A Career in a Life

In addition to a lot of time to meditate, my last year of serious illness has given me a lot of time to think, including about my job and career. I seem to be of the age where people start considering what they’ve done with their life so far, and evaluating whether it was worth doing and whether they were successful at it. What does it mean to have a successful career? The question can’t really be answered until the end of a career, since even thriving careers can end badly, but there are at least two ways to evaluate success before the end: inner-directed and outer-directed. (One can think of these perspectives as based on authenticity or conformity, but those terms are much more loaded.) I have adopted the inner-directed approach where success depends partly on how you interpret your own career, on the story you can tell about your career within the story of your life.

The outer-directed evaluation is the most common and the hardest to escape given that we’re individuals within a profession and professionals within a broader society of professionals. Both of those social contexts can provide criteria for evaluation. How do we rank compared to other academic librarians, especially ones of our own age/experience cohort? And how do we as academic librarians compare to other professions, especially those to which we might have aspired?

Like many people who become academic librarians, I started out on a more traditional path to academia. Had I not decided during my graduate study in English that the chances of getting a tenure-track job I would want were extremely small, and if I had continued on the track I was on, and if I had despite the odds been successful, I would have become an English professor, probably of early modern British literature. Would I have been happy in that career? Probably as happy as I am now. But I decided my chances of gainful employment were too slim to make it worth the effort, so I left grad school after my M.A., and the world lost the opportunity of getting another Shakespeare scholar. I’d already decided in college that my chances in English were better than in my other love philosophy, so the world had already lost the opportunity of getting another philosophy professor. The world doesn’t seem any worse off.

Would my career have been more successful as a professor than as an academic librarian? Certainly professors are higher in the academic hierarchy than librarians (I’m skipping the faculty librarian debate). They generally make more money and have more social prestige. However, as a professor I would still have had others with which to compare myself, since professors are far from equal. Had I ended up at a small state university, I could still have thought, “if only I were a professor at Harvard or Princeton, then I would really be successful!” Or I could have been a moderately paid English professor looking at my colleagues in the business school and irritated that I wasn’t paid as much as them. And, possibly, I just wouldn’t have been very good at it.

However, an honest comparison of my prospects might not be between English professor and academic librarian, but between academic librarian and adjunct writing instructor. Here the story changes considerably. I understand the motivation of people who would rather teach for low pay without benefits or job security, who would rather identify as a professor than anything else despite their tenuous employment. I love teaching, even the academic grunt work of teaching writing, and most of my years as a librarian I’ve also taught either in a writing program or in a library school. Discussing difficult texts with interested undergraduates is a great pleasure, but I would rather be an academic librarian with a full time job and benefits than an adjunct writing instructor with neither, and those were probably the best options within the competing careers I was likely to achieve while remaining in academia. So am I more successful or less than I might have been?

The other outer-directed evaluation is with other academic librarians. A frequently used criterion is moving up, where “up” always means into administration. It’s an objective fact that in any library there can be only one library director, and at best only a handful of high level middle managers even in a large organization, and those librarians are at or near the top of their profession in an easily measured way. So attractive is this model that librarians often uproot their lives and move every few years to advance in their careers. By this standard, my career so far hasn’t been too successful. I’ve spent my 18 professional years doing variations on the same kind of work, and 16 of those years doing it at the same library, because I like what I do and better opportunities haven’t come along.

There are other ways to measure the success of academic librarians in an outer-directed fashion, ways in which I’m not such a loser I guess. I could compare institutional prestige, for example. I moved up in a sense when I moved from Gettysburg to Princeton, but like a lot of liberal arts colleges in small towns Gettysburg has its attractions, and had I not been locked in a professional battle to the death with my then supervisor, I might have stayed a lot longer than I did. And my first few years at Princeton weren’t much easier than my fraught time at Gettysburg, so I learned early on there’s no library workplace utopia. Besides, the institution doesn’t confer value on the individual; the individual creates value for the institution.

Academic librarians also have the opportunity to compare themselves via their scholarship, reputation, professional service, etc. Here I fair moderately at best. I’ve published some, and I’m pleased with what I’ve published, but it’s out of the mainstream of library science publications and my impact has been minor. I’ve presented some, but not much compared to more prominent academic librarians. I’ve been active in professional organizations, but I’m unlikely ever to be president of ACRL, so how successful could I really be? Within my own institution, I’ve earned two rank promotions, but what difference does that really make? I’m surrounded by smart, capable people on the same route. By these standards, I’m more successful than some other librarians, but much less successful than a lot of others. And yet, I’m very satisfied with my career, so whence comes my professional satisfaction?

I have tried never to evaluate my life or career by the standards or accomplishments of other people. Jobs always have outer-directed aspects to them. Part of living peacefully in society is conforming to at least some social conventions, and part of being employed in a capitalist society is pleasing other people. My library has rules and procedures for advancement as do most libraries, and I’ve tried to comply with those rules. I try to fulfill the expectations others have for my work without falling into bad faith, without “playing at being a librarian” in a Sartrean sense, but I conform to those expectations as much as I need to. In other words, I’m not a rebellious outsider chafing against the rules, mostly because I chose a profession where I agree with the rules. Professional longevity, if not success, is inevitably judged by some conformity. You can’t have a career if you can’t get or keep a job.

However, most of the time I conform to the expectations by chance rather than by design. To the extent that I’m successful in my work, I’m successful because I believe the work I do has value and because it fits into a larger life project, and it’s that larger life project from which I derive much of my meaning, purpose, satisfaction, ikigai, or whatever one might want to call it. I’m good at what I do because I like and value what I do and it exploits skills that I would have developed regardless of my job.

The overarching life project that has motivated most of my professional decisions over the years could be described as self-cultivation through the study of humanity, an engagement with Culture as Matthew Arnold defined it, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” Academic libraries and the access to scholarship they provide are important for that life project. I want to be able to research any subject that I fancy in any depth I desire.

Furthermore, because I believe in the life-enhancing importance and value of such research, I want to help others to achieve that goal. Hence, building research collections and helping people use them–a significant goal of research libraries and a big part of my work–is satisfying to me. Being a part of a larger enterprise that has given my life such meaning gives my career meaning as well, at least based on my own standards. In an address on the idea of the university, the rhetorician Wayne Booth said that “the academy attracts those who aspire to omniscience.” I’m one of those people. To paraphrase Aristotle, Wayne by nature desires to know, and the academy attracted me like a moth to a warm, bright light.

Thus, it didn’t matter that much for my own career satisfaction whether I became an English professor, a philosophy professor, an adjunct writing instructor, or an academic librarian, although being outside of academia might have been less satisfying. I am not my job. My life isn’t my career. My life doesn’t become meaningful because I’m a librarian; I work as a librarian because it fits well into the larger project that does provide meaning for my life. When I was an adjunct writing instructor prior to library school, I wasn’t dissatisfied with my work. Gladly would I learn and gladly teach. I made considerably less money, and there’s a sense in which I sold out to become a librarian (just as I sold out to go to grad school in English instead of philosophy), but money for me has always been what Stoics call a preferred indifferent. I probably make more in a few years than my parents made in their working lives combined, but I was still pretty happy pursuing my studious life course when I was an impoverished grad student.

This happiness isn’t about the subjective well being that positive psychologists study. It comes from interpreting my life in a eudaimonic sense. Eudaimonia is usually translated as “happiness.” One article on positive psychology I read recently went so far as to claim that for Aristotle, eudaimonia was just the word he used for happiness, but it’s the other way around. I do like a definition formulated by another psychologist, Carol Ryff, who wrote that “the essence of eudaimonia” is “the idea of striving toward excellence based on one’s unique potential,” in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “becoming who you are.” Although I’ve written about the calm and joy when dealing with adversity that Stoic Zen stuff brings, I’ve long understood my life and my career in existentialist terms and interpret eudaimonia within them: facticity and transcendence, authenticity and Bad Faith, anxiety and guilt, freedom and responsibility. Our potential transcendence is always circumscribed by the world we’ve been thrown into, our facticity. Eudaimonia comes, possibly, from making the most of that to shape our lives within values we choose. We might have anxiety facing our possible choices, and experience existential guilt that we didn’t choose other than the way we did, but ultimately we’re free to choose and live better lives when we take responsibility for those choices, even though we had to make them within more or less narrow circumstances.

Regardless of my subjective well being at any given time, or how much of a success or failure I might be by various outer-directed criteria, if I interpret my career in the sense of striving towards excellence based upon my unique potential, I can be happy with it both in itself and in how it fits into my life as a whole. I made most of my major life and career choices not because they made sense by someone else’s standards, but because I understood them at the time either to enhance, or at least not interfere with, the projects  and roles I chose to give meaning to my life. Even now, I feel confident I could use my library experience and my rhetorical skills to work in sales and make a lot more money. By the world’s standards, that would make me more successful, but the work wouldn’t align as well with my life projects and so would at best be a distraction. More money, or a bigger house, or a more expensive car, wouldn’t make me significantly happier. I could afford a bigger house or more expensive car than I have now, but the only reason to buy them would be to impress other people whose values I don’t respect precisely because they’re the sort of people who are impressed by big houses and expensive cars. Even if they made me happier in a hedonic sense in the short term, I would probably get used to them eventually and lose that happiness. Such is the hedonic treadmill.

Moving up in libraries would be just fine as long as the work still supported the research mission, but the last job opportunity I explored for that left me so disgusted with the person I would have reported to that I deliberately but subtly sabotaged my interview so that I wouldn’t even be offered the job. If I’m happy, in both a hedonic and eudaimonic sense, with my work, there’s no reason for me to leave just to move up. However, I like it when people I respect and value move up, and I’m glad when they find meaning in their work. I don’t think they’re more successful than others because they’re further up the hierarchy; I think they’re more successful than others because they find meaning and satisfaction in work worth doing. I judge their success by the same subjective standards by which I judge my own. For those of us who find meaning and satisfaction in our work, what objective standards make sense for judging relative success? I do question the motivation of people who move up because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, to conform with the expectations of what Heidegger calls Das Man, “the They,” or the ones who want to move up because they want to control everyone. They’re the ones who’ll be the most unhappy with their work, and probably make others unhappy in the process.

You can successfully engage in life projects of your own choosing, even within your natural and social limits, and be successful and happy without feeling good all the time, maybe even most of the time, and without achieving what others think you should have achieved. As the Buddha said, “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” What matters is how you interpret your career. Think of life as a narrative. In the story we can tell about our lives, a story for all of us not yet finished, does the story make sense? Does it have meaning? Does the main character develop? Do the plans and choices ultimately come together in a satisfying form, regardless of how random or chaotic they might seem at the time? Does the main character learn from mistakes or keep making the same ones? Does it look like the story will end well? And how does the career fit into the larger story? Whether I have a successful career depends partly on the story I tell myself, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

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)

The Memex and the Academic Mind

In a July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the United States government, published As We May Think, in which he laid out the plans for a machine he dubbed the Memex. The Memex was what we would now think of as a computer-like apparatus, a large desk with both a viewing screen and a screen for writing with a stylus. The insides would hold thousands of reels of microfilm, and researchers using the Memex could read the microfilm on the viewing screen and both annotate and make connections between microfilm pages (similar to hyperlinking). The Memex has been hailed as thought precursor to the personal computer, and in Libraries and the Enlightenment (a perfect holiday gift for the librarian in your life!) I discuss it as an example of a universal library scheme, that is, a way to make all the world’s information accessible to humans. However (and I also mention this in the book), one interesting thing about Bush’s conception of the Memex for librarians is the insight it gives into the academic mind and its relationship to information.

In “As We May Think,” Bush worries about the “growing mountain of research” and the danger that researchers were “being bogged down today as specialization extends.”The investigator,” he writes, “is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” Bush noted that “our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose” and that “that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” The Memex was intended to help solve that problem.

In a later 1959 essay, “Memex II,”[1] he goes on about the ease of actually acquiring material for research: “Professional societies will no longer print papers. Instead they will send him lists of titles with brief abstracts. And he can then order individual papers of sets to come on tape, complete, of course, with photographs and diagrams” (172).  Still later, in “Memex Revisited” (1965), he exhibited the practical thinking of the scientist in terms of materials, but not other costs.  He noted that the “material for a microfilm private library might cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a few cents.… The entire material of a private library in reduced film form would go on ten eight-and-one-half-by-eleven-inch sheets. Once that was available, with the reproduction methods now available, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a few cents apiece beyond the cost of materials” (208). As with the current debate about ebook pricing, Bush implies that the cost of information lay primarily in its medium, ignoring the costs of the information production itself. Microfilm is cheaper than print, so information will be cheaper, as people resist paying as much for ebooks today as they do for print books. If the cost of information were correlated with the cost of the medium of distribution, then digital books and articles would be nearly free, which of course they are not. [2]

Many professional societies indeed no longer print papers, but the bulk of publishing, at least in the sciences, is done by commercial publishers who certainly wouldn’t just send researchers scholarly articles for a few cents each. However, the expectation that Bush has is typically academic, even today. Information just appears, either as soon as we want it or a few days later. Barriers to information are either nonexistent or irrelevant. The question is whether this is a naive expectation or not.

Some librarians would certainly consider it naive. We know better than anyone the cost of knowledge. Information doesn’t just appear. We make it appear, if we can. So the expectation that barriers to information are nonexistent is a bit naive. But what about whether barriers to information are irrelevant? I think this is less naive, and in fact I think this expectation drives the entire academic research enterprise, including that of academic libraries. Librarians have spent decades building research collections and resource-sharing networks to make it seem like information just appears for researchers. Recent polls suggest that this is the primary function of the library for researchers: we buy stuff. And with information technology far more advanced than what Bush could conceive of with his Memex, the technological barriers to information have almost completely been eliminated. For Bush, getting the information organized and hyperlinked was the real problem, but that problem has been solved.

The only thing beginning to change, and possibly for the better, is that some researchers are becoming more aware of the economic and legal barriers to information. The Elsevier boycott has spread the word some. Elsevier trying to block U.S. efforts to make publicly funded research available to the public were a public relations disaster. Lawsuits against universities to stop professors sharing articles with their students as they see fit have gained some negative publicity. And the rise of gold-open access journals is starting to clue some researchers in to the cost of publication. Even modest out-of-pocket expenses for OA journals can cause controversy, as evidenced by the long discussion here when the OA journal Philosopher’s Imprint decided to implement a $20 charge to submit articles (since revised to a request for a donation). Ignoring the question of whether charging a submission fee is morally permissible, you can get a sense from the discussion that a lot of people who benefit from OA journals (i.e., everyone not affiliated with a university) were the ones most opposed to even a small submission charge. Nevertheless, there’s still the expectation that information should just be provided, even for the non-academically affiliated. It’s an expectation many of us have because it underlies the entire ethos of scholarship. All scholars should have access to relevant scholarship, even if they don’t work for a rich university.

I’m not one to make predictions (well, except that Twitter and Facebook have already called the 2012 Presidential elections), but if I had to make one I would predict that eventually even the economic and legal barriers to scholarly information will be reduced enough to make access broader and more sustainable. For information seekers outside academia, I’m less sanguine, although I would love to see an extremely robust Digital Public Library of America succeed, more OA scholarly journals, and current copyright laws restricted to at least pre-1992 levels. But even some of this might be achievable for scholarly information. In other words, I believe the academic information expectation will somehow overcome the commercial information exploitation. Something has to give, and I don’t see it being the centuries-old expectations of publishing researchers who expect access to all other published research. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and we’ll enter even more of a black market culture where scholars at better funded institutions send copies of articles to less well off scholars.

That’s not the same thing as saying information, even scholarly information, will be free, which is impossible. Only that the costs of that information will not be significantly more than is necessary to sustain it and the profits won’t be squeezed from researchers providing the information and editing for free while restricting access for researchers whose libraries can’t afford exorbitant costs. Commercial publishers expect to make a profit; researchers expect universal access to scholarship. Somewhere there’s a middle ground. At least I hope there is.


[1] I couldn’t find either “Memex 2” or “Memex Revisited” online or even in microfilm to feed into my Memex. However, both are collected in the following volume: Bush, Vannevar, and James M. Nyce. From Memex to Hypertext : Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. Boston: Academic Press, 1991. The page numbers refer to this volume.

[2] Portions of the last two paragraphs are taken from: Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles, CA: Library Juice Press, 2012.

Notes on Truth and Librarianship

In a blog post at Sense and Reference, Lane Wilkinson asks whether misinformation is information, and proposes a project over the next few weeks that shows “how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet” Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I look forward to following the progress of the argument.  If, like me, your recall of the Information Literacy Standards is fuzzy, I should remind you that according to Standard Three, “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.” According to Wilkinson, though the ACRL Information Literacy Standards don’t mention truth, Standard Three requires an account of truth. (One might add that the Information Literacy Standards require a missing account of information as well.) Librarians sometimes have the oddest beliefs about truth, as Wilkinson shows in this excellent pair of posts on Wikipedia and truth.

The post also references an article on truth in librarianship that Wilkinson finds less than compelling, to put it mildly: The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship, by Labaree and Scimeca. He promises to dissect it for fact-value conflations and anti-realisms, which I also look forward to. In that article, the authors evaluate three traditional theories of truth–the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories–and conclude that since none of them are adequate for a conception of libraries as a collection of the historical record, they must introduce a supposedly new theory of truth, the “historicist” theory, inspired by the historicism of Herder. I’m assuming it’s this new theory, or perhaps the belief that this is a theory of truth at all, that Wilkinson finds ridiculous, which makes sense when we see that the historicist theory of truth is merely the suspension of belief in truth, supposedly because a belief in truth might cause us to eliminate parts of the historical record that we consider untrue. From the article:

Our suspension of truth value does not arrive at epistemological certainty about the propositions contained in the many volumes housed in a library but rather at certainty that the historical record has not been compromised by the elimination of any these volumes. In other words, librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood. As Herder states: “If history in its simplest sense were nothing but a description of an occurrence, of a production, then the first requirement is that the description be whole, exhaust the subject, show it to use from all sides”…. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind. Only in a free and open society could Herder’s historicism become possible for scholars to use.

One might be tempted to read this as blatant, though well intentioned, nonsense. One should not resist that temptation. This “theory” of truth is not only incompatible with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (no great sin there), but with any intellectual standards at all. It asserts that for librarians to do their job well, they must cease to believe in the truth or falsity of anything in their collection. The published results of a falsifiable and replicable astronomical experiment have the same truth value as a Renaissance book of astrology, or rather, if we believe that one is in fact truer than the other then we can’t responsibly build library collections. The problem is that the authors of this paper don’t provide much of an argument for our suspension of belief.

As I said, this is well intentioned. Their claim is that if we believe that X book is true and Y book is false, then we might be tempted not to collect Y, or not to keep it, which would in essence be to destroy it for future generations to study, just as, for example, medieval scribes would scrape classical texts from vellum to give themselves a clean surface to make another copy of the Bible, because the Bible was true and valuable, while Cicero or Aristotle were not. Or like the legend that Caliph Umar destroyed the Library at Alexandria, because if the books agreed with the Koran they were unnecessary, and if they disagreed they were heretical. Thus, it is only by suspending our belief in truth of individual items in the library collection that we escape the desire to destroy falsehoods.

This assumes that such a cavalier attitude to library collections was motivated by a theory of truth as such, which isn’t the case. Totalitarians don’t burn books simply because they believe those books are false. They burn books because they are motivated by ideologies that require the destruction of any alternative points of view. They don’t burn outdated works of science that have been superseded by more modern studies; they burn books containing worldviews antithetical to their own. Medieval scribes scraped classical works from their vellum not just because they believed them to be false, but because they believed them to be unimportant, the way we throw away takeout menus when maybe we should be collecting them.

What’s different for us isn’t that we don’t believe some works are true and others false, even in areas that lend themselves to easy dispute such as politics or religion. Religious non-believers consider the truth value of the Bible or the Koran to be nil, but in the liberal Enlightenment worldview that provides the framework for modern libraries, that consideration is unimportant. Our “historicism” doesn’t dictate that we don’t believe in truth, but that we believe we want to understand the past, and we believe the way to do so is studying as many documents as possible to come to a true understanding. We attempt to comprehensively collect the historical record in ways that previous eras didn’t, but it’s not necessarily because we have different theories of truth, it’s because we believe different things are true, which isn’t the same thing.

Modern scholars and academic librarians tend to believe that the following statement is true: “Understanding the past in as objective a way as possible is valuable for us in some way, and understanding that past requires saving all the documentary traces it leaves behind.” Totalitarians, book burners, and the like believe this statement to be false. Thus, when we build library collections, we don’t suspend our belief in truth; we just believe that untrue documents can also give us a sort of truth. It should be clear that I’m not objecting to isn’t so much the spirit of this article, but its letter. I agree that building comprehensive library collections is important, and even for the same reasons, but I don’t believe it’s true that we need a new theory of truth to justify this. We don’t really need a theory of truth at all. We just need to collect.

Which brings us back to the Sense and Reference post. Wilkinson believes that Standard Three requires a theory of truth, in particular a realist theory of some kind. That sounds plausible to me, at least for parts of Standard Three. We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?

With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?

Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship.

Despite recent claims that American college students don’t learn much, what “information literacy” they do learn takes place outside the library for the most part, in classrooms, dorm rooms, coffeehouses. And the part that takes place in libraries takes place without librarians. All that reading, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing necessary for understanding and knowledge is far beyond what librarians see.

Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.

Or maybe not. I’m still working my way through this one.

Libraries and Enlightened Views

I’ve been reading Gabriel Naude’s Advice on Establishing a Library (1st ed. 1627, 2nd ed. 1644; trans. into English, 1661). Naude’s treatise is one of the earliest works on librarianship in any modern sense, and lays out a plan for systematically collecting a research library. Among other things, Naude was the librarian who developed Cardinal Mazarin’s personal library, the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and requested it be open to the  public, thus creating the first public library in France (at least as far as I can tell). Until relatively recently in human history, libraries were private, the property of royals or the rich, and served to collect but not disseminate knowledge, and Naude was among the first to develop the idea of a comprehensive, "universal library" open to the public and collecting works on almost every subject, libraries the historian Jonathan Israel has called "workshops of the early Enlightenment."

What’s especially interesting considering the time and place is Naude’s enlightened views on collection development. Consider some of his defenses for acquiring unpopular, heretical, or just plain wacky books:

On books with new ideas:

Neither may all those who have introduced or modified anything in the sciences be omitted, for it is merely flattering the bondage of man’s feeble wit if the scanty knowledge that we possess of these authors is buried under the disdain to which they are inescapably subject for having set themselves up against the ancients and having learnedly examined what others were used to accept as by tradition. . . .  I affirm that all these authors are requisite to a library . . . since it is certain that the knowledge of these books is so useful and valuable to him who can consider and draw profit from all that he sees that it provides him a thousand openings and new conceptions, which, being received by a mind that is open, inquiring, and free from prejudice, “bound to no master fealty to swear,” make him speak to the purpose on all subjects, deliver him from the admiration which is the true mark of our weakness, and enable him to discourse upon whatsoever presents itself with a great deal more judgment, foresight, and resolution than many persons of letters and merit are used to do. (23-24 in the U. of CA Press ed.)

On unusual books (Cabbala, divinations, etc.):

For, though most of them teach only hollow and unprofitable things, and though I hold them but as stumbling blocks to all who amuse themselves with them, nevertheless, to have something with which to please the weaker wits as well as the strong and at the least to satisfy those who desire to see them in order to refute them, one should collect the books on these subjects, although they out to be considered among the rest of the volumes in the library like serpents and vipers among other living creatures, like tares in good wheat, like thorns among the roses—and all this in imitation of the natural world, in which these unprofitable and dangerous things help to round out the masterwork and the scheme by which it was accomplished. (26)

On heretical works:

Since it is necessary, therefore, that our scholars should find these authors somewhere available in order to refute them; since M. de T. posed no objections to collecting them; since the early Fathers and Doctors had them at hand; since many of the clergy keep them in their libraries; since there are no scruples about having a Talmud or a Koran, which belch forth against Jesus Christ and our religion a thousand blasphemies infinitely more dangerous than those of the heretics; since God permits us to profit from our enemies. . .; since they an be prejudicial only to those who, lacking the basis of right conduct, suffer themselves to be carried away by the first puff of wind that blows, and seek out the shade of a beanstalk, and—to conclude in a word—since the intention which determines all our actions for good or ill is not vicious or hardened, I think it nether an absurdity nor a danger to have in a library . . . all the works of the most learned and famous heretics. . . .” (27-28)

How hard it must have been at that time to defend such a library, I thought upon first reading it. A Catholic librarian defending a comprehensive research library owned by a Cardinal during the Reformation. The defense isn’t that the books are right, or even good, but that they exist and are part of the world, and educated, enlightened, unprejudiced minds should read to learn and test their beliefs rather than just to confirm their prejudices. What a daring idea for its time.

Naude was enlightened for his age, and he’s still enlightened for ours. Consider stories like this, about a "conservative" blogger and dim thinker who toured the White House and discovered (gasp!) books on socialism in the library, and thus concluded Obama might be a socialist. Ooooh, those scary socialists! Imagine the poor education and lack of reasoning ability it would take to consider such a thing at all problematic. I’ll ignore the fact that anyone who thinks Obama is a socialist doesn’t know much about socialism. (No President who hands 30,000,000 new customers to big insurance companies is a socialist.) Instead, consider the mindset of someone who obviously believes that people read books to confirm their prejudices and not to learn. Owning or even reading a book on socialism is prima facie evidence that one is possibly or probably a socialist. I suppose reading Inside the Third Reich makes one a Nazi. For such people, education is nearly impossible, because of the unwillingness or inability to encounter ideas contrary to their own.

This sort of crude, ill informed belief isn’t confined to the right, by any means. One of my writing students–a good liberal whose very poor understanding of conservatism was based entirely  upon reading David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times–was in my office and once asked me about my political beliefs. Specifically, he wondered if I was a conservative because I have several books on conservatism on my shelves. Politics drives this sort of blindness more than other subjects, perhaps, because it would never have occurred to him to see all the books on Plato and ask if I were an ancient Greek philosopher. His reasoning became quite clear in the ensuing conversation. Only political conservatives would read books on conservatism, just as liberals read only liberals and his libertarian friend read only Milton Friedman. Thoughtless liberals may not be enemies of Enlightenment, but they’re not necessarily friends or examples. He probably has the Alvy Singer Defense ("I’m a bigot, but for the left, fortunately"). Or there was my socialist friend in library school who refused to read The Wealth of Nations because it’s "capitalist, isn’t it?"

The pattern is the same, and is much like the cloistered, stultifying mindset that Naude was battling in the early 17th century and that Enlightened libraries actively resist. Open inquiry and intellectual freedom are cornerstones of Enlightenment thought and foundational values for most libraries academic and public. The reason we collect books on all subjects isn’t because we are neutral and just want to represent all points of view. The false neutrality might make it easier to win local political battles, but it’s a value that’s incompatible with another value championed by librarians: intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom isn’t a neutral value, but instead one of the constellation of Enlightenment values that support research universities as well as academic and public libraries. In academic libraries, we don’t build extensive collections of the sort Naude envisioned because we’re neutral, or because we think every
idea should have equal representation and be considered equally useful or valid. We build those collections to support the habit of open inquiry and the increase of knowledge. If I buy books promoting totalitarianism, it’s not because I think totalitarianism is right or true, and in fact think it’s utterly imcompatable with the foundational values of libraries in a liberal democracy as well as being an assault on the nature of human beings. To the extent that public libraries serve as the "people’s university," their collections serve the same purpose, to allow at least the possibility of open inquiry even if few take advantage of it. It should clear from examining our country and culture that there are always plenty of people hostile to open inquiry, intellectual freedom, and reading to learn rather than reinforce their prejudices. When those people write books, we collect them so that open minds can be informed about them, not by them, and can test their beliefs against the arguments of those who wish to shut down argument.

Libraries Never Change

While doing some research for a project on libraries and Enlightenment, I ran across an article by Grace O. Kelley on the "The Democratic Function of Public Libraries" that presents some familiar criticism:

The library, even more than other institutions, seems not to have been altogether a true part of the social process. In some way, it has been switched out of the current of social change, occupying a niche or eddy of its own. For a long time it seems to have been but slightly affected by the forces which have been changing the rest of the world. One looks in vain in histories of culture and education for studies of the modern library as an active force which is making its impress upon the social fabric. Due to the nature of its organization and of its service it has been possible for it to continue to function largely on its original indefinite ideals and, in a sense, to let the modern world go by….

Not only our knowledge of the world, but the world itself, keeps changing from day to day. "The inescapable drive of change under the accumulation of ideas and traditions, under the relentless impacts of science and invention," make a fixed regime impossible. "An industrial civilization founded on technology, science, invention, and expanding markets must of necessity change and change rapidly." Any institution which does not change too, adapt itself to the times, and become part of the onward "drive of change," will be pushed aside to be left perhaps for a time to make a harmless life of its own. 

The most interesting thing for me about the article was when it was written. It’s from The Library Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1934), and yet it seems as timely as today’s headlines, blog posts, or conference presentations. I left out a middle paragraph that helps fix the date of the article more.

On the whole, the public library still has its eye on a state of society which it considers to be more or less permanent in nature. It is academic in its ideals, and to it the world’s "best books" of literature and fiction are still of superimportance; it seems sometimes "unaware of the words, thoughts and things that science and invention have brought" but which in the long run must be heeded. The effect on general reading of the auto, the radio, the talkie, the news-reel, the tempo of modern life and of the machine age in general, is only confusedly sensed.  
I almost wrote that this paragraph dates the article, but I don’t think that’s true. The effect on general reading of the talkie and the news-reel is still probably "only confusedly sensed."
What has changed isn’t the criticism of libraries for not adapting rapidly enough to social and technological change, but the assumption of what changes they should be making and why. The problem, according to this article, was that public libraries had no clear concept of their clientèle, and thus offered reading that may or may not have been appropriate. However, the purpose of the library was to offer reading, especially reading designed to further the education of the masses in a democracy.
Kelley makes a lot of the distinction between public and special libraries. "The primary aims of both relate to knowledge: in the case of one, to the spread of the fruits of knowledge among the people; of the other, to the extension, through aid given to research and study, of the boundaries of knowledge." Public libraries weren’t adapting fast enough to the specialization of knowledge, and were with public funding attempting to supply reading of interest only to specialists. Instead, she argued, libraries should be supplying general reading that makes the rapidly increasing specialist knowledge accessible to the public. In fact, "librarians may well encourage writers to couch their findings in understandable and illuminating form, and, at the same time, improve their own equipment and facilities for distributing this product freely to eager readers." At first I thought this placed an unrealizable goal before librarians until I considered the enormous expansion of reference publishing in the decades after this article was written. 
This isn’t a serious issue now, if it ever was one, so that’s at least one problem we’ve solved. The practical concerns of the time are as dated as the principles and hopes. Kelley, also writing in a time of economic uncertainty, was still hopeful in a way I’m not sure we would be capable of today, even if we were prone to think in her terms. Here’s her concluding paragraph:
For we can have faith to believe that the intelligent reading of worth-while books on important matters that are of mutual interest both to the reader and to the author will result gradually in a clearer understanding of the changing concepts of society and all of its problems. This in turn will lead to a more effective and enlightened control over social conditions, increase the probability of happier and more successful living, and in this way justify the vision of democracy.
It’s an attractive vision in some ways, but one I doubt many librarians would believe these days. There are certainly plenty of worth-while books on important matters being written, and to some extent even read, but few still have any faith that more people reading good books (or even being more educated, for which "reading good books" is just a metonym) will lead to a clearer understanding of social problems or a "more effective and enlightened control over social conditions," and even less faith that public libraries are an essential part of that process. 
This snapshot of library criticism from 75 years ago shows us both that libraries have in practice and principle changed dramatically in that time and in unpredictable ways. The only thing that hasn’t seemed to change is the relentless criticism we apply to ourselves and our profession, the insistence that we are out of touch somehow with the larger world, that we’ve been "switched out of the current of social change, occupying a niche or eddy" of our own. Unless we assume that libraries suddenly began changing and adapting in response to this article in the Library Quarterly, we have to assume that such wasn’t true then, and we have no real evidence that it’s true now. What we have instead are insubstantial panics and false prophets of doom, and in this area it’s true that libraries haven’t changed at all.

Humanism and Libraries

Those who weary of the unreflective pragmatism pervasive in librarianship should appreciate Andre Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, newly translated from the French by Rory Litwin for his own Library Juice Press.  The slender volume is a clear, refreshing discussion of the philosophy of librarianship, and Litwin should be congratulated for making it accessible to English-speaking readers.

Humanism and Libraries makes a distinction between library science and library philosophy and tries to establish the definition and aim that unifies all libraries and provides their philosophical foundation. Library science “is the theoretical construction of objective relationships among the activities of librarianship,” and should be contrasted with philosophy, which “is the theoretical integration of library practice as a unity, the encompassing understanding of the meaning of the profession.” Library science studies the activities of libraries, while library philosophy explores their underlying unity and justifies their function in society. Because of their practical training and pragmatic tendencies, librarians tend to function without a coherent philosophy, which isn’t fatal for daily operations. “For librarians, the fact of not having a coherent professional philosophy does not prevent them from being motivated by ideas and principles, but these bear more resemblance to religion than to a genuine philosophy.”

He asserts that a philosophy of librarianship would need a definition of librarianship and a set of goals for all libraries. For the definition, he claims inspiration from Jesse Shera and proposes the following: “Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audio-visual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community.”

This seems simple enough. It’s the discussion of aims that becomes complicated. The aim is crucial, because Cossette takes a teleological approach to library philosophy. “The vast human project of the Library can only be evaluated according to the aims toward which it is directed.” Though I disagree in part with his assessment, I’m in agreement with the approach, as it is exactly what I proposed in my essay on “Technological Change, Universal Access, and the End of the Library,” where I argued that “part at least of any philosophy of the library must include thinking about the telos or end of the library. We must ask and try to answer the question: what is the end of the library?”

Cossette examines three possible ends: preservation, education, and information access. Some have considered the aim of libraries to be preservation. Cossette makes the excellent point that “if the role of the librarian only consists in preserving texts he is merely a technician and can not be considered a professional, nor scientific.”

Cossette also denies that education is a sufficient end, but his reasoning is much shakier here. He first denies that education can serve as the end of the library because it’s “classist.” “In maintaining the illusion that the ultimate goal of the library is education, thinkers in library science perpetuate an ideology that is inseparable from the division of society into classes, which exists in the interest of the dominant class. This bourgeois librarianship, which aims to disseminate high culture, to grant access to the treasures of civilization, is alienating for the vast majority of working people…. This librarianship is classist also for the reason that it universalizes a system of values that belongs to the dominant class.” This objection seems weak for a number of reasons. Something being “bourgeois” isn’t a philosophical objection to an idea as the ultimate goal of an institution. Libraries are perhaps bourgeois institutions, and there’s an end on it. If access to the treasures of civilization alienates the majority of workers, then so much the worse for the workers. However, the biggest weakness is that Cossette’s definition confuses education with indoctrination or perhaps acculturation. Libraries as educational institutions don’t “disseminate high culture,” or at least that’s not all they do.

In addition to denying education as a possible end of libraries, he has a serious problem with the notion of librarians as educators, which a lot of academic librarians consider themselves to be. He’s opposed to the idea, quoting Kenneth Kister that the “educator is mainly interested in critical analysis of the material involved, whereas the librarian is largely concerned with such services as acquisition, organization, retrieval, and distribution of that material.” He argues that just because librarians teach people how to use libraries doesn’t make them educators. Librarians who believe they are “have a poor sense of the fundamental nature of librarianship. They have neglected to take account of what all types of libraries have as a common goal: the maximal dissemination of information.”  (This is his end for libraries.)

He claims that “Librarians are not engaged in a pedagogical situation, which means they are able to play a role that is completely different from that of a teacher, whose function is normative, hierarchical, and distanced. His fundamental role consists of providing the information requested by the reader, as rapidly and effectively as possible. In academic and school libraries, it is plain that users require, in the majority of cases, information for their educational needs. But it would be an abuse of language to claim this as a reason to call a library an educational institution or a librarian a teacher. The aim here is merely to teach students how to access information.” (My emphasis.)

But is this true? I don’t believe it is. Academic librarians teach people both to access and evaluate information, and collection development librarians also build library collections not just by including some works but by excluding others, which often involves some sort of intellectual evaluation. Cossette is so dedicated to defending his primary claim about the end of libraries that he ignores what academic librarians actually do.  Librarians as educators upsets Cossette’s scheme because then academic librarians and special or public librarians couldn’t claim to be experts in the same field of expertise. Such a rigid definition itself fails to take account the possibility that all libraries might not have a common goal.

He concludes with the fairly banal point that the telos or goal of libraries is the maximal distribution of information.

The contemporary library becomes a service for information retrieval with the aim of providing all people with pertinent information toward educational, cultural, utilitarian, recreational, or other aims…. It is not a question of imposing on readers this or that type of information as a pretext for fulfilling a supposed educational or cultural mission. Rather, the librarian leaves it to the user to determine the purpose of his information request and accords him the full freedom to choose for himself the information that he will use.

Elsewhere, I’ve called a version of this the Universal Access Principle (or UAP), “ the proposition that libraries should provide free access to all information to all persons all of the time.” At the time I argued that this principle is confused. “The belief underlying the UAP allows for no evaluative choices, and yet it is used to justify an evaluative choice–i.e., that citizens should be taxed to support this principle. It is founded upon a radical ethical relativism, asserting that we have no way to decide what is good or bad, and thus we must let individuals decide for themselves, but then it decides for them. Specifically, it decides for the citizens that it is good for them to underwrite ethical relativism.” I’m not sure I still agree with my previous assessment, especially the claim about ethical relativism, but I agree with the basic point that the UAP claims a neutrality that cannot possibly justify it as an end of the library. It claims to be value neutral, but is cryptonormative instead. And the hidden norm isn’t the ethical relativism I once thought, but instead Enlightenment liberalism.

Even after deciding upon the UAP as the telos of the library, Cossette sneaks education and acculturation in through the back door when he addresses the role libraries play in informing citizens and helping free the oppressed.  “In providing needed information to all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged, the library lends its support to the realization of democratic ideals: it contributes to the formation of an informed electorate that is capable of rational decisions.” This is definitely not the goal of neutral information providers, and if this is the essence of libraries then there can be no libraries in totalitarian states. He says that ”librarians working in democratic libraries are professionally neutral in facing political, moral, and religious problems that divide readers. If there is controversy, they defend intellectual freedom.” However, the defense of intellectual freedom is not a neutral political position.

This section concludes by bringing in more voices affirming the non-neutral neutrality of librarians. “They provide free access to all to a collection that contains controversial texts and ideas. The impartiality is made possible by their professional ‘indifference’ to all competing opinions. ‘If he [the librarian] has no politics, no religion, and no morals, he can have all politics, all religions, and all morals.’ The contemporary library is a center of liberalism, ‘but its function is not to preach it but to be liberalism in operation.’” The ideas quoted so approvingly don’t make much sense, though. Librarians can’t defend intellectual freedom and have no politics, and though it makes political sense to claim so librarians aren’t really professionally impartial about ideas or books. A library that is the “center of liberalism” cannot possibly be neutral. Cossette affirms as much when he finally discusses libraries and humanism in his conclusion. Libraries are humanistic because they aim toward creating a certain sort of human being. “How can we call a service that aims for the creation of autonomous individuals who are sufficiently well informed to bring about all of their various projects anything but humanistic? … The work of librarianship is truly a human endeavor, that is to say an activity of humankind for humankind, that has as its end the well being of humankind.”

Earlier, Cossette had claimed that the end or goal of libraries was the maximal dissemination of information in a neutral manner, but even he can’t maintain that as the end. In the conclusion, we are told the end is the “well being of humankind,” and its well being in a very particular way—the creation of autonomous individuals informed enough to complete their various human projects. That’s an awfully ambitious goal for librarians who are supposedly neutral. Obviously, the UAP claims neutrality, when in fact it isn’t neutral, but aims to create a liberal culture of free autonomous human beings. This is where I think Cossette and the “neutral” liberals he quotes are confused. If the UAP is the founding philosophical principle of librarianship, then libraries are not in fact neutral and can’t possibly be. They are necessarily institutions of education and acculturation—to create educated, informed liberal democratic citizens. Librarians may build collections housing diverse views, but they don’t believe those diverse views, and they are not neutral about them. Some of the ideas are better than others, and librarians help decide that. Cossette wants to have the library be neutral towards information while claiming that neutrality serves emancipatory goals, but that’s disingenuous. Libraries as he conceives of them are institutions actively participating in the Enlightenment project of human liberation through education and tolerance. It’s educational, critical, and bourgeois. It assumes that critical thought is as necessary as information, and helps provide both. Though beginning as an Aristotelian, Cossette turns Kantian in the end.

Cossette’s definition and ultimate end of librarianship assumes that all libraries have something in common, the library-ness of the library, as a Platonist might say. He has to spend so much time deriding the educational claims of academic librarians because if they are educators in any meaningful sense then they have something peculiar they might not share with public or special librarians.  However, by the time he concludes with the humanistic, liberal end of libraries, this attempt at unity is no longer necessary. By undercutting the supposed neutrality of librarians, he has reintroduced an educational role for both academic and public librarians. Though public librarians sometimes deny their educational role and affirm their neutrality, some occasionally embrace an educational and cultural mission. That’s the point I got from the Darien Statements (which I evaluated here).

I disagree with his attempt at unification, because academic and public libraries have different, though sometimes overlapping missions. There may well be no library-ness of the library to examine. This doesn’t mean there can be no philosophy of librarianship, only that such a philosophy will have to be more complicated than providing access to information. Ultimately, I agree with Cossette’s conclusions that we can only understand and philosophize about libraries by understanding their place in a society and culture. The end of the library cannot be an end in itself, but must reflect the ends of society. By acknowledging the role of libraries in liberal democracies, Cossette says as much himself.

Though I’ve found much to criticize (and left many interesting arguments untouched), I highly recommend Humanism and Libraries. If it weren’t so thought-provoking, I would never have addressed it in the first place. Regardless of whether one agrees with all of Cossette’s methods or conclusions, taking the journey with him through this discussion should give any librarian much food for thought.

On the Vision Thing

Somehow today I stumbled upon this commentary by Carl Grant, the president of Ex Libris North America. In it, Grant expresses his disappointment over a lack of leadership or vision for librarianship. "As a librarian in the United States, I’m growing more and more upset and outraged about the lack of a national vision for librarianship. Where is our professional leadership in this time of economic crisis? Who is describing a vision that inspires us and that we can support?" Given the recent "Darien Statements" and my own occasional ruminations on the subject, there is evidence that some librarians desire a large and meaningful discussion about vision and purpose, and I can certainly understand the frustration Grant feels.

What I’m not so sure about, which I also discussed concerning the "Darien Statements," is whether there can be such a "national vision for librarianship," because it’s not clear that librarianship is itself a unified field. Grant discusses a Chronicle article calling for a national educational agenda that considers higher education a public good again rather than as a place for states to save money by cutting it to the bone. Grant comments: "There are some wonderful messages and ideas in that article that can be applied directly to libraries (frequently, with little more than a word swap)." I tend to agree, but it’s not clear that "librarianship" as a field is even as coherent as "higher education," and "higher education" itself verges on incoherence these days if we included Harvard, the University of Phoenix, community college systems, and your local Bible college.

For there to be such a vision, there would have to be some agreement on what it is libraries in theory should do, but what libraries do in practice varies considerably. It’s relatively easier to discuss academic libraries, but even within academia libraries play greater or lesser roles, and the importance of the library is very different for an historian and an astrophysicist, or to an on-campus liberal arts student and a part-time distance ed student.

One thing that seems clear when such discussions about meaning or purpose come up is that they can’t be divorced from the educational and political mission of libraries. Grant at one point says "our fellow educators" and considers the profession of librarianship part of the "core infrastructure of America, of its society"; the "Darien Statements" state that the Library "Encourages the love of learning" and "Empowers people to fulfill their civic duty; even the Annoyed Librarian likes to quote the motto of the Boston Public Library on educating citizens, or at least she used to. To the extent this is true, then perhaps academic libraries are not so divorced from public librarians after all.

The goal of the Library or the vision of Librarianship cannot be separated from larger goals of society, and the larger goals that seem to stir people the most are related to education, politics, and economics. Educational institutions are here to teach people and allow them to fulfill their potential as well as shape them into good citizens and productive workers. If there is to be a grand vision, it seems it would have to have this as the goal.

But would a vision like that guide every library and every librarian? Where I work, such a vision seems natural enough. The students we serve are bright and movitivated and are likely to fulfil their potential while being good citizens and productive workers. That, after all, is the natural goal of a liberal education, and some purpose like that is part of why I do what I do where I do it.

Are public libraries necessarily different? Public libraries have different relationships to their communities, and serve many functions that academic libraries often don’t. I’m thinking about hosting book clubs or acting as community centers, things that might be rough parallels to seminars or student center events on a college campus. Still, it’s obvious that with the traditional and current emphasis on providing information and guiding people to it that an educational function is built into public libraries. School libraries as well. Special libraries have some claim to making people into more productive workers, though I’m not sure how well they fare on making people better citizens or fuller human being, but everybody can’t do everything.

Is something like this the de facto vision of librarianship that we’re just not talking about much? Near the end of his essay, Grant opines that "an effort to find [a strategic plan] for libraries in general, National Libraries and/or Public Libraries can leave one exhausted and unsatisfied." I agree completely. I’m just not sure the problem is a lack of vision. I think if there can be a vision it will be something like I’ve described, and that any of us who think on the matter and want to find a larger purpose to our profession eventually work our way to something like this: libraries and librarians create more complete human beings, better citizens, and more productive workers. If that’s the case – and keep in mind I’m merely speculating – then we have the vision in the sense of purpose and goal. Do we have the will to implement that vision, or can we come up with a specific plan? On that I have as many doubts as Grant.

Preserving the Integrity of Civilization

I emerged from a long period of intense work to find the Darien Statements popping up all over my Google Reader. They seem like worthwhile enough statements, if  grandly stated. Readers of this blog know that I’m not averse to grandiloquent overstatement in the search for purpose. They didn’t evoke in me the visceral reaction they seem to in others, and I think I occupy the middle ground somewhere between the acid cynicism of the some bloggers and the sunny optimism of others. Mostly, I wonder about the meaning of the first statement that is supposed to support the others. "The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization." When I first read it, that sentence really grabbed me. Yes, I thought, that sounds good. However, as I thought about it more and unpacked the sentence, the meaning seemed to dissolve before me, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it.

The first problem for me was the Library. Maybe it’s something about the singular and the capitalization that bothers me, the assumption that there’s some essence common to all libraries, the librariness of the library existing in the mind of God or something. One of the reasons I focus on academic libraries is that I don’t think there is a Library; there are libraries of all sorts and all types, and there doesn’t seem to be much that they have in common. We might say they all provide access to information of some kind to some set of users as a common denominator. That seems to be about it, and that doesn’t seem enough to warrant the singular, capitalized noun. In my mind I always contrast the tiny public library that serves my grandmother and the largish academic library I work in. They are vastly different libraries with very different goals. If we add in school and special libraries, the variety becomes even greater. Though public and academic libraries have a lot in common, it seems to me that these days public libraries consider their missions to be broader than the educational mission usually assumed of most academic libraries.

If there is no one Library, then there can be no one purpose. But even if there were one Library and one purpose, would it be to preserve the integrity of civilization? In addition to implying that there’s a Library, this statement also implies there’s a civilization, and that this civilization has integrity. In one common sense of the term, there are many civilizations, and ours (if we share one) is but one of them. If we are talking about our civilization, which one is that? Let’s assume for the sake of argument we’re talking about Western civilization. This makes sense. The statements are written in English and are undoubtedly written from the perspective of librarians who are the products of Western civilization. This is a troublesome phrase to some. What might I mean by Western civilization? I’m not quite sure, other than the current state of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman-Germanic mishmash that has defined so much about Europeans and the places they have colonized.

Which leads to my next question. How much integrity does this civilization have? What do we mean by integrity? Etymologically it means something whole, undivided, complete, possibly pure. I’ll ignore the moral protests against Western civilization, because they tend to ignore comparisons with other civilizations. Just trying to look objectively, dispassionately at Western civilization, in modern times it seems to be the most porous, divided, unintegrated civilization in existence. This civilization, born amongst the commingling cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, has always been impure and open and unintegrated and grows more so every year. Rarely in the West has there been an active decision – as there once was in Japan, for example – to retreat from contact with other civilizations. There was some isolation during the early Middle Ages as the structure of the Roman empire collapsed, but otherwise the West has been porous.

Even what is sometimes popularly considered the most integral period of Western history, the apex of Christendom during the high middle ages, was much more internally divided than most people realize and was also deliberately and aggressively open to Islamic civilization through the Crusades. Since the Reformation, Western civilization has begun an endless process of splintering and dividing while growing ever more open to outside influences while also overwhelming other civilizations with Westernization.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Could it be civilization in some moral sense that is meant, as we might use it when we say people are civilized, which in some senses we would say only of a subset of a civilization in the first sense. ? Or in a related sense, using civilization as Matthew Arnold used "culture"? Culture for Arnold was the best that has been thought and said, and the human mission to perfect ourselves through an immersion in this culture. In this way of thinking, the mission of The Library would be a cultural mission, a civilizing mission. The Library preserves the integrity of civilization by civilizing us, by preserving culture in the high Arnoldian sense and allowing us access to it in a way we wouldn’t have if The Library didn’t exist.

This understanding makes sense of many of the statements,for example the phrases about "personal enlightenment" and "love of learning" and "creative expression," as well as the liberal content of some of the exhortations to promote openness, kindness, or trust. This Arnoldian interpretation is high-minded, and to some can be inspiring. It is what I myself think of my own library and its educational and research mission in my prouder moments. However, if something like this is meant, especially for all libraries, it seems to go against the grain of some popular thinking on libraries and librarians, especially the idea that librarians can or should be "neutral," or the relativistic "every book his reader" of Ranganathan. If The Library has a civilizing mission, then librarians must act accordingly, and become the guardians and promoters of this civilization. Civilization loses any neutral sense it might have. Such a civilization has a content, a philosophy, an ethic, a framework to choose what is worthwhile to be preserved or promoted and what isn’t.

This doesn’t bother me at all. Something like this was implied in my arguments for the librarian as filter. In those posts, I argued that it was the librarian’s job to select and thus to choose what to preserve, and that librarians can not and should not be neutral, but I was talking about academic libraries. I wonder if librarians in the mass are ready for such a charge when they’ve been taught for a long time to be neutral providers devoted to "access" in the abstract, but not access to particular items of value. If my Arnoldian interpretation is right, then this statement means that all librarians and all libraries have a positive, substantial educational and civilizing mission. This means that public libraries and librarians would need to move away from the usual policy of giving the public what it wants to giving the public what the librarians think they need. This already happens in academic libraries, but it seems foreign to what I know of public libraries.

I can’t say for sure if this is what the authors of the Darien Statements meant by "preserving the integrity of civilization." This is the interpretation that seems to me to make the most sense of the document. If it is what they meant, it’s a powerful statement that cuts d
eeper through the thinking of a lot of librarians than perhaps they meant to. If this interpretation veers too far from the authorial intentions, perhaps more clarification would help me understand the statements better.