Virtue Information Literacy: Flourishing in an Age of Information Anarchy

What I’ve been doing the last few years instead of blogging:

Virtue Information Literacy: Flourishing in an Age of Information Anarchy

Virtue Information Literacy draws upon virtue ethics and virtue epistemology to develop a new, ethical conception of information literacy. Those of us who live in heterogenous societies with relatively free flowing information inhabit a world of Information Anarchy, anarchy not in the uninformed popular sense of chaos and disorder (although plenty of that exists), but in the philosophical and political sense of self-organized activity without dominant, hierarchical (information) authorities to which most people defer or which have the power to enforce conformity. We are deluged with information from advertising, marketing, propaganda, corporate media, alternative media, social media, film, and television. And, we are free to believe whom and what we like among the deluge and to act upon those beliefs, sometimes even to our own peril. We spontaneously organize into groups of like-minded believers, assuming that our group is right and theirs wrong. Collectively, we have no information gods or masters, not even the government that claims to rule us all. We still have information authorities that some believe everyone should defer to simply because of their position: scientists, doctors, scholars, experts, journalists, priests, churches, politicians, party leaders, governments, gods, etc. Nevertheless, mass collective agreement on information authority is almost impossible to achieve.

If this characterization of the information environment is correct, how should we choose wisely among this abundance? How do we learn to find and critically evaluate the best information for our purposes? Those are traditional questions of information literacy. This book asks in addition, what sort of person must we become to survive in such an environment? What sort of moral and intellectual character or self should we develop to flourish? To survive, even to flourish, in an era of information anarchy requires the development of radically new, critical, resistant, socially situated selves or subjectivities. These new selves develop through learning common information literacy skills, but also through cultivating a range of intellectual virtues that make these selves better able to exercise their information literacy skills. Such virtues include open-mindedness, intellectual humility, epistemic modesty, intellectual courtesy, intellectual courage, intellectual caution, intellectual thoroughness, epistemic justice, and information vigilance. They are cultivated through systematic mental discipline: Information Asceticism. This ethical approach to information literacy through the cultivation of intellectual virtues is Virtue Information Literacy.

Virtue Information Literacy

I’ve been mostly absent from the blog since a long illness three years ago, but about a year ago I started doing some scholarly writing again. I’m currently working on a book applying Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology to Information Literacy, potentially entitled Virtue Information Literacy. (Catchy, right?). An article introducing the basic concepts has just come out in Library Philosophy and Practice if anyone’s curious about what I’m writing about these days. Constructive criticism welcome.

Scholarly Conversations, Intellectual Virtues, and Virtue Information Literacy


This article develops a concept of Virtue Information Literacy (VIL) modeled on the philosophical subfields of virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. VIL is an ethical, character-based approach analyzing information literacy through intellectual virtues and vices in order to cultivate such virtues with the goal of living a more flourishing life. The article explains the foundation of VIL in virtue ethics and virtue epistemology; analyzes recent work making similar connections between information literacy, virtue epistemology, and intellectual virtues and vices; and finally with the aid of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics analyzes some intellectual virtues especially useful for “Scholarship as Conversation,” including open-mindedness, intellectual humility, intellectual courtesy, and intellectual thoroughness.”

On Having Nothing Nice to Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Research Essay from an Instructor’s Perspective

[The following is adapted from a talk I gave to colleagues who provide library instruction for first-year college writing courses, but have never taught one themselves. I thought similar librarians might be interested in the research essay from an instructor’s perspective.]

A little bit about my background with writing instruction. I started teaching writing, or rhetoric as it’s called there, at the University of Illinois in 1992. Except for a year when I exiled myself from academia, I either taught writing or worked in a writing center from then until the end of 1999 when I finished library school. I came to Princeton in 2002, and from 2002-2009 I taught seven writing seminars in the Princeton Writing Program. So I have a lot of experience on both sides of the instructor-librarian relationship.

The goal of a writing seminar is to teach students to be able to write argumentative, academic essays using sources, and in many ways this is an unnatural act. Take a look at the Elements of the Academic Essay, which the writing seminars used for years to provide a common vocabulary about writing, and which many other writing programs use. (They now use a variation of it.)

Elements of the Academic Essay

  1. Thesis
  2. Motive
  3. Evidence
  4. Analysis
  5. Keyterms
  6. Structure
  7. Stitching
  8. Sources
  9. Reflecting
  10. Orienting
  11. Stance
  12. Style
  13. Title

13 elements of the academic essay. That’s a lot to cover. Where does the library portion come in? Evidence (maybe), sources (again, maybe), thesis. Evidence could include sources handed out in class, interviews, etc. And the sources might be suggested by an instructor or by the references list in a scholarly encyclopedia. My writing seminars mostly focused on the work of John Rawls and responses to him. If you read the Rawls entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and follow the references, you won’t need to do much library searching.

Some of these are more difficult than others. It’s harder to formulate a thesis than a title, but students even have trouble with titles. In an essay about John Rawls, the title might be “John Rawls.” Not very indicative of what the essay is about.

Students come in as strong writers at a basic level, but they haven’t had much experience writing argumentative academic essay using sources, and it’s a big transition.

In the Princeton Writing Program, there are four essays, but the first three are the most important, and develop in a sequence. Typically, the first essay works with one or two sources and involves interpreting and forming a thesis about those. The second essay usually adds in a few more sources to write about. And the third essay is the research essay.

Librarians usually come in for Essay 3, but the first three essays are a continuum teaching students how to read, interpret, and use scholarly sources in an academic essay. For each essay, there’s a draft (D) and a revision (R). In between those the instructor comments on the draft, makes suggestions for improvement, and meets individually with the students to discuss the revision. The sequence goes D1 R1, D2 R2, and D3 R3.

As an example, I’ll discuss my own teaching. My last writing seminars focused on the work of John Rawls, a Princeton A.B. and PhD who was possibly the most prominent political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past century. We’d start with a 25-page excerpt from his first book A Theory of Justice. Rawls is a complicated thinker and a dense writer, but we spent a couple of weeks discussing the excerpt, focusing on just a few ideas: the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance, Justice as Fairness, and the Two Principles of Justice. In the first essay, students were to make some argument about Rawls.

In D1, most students struggled with his work, and some would wildly misinterpret him, building a strawman called Rawls and making bold claims attacking that instead of engaging critically with what he actually wrote.

There were two problems.

First, reading and interpreting difficult texts is, well, difficult. Nietzsche, who was trained as a classical philologist and thus a very careful reader, somewhere writes that most people read every fifth word of a text and then try to work out a meaning from that. That’s pretty much what most students did on their first pass through Rawls. Reading difficult texts and interpreting them carefully isn’t easy, and the students don’t have much experience doing it. Rawls is probably more difficult than many of the readings in a writing class, but eventually students will venture out into the scholarly literature which can often be difficult to understand for novices in a field.

Second, people tend to quickly form strong beliefs based on little evidence, and then accept evidence that confirms their beliefs while ignoring counter-evidence. That leads to bold, unsubstantiated claims and sloppy interpretations.

Princeton psychologist emeritus Daniel Kahneman studied fast thinking and slow thinking. We tend to make snap judgments and then come up with reasons to defend them. Learning to think slowly and evaluate evidence is difficult because that’s not how we normally think. Studies of motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases conclude the same thing. Some studies have even shown that if people strongly hold beliefs, then presenting them with an undeniable refutation of those beliefs only reinforces their commitment to them. Science is telling us what David Hume told us a quarter century ago. Reason is a slave of the passions.

Students are sometimes like the people Michael Shermer describes in his book Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. They believe weird things (in this case about Rawls) because they’re really good at coming up with smart reasons to defend beliefs they developed by non-smart means.

A good writing seminar should help students break this habit and think more like academics: careful reading, detailed analysis, qualified claims based on the evidence. Even if writing instructors don’t realize it, they’re trying to suppress and retrain natural mental instincts formed over a hundred thousand years of human evolution, and instead teach students to develop their beliefs based on a careful consideration of all available evidence. Compared to that, searching Summon or the catalog to find a few books and articles is fairly easy.

The instructor then comments on the draft. Many of my comments would be pointing out misinterpretations, which usually meant showing that some bold claim the student made about something Rawls supposedly supports was refuted by some other part of Rawls the student ignored. Sometimes there were structural or other issues as well. The revision, R1, would be a little better. Students would have dealt with my counter-evidence and qualified their claims.

In D2 students are a little better still, more careful in their interpretations and more cautious in their statements, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Reading and interpreting carefully. Developing beliefs based on the evidence. Classes spend 5-6 weeks on teaching these skills and the elements of the academic essay before ever tackling the research essay.

By D3, they’ve gotten better, but now have to use the same skills on sources that the class hasn’t read and discussed together. We librarians step in and show them the basics of library research and how to find books and articles, and we make it pretty easy for them with discovery layers. Even then we might be fooling ourselves, since we know that most of the traffic to our electronic resources is driven by Google, not our databases.

Regardless, finding the sources is a lot easier than the task of reading, analyzing, and synthesizing them into a careful argument, and that’s the major goal of the research essay. All the students are familiar with the very basics of online searching. Librarians teach them to do that in a more scholarly way. It’s all the other stuff that’s new to them.

In D3 there are a series of stages: the research topic, the research question, and the thesis statement.

The research topic is first, and there’s no point meeting with us as librarians before they have that. The topic is broad, and could come from some class readings, instructor suggestion, initial interest of the student, or wherever. That’s the point they need to do some preliminary research, which will just be their first round of research.

Then comes the research question, which is best formulated after some searching, but more importantly some reading. Students have to read and understand enough about the topic to know what questions can be fruitfully asked and what questions are already answered or impossible to answer.

Then, they have to research and read more to develop a thesis, a debatable claim they can support from the evidence.

To distinguish these stages, I’ll use a possible example about Rawls.

The topic is John Rawls’ concept of  “justice as fairness.” This is what is known as a “lens essay,” looking at some subject through the lens of Rawls’ work.

Rawls argues that justice as fairness requires us to imagine what a society might be like if we designed it from behind a “veil of ignorance,” what he calls the “original position.” What kind of society would we want to live in if we had no idea what place we would have in that society? Rawls answers that question at length. He argues that we would secure basic individual liberties, make sure positions in society were equally and openly competitive, and that social and economic inequalities would benefit the least advantaged. So we could look at some current social arrangement and ask, is it just?

But let’s complicate it by adding an animal rights perspective suggested by the work of Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton philosopher. This would be a double lens essay, looking at animal rights through the lenses of both Rawls and Singer.

We could come up with a research question:

What if we applied Rawls in the way that Peter Singer might think about? Blind to species? What kind of society would we come up with if we not only didn’t know our human place in society, but didn’t know if we’d occupy the place of a human or a dolphin?

If we thought about and researched this more, we might come up with the following thesis:

When we view John Rawls’ theory of justice through the lens of Peter Singer, some non-human animals would possibly benefit from rules of justice formed behind the veil of ignorance, and some homo sapiens might lose consideration.

This is still more of a working thesis. It should be more specific about the consequences, but first, the student would have to, in Hegel’s words, work through the labor of the notion to develop the complete argument, responding and reflecting on the related sources, such as Mark Rowlands’ non-speciesist response to Rawls and Hallie Liberto’s and David Svolba’s responses to Rowlands, both easily found through a simple PhilPapers search.

Like the introductory paragraph—which should be written last when you know what you’re actually introducing—the final thesis should be written after the argument is complete and you know what you’ve actually argued, and then you should go back through the essay and cut out everything that isn’t related to it. It’s hard work.

To conclude, students aren’t used to reading difficult texts, interpreting them carefully, arguing with them, reflecting on them, and developing an arguable claim from the sources they find instead of just believing stuff and hoping to find evidence for it. These skills are difficult to learn, which is why what passes for discussion and debate out in the world is so terrible. The lack of these skills and training explains why there are people who fervently believe we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.

And because of this, when it comes to learning how to write an academic research essay using sources, finding the sources is probably the easiest thing the students are going to learn. It’s everything else they have a lot of trouble with. The librarian’s role in the process is important, but relatively small considering all the other things students have to learn to write good academic essays.

Sci-Hub and Information Apartheid

From what I’ve read, the methods Sci-Hub uses to acquire material range from the dangerous and stupid (e.g., providing strangers access to your network) to the illegal and unethical (e.g. phishing scams). Both of those are bad. However, the ethics of the existence of the repository itself is very debatable, and aside from the possible network security problems, most academics, including most academic librarians, probably aren’t going to care that much about Sci-Hub. While I’d prefer to see a more universal sharing of preprints along the lines of arXiv or PhilPapers, preprints aren’t what scholars have access to, so that’s not what they share with Sci-Hub.

A couple of things to consider. One reason this might be popular, and why people might contribute to it, is the contradiction between the sharing culture of academia and the commercial culture of most scientific publishing, which I’ve discussed before. Researchers don’t take copyright of scholarly work seriously because the very concept of making scholarly research unshareable is unthinkable to most of them. Doing research and disseminating the results is what researchers do, and they’ve been doing it for centuries. That’s why they publish in the first place. Most of them probably don’t even realize they’re giving up their right to legally share their research; hence all the takedown notices from Elsevier to Researchers at scientific corporations might be different, but academics just won’t care about this. It’s a clash of values that can’t be reconciled.

Secondly, nobody without a financial stake in perpetual copyright is going to be especially concerned about the existence of Sci-Hub as such. A publisher over at Scholarly Kitchen was very hostile about SciHub and kept repeating that it’s illegal. True, it is illegal, but it’s not necessarily unethical. It’s illegal to share an Elsevier article with someone who didn’t pay their $35. It was also illegal for African-Americans to drink at “whites only” drinking fountains or stay at “whites only” hotels throughout much of the American south until just a few decades ago.  Apartheid was legal in South Africa until not that long ago, but that didn’t make it ethical. It being illegal didn’t make it unethical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently laid out the case against unjust laws in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In the U.S., copyright exists “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Once that “limited time” becomes almost perpetual, which it basically has, there’s a moral case for arguing that current copyright law is unjust law that creates a form of information apartheid for researchers who aren’t affiliated with the relatively wealthy institutions that can afford the access. Disney drove this more than Elsevier, but Elsevier especially has demonstrated hostility towards any sort of sharing, either by authors of the published works they wrote, or the government with works it funded.

Combining the sharing values of academic research, the creation of information apartheid, and the reliance upon a copyright system that many consider to be unjust and unethical, plenty of researchers, perhaps the majority, have no moral qualms about sharing scholarship as such. Everything about the culture of scholarship implies that sharing is considered the norm, from to the IcanhazPDF hashtag. And the legal argument isn’t persuasive to people who think the copyright system has been rigged for commercial interests at the expense of the public, and that probably includes most people who both a) know anything about copyright, and b) don’t have a financial interest in perpetuating the system against the public interest. A clash of values can’t be resolved by appealing to law that both sides don’t support.

There was a Chronicle of Higher Education article about how librarians were supposedly “caught between journal pirates and publishers.” However, I don’t consider myself caught at all. As a representative of the library, I present the library’s official position on copyright, knowing full well that scholars don’t care because their academic values are more important to them than profits for commercial publishers. While I uphold the law in this matter, I don’t have to agree with it or think it a just law, both because I share those academic values and because I believe copyright law is now at odds with the public interest, and that some bad actors among otherwise beneficial publishers have supported an unnecessarily restrictive information apartheid to unaffiliated researchers.

Instead of lecturing librarians about how we should feel about this situation, publishers would more fruitfully spend their time asking why unaffiliated researchers or researchers in poor countries should be excluded from results of international research considering the vast amount of money they’re already making off of libraries in richer countries that aren’t in danger of dropping their journal subscriptions because of something like Sci-Hub. Figure out a way to disseminate information to the people who need it, or consider sharing with the less fortunate a form of “fair use,” and librarians will applaud you for it, because that is what we value. Create information apartheid and appeal to rigged copyright law, and most of us aren’t going to be very concerned about it. I’ll follow the law and people at my university have so much information privilege they probably will to, but I have no sympathy for certain publishers who are so hostile to academic and library values.

Calculating My Odds

Donald Trump and his ilk are fearmongering about terrorism and President Obama wants to calm my nerves. Maybe it’s just that I’m congenitally not a worrier, but in my daily life I’m not in the least worried about being the victim of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, by ISIS, right-wing extremists, or anyone else. Mass shootings and attacks are horrendous, and I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for the people who survive them and the loved ones of those who don’t, but anyone’s actual chances of being involved in one are extremely slight.

According to, there have been at least 462 people killed and 1312 injured in 353 mass shootings this year, which is already more than the 383 people killed last year. They define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, which is a broader definition than the government has used. (Compare that to the 30K or so people killed in auto accidents each year.) According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. currently has a resident population of 322,367,564, giving me a 0.00000143% chance of getting killed in a mass shooting this year by the broadest definition. That’s almost literally a one in a million chance, the phrase we use when something is so unlikely that we won’t bother to worry about it.

Of those 353 shootings, 2 seemed to be related to Islamist terrorism (Chattanooga and San Bernardino), resulting in 19 deaths and 19 injuries. That’s from a site called, which is trying to prove how murderous Muslims are. By being so diligent in tracking deaths by Muslims, they ultimately show that Muslim terrorists have been responsible for .006% of the attacks and .041% of deaths in mass shootings this year, making my chances of being killed this year by a such a terrorist infinitesimal. So thanks, anti-Muslim website, for reassuring me.

But since deciding what counts as a mass shooting is difficult, let’s look at the most conservative data. Mother Jones magazine has been tracking mass shootings since 1982, and they use the criteria of four or more people killed, which means they don’t consider the recent Planned Parenthood attack a mass shooting, since “only” three people were killed. According to Mother Jones, there have been four mass shootings in the U.S. this year. According to data, there were 41 such shootings so far this year. However, they include domestic shootings such as this one and this one, which, while perhaps indicative of a culture of guns and violence, are in a different category than mass shootings in public places with the intent to kill randomly. One more kink. In 2013 Congress lowered the federal number of deaths required: “the term ‘mass killings’ means 3 or more killings in a single incident.” That would allow us to add the Planned Parenthood attack to the four mass shootings tracked by Mother Jones.

So at a conservative estimate there have been 5 mass shootings in the U.S. this year: San Bernadino (14 dead), Oregon (10 dead), Charleston (9 dead), Chattanooga (5 dead), and Colorado (3 dead). Of the 5 shootings, 2 are related to Islamist terrorism, 2 to what I would consider right-wing extremist terrorism (Colorado and Charleston), and 1 (Oregon) to who knows what craziness. By this reckoning, this year, there was a 40% chance of a mass shooting being related to Islamist terrorism, and 46% of the people killed in mass shootings were killed by Islamist terrorists, but still more people were killed by non-Muslim white American men than were killed by Muslims.

That’s a large percentage, but of a tiny number of events, and by these standards my odds increase significantly and I have a 0.00000013% chance of being killed in a mass shooting, and a 5.89389322e-8% chance of being killed by a Muslim terrorist. So despite all the fearmongering, there have been 2 Islamist terrorism incidents in the U.S. this year, giving us individually an insignificant chance of having been killed in one.

[Update] If we expand this analysis over several years, it looks even better. According to thereligionofpeace website, there have been 89 people killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S. in the last 14 years. (I’m leaving out 9/11 because that is WAY outside the norm.) That averages to be about 6.4 people killed per year. Dividing that average by an average population of 320 million people each year gives a likelihood of death by Muslim terrorist of 2e-8%. That’s even lower than my previous estimate, because the San Bernadino shooting was uncharacteristic, and the largest number of dead since 2009. That’s a 1 in 50,000,000 or so chance each year that I’ll die in a terrorist attack in the U.S.

Just as who you associate with might lead to a domestic shooting, where you work might as well. I work at a university, where bomb threats seem to be increasing. None have actually been bombed because while any dipshit can buy a gun and start shooting people, making bombs is hard, and none of the shootings seemed related to Islamic terrorism. According to this Wikipedia list of attacks related to post-secondary schools, there have been 6 such attacks this year, leaving 17 people dead (including the 10 dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon). There are 4,140 public or private colleges in the U.S., enrolling almost 18,000,000 students and having tens of thousands of employees. Again, an infinitesimal chance even within the domain of higher education.

None of this is an argument against fighting terrorism and mass shootings or trying to stop gun violence. However, it is an argument that an abnormal fear of being killed in a terrorist attack or mass shooting in the U.S. is unwarranted, and that the fearmongering is little short of demagoguery. Yes, they could happen anywhere, but they’re extremely unlikely to happen here, wherever here is. If the goal of terrorists is to terrorize me, they haven’t won.

Conservative Librarians and Liberal Librarians

In my last post I claimed there were two kinds of librarians–those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t–and that I’m the former kind. Being a divider makes things easy, because once you start looking at the world in that simplistic way you see divisions everywhere. Science and religion, the personal and the political, Guelphs and Ghibellines, really whatever binary that pops into my head can provide useful fodder for false dichotomies, straw men, glittering generalities, oversimplification, question begging, non sequiturs, well poisoning, red herrings, weasel words, and other varieties of sophistry.

I’ve spent much of my adult life learning and teaching how to find, analyze, and evaluate evidence to support justified beliefs and reasoned arguments, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m neither a librarian rock star nor a prominent keynote speaker, so goodbye to all that. Divide and conquer is now my maxim.

On to the latest division. We can divide librarians into conservative librarians and liberal librarians.

Conservative librarians like the status quo, for better or worse. They don’t like change and they struggle against it. In discussions about change, they try to obfuscate the issues with irrelevant arguments, fallacious reasoning, and anything else they can do to draw attention away from existing problems and ways to solve them. If anyone thinks that maybe a current situation has a few problems and people should try to solve some of those problems, conservative librarians will resist them, sometimes by writing angry rants incoherently smearing their opponents and sometimes by writing cautious, overqualified essays subtly impugning the professionalism of those who disagree with them.

Conservative librarians have no positive goals. Their goals are entirely negative. First, stop any changes to the status quo. Second, stop conversations about changing the status quo, and if that’s not possible then obscure or derail the conversations. They will never come out and just say, “I like the status quo and I don’t want it to change no matter what and I wish you’d just shut up.” And they resent being called conservative and will deny it vehemently, because if it’s acknowledged that they’re conservatives opposed to all change regardless of its merits, then their arguments, such as they are, will be immediately ignored by most people.

On the other side, we have liberal librarians. Liberal librarians are more open to change because they’re smart, fun loving, and easygoing. The status quo doesn’t provide them with any particular comfort and they don’t fear the possibility that things might change if it means improvement. They don’t want chaos, but they don’t mind experimentation and gradual progress. They like freedom of discussion not only for themselves but for other people. They don’t try to shut down or obscure conversations. Quite the opposite. If liberal librarians have any flaw, it’s that they tend to discuss things to death. They’re open-minded and perhaps a tad too idealistic. Sometimes they dream too big, but they believe that while utopias don’t exist they still provide motivation to make a better world than we have now.

Liberal librarians like to take what they find and leave it better than they found it. Conservative librarians find this disconcerting because they always prefer what they have to what might be better, because even if the end result is better, the process of change is always bad. When liberal librarians talk about possibilities for improvement, conservative librarians focus on negative unintended consequences. When liberal librarians describe better ways of doing some things, conservative librarians will claim that any small improvements won’t make any real difference anyway so it’s pointless to try. When liberal librarians say they want freedom, conservative librarians will label that freedom tyranny.

There’s nothing either good or bad about conservative or liberal librarians. I’m not criticizing either one or implying that one of these is better than the other. Libraries need both. They need reactionaries who oppose all change and visionaries who can imagine better futures and how we might achieve them. Both are equally good. But it’s crucial that we divide librarians into these suspect categories so that we can discuss which kind of librarian we are or how I’ve misconstrued one side or the other or how maybe I’m just spouting nonsense. Otherwise, we might talk about something important.

Two Kinds of Librarians

Since the beginning of time, there have been two kinds of librarians: those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t. Librarians who divide librarians into two kinds have never met a false dichotomy we didn’t like. We have an easy, simple vision of the world that’s very attractive for us and others, because reducing the irreducible complexity of existence to a series of false dichotomies simultaneously reduces the effort required for serious thought, and some of us are too busy running libraries to have time for serious thought.

The false dichotomy is a useful thing and beautiful in its simplicity. A scary thought is that there might be thousands of librarians motivated by a variety of values. It’s hard work to understand all of the values, much less the fact that even a single librarian can have multiple motives for action. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand it. We can just divide librarians using various false dichotomies. I’m dividing them into librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t because it’s just a lot easier for me to understand the world that way.

Some people believe the world is a messy and complex place, and that even the world of libraries is complex. Those people frighten and confuse me. They believe that individual librarians have a set of sometimes conflicting values whose adherence requires balance, compromise, and negotiation. They might believe, for example, that librarians should act for the good of their individual library users, for the good of their particular libraries, and for the good of all libraries. That’s a lot to think about, though, and I prefer to make things easier on myself. Librarians either divide librarians into two kinds or they don’t, and if they don’t then they’re probably trying to force you to think about something complex that you really don’t have the time or inclination to think about. So don’t think about it.

It’s easy. I don’t. I just look out and see the two kinds of librarians. One kind, the dividers, are like me. They like things clean and simple. The great thing about such simplicity is how much time it saves me. Let’s say I encounter librarians writing or saying things that imply they aren’t dividers. With a wave of my mental hand I easily dismiss them, because if they’re not dividers like me, then they’re not worth paying attention to. If I’m being really generous, as I am here, I might warn other librarians to avoid them as well. Don’t pay attention to the non-dividers. They’re bad.

It gets even easier. Since I can tell almost immediately when a librarian isn’t a divider like me, I can warn everybody about how bad they are without considering any evidence whatsoever. You know who aren’t dividers? People who spend their precious time on things like “citing sources” or “critical thinking” when they’re dividing librarians using false dichotomies. Ugh. I have better things to do. You might think that if I had any respect for my audience I might cite some sources while making grand generalizations about librarians. But no, I assume my audience is as simplistic as I am and that they’ll fall for the same fallacies that I do.  Besides, citing sources takes work, and I prefer to write essays the way first-year college students write them. Hence my opening sentence and my complete lack of evidence for my claims.

Regardless, since I know that the world is divided between librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those that don’t, and since I know that librarians who don’t divide librarians into two kinds disagree with me, and since I know that librarians who disagree with me are wrong and bad, then I don’t have to even examine them closely or provide reasons why they’re wrong and bad. The very fact that they don’t divide librarians into two kinds is proof enough that they can’t be trusted. Wrong and bad librarians like them hate libraries and their users. I can just dismiss them, and I implore you to do the same.

If we both share the same false dichotomy, that saves us from having to understand or engage with librarians who are wrong and bad because they disagree with us.  If we don’t share the same false dichotomy and you dare to criticize me, I have a way of dealing with that as well. I’ll repeat my false dichotomies and fallacious arguments ad nauseum until you get so tired of responding to my circular arguments that you just give up. I can copy and paste my claims into a comment box as many times as necessary. Really, it’s no trouble. And if I get the last word in, then I win the argument, because that’s how the Internet works.

You might think I’d come up with some arguments to defend my own beliefs instead of creating a false dichotomy, aligning myself with one side of it, poisoning the well against the other side, and hoping people will be gullible enough to have a discussion on my terms. But that’s hard work. Fallacious reasoning is much easier than critical thinking, it’s a lot more fun, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. That’s why I like to keep things simple and easy.

Since things are so simple and easy, I don’t know why every librarian isn’t a divider like me. I could try to find out, I guess, but that would require understanding the values and motivations of the non-dividers, and probably engaging them at their own level, and if I do that things aren’t so clean and simple anymore, which means I’d be wasting time I could otherwise spend dividing the world into two kinds of librarians. If I was going to make that much effort, I might as well be a non-divider, but non-dividers are wrong and bad so I wouldn’t want to be like them. My argument is so airtight I might be suffocating myself.

A Modest Ebook Pricing Proposal

After the series of columns I wrote about ebooks for the Library Journal last fall, an ebook publisher emailed me and asked why my library wasn’t buying any of his ebooks even though they met every one of my criteria (DRM-free, unlimited usage, single title purchases, etc.). I tried a public response to that question here, basically saying that libraries generally have to choose a default for books–print or electronic–because they can’t afford both for all their titles. It’s all or nothing, and as long as people still want print books, I’ll keep buying them, which means that I don’t have money left over to duplicate each title as an ebook, no matter how great the ebook platform is. It’s just too much trouble trying to coordinate with publishers and approval plans subject by subject.

The thing is, I could have the money to do just that, if publishers weren’t trying to sell the same book twice, often for more than 200% of the cost of the print book. If the print book is $100 and an unlimited license to the ebook is $150, then buying both would be 250% of the print book price. If the ebook platform didn’t meet most of my criteria, I wouldn’t even think about buying it. Obviously librarians like me aren’t the target customers for publishers who want to sell technologically hobbled ebooks. However, often I would love to have an ebook version of a book, but couldn’t afford duplicates for so many titles.

Publishing is in transition, and that transition could last a very long time. According to recent statistics from the Association of American Publishers:

After slightly declining last year, eBooks experienced 3.8% revenue growth to an estimated $3.37 billion dollars. It’s worth noting that though the volume increased only slightly (.2%), over 510 million eBooks were sold in 2014. That’s nearly on-par with the number of hardbacks (568 million) sold in 2014…. Paperbacks, which remain the most popular format, also saw strong sales at $4.84 billion compared to $4.42 billion and units sold at 942 million compared to 882 million in 2013.

Print books are not going away anytime soon. Students and professors want them. Libraries buy them. Yet it’s also in everyone’s interest to support the development of good ebook platforms for academic libraries, which would be easier to do if more libraries bought ebooks even as they were still buying print books.

During the transition period, I’d like to see book publishers offering the same incentives for purchases as journal publishers did 15-20 years ago when journals were moving from print to electronic. I’d like to see an option for Print + Electronic at a price above just the price for print, but well below the price for currently buying a print book and then buying a duplicate ebook for more than 100% of the print book price. I don’t know what a fair price would be for such an arrangement. Journals were often about 10% more per year. Maybe even 20% for the right ebooks. If I had an option like that, I’d certainly purchase a lot more ebooks.

From the publisher’s perspective, it probably looks like a bad idea. After all, plenty of ebook publishers are afraid of DRM-free ebooks or unlimited usage and think that libraries should buy their ebook offerings even if the ebooks make things harder for library users. “What? An ebook for only 20% of the print price? That’s outrageous.” I’d be willing to turn it around. How about paying full price for an unlimited use purchase of an ebook and throwing the print book in for free? In many cases, that would be quite a bit more than buying the print book. Amazon even has a feature like that for some publishers, and I’ve bought at least one print book because the price after I’d purchased the ebook was only a fraction of the ebook cost.

Either way, it’s more money for publishers than they currently have. The ebook platforms are built. Providing access to another library isn’t that difficult. If a library is still buying print books from a publisher instead of ebooks, then any money paid for ebooks would be better than no money for ebooks. Eventually, there might be a transition from print to electronic for most library books. Or Print + Electronic could become the norm, satisfying the large audiences for both on a given campus.

Thus, one answer to the question of why some librarians aren’t purchasing acceptable ebooks is that we don’t have an incentive to. We want the print books because our users want the print books. We would also like the ebooks if they met certain criteria, but paying more than 200% of the print book price to have both isn’t affordable or wise. A Print+Electronic pricing model like that of journal publishers would give libraries an incentive to buy ebooks they aren’t buying now and get money to publishers they aren’t getting now. If someone could make it work, it would be better off for everyone.