Why I Don’t Have Anything to Add about Race in America

I’ve seen a couple of different claims on the Internet that not posting something on social media about Ferguson or Eric Garner or racism in America is itself a sign of racism, or something along those lines. By remaining silent on social media, white people are just part of whatever problem there is. I think that’s a bad argument, but I can understand why people might think that. If everyone posted something on Facebook about every injustice in America or the world, Facebook would be nothing but that. The world can be a shitty place. My constantly acknowledging that on Facebook isn’t going to make it any better.

Just to give some examples of things I hate: continuing worldwide environmental devastation; on-going, pointless, unjust wars America started that have killed tens of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and cost billions of dollars that could have been spent productively; all the wars America didn’t start; Islamist terrorists; American drug policies that have created near-genocidal conditions in parts of northern Mexico and a vastly unjust and expensive prison-industrial complex in the U.S.; the future of children being almost completely determined by their parents’ socioeconomic status; the persistent and possibly unchangable concentrations of poverty in the country; and the de facto unequal rights that oppress millions of Americans and billions around the world every day.

If some people think my sins of omission make me a worse person, then I’ll say something. Just to make those people happy, I’ll provide my completely irrelevant opinion on racial injustice in America. It’s awful. It’s systematic throughout the country. It should be stopped. I have no idea how to do that and suspect it’s impossible because many people are stupid and fearful of people who aren’t like them. The Ferguson grand jury was a farce, and the prosecutor must have been a fool to think that any disinterested person, much less the many interested persons, would be able to look at that process and say, “Yeah! Justice accomplished!” However, I expected no indictment, just as I expected no indictment in the Eric Garner case. I believe, like anyone who has paid attention to racial issues in America should know, when it comes to white people harming people of color, getting justice is very rare. What can I do about that? Not a damn thing.

However, neither the irrelevance of my opinions or the ineffectiveness of my personal actions are why I don’t normally say anything about racial injustice or race in America. It’s because when something like the Ferguson decision happens, I don’t see it as my place to speak. I see it as my place to listen, or at least read. I read the stuff my friends and acquaintances of and not of color post on Facebook. I try my best to understand what it must be like to be the Other in American society, because that’s a difficult enough thing for anyone without expecting some additional commentary that signifies to whomever that I’m a good person or whatever it is someone wants me to be. I’ve always felt like an outsider in American culture, but never an Other.

I even have irrelevant opinions about white privilege, about which I was ignorant for most of my life, but about which I couldn’t possibly disagree with once I understood what it was. Yes, I’m a beneficiary of it, and no, I never felt like one. I’m still not sure what it would mean to feel like you’re the beneficiary of something so abstract, but I acknowledge it exists and I understand how it works. Probably I never felt like it because when I was younger I was relatively poor compared to a lot of my friends. We weren’t destitute (although my parents basically were by the time of their deaths), but we didn’t have much money, and what money we did have was because my parents were extremely frugal. I didn’t feel white, but I sure felt poor.

In addition to being poor, I was also depressed through much of my childhood. I remember my mother saying she was always sad when looking at my 2nd grade school picture, for example, because I looked so sad. By high school I often assumed that one day, if things kept on like that, I’d just commit suicide. I have no qualms about it. If it was good enough for Cato, it should be good enough for me. Not wanting to burden someone with finding a dead body, I even worked out a method that would be painless and leave no trace anyone was likely to ever find. When your mind has been to places like that, it’s sometimes hard to consider other people’s problems as seriously as they should be considered.

This isn’t a pity party for previous me, though. Seriously, to hell with that kid. He was an ignorant fool, even if he couldn’t have known any better at the time. However, for much of my life I was so focused on my own problems that I didn’t think about other people’s problems. I suspect most of us are like that. So I was poor and depressed. I was also a tall, strong, intelligent, heterosexual white male, and decent enough looking that I’d never worry about discrimination because of my looks, which is generally something we only do to women in American anyway. Most people focus on their problems, not their unearned benefits.

Although I was hassled by the police a couple of times as a teenager, I haven’t been as an adult. The last time a cop confronted me I was 19 and walking with a friend on a levee near my apartment about 1am. The cop pulled up, shined a flashlight at us, and demanded to see our driver’s licenses. I told him I didn’t have one on me because I wasn’t driving, I was walking, and I didn’t say it in a subservient way. And this was in the south. What did the cop do? He told us the levees were really private property and that we shouldn’t walk on them, and then he drove away. One can’t say for sure, but I’d bet that situation would have ended differently if my skin had been darker. Did I realize that at the time? Nope. I realized it just now because I haven’t thought of the incident in years. I can walk into almost any public space in America and never be harassed. I’ll never be pulled over or pulled out of a security line because of the color of my skin.

That took me a very long time to understand, because as a member of the default race in American society, I never thought about being white. It’s not like I feel a particular bond with all white people. I’ve met a lot of them over the years, and mostly I’m not that impressed. A lot of my felt relationship to the world has been based more on my size. I’ve never known what it’s like not to be bigger and taller than most of the people around me. When I was a student back at my violent Christian private school (such, such were the days!), if someone wanted to fight or bully me I’d just fight back, and while I had my share of bloody noses and cut lips, I was never beaten up. I had no fear of other kids, just like today I have no fear of other adults. Muggers aren’t going to make me a first choice target because I’m big, just like cops aren’t going to target me because I’m white.

I mention this not to revel in my violent past, because I hated fighting. I mention it because that’s the way I now think about being white in America. It’s like being the bigger, stronger kid on the playground who can walk around being oblivious to what happens to other kids, to the ones who can’t just be the way they want to be. Sometimes that big kid is a bully, but most of the time that big kid just doesn’t have to consider the perspectives of other people. The smaller geeks are being bullied by a football player. Oh well, nothing I can do about that. He wouldn’t dare try that with me after all. Being white in America is like that. Sometimes it’s the bullies who win. They shoot an unarmed black man in the street and they get away with it because, just as boys will be boys, whites will be whites, and it’s not like anyone who counts got hurt, right? When it’s not the bullies, it’s the oblivious ones. I don’t know because I don’t need to know because I can mind my own business and do whatever I want and nobody’s going to say anything. When you’re in that position, it’s really hard to understand what it’s like not being in that position.

I was never the bully, I was definitely oblivious, and now I’m neither. But after that, what could I possibly say? What business does a middle-class, middle-aged, white guy like me have saying anything about race in America? What useful or interesting perspective could I possibly offer? Does my speaking out on social media against racial injustice make me a better person? Is anyone ever persuaded by Facebook activism? Are any friends’ minds ever changed, even if I had many friends whose minds I’d want to change? Are my opinions on the matter any more known to my friends than they were before? It’s not like I’m shy about telling people what I think. If I see injustice in person and do nothing, I’m complicit with it. If I’m silent on social media about something I haven’t experienced, then it’s because I believe the best thing to do in the situation is shut up and listen to other people who know more than me about the topic. I’ve been listening, and now I’m shutting up again.

The Best that Can be Done

There are a lot of things to love about JSTOR for ejournals. It’s easy to search and has such a wealth of content that I find it easy to understand why for a lot of professors a while back it was synonymous with library ejournals. “My professor told me to search JSTOR,” students would tell me. And for research in many fields, it’s still not a bad place to start. There’s the small irritation of having to click to agree on their terms every time I want an article PDF, but at least when I do it works. And there’s the time I was trying to do an exhaustive literature search and JSTOR thought I was a bot of some kind and shut down the session, but I was able to bypass that in a couple of minutes. Overall, though, a great experience.

Then we get to JSTOR ebooks, and things change. In my Library Journal column on the mess of ebooks, I complained about JSTOR ebooks among others, because after a certain amount of friction trying to download an ebook chapter I simply gave up. It just wasn’t worth it. After that column, a rep called me and we talked about JSTOR ebooks and their many advantages, and they do have some advantages. However, when it comes to downloading, they make the 18 steps it takes to download an Ebrary ebook for the first time look almost appealing.

I decided to give it another try, though. The first time I tried was just an experiment. I didn’t want the book, I just wanted to test the service. Yesterday, I found a book I actually wanted to read, but the print copy was checked out and every copy in the Borrow Direct system was also checked out. The JSTOR ebook came up, because the book was published by the Princeton University Press and we buy the ebooks from PUP. I don’t want to read chapters in the Flash reader online, but If you don’t like the Flash reader, you can download the PDF, supposedly. According to the JSTOR rep I spoke with, that’s available on only 60% of the titles, but it was available on this one. It’s a long book, so I figured I’d download a chapter at a time and read through it when I got a chance.

I went to the page for the ebook. The first thing I noticed was the warning. “This book has viewing and download limits.” That’s for sure. “There is no printing or copying allowed,” because it seems like a good idea to take a potentially useful technology and make it impossible to do simple, basic tasks that everyone would expect it to do. Deliberate hobbled technology makes it unlikely I’ll invest in it, but the ebook was already paid for.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.14.03

I could download a PDF of a book chapter, that is, if I logged in to my MyJSTOR account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.17.00

I didn’t have a MyJSTOR account, because I don’t want one. What I wanted to do is download some of the book the library paid for that says downloads are available. That doesn’t seem like much of a demand. Since completing that simple task was made impossible for me, I spent a few minutes creating an account I don’t want and shouldn’t need, filling in all the blanks with meaningless or wrong information. Then I logged in to the account I don’t want and shouldn’t need. Supposedly, now I can download the book.

Oh, but not yet. Replicating the outstanding JSTOR article platform would be far too harmful for the publishers, I assume, so I get some more friction. I need something called the FileOpen program, because JSTOR ebooks can’t just give me a PDF once the book is purchased and I’ve created this pointless account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.06.56I was already pretty irritated, but what the hell. By then I was suffering from the “sunk costs fallacy,” where I’d invested enough time that I would feel bad giving up, even as my benefit-to-time ratio rapidly shrank. So I tried to load the plugin that’s only purpose seems to be to allow me to open a PDF that I should be able to open anyway if it hadn’t been screwed up by DRM or whatever they did to it. I couldn’t open it without the plugin, that’s for sure.

And finally, success! No, wait. Not success. Here’s what I got next:

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.04.58

If you can’t make that out, it reads, “Note to Safari users: Due to Apples’s updates and fixes it has become no longer possible to view PDF files in your Safari web browser. We apologize for this, and we hope to be able to restore this functionality in the future.”

That was really weird. First of all, I wasn’t using Safari, but Google Chrome. Second of all, here’s a screen shot of me viewing a PDF file in Safari a few minutes after I got that message.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.28.57

Thus, the statement that it’s no longer possible to view PDFs in Safari was a lie. What it seems to mean is that they’ve added so much DRM to the PDF that it’s not viewable by standard web browsers like ordinary PDFs are. Let’s get clear who’s keeping me from viewing PDFs. It wasn’t because of changes that Apple made, or even Google. It’s because of changes to the PDF that JSTOR made. This turned into one of those “don’t pee on my head and tell me it’s raining” moments, only less messy.

I couldn’t view it in Chrome, either, so I went back to the note to Safari users and pretended it applied to me. “For now it seems that the best that can be done is to use Firefox together with stand-alone Adobe Reader or Acrobat.”

Really? That’s it? The best that can be done? Make me create an account, login to that account, install a plugin I shouldn’t need to read a PDF, fail to give me a PDF that I can read, and then tell me to go follow some special instructions and change browsers to view a file format I should be able to view with any standard browser. That’s the best that can be done?

No, that’s not the best that can be done. That’s a non-solution to a problem JSTOR created, no doubt at the behest of the publishers. The best that could have been done is having me click “Download this chapter” and then downloading the chapter. That’s the best that could have been done.Telling me my problem downloading a chapter was something other than their restricted file format isn’t tempting me to buy any JSTOR ebooks for the library. It did tempt me to write this blog post, though.

On Tenure, Publishing, and Such

I’ve been thinking about this topic in response to a couple of things I’ve read lately. One is this blog post by Meredith Farkas giving her thoughts about tenure after leaving the tenure track (along with numerous comments) and the other is a discussion on an ACRL listserv about whether College & Research Libraries should try to include more than the empirical research studies that seem to be the norm. Since I started drafting this post, Barbara Fister has also responded to Meredith.

In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I am not now nor have I ever been on a tenure track as such. The librarians at Princeton don’t have faculty status, although we do report to the Dean of the Faculty and we do have a three-tiered promotion structure and a tenure-like status called “continuing appointment.” However, while that process does reward publication, it does not require it. My previous professional librarian job had no faculty status, no promotional structure, and no tenure-like status. Not only have I never been on the tenure track, when starting out I deliberately avoided jobs where the librarians had faculty status and tenure requirements. I’d have taken one of those jobs in a pinch, but I definitely didn’t want one.

Meredith and others are debating the merits of having tenure and faculty status, and I’ve heard a few librarians over the years tell me I’d be better off with faculty status. Campus governance, respect from the faculty, etc. That’s possibly true, but I seem to have done okay without it. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever lacked the respect of the faculty members that I’ve come into contact with, even as a lowly librarian interacting with relative academic superstars. I can’t imagine the Princeton faculty members ever considering the librarians as equals to them professionally, but they do seem to consider us as capable professionals in our own right and I’ve yet to have an unpleasant or demeaning experience with any professor here.

For me, this is a sign that the librarian tenure debate might be affected by place. Perhaps there are institutions where a lack of faculty status would mean a lack of respect, or that a lack of participation in governance would harm the library or the librarians. There’s a lot to be said for faculty status, but I have found no reason to agree with the more diehard proponents that faculty status is always necessary for professional well being. There are a lot of librarians at good universities who don’t have it and don’t miss it. However, I also disagree with those who think tenure is always restrictive rather than liberating. That might also depend on place. While I didn’t write much prior to being granted continuing appointment, I didn’t hesitate to speak my mind or take risks at work if I thought the cause worthwhile. The prospect of being up or out in six years didn’t silence me, but I understand there might be institutions where librarians might feel they had to remain silent to keep their jobs.

I avoided such jobs mostly because of the publishing requirement. I don’t think it’s too immodest to say that writing and publishing themselves weren’t obstacles. While there are a lot of librarians who struggle with both, I haven’t been one of them. However, I knew the sort of empirical research studies that seem expected in jobs like that would be a struggle. I’m not trained to do them. I don’t want to be trained to do them. And I have no interest in writing and usually very little interest in reading them. In the C&RL discussion, someone mentioned librarians writing articles based on critical inquiry who feared for their tenure chances because they hadn’t cranked out social science studies. That was not going to be me. While a lack of tenure wouldn’t silence me, a requirement to publish social science research articles would have harmed me, either by forcing me to write stuff I didn’t like or by keeping me from publishing at all.

It’s a pity, because there are librarians out there writing some good stuff that doesn’t fit in with the empirical, quantitative social science model that seems to be the norm. I’ve seen historical, philosophical, or political writing about libraries and librarianship that’s pretty good, and often much more readable than most LIS writing, and if the tenure process serves to stymie such writing, then the library literature is better off without tenure. For that matter, the literature of most scholarly fields would probably improve if tenure wasn’t a publish-or-perish process.

The great thing about not being a faculty librarian on the tenure track and not having my work judged by empirical research ideologues is that I can publish whatever I want, and there are always places to publish. I once had a practical ethics article rejected from a conference proceeding because the reviewer claimed that such an “opinion piece” wasn’t appropriate for this scholarly book. That reviewer seemed not to know or care that there are scholarly genres other than the empirical research study, or that a lack of quantitative data doesn’t reduce arguments to “opinions.” The only thing that irked me at the time is that I’d been asked by the editor to take a brief conference presentation and write it up as an article. That was just as well, since I then published it in an open access journal where it would actually be read. I didn’t need the publication, but there’s no reason to waste a piece of decent writing.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that the social scientific empirical research study is considered the gold standard of library scholarly publishing. My question is, why? At least from practicing librarians, many of them are terrible. Even I, committed humanist that I am, can often spot the flaws in such research. Librarians typically don’t have the time or training to do these things well, and yet they’re expected to and probably wouldn’t publish so many if they weren’t. The average results speak for themselves.

The reason is possibly because that’s what LIS professors usually publish. As an academic enterprise, LIS professors seem long ago to have decided that library science is a social science and that social scientific research methods were the appropriate methods. Creating that norm makes it easier to unify a field of study and to evaluate research from other LIS professors. Because this is what they do, and these are the people who have the time and training to publish the most rigorous stuff, the publishing model has become the norm, with librarians trailing along behind trying to keep up while working 12-month contracts and usually not having PhDs in LIS or social science disciplines.

I, on the other hand, resist this ideology, because I believe that the “science” in library science doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as the “science” in social science. The science of library science depends upon an older 19th century meaning of science, something like an organized body of knowledge about a field. In that sense of science, library science is definitely a science, and a fairly well developed one. Thus, while there’s nothing wrong with engaging in social science research related to libraries, there’s also no reason why such research should define what sort of scholarly work about libraries is appropriate. Library Science might be a social science, but being a librarian is an art. There’s absolutely no reason that libraries can’t be approached in a humanistic manner. It’s just that most LIS professors aren’t humanists.

That seems to me to be a big divide in the profession. LIS professors are social scientists, but most people going to library school to be librarians are humanists. Plant someone like me in a job where I’m expected to publish social science research and it’s going to be pretty bad, plus I’m going to hate writing it. That’s a recipe for garbage research and misery that I wanted to avoid. Let me approach the profession rhetorically, philosophically, or even historically, and the results, although perhaps not outstanding, at least won’t be embarrassing.

Thus, in retrospect, I avoided faculty status and the tenure track not because I was afraid of research, or that I couldn’t write, but that so much LIS research is unnecessarily narrow, and the expectations for research are equally narrow. When LIS is unjustifiably defined as only a social science, when most LIS professors are social scientists, and when most of the leading journals in the field expect that sort of writing, that tells humanists like me that whatever scholarship I might produce is unwelcome, unvalued, and sometimes just plain misunderstood. The clear message for me as a library school student and then a new professional was that mainstream LIS scholarship was something I wanted nothing to do with and that wanted nothing to do with me.That was fine, because my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone here, is that most of that social science LIS research is largely irrelevant to my work or to my professional interests.

I have no problem with faculty status or tenure for librarians, but I also don’t consider it a necessity at every institution. The value might differ depending on circumstances. However, I am glad that there were good academic libraries where someone like me could write and publish what I wanted, rather than being constricted by the social science expectations of mainstream LIS publishing. If faculty status and tenure for librarians with expectations to publish social science research were universal, I’d probably be in another profession, which would be too bad for me because I’m pretty happy doing what I do.

PhilPapers et al.

I’d promised some librarians that I would write up a comparison between PhilPapers (PP) and the Philosopher’s Index (PI), because choosing between the two of them might be a budgetary necessity for librarians who wanted to subscribe to PhilPapers under the new terms. This has been delayed somewhat because I knew PhilPapers was planning to announce some important changes, and until then a comparison would be premature. The changes are on the website now, so I feel comfortable writing. The big news is that PhilPapers will be merging with the Philosophy Research Index (PRI). This will still be a comparison, but the incorporation of the the PRI into PP is something of a game changer. But first, some comparisons.

If we’re going by sheer number of entries, PP is ahead. As of July 21, there were 1,104,558 entries from 1,032 journals. According to the Philosopher’s Index website, PI “has a total of over 540,000 journal article and book citations from over 1600 journals collected from 139 countries in 37 languages.” This is qualified somewhat in that only about half of the PP entries are classified according to the categories of its philosophy bibliography. That makes the number of controlled indexed entries about the same. However, PP is, according to David Bourget, “categorizing hundreds, sometimes thousands a day,” and will soon be improving the categorization process. Thus, in the not too distant future, most if not all of PP’s entries will be categorized, making them even more accessible than they are now. In addition, about 700,000 of the entries have categories or associated keywords, and I’ve been told by PP that the most prominent method for accessing entries is search, not browsing via the bibliography. So most of the entries are available to search. In addition, PRI is larger than both PP and PI, with more than 1.3 million bibliographic records. It also covers 800 journals in 30 languages. Once PP incorporates PRI, PP will definitely be by far the largest philosophy literature index. The coverage will also go back to the beginnings of many library journals, instead of just back to 1940 as with PI, and the addition of more foreign language coverage will broaden the scope considerably.

The PP/PRI merger also means that PP will incorporate the Philosopher’s Index Thesaurus. For those unfamiliar with the history of PI and the Philosophy Documentation Center (PDC), a little background might be worthwhile. PDC and PI were both founded in the 1960s at Bowling Green State University, and until 1995 PDC published PI. In 1995 the editor of PI left BGSU and took PI with him. PI is now published by the Philosopher’s Information Center. However, the PDC still owns the Philosopher’s Index Thesaurus, which is the thesaurus PI still uses, and which PRI has been using to build up its own index. The thesaurus is available in print from the PDC, which explains why it cannot be accessed from within PI, comparable to thesauri from other indexes. Thus, when PP incorporates PRI, PP will have both its robust and developing bibliography of philosophy and the thesaurus that PI also uses, plus more extensive coverage of the philosophical literature.

There’s also a difference in how the entries in PP and PI are classified. PI uses the Philosopher’s Index Thesaurus. I couldn’t find any information on the website by whom the indexing is done, but presumably it’s a by a team of indexers with some knowledge of philosophy (if anyone has more complete information, please let me know). PP entries are classified according to the entries of the philosophy bibliography either by the authors themselves or appointed editors, all of whom are professional academic philosophers. I haven’t noticed any problems with either classification process, so I’m not sure the comparison would help anyone make a choice. If others disagree or have found issues, please leave a comment.

One problem I had early on was using SFX from PP. I was getting incomplete results. The problem could be solved only by creating an account with PP and going through a relatively simple process of choosing a link resolver (very simple if anyone from your institution had ever done it before). The accounts can be completely private if you choose, but I disliked the extra steps someone might have to take to get to articles that PP doesn’t have OA but which a library might subscribe to. However, PP is improving OpenURL and SFX linking, and subscribing institutions shouldn’t have a problem. It should work as seamlessly as PI when everything is done.

The final comparison is platform and price. PI is a proprietary index available through Ebsco, Ovid, and ProQuest. Princeton uses the Ebsco interface, which I happen to find very user-friendly. The PP website is also very user-friendly in my opinion. On whatever platform, the cost will vary among institutions because of differences in FTEs or consortial agreements or whatever. Princeton pays a few thousand, and the PP expectation from Princeton is $1200 because Princeton is a philosophy PhD granting university. That makes PP cheaper than PI for my library. I don’t plan to cease subscribing to PI yet, because I’m awaiting further PP developments and I want to have a conversation about it with the Philosophy Department, but I imagine that will matter for a lot of libraries. However, with the incorporation of PRI into PP, I will be canceling the subscription to PRI if it continues to exist as a standalone database, and that money will go to PP instead.

And then there’s the open access of PP. PI is available only to subscribing institutions, while PP is available to everyone in the world. As those of you reading in the spring might remember, my major objections to the PP subscription drive were the unmanageable budgetary timing (asking to subscribe by June 1 or face penalties) and the list of institutions expected to pay (basically every institution in the world from which anyone had ever accessed PP). I thought the first pointlessly hasty and the second unjust. Both those objections were met soon after. The announcement of the PP/PRI merger says, “The service will continue to be available on the model where non-institutional use is free and only institutions located in high-GDP countries and that offer degrees in philosophy are asked to subscribe.” Although I still would have preferred the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) endowment method, those are the same kinds of institutions that SEP targeted and the kind that should be subsidizing this sort of open access project if possible.

Of course, PP is more than just a competitor to PI. In addition to the growing index and the structured bibliography, it has the huge OA archive of philosophy articles. It also has announcements for philosophy events and job, and generally serves as a community portal for professional philosophers and philosophy grad students around the world to share work and stay informed. I’m not aware of anything quite like this for other academic disciplines. If PP can gather enough subscriptions to continue to develop, it will remain an important resource for anyone interested in philosophy. And when PP is used in combination with the SEP, philosophy has perhaps the most robust OA reference support of any academic discipline.