeal as possible” (6). The most significant motivation behind the founding of the Boston Public Library and other libraries in the nineteenth century, Harris argues, was a fear that the masses would destabilize society, especially the immigrant masses unused to republican regimes. Any attempt to “Americanize” immigrants was “elitist” and “authoritarian,” a critique developed further in Rosemary DuMont’s Harris-inspired Reform and Reaction. The desire to elevate the reading taste of the people is just a desire to control the lower orders and prevent radical social change.

I mention this revisionist history of the founding of public libraries because it calls into question my argument that such foundings were inspired by the Enlightenment goal to educate and improve the lot of everyone, rich and poor alike. For Harris and like-minded historians, such idealistic rhetoric always masks the ambitions of the powerful to control the powerless. However, one does not have to disagree with Harris’ account of George Ticknor—who did seem to be an authoritarian prig—to recognize that something as complex as the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory. Though the 1852 “Report” goes out of its way to argue that while good books should be supplied, no one should be forced to read them, one could still argue that even thinking some books were better than others and that people should read those books is “elitist,” etc. One question is whether such elitism and alleged authoritarianism are anti-democratic, and potentially counter-Enlightenment. The revisionist critique seems to imply that to be democratic in relation to books and learning means to consider all books equally good and useful and to consider all political beliefs and values worth defending, even if they are hostile or foreign to the needs of a democratic republic.

These days we would say this is a question of the value, or perhaps even the meaning, of multiculturalism, and addressing this debate in depth is out of our scope here. Harris and others (rightly in my opinion) would argue that the culture of the immigrants should be respected, but the question is, to what degree and in what areas? Let us assume that Ticknor and other upper-class Bostonians had a very conservative idea of what democracy should be; nevertheless, that does not show that they did not believe in democratic institutions. If we believe in the value of democratic institutions, then we must support those institutions, and what is more we must insist that everyone supports those institutions publicly, regardless of their private beliefs. Groups in democracies might fervently believe in fascism, but a democratic society cannot allow them to act on those beliefs. We can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions. What democracies cannot allow is a mere “modus vivendi,” as the philosopher John Rawls argues, where groups abide by democratic institutions until they can be overthrown. Carrying this argument back to Ticknor, why would he not believe that immigrants from countries without democracies would need some sort of education regarding democratic institutions? How could anyone possibly believe otherwise? Is there any difference in motivation behind this belief and the practice we have in the United States of giving extensive tests on American democracy to naturalizing immigrants, tests which most natural born Americans themselves cannot pass? While some supposedly democratic criticisms of practical educational institutions are no doubt valid, we must resist the tendency to believe that all educational efforts not derived from the group being educated are inherently undemocratic. Undemocratic groups require an education in democracy.

Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. For example, Jane Addams and the settlement workers in the early twentieth century wanted to “’Americanize’ immigrants into the norms of their new society,” but they definitely improved the lives of urban immigrants (Flanagan 37). Indeed, by the standards of the anti-immigrant movements that gained control of the American government in the nineteen twenties, George Ticknor looks like a raging liberal. Citizens of a democracy must be acculturated into democratic institutions, and criticizing this necessity because the action first arose from the conservative fear of uneducated immigrants ignores this. Even Harris is forced to admit the value public libraries had for everyone, including immigrants. “That the library’s services to the immigrant had definite positive values for those able to take advantage of them cannot be denied,” though he still claimed that librarians had little to do with benefit, arguing that “these positive values were the result of the immigrant’s persistence and not the librarian’s conscious attitude” (14). In his zeal to deny the beneficial accomplishments of anyone remotely conservative, Harris acts as if the libraries which benefitted the immigrants sprung into existence without influential citizens to found them and working librarians to run them. Regardless of whether or not an enlightened and democratic ideal was not realized in practice, it is undeniable that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library wanted to found an educational institution to allow people access to useful knowledge and give them the opportunity to educate themselves for life and citizenship, and that the Boston Public Library became such an institution whatever its flaws. It is also clear from the founding of the Boston Public Library to the founding of libraries throughout the century, that the most important motivating reason was the link between the public library and public education. (pp. 110-14)

Libraries and the Commodification of Culture

The shift from markets to networks and from ownership to access, the marginalization of physical property and the ascendance of intellectual property, and the increasing commodification of human relationships are slowly leading us out of an era in which the exchange of property is the critical function of the economy into a new world in which the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity.

–Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access


Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit. 

–David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism


A society in which every transaction must be mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and strictly controlled, will come to resemble a medieval society—a world of balkanized fiefdoms in which every minor grandee demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. The flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture—will be serious impeded. Furthermore, such a market-dominated society is not likely to cultivate the sense of trust and shared commitments that any functioning society must have….

    The truth is, we are living in the midst of a massive business-led enclosure movement that hides itself in plain sight.

–David Bollier, Silent Theft

I read John DuPuis’ post Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose with great interest. I’d already been thinking about his tweet from last week (that I caught on Facebook): “Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?” The final question is one I’ve been thinking about lately, and I believe the answer is, yes, they are saying that. Publishers are indeed opposed to the core values of libraries. However, it’s more than that. Corporations are opposed to the core values public goods, public space, and and other values that resist commercialization and commodification. Libraries are merely part of an international trend in contemporary capitalism and are just starting to feel the impact of trends that have been building for the past forty years or so.

I don’t have a full blown thesis at the moment, and am using this post to sketch out the broad outline of what might be my next research project (my research agenda seems to be to take whatever I happen to be reading about at the moment and stick “Libraries and…” in front of it). There has been a movement afoot to commodify every aspect of human life, to make every human exchange a market transaction, and to reduce every domain outside the market as much as possible. Call the movement what you will–neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, the monetarization of reading transactions, or the commodification of culture–but the dominant belief is a faith that private property and markets are always good and everything outside those markets is bad, or at the very least that everything outside those markets is inefficient, and inefficiency is in itself always evil. The most important thing is the protection of capital and ensuring its free movement, regardless of any other values that might interfere with that goal: human rights, popular sovereignty, a social safety net, or free access to information by citizens of a (nominally?) democratic republic.

This ideology can play itself out on an international scale, such as the power debtor nations might cede to the World Bank or the IMF, or on a national scale, such as when financial institutions “too big to fail” are bailed out by the government but not, say, homeowners duped into buying mortgages they could really never afford. It ranges from Margaret Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society to Elsevier paying members of Congress to support the Research Works Act. Privatizing public schools, eliminating public funding for higher education, or defunding libraries are some ways that governments acquiesce to the neoliberal dogma that the private sector always knows best. Private-sector corporations act rationally and merely do their best to ensure that governments institute laws favorable to corporations, even if at the expense of the public good.

I’m not saying anything particularly new. Included below are a few books I’m currently reading that touch on these issues. The “commodification of human culture,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, isn’t a new trend; nor is it yet complete. There are still spaces of resistance within commercialized culture, spaces motivated by noncommercial values. I say “noncommercial” deliberately, rather than anticommercial. As David Bollier notes in Silent Theft, “the issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms—semi-permeable membranes—so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating that other. That equilibrium is now out of balance as businesses try to exploit all available resources, including those that everyone owns and uses in common.” Libraries are examples of spaces dominated by noncommercial values, a semi-permeable membrane between the market for books and the democratic need for a knowledge commons. A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.

In his post, John is right that “private interests are attacking the public good.” They always have been, but at the moment their power is increasing because of legal and technological changes seemingly beyond our control, as well as the successful ideological campaign to persuade people that freedom means the freedom to engage in commercial transactions but not the freedom to read. Can the public good or noncommodified culture be saved? I have no idea. The problem is so much larger than libraries or open access scholarship or ebooks or any of the specific issues we address piecemeal. The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. This is the briefest of sketches because I’m still trying to understand that larger context.

Further reading:

Bollier, David. 2002. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.
———. 2005. Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Hess, Charlotte. 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice / Ostrom, Elinor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kallhoff, Angela. 2011. Why Democracy Needs Public Goods. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2005. Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader / Johnston, Deborah. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.

Ethics of Innovation symposium [updated]

Most of you probably already know about this, but next Wednesday, November 17th is an OCLC/ Library Journal sponsored online symposium. It’s free to register:

The Ethics of Innovation: Navigating Privacy, Policy, and Service Issues
November 17, 2010 1-3pm (ET)

Liza Barry-Kessler and Gary Price are the main speakers. I’ll be giving a brief introduction and moderating and participating in the non-Twitter discussions regarding the talks. I think it’ll be interesting. Some of the possible topics I’ve wanted to blog about, but decided to wait until after the symposium was over so I don’t spoil anything.

Update: I thought the Ethics of Innovation Symposium went well yesterday. I was also surprised at how many people have to work together to make something like that go smoothly. I gave an introduction, but between that and listening to the speakers and fielding questions and paying attention to the back chat channel, it was like real work for two hours. I think the slides will be released at some point, but if anyone’s curious I pasted my introduction below. The conversation between Gary and Liza was great and ranged widely over all sorts of ethical issues, some of which get very little discussion. Anyway, it was fun.

The title of today’s symposium–The ethics of innovation: navigating privacy, policy, and service issues–covers a potentially huge number of topics that show what complicated institutions libraries have become in the past couple of decades. What once was a self-contained building with only physical items has become a crossroads where librarians, library users, vendors, technology, ethics, and the law constantly interact. The “library” has spread beyond the walls of any building and technological innovation has created a more complicated world of online content and online interactions with the library at one crossroads. In the process, the ethical and legal issues we must consider have multiplied considerably. Where once we had buildings and physical stuff, we now have in addition distributed online networks originating outside the library and intersecting in various ways in an environment now almost metaphorically or even anachronistically called a “library.”

As an example of how traditional relationships have changed, consider the issues around licensing an online journal instead of owning a print copy. With print copies, libraries could do more or less what they wanted once they had the copy. They could copy an article and give it to another library or put it on reserve and no one would be the wiser. Now that we license journals, vendors have more power over content and more knowledge of its use. Can we “lend” a copy of an online article? Maybe. If we subscribe to journals, can’t students use the articles for course readings? It makes technological and pedagogical sense to do so, but Georgia State University was recently sued by several publishers who claimed that doing so was a violation of copyright. Access is easier and the legal and ethical landscape more complicated than ever.

Or think about the situation with ebooks. We have the technology to allow multiple library users to read the same book at the same time, but the technology is legally hampered. Libraries have built up over the past few decades an elaborate national network for sharing books and making them as widely available as possible, and this network of resource sharing has been one of our valuable services to the public, but that network and the access it allows may disappear if ebooks take over printed books but the current digital rights remain. Here technology, copyright, and library ethics could come together somewhat violently and libraries are the crossroads where they’ll meet.

Librarians like information to be free, and it’s easier than ever for us to distribute much of our library content, which makes it harder sometimes to comply with the legal restrictions. How often are we tempted to send articles to friends from subscription databases they aren’t allowed to access? Or how often DO we send them?  Recently there was an online discussion about how independent scholars or scholars with poorly funded libraries get articles they need from friends with better library access. This is done routinely, with no ethical qualms whatsoever. It’s the ethic of scholars and librarians to share information. But is this practice ethically any different from distributing digital copies of movies or music? Legally it’s NO different, but we can imagine scholars who would balk at DVD piracy thinking nothing of emailing someone an article from ProQuest. Here we have an area where the illegal seems ethical to many people.

Librarians feel an ethical obligation to make information as freely available as possible, but this obligation goes along with other ethical and legal obligations. As we create new services, we approach gray areas. Witness the recent brouhaha over a librarian writing publicly that her library lends Netflix videos to library users even though it technically violates Netflix’s user agreement. She more or less said it was okay because Netflix wasn’t asking her to stop yet. To some librarians, the ethical obligation to provide what people want–in this case DVDs–overrides the legal obligation to abide by user agreement, or even with the traditional library ethic to loan only what we’ve purchased or specifically licensed. What’s the proper response in situations like these? Do we ignore the law? Rationalize it away? Adhere to its strictest letter? Advocate for different agreements? Regardless, we have to know about the issues involved before we can make decisions.

Libraries could also preserve the content they purchased, which is a service to future generations, but even preservation becomes more difficult and raises ethical and legal questions that didn’t matter before. Before we just kept the physical stuff, maybe in cold storage. Now things are more complicated. Vendors and publishers license content, but they also sign agreements for long-term preservation and storage with organizations like LOCKSS, Portico, and the Hathi Trust. Thus, information is preserved, but not necessarily accessible until the occurrence of some rather unlikely trigger events. This is undoubtedly good for preservation purposes, but it has created another complex legal and ethical situation around libraries and digital information.

Librarians like information to be free, but not about library users. Librarians traditionally want to protect user privacy, and they also want to provide goods and services over the Internet. But the Internet is the place privacy goes to die. While libraries are routinely deleting patron borrowing records to prevent the FBI from snooping in them, librarians and library users are also using online services where they willingly give up some privacy to get better service. Amazon makes useful recommendations for purchases because Amazon knows what we buy. Facebook and Twitter are useful or fun because we put so much information about ourselves before the public. Foursquare or various geolocation applications work because people are willing to say not only what they think, but show where they’re located.

As libraries adapt social media for their purposes, what happens to patron privacy in the traditional sense? OPACs could function as reader’s advisory, but only if we start collecting and storing user data. Encouraging online interaction with the library encourages a reduction in privacy. And library users can’t become the “mayor” of our library without disclosing a lot about themselves. How do we adapt our traditional ethical principles to a new world where, contrary to the old Peter Steiner cartoon, on the Internet everybody DOES know you’re a dog, and what doghouse you happen to be sleeping in at that moment? And in the midst of social media that can erode privacy, do we ourselves know how to navigate popular programs and applications to protect our own privacy, and to educate library users to protect their privacy if they desire? Are we aware of how much data is being gathered about us every time we search the Internet or interact with a website? Can we explain that to library users? Do we have policies on what information we collect and why?

The amount of information we have to keep track of regarding all these issues can be overwhelming. Do we know all the user agreements and vendor licenses and copyright laws that apply to the resources and services libraries provide? Are we aware of our own ethical principles and how they apply to various technological and legal situations we find ourselves faced with? Do we know what Facebook or Google does with our data, and can we explain that to library users if necessary? Do we know enough to navigate the world of social media and recommend or explain services and what they do with our information? How can we educate ourselves and our users about all the technological, legal, and ethical issues involved in using libraries these days?

On Homosexuality and Non-Neutral Stances

This post from the Gypsy Librarian resonated with me. In it, he discusses his reaction to the anti-gay bullying and subsequent suicides, and the possible difficulty caused by taking public stances as a “neutral” librarian.

I, too, have been wanting to write about this, especially the Rutgers case, which I found both disturbing and depressing. Since I rarely treat this as a personal blog, I felt I didn’t have an appropriate space to write, but I’m going to do it anyway. At least I’m warning you up front.  In the case of Rutgers, I found myself wondering if we’re raising a generation of sociopaths, or at least of mild sociopaths. The inability to distinguish between right and wrong and the incapacity for empathy are characteristics of sociopaths, and both seem evident in the behavior of the student who created and publicly posted the videorecording of Tyler Clementi. Something about the anti-privacy culture of teens on Facebook encourages this, and I think it’s telling that Tyler Clementi’s penultimate act was a Facebook status update.
I very much disagreed with this response from an Inside Higher Ed blogger. In it, she argues that the minds of the young aren’t fully developed, and that we shouldn’t blame the student who posted the video. After all, we all did dangerous and foolish things when young! One example is driving drunk or stoned as teenagers, and thus endangering others. However, while such behavior is itself foolish and dangerous, the danger is also to the drunk driver. This doesn’t excuse it, but it changes the situation somewhat. Drunk drivers don’t deliberately try to harm themselves or others, whereas the video-posting student must have meant to harm Clementi, though I hope not to the extent he actually did. Her best example is the “hot lips” scene with Frank and Margaret in the movie M*A*S*H, a scene which the Rutgers incident eerily parallels in some ways. But the parallel doesn’t go far enough to to provide a good analogy. In the movie, Frank and Margaret are the outsiders, but they’re the outsiders only because they’re establishment figures temporarily in the midst of the real outsiders, whom they relentlessly criticize. Part of the motivation of that scene was to show the hypocrisy of a Bible-thumping and bullying Christian committing adultery. In the Rutgers case, Clementi was the outsider, or at least he felt himself as such. That it happened at a university makes the whole thing more disturbing.
I’ve never quite “gotten” anti-gay prejudice. Unlike other forms of hate and bigotry, it’s directed at something you can’t even see. One usually doesn’t look at a person and see desire for the same gender in the way one sees skin color or age or (often enough) social class. And I assume most anti-gay bigots have never actually seen two homosexuals having sex with each other (and two women in porn movies doesn’t count). It’s a prejudice against a way of being that has no effect on anyone else. I really can’t imagine why people care if other people have harmless desires or engage in harmless acts they don’t even have to see. Because the prejudice is based on something not actually seen but only sensed through often flawed signals, I myself have been a target of anti-gay bigotry, even though I’m not gay. I grew up in the deep south, and I met plenty of people who assumed that if a man didn’t watch football and hate gays, he must be a homosexual. In college, a friend of mine–at the time a semi-closeted homosexual–told me that he’d been warned by a mutual acquaintance to stay away from me because I was gay and people might think he was as well if he was seen with me. Somebody’s gaydar was sure messed up. The irony amuses me to this day. Another time in college, I apparently was verbally attacked by drunken frat boys in a bar. (I say “apparently” because the details are, um, a bit hazy to me, and I’m relying upon a friend’s testimony.) I’m not sure what the provocation was, but some guy called me a fag. According to my friend, I told him I knew I wasn’t gay because I gave a blowjob once and didn’t like it. I suspect that I (6’2″) and my friend (6’5″) were saved from physical attack because of our size. Possibly my antagonists believed it would be embarrassing to be beaten up by someone they thought was gay. Bigotry should be ridiculed, and bigots should be mocked.
Obviously, I’m not neutral. Like the Gypsy Librarian, I’ve given some thought to the supposed neutrality proclaimed for the profession of librarianship. As I understand it, librarians are supposed to be neutral in the sense that they build collections that represent diverse views, especially on controversial topics, and they don’t allow their personal prejudices to influence their selection of books, etc. In this sense, I am to some extent neutral. But in this series of posts, I argued that academic librarians aren’t really neutral about our collections. Every view doesn’t have to be represented if that view is poorly reasoned or unsupported by any evidence or argument. As the religion selector, I frequently receive gift books about all kinds of wacky stuff. If it’s about astrology, or crystal healing, or someone explaining scientifically that Jesus really was the son of God and that he can help you lose weight, the chances of it reaching the collection are slim. It’s always good to keep a few curiosities so that future researchers will know how some people believed in the past, but popular books on crystal healing aren’t exactly an area for a research library to collect to strength. Limited budgets mean some silly things just have to fare on their own. It’s part of our jobs to say one book is better than another in the sense that it adheres to a higher standard of reason. It’s also part of our jobs to teach students to critically analyze the sources they find. It’s not a matter of indoctrination into a particular position (as conservatives sometimes claim), it’s a matter of indoctrination into a standard of criticism and reasoning.
Typically, it’s some “controversial” topic that receives book challenges, but in academia there aren’t many controversial topics, and the ones that are controversial are the ones book-challengers tend to agree with. Controversial positions are roughly whatever social conservatives would support. The positions aren’t controversial because they’re conservative, whatever that means, but because they don’t adhere to the values of the academy: reason, liberty, and equality. There’s a conservative conspiracy theory that there aren’t many conservative academics because liberals dislike their politics. However, it’s very clear to me that there aren’t many conservative academics because conservatives tend not to defend their views with reason, analysis, careful argument, and evidence. Most liberals don’t either, but liberalism is a rational political philosophy because it believes political decisions should be based on public reasons, which is exactly what many conservative intellectuals have criticized it for. Academics tend to be liberals because they tend to value reason more than faith or tradition.
Conservatives value faith and tradition more than reason; that’s what makes them conservatives, and it’s what makes them so hard for liberals to understand. Most conservatives are impervious to argument about certain political and religious issues not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t believe in reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. To the liberal ac
ademic such a position appears just short of insane. Relying upon reason rather than faith or tradition will lead you to more liberal positions on most social issues. (I’m exempting so-called fiscal conservatives, who are often just libertarians, and thus a variety of liberal.) Add to this the freedom necessary to explore (almost) every topic and the equalizing nature of reason and argument. For the most part, what matters isn’t how much money you make, or how good you look, or what kind of car you drive, or who you prefer to have sex with, or what God you claim to believe in,  but how reasonable and civil you are. Other values are leveled by the value of reasoned discourse. We judge people by their reason and their civility, not their sexuality. Thus, one goal of a college education is to teach people to engage in civil debate and to think and reason critically, and once they do there are certain beliefs they’re unlikely to have. It’s merely a coincidence that these happen to be mostly conservative beliefs, because there are plenty of irrational liberals out there, too. The liberals who projected messianic qualities onto Obama two years ago were no more rational than the conservatives who now blame him because they can’t find jobs.
Thus, in academic libraries, as in academia more broadly, we have an ethic based in reason, liberty, and equality. It’s about the only place left in America where calm, reasoned discourse can prevail, which might be why some conservatives want to destroy it. We don’t have to be neutral about anti-gay bigotry, or racism, or sexism because they all conflict with our values. If someone tells tells us that “God hates fags,” the appropriate response is to ask why? And how do you know? And then to point out all the flaws in his reason. In open debate, bigots and bullies don’t fare very well, which is why they don’t engage in it. But we can. We can say to the bigots and bullies of the world that if they have something to say worth taking seriously, they can defend it with reasons, arguments, and evidence, rather than name-calling, fear-mongering, and demagoguery. And we can say with assurance they’re wrong because they’re incapable of working within the neutral framework of shared human reason to persuade anyone. They might be dangerous and popular, but that doesn’t mean they can hold an intelligent conversation with an opponent. And then we can mock them, because there’s not much point engaging irrational bigots in rational argument.
The values of academia are also the values of librarianship more broadly, at least in public libraries. Librarians might not keep someone from reading a book they disagree with, but it doesn’t mean they can’t criticize the ideas it contains. A dedication to intellectual freedom is a dedication to reason, liberty, and equality.
Does any of this help the children and adults being harassed because of their sexuality or anything else that marks them as “different”? Obviously not. If I saw an act of bullying, I would intervene, but there’s not much more I could do. I do wish someone had been able to tell Tyler Clementi, or Billy Lucas, or Seth Walsh that the bullies are wrong, their hatred pathetic, that there are people in the world who judge others as individuals and not types, that it does get better, that there are places in the world where outsiders are accepted and tolerated and inspired, and that one of those places is the library.

Resource Sharing and the Republic of Letters

At the risk of creating an infinite blog post regression, I’ve been wanting to write about this post at ACRLog by Steven Bell, and this post partially responding to Bell’s post by Barbara Fister on her Library Babel Fish blog. Bell responded to the Netflix-in-libraries debate by pointing to a scholar who didn’t understand why he couldn’t get JSTOR access from a university he no longer attended, and the apparent willingness of the scholar and his commenters to share resources illegally if necessary to get what they need for their research. Fister added into the mix an article from The Scientist in which a scientist realized (better late than never!) that if libraries can’t afford scientific journals then the progress of scientific research will be retarded, as well as the recognition that outside of R1 universities access to scholarly resources is often severely limited.

The discussions, as usual, are well worth reading in their entirety, but I’ve been thinking mostly about the willingness of scholars to share articles and books amongst themselves, even if that sharing is technically illegal. This doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does it alarm me. Instead, it confirms my hypothesis about the mission and ethic of scholars, research universities, and their libraries. Last post, I speculated that the mission of research universities is to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. That creation and dissemination are not confined to institutions. The mission isn’t just that of a university or a library, but of every individual scholar.
For my purposes, I will give you an oversimplified and bastardized history of the Republic of Letters and its relationship to current scholarship. In the 17th century, an international network of scholars developed who shared their works and ideas with each other, often through letters (hence the phrase). In the late 17th to the 19th century, the Republic of Letters metamorphosed into a network of scholarly journals, where scholars both independent and institutionalized published their work for the benefit of themselves and the public. The purpose of organized research since the Enlightenment has been to create knowledge and disseminate it for the public good. Before research universities were even founded, scholars considered it their duty to share their work and their ideas with other scholars. This freedom of publication was difficult in countries and principalities with censorship policies, and sometimes scholars had to publish anonymously or underground, but the ideal and goal of sharing was always present. 
Fast forward to today. Early 21st century America is a very different place from 17th century England or 18th century France, but the scholarly ideal of the Republic of Letters remains strong. It’s only natural, since academia is by its nature conservative and traditional, with generation upon generation of scholars training other scholars in the theory and practice of research. Scholars in universities have been organizing and training their predecessors in remarkably similar ways since the 12th century. Some believe this tradition has no place in the contemporary world. I tend to think that this ideal of knowledge creation and dissemination are shining lights of intellectual virtue in a sea of compromise.
Though I’m oversimplifying my history for brevity’s sake, I don’t think it’s mistaken, and if true it would explain the willingness of scholars to this day to share scholarly articles among themselves, even if such sharing is prohibited by licensing agreements and copyright. The ethics of scholarship require that scholarly resources be made available to other scholars, period. Laws and contracts created centuries after the formation of this ethical code are irrelevant. Pay-walls might keep an individual scholar from an individual article or database, but they are merely an inconvenience for the dedicated scholar, not a moral encumbrance. Such is evident from practice.
When that happens, when a law or regulation is widely flouted without compunction or guilt, what do we normally say about it? Recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He draws upon Christian and Jewish sources to argue that positive laws (the laws on the books) that don’t adhere to the natural law are unjust laws, and that unjust laws are not laws at all. Legislators can pass any laws they want, but that doesn’t necessarily make them just.
There are numerous laws that the vast majority of us consider unjust, and thus ignore. I argue that scholars believe severe copyright restrictions, or restrictions on sharing of scholarly resources, are inherently unjust, and thus not worth abiding by. Scholars operate under an ethic of sharing several hundred years old.
Granted, the history of scholarly publishing has demonstrated that scholars aren’t very good at living up to their ideals, often because they pay no attention to how the real world of publishing works.  They do their research, and work for free for publishers who then charge their universities outlandish prices for their journals. That after almost a generation of library advocacy, a scientist is just now discovering that the rising cost of journals might endanger research is a case in point. 
Also, since the emergence of what William James called the “PhD Octopus,” scholarly journals have become not just media to distribute scholarly research, but status markers in a competitive profession. However, I would argue that such developments are the result of incentives created by administrators and non-scholars rather than the natural development of the modern scholarly ethic. Scholars participate in this system because they ignore its legal and economic restrictions, quite possibly because they believe that those restrictions don’t apply to them.
How does this relate to libraries? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not arguing that libraries should disobey the law or violate licenses. Even if it weren’t illegal to argue that, it would be impolitic. I merely point out why scholars pay no attention to copyright or license agreements, why they freely share resources, why they post copyrighted content to their open course websites, and and why they have no ethical qualms about such actions. Understanding this helps us understand the ethos of the profession academic librarians support.
But I also wonder about the clash here between the scholarly ethic and the laws regarding copyright and licenses. Can we make a right choice here? It seems an impossible dilemma. The positive law requires us to enforce copyright and licensing agreements, but the positive law conflicts with the centuries-old ethic of scholarship as well as the freedom of information that librarians champion. What would the natural law be in this situation? Wouldn’t it be that the results of research freely provided, and often even publicly funded, should be free to the world? That open access to scholarly publications is part of the natural order of scholarship? If that’s true, then what are we to make of copyright laws or licensing agreements that are designed to benefit the publishers and not the public? How can we believe that the most stringent of current copyright laws are just laws at all? It seems all we can do is advocate change and hope for the best, neither of which has helped much so far.

Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions

[Update: a revised version of this post was published as “Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions.” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9 (2010), 47-54.

In the context of a project I’m working on about libraries and Enlightenment, I was asked what I thought about “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” (The latest draft I could find is here.) I’d read a little about it, but my only impression was that most of it seemed fine while some of it seemed to conflict with academic and library values. The basic thesis of the document is that librarians should be sensitive to the desires of indigenous communities regarding library collections of “traditional cultural expressions,” i.e. objects, documents, etc.  created by members of those communities.

In a general sense, this seems a reasonable and ethical position, and upon further analysis, I realized I supported many of the document’s claims, but not at all for the reasons given by the document. A very small portion of the TCE document does indeed conflict with core values of libraries and universities, but a lot of the rationale does. It took me a while to parse out which parts I thought were in conflict with library values and which not, and also to figure out why I supported most of the document despite the flawed rationale. I’m still working through the labor of the notion, as Hegel might say, and the result is below. I think this is supposed to be debated by ALA Council. My opinion is that the Council should probably support a revised version of the document, but that the document as it stands is unsatisfactory. 
Philosophical Objections
Librarians can object to bits and pieces of this document, and those are the bits and pieces which should be revised. First, we can simply analyze the document to see if the statements all make sense.  The portion on “Meaning and Social Context” is the most problematic from this perspective, and the least necessary for the document as a whole. In that section it is claimed, for example, that “Traditional cultural expressions do not exist separately from the living cultures they reflect. Tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage.” Quite frankly, the first statement isn’t true. If it was true, then there would be no need for such a document as this, because libraries wouldn’t own any of these “expressions.” They obviously do exist separately from their cultures, as all expressions do. And yet, this statement is somehow supposed to justify the claims being made. The position of the writers is that there aren’t objects in libraries, but “expressions,” and an expression must have an expresser. But “expressions” as such don’t exist as “expressions.” They exist as objects or texts or whatever. Calling them “expressions” is presenting an interpretation of those objects preferred by the writers of the document, but difficult to support if you don’t share their assumptions.
It’s definitely true that these objects or texts are meaningful in their cultural context, and such a context is the best way to try to determine their original meaning. Objects and texts out of their appropriate context can be interpreted many ways, though, and their meanings can never be restricted or contained by any one context. If there is any value to poststructuralist arguments about texts and interpretation–and I think this is the most valuable part of the poststructuralist enterprise–I’m not even sure how anyone would begin to prove that an “expression” doesn’t exist beyond its expresser. 
The second sentence, that tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage, makes much more sense, but it’s not clear how it’s related to the first sentence, or how it is related to an argument about how librarians should treat objects and texts in their care. If the tradition-bearers are indeed the repositories of their cultural heritage, then once again there’s no need to worry about other repositories like libraries. If “expressions” can’t exist without the expressers, and if the expressers are the repositories, then what could there possibly be in libraries? What are those things librarians collect?  Statements such as this do little to support the main claims of the document. The rest of the statements in that section might be true, but aren’t necessarily relevant to an argument about what librarians should do with TCEs.
Librarian Objections
The document claims that “the special sensitivity and care TCEs require are supported by the fundamental tenets of librarianship. These principles serve as a reminder of core library values and our mission to safeguard and provide access to materials without sacrificing individual liberty or respect for cultural differences.” I don’t think this is correct, and it’s certainly not proven in the document, which references librarians’ core values but doesn’t analyze the claims regarding TCEs according to those values. Here’s the list of ALA “core values”:
  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education and Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Preservation
  • The Public Good
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility
We could take them in turn. Access requires that librarians strive to make collections as freely available as possible to all comers. In addition to the commendable statement that libraries should help indigenous peoples preserve and even digitize their cultural “expressions,” we also have this statement: “Libraries should be sensitive to the possibility that digitizing traditional cultural expressions could expose the content to a world beyond the boundaries of the library, making it potentially more vulnerable to misuse.” I’ll address “misuse” in a moment, but even without that this is an odd statement. First of all, there’s not just the possibility that digitization would expose the content beyond the bounds of the library; that’s the entire purpose of digitization. We want to make our collections more accessible. That’s why we digitize. 
Confidentiality/Privacy could conflict with this statement: “Libraries strive to provide the necessary social and cultural context in connection with use of indigenous materials in their collections, and make every effort to ensure appropriate use of materials.” It might not conflict, but it all depends on what one means by ensuring appropriate use. To make sure someone isn’t going to destroy or deface an object? Definitely.  But what if the object or text is used as a source for a research project? Should librarians inquire about how the object will be used, and not allow access to those who aren’t “using” the objects “appropriately”? This relates to the worry over “misuse.” What would it mean to “misuse” a digital collection? To interpret it badly? To use it to mock or criticize a culture? These are certainly possibilities, but they are “misuses” that must be allowed for educational and intellectual purposes. If someone interprets something wrongly, they should be refuted, not prevented. This is the essence of democratic debate and education. The language here isn’t very clear, and doesn’t explain what appropriate use might be. That alone should be reason enough to require revision.
Democracy would also possibly conflict with the claims that indigenous peoples somehow control the meanings of objects in libraries. Democratic values protect, but don’t privilege minority groups. It also conflicts with the claims about misu
se. Democracy requires open inquiry and debate, that requires access to information and the freedom to debate it. These are core library values that we disregard at our peril.
Diversity is a contested term, but would probably be one of the most relevant values to support the parts of the document worthy of support. Because libraries have diverse collections in a diverse society, it’s important to make the effort to understand that diversity and to be sensitive to the needs and desires of diverse communities. This would lend support to the more reasonable and defensible claims in the document, such as, “Librarians have a responsibility to develop an understanding appreciation of the traditions and cultures associated with materials held in their collections.” Absolutely, they do. 
The next two values–Education and Intellectual Freedom–are perhaps the most crucial to academic libraries, and the values that have the best claim to provide the foundations for libraries in the first place. If we consider these values absolute and universal, they undoubtedly trump some of the claims being made in the document about sacred knowledge or (potentially) restricted access. The modern research university is a product of the Enlightenment, for better or worse, and its values are that anything can be considered an object of investigation, and that in most circumstances the importance of  the production and dissemination of knowledge takes precedent over other concerns. We study and investigate peoples, texts, objects, nature, etc. because knowledge is both good for its own sake and useful for the progress of society. Together with other Enlightenment values such as democracy, freedom of speech and publication, and toleration of dissent in a marketplace of ideas, these provide the rationale for the research universities and their libraries.
Here also is where possible difficulties lie. Some parts of this document are utterly incompatible with such values. In the discussion, the other librarian posed the problem as possibly one of colonialist versus indigenous people’s values. This is the cultural relativist perspective. But the Enlightenment perspective would pose it as a problem of universal versus local values. Who’s correct here? Your position on this will probably determine your position on some of the more mystical portions of the document. 
The tempting position to defend is that the values of the indigenous peoples should take precedent because they were both the victims of aggression and the creators of the “expressions.” I’m tempted by this argument. However, one can be sensitive to the suffering of indigenous peoples without sacrificing universal values.
Think of what happens in other, more fraught contexts when universal Enlightenment values that underlie librarianship are considered merely the relative values of European colonialist oppressors. Do we consider it morally acceptable to stone homosexuals to death? To perform forced clitorectomies on women? To keep girls away from educational institutions and throw acid in the faces of little girls who dare go to school? To forcibly marry preteen girls to older men? These are all practices among some cultures. What should our position be on them? If all values are relative to particular cultures, and Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and racial and sexual equality are merely the local values of Western cultures, then we can’t criticize them. What librarians would be willing to stand up and defend such a position?
There are times when librarians must respond like General Sir Charles Napier in India. “”You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” You say it is your custom to venerate certain objects. It is our custom to study them.
But if we can’t defend such practices, or at least refrain from criticizing them, it’s because we believe that values such as liberty and equality are necessary and universal human values, and that humans who don’t believe this are wrong, and in extreme cases evil. Isaiah Berlin makes the rather existential argument in “Two Concepts of Liberty” that values pluralism, the belief that there are many ultimate but irreconcilable human values, is what makes the liberty to choose absolutely essential to the human condition. Liberty, equality, security, order–they are all ultimate and necessary for humans to thrive. Because there are many such values, we have to choose among them, and because this choice is essential to the human condition, then it cannot be justly restricted.
For librarians, this supports the value of intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom isn’t an ultimate value because we like the sound of it. It’s an ultimate value because educating ourselves about options and choosing among them are a necessary part of being human. It is a universal value. If we believe it is a universal value, then we believe in universal human values. And if we believe that, then we also believe that local values that conflict with universal values must lose in competition. We don’t restrict access to materials based on cultural or religious grounds for the same reason we don’t believe homosexuals should be stoned to death. We make objects and texts from other cultures available for study because we think educating ourselves about everything–including other cultures–is important. 
Let’s skip to social responsibility because the other values are less clearly relevant, and because I’ve gone on long enough. According to the “core values” statement, “The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement.” [Note to ALA: that sentence could definitely use some editing.]
Supporting efforts to inform and educate Americans about critical problems would support all of the statements in the TCE document that want librarians to educate themselves and others about the “expressions” of indigenous peoples and those peoples themselves. But that education is concomitant with the fullest and freest access to the texts and objects the library possesses. We can do our best to present such objects in their most relevant context, but ultimately “misuse” or misinterpretation is beyond our control.To use the objects and texts to try to educate the public about what they really mean and about their relationship to indigenous cultures is part of the universal values of education and intellectual freedom as well as social responsibility. We do this because of our universal values, not because of our cultural relativism, which is the same reason we would digitize collections or make them available to library users.
This is also why we might return items. “Indigenous communities understand that some traditional cultural expressions are private or sacred knowledge and share this insight with libraries that may have these works in their collections. Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge should consider returning those materials to the indigenous communities or
to institutions in which such restrictions are appropriate.” From the relativist perspective of the document, libraries would return sacred objects because they are sacred, but libraries don’t recognize the value of sanctity. An object or text is there to study. We may find it interesting and relevant that some groups consider this object or text sacred. The Bible is sacred to Christians and the Koran to Muslims. But from a more universal and academic perspective, that is but one fact about these texts. It doesn’t change the nature of the texts for the researcher; it only adds a relevant and important fact about their context. The same is true of objects from indigenous cultures. If I am from that culture, I might consider an object sacred. But I’m not. And even if I was, the values of education and intellectual freedom would still trump the supposed sanctity of objects. 
Reasons to Support a Revised Document
At this point you might think I disagree with the general idea of the TCE document, but I don’t. What I disagree with are its reasons for making the claims that it does. The values of one group in a society don’t trump the universal values of education and intellectual freedom, nor do they trump library values of access or privacy. But the most important desiderata of the document can be defended in terms relevant to library values, even though that isn’t done in the document as written. Education and intellectual freedom and access means we make objects and texts as available as possible, but it also means we do all we can to understand these objects and texts and the people that produced them, and also do our best to pass that understanding on to library users. 
Returning some collections is also completely justifiable, but from the universal perspective of justice, not the local perspective of sanctity. Justice trumps even education and intellectual freedom. The important question is, how did these collections come to exist? Were they stolen? Purchased? Traded for? Acquired as gifts? The prominent libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick based his philosophy of distributive justice on the principles of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer. In other words, if property was initially acquired justly (via the Lockean proviso that enough and as good is left for others), and transferred justly, then whoever owns it in the end is the just owner.  If we find at the end of the line that ownership isn’t just, the principle of rectification requires us to reallocate resources in a just manner if possible.
Casual libertarianism is usually the political philosophy of people who can only hold one idea in their heads at a time (freedom!), but  Nozick’s principles don’t support his libertarianism very well, because if we go back far enough, little was ever acquired justly. The history of acquisitions of property can probably be traced back to force or trickery or exploitation. He also supports a principle of restitution of property, if it can be shown that ownership didn’t follow the two principles of justice. Jeremy Waldron analyzes Nozick’s principles from this perspective in his essay “Superceding Historical Injustice.” Waldron argues that reparations for historical injustice have to consider changing circumstances and what would currently be just. For example, it wouldn’t be just to send all non-indigenous persons in the United States back to whatever part of the world they or their ancestors came from, even if that were possible, because that act in itself would cause tremendous amounts of suffering and injustice. However, this doesn’t preclude reparations for actions that were historically unjust, if such reparations don’t create injustice in the present. 
Something like this might support the return of some objects. Libraries shoudn’t return objects or documents because they are sacred, but because they were acquired unjustly or transferred unjustly. Their sacredness as such is irrelevant to library values. Returning items or negotiating with cultural communities about their use are forms of reparation, and could only be justified within a library framework as works of justice. This argument smuggles in a plethora of problems regarding the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonists, but it helps us make more sense of some of these statements from within the value structure of librarians, rather than from an external and incompatible set of values. If libraries were to return objects or restrict access, it’s not because the objects are sacred or because they’re “expressions” of a culture. That could be said of many objects and texts and carries no special weight for librarians. Instead, it would be because the objects or texts were acquired or transferred unjustly at some point, and their return itself wouldn’t cause injustice in the present. Figuring this out for every collection would be difficult, if not impossible, but only this type of reasoning could be compatible with core library values. One group’s claims about sacred knowledge tells us what they believe, but gives librarians little cause for action.
However, there are probably cases where even a return of unjustly acquired objects might do an injustice to education and knowledge. Let’s say for the sake of argument there’s an absolutely unique collection of TCEs in an archive somewhere. I don’t mean unique like yet another Civil War diary is unique, but unique in a strong sense. There’s nothing quite like this, and it’s the only public available collection of objects from a community available for study. And let’s assume that if the objects were returned to their cultural community, they would be restricted so that only members of that community could see them. Even if the provenance wasn’t completely pure, there’s an argument for keeping them in the library, because restricting access to that extent would be impossible to reconcile with the values of education, intellectual freedom, and the public good. It’s a thorny area, but once librarians betray their values we could be on a slippery slope to other problems.
The majority of of claims in the TCE document are fully compatible with library values, but not for the reasons given in the document itself. A revised document, with more rigorous reasoning about how the core values of librarianship support the claims about education and context, and a revision of the claims not supported by those core values, specifically those on restriction of access, would be an appropriate document for ALA support.

The Counter-Enlightenment in Our Midst

I’ve been vacationing for a couple of weeks on a Great Lake, swimming, sailing, hitting the local tourist attractions, and reading books on the Enlightenment . On vacation I deliberately try to avoid the news (so I don’t spoil it playing tiny violins after reading sad tales like this one), but somehow I ended up reading a summary account of rabble-rousers and their roused rabble at town hall meetings about health care reform, and the contrast between that and my reading left me feeling depressed.

It was Voltaire, I think, (or perhaps Diderot) who wrote that violent resistance to arguments just meant you were too stupid to form arguments. We have seen this playing out around the country, with right-wing professional idiots (leaders?) encouraging their followers to shout, disrupt proceedings, deliberately avoid debate, and all the other tactics of the stupid and inarticulate in the face of calm reason. The irony is that these leaders and their followers seem to think of themselves as "conservatives" of some kind, but it’s not at all clear what they want to conserve other than the wealth and power of private insurance companies. They certainly don’t seek the ordered liberty so beloved of some who deem themselves conservatives. I’ve long speculated that there aren’t really any conservatives in America anyway. There are only variations of reactionary against the Enlightenment ideals of the founding.

Historians of conservatism–e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Jerry Muller–often trace the beginnings of conservatism in the English-speaking world to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (though Anthony Quinton goes further back to Bolingbroke, if I remember correctly). Burke himself, though, was a beacon of tolerance and reason compared to aggressive soldiers of the Counter-Enlightenment like Joseph de Maistre. A clubbable man and friend of Adam Smith and a supporter of the American War of Independence such as Burke couldn’t have been otherwise. As the title and movement of conservatism were born and spreading through Europe, it made some sense. The conservatives were trying to conserve, or at least to resurrect, an older regime of authoritarian political and religious order that was actively under assault from Enlightenment values such as liberty, equality, toleration, reason, education, and individual rights against the state.

In America, such a tradition makes little sense, despite Kirk’s heroic efforts to give American reactionaries an historical tradition. America was the first country founded upon Enlightenment values. Granted, Americans themselves have rarely in the mass lived up to those values, and the history of America is to some extent the development of these enlightened  values over the darker forces of our nature for two hundred years. No one with eyes to see could say that America is a perfectly enlightened or tolerant country, but without a doubt the enlightened values of the founding have slowly found favor with a greater percentage of the population. Those Americans resisting the ideals of reasoned discussion and debate, toleration for the Other, individual rights, liberty, equality, and education are thus not conservatives, but reactionaries. They don’t wish to conserve or even resurrect a fallen order, but to impose darkness on the land.

To give some substance to these musings, let’s briefly examine two figures of the Enlightenment who are in stark contrast to the shouting rabble and their beloved leaders in the recent meetings: Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith.

Kant wrote a late essay called "What is Enlightenment?" that summarized some of his views. For Kant, enlightenment meant throwing off the self-imposed shackles of leaders and having the courage to use your own reason to make decisions. The motto is sapere aude, or "dare to know." Enlightened people educate themselves, use their reason, and challenge irrational authority. They are not looking to be lead. The unenlightened desire to be led. They want people to tell them what to believe about important issues–about God, religion, ethics, politics. The unenlightened take on faith, for example, the literal truths of religious texts because they have been told to do so and have rarely had more faith in their own capacity for reason than in the word of another. This is not to say the unenlightened are stupid, though sometimes they are. This is merely to say they are unreasonable. Many of them wouldn’t object to this at all. Recall Tertullian’s famous defense of his Christian belief: Credo quia absurdum est–I believe because it is absurd. De Maistre and other figures of counter-Enlightenment were no different. For them, reason is not a primary value.

In the current debates, as in so many others in the country, we see this playing out. We see people who want to be led, who take their marching orders from radio and television entertainers like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, or from others hidden inside various advocacy groups. They don’t reason, they don’t dare to know. They certainly don’t balk at the irrational and foolish. They’re encouraged to become part of a mob and they do it in an attempt to forestall any rational debate by any side in the discussion. I heard one woman interviewed on the radio who claimed that she opposed a public health plan because she didn’t want her health care decisions made by "some bureaucrat." Regardless of one’s position in this debate, this response–no doubt fed to her by someone leading her on–is absurd. If she has health insurance now, who does she think is making decisions about her coverage but some bureaucrat, and, what’s more, a bureaucrat with an eye on the profit margin of her insurance company rather than the needs of her health. An enlightened person would say, oppose or defend whatever you wish, but at least have intelligent reasons for doing so.

It’s a more curious contrast with Adam Smith, a mainstay of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most misunderstood writers of contemporary times. In this country, Adam Smith has the reputation of being an absolutely laissez-faire economist, totally dedicated to the "invisible hand," opposed to government, a friend of the capitalist class and an implied enemy of those who find themselves losers in a perfectly free market. Both right and left have this illusion of Smith. Rich financiers in the Reagan years supposedly sported ties with Adam Smith’s image, thinking he was one of their kind. Leftists are seldom any better. I once had a strange interaction with a fellow library school student, a socialist of sorts with an M.A. in history, who saw me reading The Wealth of Nations. The student refused to read Smith "because he was a capitalist," thus demonstrating his own lack of enlightenment. He’d been told all he needed to know by some professor or pundit, and relinquished faith in his own power to educate himself and make reasonable judgments based on his own knowledge.

Adam Smith was a defender of what he called the "system of natural liberty," and he did indeed describe and defend the division of labor and free trade that undeniably builds wealth in nations. However, he was not necessarily a friend of the capitalist or an opponent of government, as anyone who has ever bothered to read Smith would know. Does this quote from the Wealth of Nations surprise you?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Does this sound like a friend of the rapacious capitalist? What else are lobbyists and business interest groups but conspiracies against the public? Cabals dedicated to their own interest at the expense of the common good? Or this argument against mercantilism:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.

How many of our laws, regulations, and subsidies are truly dedicated to protection of the individual and unorganized consumers, and how many to the protection of organized business interests, i.e., the producers? Whose interests are at stake in the current debate, and whose interests are getting the most attention in the media–the consumers of health care or the producers of it? What would Adam Smith the consumer advocate have to say about the shenanigans of the insurance industry?

Despite my commentary on the health care debate here, it’s not health care or the debate as such that interests me so much as the mob tactics associated with it. We have right wing pundits and entertainers calling President Obama a Nazi while encouraging the sort of mob politics the Nazis themselves used to such great effect. In this case, the end of enlightenment is the rise of the ochlocracy, or "rule of the mob." We’ve had people who might otherwise be intelligent and productive citizens showing up at meetings shouting so that others might not be heard. They’ve been acting like Yahoos, another creation of an eighteenth-century writer. In Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Houyhnhnms he encounters creatures he takes to be humans by their appearance, but finds after watching them they’re little more than bestial savages. Watching roused rabble scream and shout affirms Jonathan Swift’s belief that humans aren’t rational animals, but only animals capable of reason.

This disturbs me as a human and as a citizen, but also professionally. American reactionaries, wherever they have power, try to defund education and any other public good. They would rather send a harmless pot-smoker to prison than a smart poor person to college. With no responsible voices on the political right speaking out against the disruptive mobs, does this mean they support the rise of ochlocracy?

There are mobs of every political stripe, as history has shown, but I’m more concerned professionally by right-wing than left-wing mobs. Left-wing mobs have a tendency to destroy commercial property (as in the WTO protests in Seattle a decade ago) or else just appropriate it (as with most left-wing revolutions). I don’t have any commercial property, and am unlikely to acquire any, so that doesn’t affect me as directly. Right-wing mobs have a tendency to attack institutions of education rather than of commerce. They don’t like book-learning, but they do like book-burning.

The Right has been working hard for a couple of decades to reduce the funding of higher education, and thus make it more difficult for poor, or even the middle class, to afford college. This is insidious destruction of a society of educated and thus often critical citizens. With the active encouragement of people to join mobs and shout down opponents, and the lack of right-winge opposition to demagogic voices, how big a leap is it to imagine mobs being encouraged not just to shout down politicians they don’t like, but to start burning books and such at public rallies? If the reactionary leaders don’t like reasoned debate, how long before they direct the mobs against the the institutions most dedicated to reason and debate–our colleges and universities?

Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps. On the other hand, one right-wing entertainer with millions of followers is ignorant or stupid enough to compare those who believe in equal rights with women to Nazis. It’s not like we aren’t living amidst millions of loud, ignorant bigots. I see no difference in principle in demagogues encouraging their followers to disrupt peaceful meetings and encouraging them to besiege libraries or disrupt the activities of teaching and learning at institutions of higher education. Both involve resistance to enlightenment, the denial of reason, and the embrace of dark, unruly passions.

Still They Persist

Last spring I wrote about the ethics of fake reference in a series of posts. About a year ago, a student in a library school course at an unnamed library school at a large state university in New Jersey popped up during my Sunday night chat reference shift lying to me and asking me fake questions.

Skip to one year later, almost to the day. I’m still doing Sunday night chat reference shifts. Reference students at the large unnamed library school in New Jersey are still lying to me. Apparently they didn’t read my posts from last year, so if you know the professor handing out this particular assignment – go lie to reference librarians at private universities and ask them fake questions – please pass this post on to them.

My first question is, what exactly do you think the students are supposed to learn from this? I really can’t figure out what it is. It can’t be how librarians at my institution (a private university, by the way) respond to genuine questions by our clientele or to honest researchers, because that’s not what happens when these students encounter me. Are they supposed to find out what happens when duplicitous library school students lie to experienced reference librarians and try to deceive them? If so, then keep up the good work, because that’s what the students learn when they get me on the line.

A friend of mine currently teaching reference says I don’t like to be "secretly shopped." That’s not the problem. If the shopping was secret, it might be okay. The problem is, I can tell from the very moment the first question is asked what is going on. (I’d detail how I can tell, but that would just give the deceivers more ammunition. Experienced reference librarians can probably figure it out.) From the very first question tonight, I knew. It was obviously a fake question, and, frankly, a particularly stupid and improbable one. I answered politely, then referred the query to the patron’s own librarians. I was trying to be kind. Once upon a time I was a library school student myself, though a considerably more honest one.

The lies continued. The person claimed to be a student at a particular college. Uh huh. Fine. I refrained from saying, "you really have no scruples whatsoever, do you?" Instead I merely asked, "you’re in a library school reference course, aren’t you?" Finally, the person admitted the truth, but then had the further gall to say, "I just wanted to know what librarians would recommend for X topic." Uh huh. Sure. If that’s all you’d wanted to know, you could have asked.

I’m not sure why I get so miffed about this, but I do. It seems to me a violation of professional ethics. Do the teachers of reference not see it this way? Am I not a professional with a job to do? Is my time not valuable? Do I deserve to be lied to by duplicitous students? As many around the country can attest, if I’m contacted directly, I’m more than happy to help students. Why lie to me?

I’m not sure what I can do but write about it here. Someday perhaps I’ll try to teach reference myself, to show how it can be done without asking students to lie to busy librarians.

Until then, I offer some advice to duplicitous library school students at the unnamed library school. Please don’t pester the chat service at my library. Your own library has a chat service. Bother those librarians. They are very good, and I’m sure they will resent your lies as well, but then again they work for your institution. If you absolutely have to chat up my institution. try telling the truth. It will get you further. You might not realize this, but the librarians where I work are pretty smart and very experienced. We do this for a living, and we can tell when you’re lying to us.