Good for You is not Bad for Me

I’ve written variations on this post before, and then I’ve usually deleted them. I was inspired to write by the recent announcement of the Library Journal Movers and Shakers 2014, but it probably relates in a way to all forms of prominent recognition in the field of librarianship, whether it’s big speaking gigs, popular blogs or Twitter accounts, or whatever.

My own response to the Movers and Shakers list is the same as it’s always been. I look through the list to see if there’s anyone I know in case I want to send a congratulatory email. There’s rarely anyone I know, and for the past few years usually not anyone I’ve even heard of. Once I find out there’s no one I know on the list, I might click through on a few profiles, but that’s about it. People seem happy to win the award and it will possibly help them in their careers. That’s all fine by me. Good for them.

Sometimes there are responses I find puzzling. Envy, resentment, a large helping of why-not-meism. It’s as if good for them somehow becomes bad for others. There might be another round or criticism this year, and there have certainly been some in the past. I’ve only seen dribs and drabs, because I don’t frequent the virtual locations where people spend their time complaining about stuff like this. But some of the stuff that has seeped into my bubble is hard to take seriously because it seems so motivated by resentment.

Some people resent that the particular winners won the award, with the implication that what they did wasn’t that great, or it wasn’t the “real” library work that we hardworking librarians too busy to showboat do “in the trenches,” the metaphor implying that working in a library is somehow akin to standing in a muddy hole in the ground hoping not to get shot by enemy combatants. Since I rarely read through them, I don’t even know what most of the people did to get rewarded. I assume it’s flashy programs or popular library promotions or something like that. I don’t really care what they did. Unless I know them personally or work with them in some capacity, what they did has no affect on me whatsoever. The underlying assumption is that what I do is just as worthy of recognition as what they did, and if the world was fair I’d win awards, too. What is there to say to that? A lot of life’s frustrations come from the conflict between reality and our expectations of reality. If we absolutely can’t change that reality, it’s foolish not to change our expectations.

Some people resent the winners because, supposedly, the thing they’re really best at is self-promotion. Possibly. On the other hand, talented self-promotion can’t be the only thing that distinguishes most of the award winners from everyone else. The M&S award winners all seem to have done something new that affected other people in positive ways. Maybe they’re great at promoting that thing, but they still did whatever thing they’re promoting. To expand this some, the big name librarians are often big names because they’re really good at promoting their expertise into speaking and writing opportunities. But still, they have that expertise, or at least had it at one point. I can’t be resentful that they’re better at self-promotion than me, because I really don’t care whether they’re well known or not. Their popularity takes nothing away from me.

The hard truth that a lot of us don’t want to accept is that we’re just not that special, and in particular we don’t have the drive and talent to promote ourselves into the librarianship stratosphere. I’ve accepted that truth about myself, because I don’t care about library fame. The professional recognition that matters to me is the kind that affects my life. Becoming a Mover and Shaker might make things better for me, although I don’t see how. But not being one doesn’t take anything away from me. What recognition other people get doesn’t help or harm me. Even if I cared that wouldn’t make me any more capable of that self-promotion. I could put myself up for an award, but I don’t want one. It doesn’t help that some of the most creative things I’ve done in libraries I couldn’t talk about in public anyway. Nevertheless, it’s likely that even if I really, really wanted an award, I probably wouldn’t get one, at the very least because I’m not willing to make the effort to promote myself in that way. I can live with that just fine.

The only thing I might find irritating is if some award winner came up to me and said something like, “I’m a Library Journal Mover and Shaker, which means I’m great and you have to pay attention to me.” Actually, I take that back. I wouldn’t find that so much irritating as amusing, and everyone could use a good laugh. I just can’t imagine a situation in which that would happen. I guess another potential irritant would be if I was competing against an award winner for a job, and the only reason they got it over me was that they had the award. Again, I can’t see that happening. Generally, what’s good for them isn’t bad for me.

So congratulations to all the award winners and the famous librarians and the like. Good for you. Best of luck and all that. Now back to work.

[I realized after writing this is similar in some ways to my post on wandering free and easy last year. Maybe it’s something about the approaching spring that brings on these moods.]

Radical Enlightenment in Brief

After a long and interesting discussion on Twitter, I wanted to say a bit more about the Enlightenment than in my last post. This is for the Twitter discussion, but I couldn’t put in 140 characters. Basically, below is the philosophical and political Enlightenment that I discuss in the book, and generally what I mean by “the Enlightenment movement.” In discussions of the Enlightenment with me, I’m more interested in whether someone agrees or disagrees with the values espoused below than with the term “Enlightenment” itself, which has always been heavily contested. Thus, I mean by the Enlightenment the values below, but the important part for me is the cluster of values, not the term Enlightenment itself, and what might help to implement those values. Most people in the world disagree with the values below, but I suspect some librarians agree with me who maybe think they don’t because of some labels I use. Although I could be wrong on that, too.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

Rather than provide any in-depth analysis of his exhaustive works, I will provide Israel’s own summary of the Radical Enlightenment from his shorter and more accessible Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy:

Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies it its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally. (vi-vii)

As should be clear, by Radical Enlightenment Israel means more or less those political beliefs developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that eventually triumphed over the more conservative beliefs in divine-right monarchies or established churches or “enlightened despots” as the foundation for liberal democracies in the West. As he describes it,

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values in the post-Christian age. This in itself lends the history of the movement great importance. But this type of thought—especially in many Asian and African countries, as well as in contemporary Russia—has also become the chief hope and inspiration of numerous besieged and harassed humanists, egalitarians, and defenders of human rights, who, often against great odd, heroically champion basic human freedom and dignity, including that of women, minorities, homosexuals, and religious apostates, in the face of the resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice that in much of the world today appear inexorably to be extending their grip. (xi)

We end with this vision of Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century Europe and America present us with complicated histories, even if we restrict ourselves merely to intellectual history. For every proponent of Enlightenment, there were hundreds of detractors; for every radical idea, thousands of reactionary ones.

If we consider the Enlightenment as a period of history, we must along with Darnton and many others continue to see it as more complex and more quotidian than if we consider the Enlightenment to be a living intellectual tradition, an Enlightenment project. Israel’s work reinforces this view of Enlightenment. He digs deeply into the intellectual history of the period and discloses raging debates over socinianism or materialism that now seem trivial or obscure, but that helped form the modern consciousness. However, he is certainly not writing Whig history, because it is clear that while a system of ideas emerged as the foundations of Enlightenment, Enlightenment has yet to fully triumph. (pp. 41-43).

Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

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

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

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

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

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

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

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

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

Engaging in the Public Sphere

A few months ago I met Rick Anderson at a conference. I introduced myself by saying, “I wanted to meet you in person since we argue so much online.” Someone with Rick asked, “so who wins the arguments?” I said that nobody ever wins arguments, and Rick followed with a pithy couplet saying the same thing. Pity I can’t remember it, because it was catchy and very appropriate. The question some people might have is, if no one ever wins arguments, why does anyone argue? And if we’re not arguing, what are we doing?

Answering the first question is easy. We argue because we want to win. People can rationalize it any way they want. They’re searching for the truth. They want to “set the record straight.” The want to put some schmucks in their place. But almost always, the underlying motive to arguing is to win, and following a fierce argument between worthy competitors will usually take you through a maze of arguments designed to shift the attention to something else whenever things go wrong. “Oh, you think you have me there? Well what about this tenuously related thing you probably don’t have a response to? Let’s talk about that!” Sometimes this is just tedious. Sometimes it can be fun, like a game. But it’s rarely persuasive.

Some people, maybe most people, don’t understand this. They write and speak as if they’re really going to win, as if their opponents will stop and say, “you know what? You’re right. I give up.” That never happens, but some people just don’t care. They’ll keep arguing vigorously long after anyone pays attention to them. They’re the sad trolls in the comments section of just about anything online. They’re the angry ranters. They seek victory at all costs, and the response they hate the most is laughter. If you want to drive angry ranters over the edge, just start laughing at them. As Brian Fantana says, 60% of the time, it works every time.

Then there’s another category of argument, if we can call it argument. I definitely present arguments in this blog, but they’re generally not the sort of arguments meant to persuade opponents directly. In my last post, I made an argument about a poorly written article, but I wasn’t arguing with the article, and I definitely wouldn’t bother to argue with its author. It’s not worth my time or effort. I’m doing something, just as Rick Anderson and numerous other library writers are doing something, but what?

Depending on the situation, we’re doing a number of things. Perhaps foremost, we’re telling stories or framing narratives, not in the hope of persuading the opposition, but with the goal of providing a compelling narrative that someone might accept, maybe especially someone who hasn’t made a decision on the matter under discussion. In rhetorical terms, we’re practicing the three rhetorical appeals: to logos, ethos, and pathos. We lay out reasons for our beliefs (logos). We present ourselves as certain kinds of people (ethos), hopefully the kind of people who are rational, intelligent, considerate, even-handed, the kind of people you want to agree with, that you might respect even if you don’t like them. And sometimes, if it’s appropriate, we bring in an emotional appeal (pathos).

I’ll provide an example from my own writing, the final paragraph of my book Libraries and the Enlightenment (which, hint hint, you can purchase here):

In the midst of this, libraries and the Enlightenment project both continue their struggle. With all of the ignorance, hatred, bigotry, violence, poverty, insecurity, and uncertainty in the country, both libraries and the Enlightenment can still provide hope for better days. Libraries are still places where people can find enlightenment, education, and enrichment. They are not warehouses for old books, as some people think, but active, thriving places where ideas clash and cultures engage, where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved. Extending or maintaining that possibility for all people equally, however achieved, remains a goal and a triumph for libraries and the Enlightenment.

This is the summation of the preceding arguments, and I provided reasons for linking the development of academic and public libraries to the Enlightenment goals of reason and freedom. I also present myself as a certain sort of person: calm, rational, maybe slightly detached and yet hopeful. Finally, there is an emotional appeal. Do you passionately dislike hatred and bigotry? Does personal and social improvement give you a good feeling? Then you should like libraries and the Enlightenment and you should agree with me. Within that, I’m using god and devil words. Education and enrichment, good; ignorance and hatred, bad! Unfortunately, appeals to ethos and pathos receive a lot of unjustified hostility as modes of argument, especially from philosophers. That’s probably why philosophers don’t do very well when trying to persuade the public, because most people are persuaded by ethos and pathos.

To use a non-library example, consider a person’s position on gay marriage. Whatever that position is, it’s almost certainly not motivated by rational thought alone. Most of the people I know are probably either in favor of, or indifferent to, gay marriage. The closest most of their positions, including mine, come to logic is probably something like this: People should be able to get married legally. Homosexuals are people. Therefore, homosexuals should be able to get married legally. Opponents of gay marriage might claim its about “natural law,” but it’s probably more motivated by the “yuck factor.” “Eww, gays are gross. They have sex with each other, even the men. Sex between men is gross. Why am I thinking about it all the time? Because it’s gross!” It’s the Santorum approach. Then every once in a while, something strange happens. Let’s say you’re a Republican senator and an opponent of gay marriage, because who cares what the gays want. But then your son comes out as gay, and you realize that the son you raised and love doesn’t fit as comfortably into the category of “those gays I don’t like” as complete strangers do. A transformation occurs. “The gays” as a category of the Other melts away. My son is a person. People are allowed to marry. So of course he should be allowed to marry.

People change their minds about contentious issues not because of logical arguments, but because of human sympathy and its capacity to erode familiar and comforting categories, categories that make us feel good by making us feel superior. “Wait, what? Homosexuals are just people? What about the blacks? Or the Muslims? Damn, even the Republicans? And the rednecks? And the homeless? Isn’t there anybody left I can hate indiscriminately just for fitting into a category of people I arbitrarily assigned them to? But I want to hate people. And then I want to rant angrily about why everyone else should hate them. Have I told you lately about vaginas and anuses?”

Angry ranters and belligerent interlocutors believe they’ll win by crushing, but that’s not what happens. They just put people off. Beliefs, rationales, ideologies, movements rarely succeed because they’ve crushed opponents with excellent arguments. They succeed because they compel enough people to accept them, usually people who weren’t directly engaged in the discussion or argument. If I’m writing about rhetoric or open access or information literacy, I’m not trying to browbeat people into submission. I’m trying to provide a compelling framework of beliefs and arguments that people can try out as they read through them. Part of that is logical, part ethical, and sometimes part emotional. If you agree with me, fine. If you don’t, fine. But on the stuff I write about, some day, somewhere, someone might want to find out more about the topic. They might Google it and they might run across some of my writing. And those people might say, “hey, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe I should think about this more.” Maybe other people are looking for ways to bolster their beliefs, or to strengthen their arguments against mine.

So that’s what I think a lot of us are doing when we engage with each other in the public sphere. We’re not necessarily arguing directly with each other. We’re creating rhetorical spaces for others to play around in for a while and telling stories others might find compelling enough to use as their own. And unlike the angry ranters, we don’t believe in victory. We just do what we do and hope for the best.

Anti-OA and the Rhetoric of Reaction

You know when someone at Scholarly Kitchen thinks your anti-open access rant is excessive you’ve crossed some sort of threshold. You also know that when a biologist and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science bothers to give your article a thorough fisking, you have people’s attention. Even Roy Tennant seems a little riled, and he’s usually pretty calm. Jeffrey Beall has managed to publish an anti-open access article in an open access journal that’s so  poorly argued that I wonder if he’ll later use the publication as an example of how bad OA publishing can be. The Beall Hoax.

I was going to write a detailed response pointing out, among other things, that Beall makes a number of outrageous claims about OA advocates without referring to or citing any of them. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that any OA advocates hold any of the “anti-corporatist” (sic) views that Beall attributes to them, which leaves the article as an eight-page rant against a straw man. Beall claims that “a close analysis of the discourse of the OA advocates reveals that the real goal of the open access movement is to kill off the for-profit publishers and make scholarly publishing a cooperative and socialistic enterprise.” Needless to say, the close analysis never comes. If it had come, this article would be a serious contribution to the OA discussion instead of an uninformative rant, especially if it had analyzed representative passages from numerous OA advocates instead of cherry-picking juicy but unrepresentative quotes from a handful of alleged zealots. It wouldn’t have proved anything against OA itself, but it might have made for a good read.

Because the argument is unsupported and so extreme, all I have to do to prove it wrong is to say I’m an open access advocate who doesn’t support the elimination of private corporations or commercial publishers or any of the other nonsense views he attributes to people like me. I’m not a socialist or a collectivist or any of the other mid-20th century adjectives Beall wants to label me with. And, unlike some people I might mention, I’m not a zealot. There, thesis disproved.

After reading Eisen’s fisking, I don’t see a need for a detailed critique of the arguments, such as they are. Instead, I want to look at the rhetoric. Some of you might be familiar with Albert O. Hirschman’s book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, in which he analyzes right-wing rhetoric from the French Revolution on down and finds three persistent types of argument.

I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed chafe or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment. (7)

Beall manages to deploy all these arguments in the course of his article. This shouldn’t be surprising.  For people who have read a lot of conservative literature, as I have, the clues to a reactionary worldview are evident throughout the article. For example, Beall claims that “The open access movement and scholarly open-access publishing itself are about increasing managerialism.” Eisen had to look that up, but if he were familiar with mid-twentieth century conservative political writer James Burnham, he would have known about Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. Burnham, a longtime contributor to the National Review, was once upon a time quite prominent in conservative circles. Along with the unfounded accusations about people being collectivists wanting to destroy private enterprise, Burnham’s work was hot among the right in the 1950s.

This bit should sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Manichaen apocalyptic novelist often taken for a political philosopher by teenage boys, Ayn Rand: “The open-access movement is really about anti-corporatism. OA advocates want to make collective everything and eliminate private business, except for small businesses owned by the disadvantaged.” How did we get from wanting open access for scholarly publishing to wanting to eliminate all private businesses? Or this: “The open-access movement isn’t really about open access. Instead, it is about collectivizing production and denying the freedom of the press from those who prefer the subscription model of scholarly publishing.” A movement devoted to open access literature is denying freedom of the press? That’s perversity in action.

This makes some sense if you share a Randian worldview. In this comforting worldview, the world is a simple place to understand. It’s filled not with flawed human beings acting upon a variety of motivations trying to make their way through a complex world. No, the world is made of heroes and villains. The heroes are the people who think as I do and are always right. The villains are any people who disagree with any part of my ideology. They do so not because the world is complicated and disagreement natural, but because they are evil and possibly stupid, and no matter what noble motives they might claim to have, they’re lying and trying to destroy some beloved institution. Also, there’s the faith that commercial enterprise is always good and free markets (if they ever really exist) always lead to the best outcome. Challenging this faith in any way leads to an extreme reaction. It’s a world of extremes. Criticizing any area in which private enterprise and free markets maybe don’t give us the outcomes we want is equated with being a “collectivist” who wants to bring the capitalist system down. That explains why in the article, criticism of Elsevier or of commercial science publishing means that one wants to destroy all corporations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense until you look at it through the Randian lens.

In this world, people don’t support open access because they think the creation and dissemination of new knowledge is a public good. They do it because they want to destroy all corporations and deny freedom to people. This must be their motive because they disagree with Beall about open access scholarship, and he thinks these things are bad, so they must be motivated by these evil ideas. Q.E.D. Since there have to be heroes and villains, Beall must be the hero and everyone who disagrees with him in the slightest a villain who is acting from evil motives to destroy everything he holds dear. Once you share this worldview, evidence doesn’t matter anymore.

The Hirschman theses show up as well. Let’s take a look at some passages trying to find the perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses.

It’s likely that hundreds or even thousands of honest researchers have fallen prey to the predatory publishers, those open-access publishers that exploit the gold open-access model just for their own profit, pretending to be legitimate publishing operations but actually accepting any and all submissions just for the money.

This is a good example of the perversity thesis in action. Predatory gold-OA publishers exist and they exploit people and harm scholarly publishing, and it’s all the fault of OA advocates. This isn’t what the OA advocates promised us! This is bad! We can all agree that it’s bad, but it takes a special kind of logic to say that because some bad people do bad things with OA that all OA is thus bad. In informal reasoning, it’s called the “guilt by association” fallacy.

One of the headings in the article claims that “Gold Open Access is Failing.” As Eisen notes, “This is the worst form of cherry-picking. Open access publishing is ‘failing’ because one open access publisher that published an insignificant number of papers went out of business?” Not really much evidence for it. But it might be an example of the futility thesis. Nothing good will come from OA scholarly publishing. It’s a futile effort that will merely result merely in more “predatory” publishers. Beware OA publishing!

The jeopardy thesis is pervasive. Scholarship is in jeopardy because of predatory publishers. Public access to good science is in jeopardy because of…predatory publishers. The tenure process for young scholars is in jeopardy because “Some tenured open-access advocates are pressuring young scholars away from submitting their work to traditional journals, sacrificing them to the open-access movement.” We don’t know who these tenured open-access advocates or pressured young scholars are because none of them are named, so we’ll just have to take Beall’s word for it. Oh, and the careers of scientists in developing countries are also in jeopardy: “OA advocates are also pressuring scientists in developing countries to publish in OA journals, and this could hurt their careers.” Again, we don’t know who these scientists are, but we’re assured their careers could be in jeopardy.

The free-market perfection of commercial science publishing is in jeopardy from gold-OA as well: “The act of instituting financial transactions between scholarly authors and scholarly publishers is corrupting scholarly communication. This was one of the great benefits of the traditional scholarly publishing system – it had no monetary component in the relationship between publishers and their authors.” That’s one of the benefits, and since there are absolutely no burdens in the traditional system, OA advocates are trying to jeopardize a perfect system. That’s bad! Beall grasps tightly to every scrap of evidence that might support his anti-OA crusade and ignores everything else that doesn’t support it. He argues like a trial lawyer when he should be arguing like a scholar. If he fairly considered the evidence for and against both traditional publishing and OA publishing, or even acknowledged the obvious fact that commercial scholarly publishing has some problems, it might be possible to engage in a discussion, but that’s impossible here.

I’ve analyzed some rhetoric because of the lack of arguments and evidence supporting the claims about OA advocates, but there seems to be a certain logic to Beall’s overall mission. Here’s the argument in syllogistic terms as I infer it:

Some OA publishing is predatory publishing.
All predatory publishing is bad.
Therefore, all OA publishing is bad.

The problem is, that’s an invalid argument. My study of formal logic was long enough ago that I can’t remember the exact name for the problem, but the error consists in moving from “some OA” to “all OA.” Thus, informally, his reasoning fails because he provides no analysis of any OA advocates while making sweeping and sometimes absurd claims about them. Formally, his reasoning fails because when put in the form of a syllogism it’s invalid. Thus, the overall argument, as put here, is neither sound nor valid. If we look at this as an argument against OA, as it seems to be intended, it fails, but as a rare example of right-wing political rhetoric from a librarian it’s kind of fascinating.

Finally, Beall approaches OA advocates the same way he claims they approach OA. Referring to the response to an article about predatory OA journals, Beall claims, “The attack on Bohannon was carried out with a near religious fervour. OA advocates will do anything to protect the image of open-access.” If anything has a religious fervor, it’s this self-righteous crusade against OA advocates that paints them all as villains. This, by the way, was my response to that article and the discourse surrounding it. Somehow I managed to say that predatory publishers are bad and OA good without religious fervor or zealotry. I pointed out that the fact that predatory OA publishers exist is no evidence whatsoever that OA publishing is inherently bad, so any fuss was for nought. Only people who can’t reason soundly would try to make that claim, which might be what some OA advocates feared. Perhaps there were OA advocates who attacked Bohannon with religious fervor, although no evidence is given for that. But if there were, that doesn’t make all OA advocates into zealots or OA publishing bad. It’s like saying that because some anti-OA crusaders produce unsubstantiated attacks on OA advocates or mistakenly argue that all OA publishing is bad because some OA publishing is bad somehow proves that OA is inherently good. Neither argument makes much sense.

Nietzsche First Editions Digitized

The Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL) has just published a digital edition of the complete first editions of Friedrich Nietzsche: the Nietzsche Collection. I’m writing about it here because I initiated the project proposal and did part of the work to get it started.

As far as I know, the Princeton Library has the only complete set of the Nietzsche first editions outside of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar. There’s another digitization project based on that collection, but it’s been going since 1998 and is still far from complete, and as far as I can tell no it’s made no progress in the year or so since my initial proposal and the publication here. This digital editions includes his early published articles in the journal Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie and includes the full issues of those journal volumes so that his work can be read in context.

If you want to know how it got to Princeton, here’s an excerpt from the original press release in 2001:

“Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is widely regarded as one of the most revolutionary philosophical thinkers. The Princeton University Library recently acquired one of the finest collections of Nietzsche’s works available in the world today, including first editions of all his books. This valuable addition is made possible, in part, by funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The funds are a portion of the Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities Award given in 2001 to Professor Alexander Nehamas, the Edmund Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy and comparative literature.”

And now that valuable collection is accessible to everyone.

The Law of Small Numbers

From an early Daniel Kahneman article referenced in Thinking Fast and Slow about how the poor instincts of researchers selecting samples can lead to undersampling:

“The law of large numbers guarantees that very large samples will indeed be highly representative of the population from which they are drawn. If, in addition, a self-corrective tendency is at work, then small samples should also be highly representative and similar to one another. People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well.”*

Hint: it doesn’t apply. Based on the experience of reading numerous LIS studies and surveys, a lot of librarians implicitly believe in the law of small numbers. Of course, I might have just read an unrepresentative sample and they really don’t.

*Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Belief in the Law of Small Numbers.” Psychological Bulletin 76, no. 2 (August 1971): 106.

Part 2 in P2P Review: an Elaboration

Today the Library Journal published the follow up to my previous column about information literacy as an unnatural state: Education is no Salvation. In that one I’m trying to explore the motivated reasoning and cognitive bias literature a little more with the goal of showing what we’re up against when educating people to be “information literate.” Definitely still a work in progress.

The question I’m now asking myself is why. What difference does it make if we’re more aware of cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and all the tricks the mind plays? For the most part I’m content with Aristotle’s maxim that humans by nature desire to know, but librarians tend to be a practical breed, and the question I’ve often gotten when doing anything theoretical is what difference it will make in practice. Right now, I don’t know, but every practice is based on some theoretical construct, usually one we apply unawares.

In providing some context to the last column, I used the phrase “scholarly habitude” to describe what I think is one of the aims of higher education, at least in the traditional arts and sciences. It’s not a list of things we can do, but a state of being, a frame of mind, something along those lines. In some ways I’m going back to Aristotle and the notion of virtue ethics. Scholarly habitude captures better than “information literacy” the sense that being a scholar or academic researcher isn’t just about having a set of rules to follow. It’s also about being a certain kind of person: intellectually curious, skeptical, requiring evidence for at least some beliefs, etc. These traits aren’t necessarily abundant in people.

I’m thinking about this mostly in terms of teaching undergraduates how to research and write scholarly essays, which most of them are expected to do at some point. An example of one approach I mentioned in today’s column: the student who has something to say and wants some scholarly sources to support it. The exact opposite way that people should approach research, but the way that is the most natural and in accord with how the human mind seems to work. We make snap judgments and then try to justify them. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow, our “System 1” comes to a conclusion very quickly, while our slower and more thorough “System 2” is usually happy just to accommodate System 1 without further prodding because it’s also lazy. As Michael Shermer puts it in Why People Believe Weird Things, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

The wrong way to approach research on an unfamiliar topic is to have an opinion and then look for sources to justify it. The right way is to look for evidence and follow the evidence where it leads. There’s an academic analogy for this, but I’m not sure how far I want to pursue it. It’s similar to the distinction between theology and religious studies. I don’t want to say theology isn’t scholarly, just that it’s not really in accord with current information literacy standards in some ways. Theology can be defined as faith seeking understanding, meaning the theologian believes something to be true and then seeks to understand and justify that belief. Although I’ll leave open the possibility that some people do, in general people don’t hold religious beliefs for rational reasons based on evidence that could withstand public scrutiny. That’s why most religious people tend to practice the religion they grew up with and few convert to a different religion. Children growing up in a religion didn’t rationally choose to follow that religion, although later on many of them seek to understand their faith in a rational way. Hence, theology.

Religious studies, on the other hand, takes a different approach. We can use the insider/outsider distinction. Theologians study a religion from the inside, while scholars of religion often come at religions from the outside, trying to understand those religions without necessarily practicing them. They approach the available evidence and try to make sense of practices that might seem bizarre to outsiders, and to outsiders all religions have their bizarre practices. Understanding a religion as an outsider partly means explaining why strange practices don’t just exist because they’re practiced by crazy people. “They eat the body and drink the blood of who again?” “What kind of loving god would forbid bacon!?” “Your religion says I can’t publish a picture of this guy? WTF?” I’ve noticed lots of people like to make fun of Scientology without considering what they’re own religion looks like to people who don’t practice it.

Or a slightly different analogy, a bit broader. The traditional foil of theology is philosophy, and during the European Middle Ages philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, at least by the Catholic Church, and they were the intellectual standard that mattered. During the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophy broadly conceived came into its own again, and philosophy became the queen of the sciences. Every study that wasn’t motivated by religion could be considered philosophy, and indeed what we now call natural science was called natural philosophy in the 18th century. That’s why we now have PhDs, doctorates of philosophy, for disciplines that we don’t consider to be philosophy by contemporary standards, because they’re all involved in the same Enlightenment driven enterprise: to discover and disseminate knowledge about the world. The way to do that is approach the world with as few preconceptions as possible and see what you find. That approach explains why we (or perhaps “we”) no longer believe that demons cause epilepsy or the earth is the center of the universe. Academics follow the evidence, unless they’re economists or philosophers, because those people just make stuff up.

If we use theology/ philosophy analogy, what we’re trying to do when we try to teach students about academic research is move them from a theological mindset to a philosophical one, where the preconceptions, uninformed beliefs, and cognitive biases don’t motivate all of their reasoning. Writing what they know isn’t a good idea, because they don’t know very much, their experience of the world is limited, and their experience of scholarship even more so. Those preconceptions and biases instead should become objects of investigation themselves. That boundary has to be crossed before they can begin to examine evidence in the way information literacy standards suggest. Part of a good liberal education is about breaking down your past self to prepare to develop a better self.

So where does this leave library instruction? If all these cognitive biases and preconceptions are completely natural, extremely difficult to overcome, and probably impossible ever to completely overcome, how does this affect us practically? For one thing, it should lower high expectations. If you were unaware of all the ways the mind obscures and distorts reality for our benefit and how difficult making the philosophical leap really is, and you were already frustrated how little you could get done in the hour you might spend with a class, this news should lower your expectations and perhaps explain your frustrations. If you thought a little library research instruction is going to have a remarkable effect, you should probably change your opinion.

Then there’s the question, what the heck do librarians do instead, or in addition? I don’t have any ideas on that yet, but I’m convinced so far that librarians play much more of a support role in this enterprise than some think we do.