My last column critiqued a science/religion analogy regarding debates about the future of libraries and scholarly publishing. It seems to be the season for science and religion analogies when discussing scholarly publishing, because this post at Scholarly Kitchen also uses the analogy, sort of. The post argues, rightly in my opinion, that extremists make discussion and cooperation impossible.
In a column called Peer to Peer Review, it’s appropriate to review our peers once in a while, so I’d like to discuss last week’s column by Rick Anderson on “science and religion in the library.” He’s not talking about the Qs and the Bs. In the column, Anderson writes: “For my purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘science’ those aspects of library work that deal with figuring out and describing things as they are, and as ‘religion’ those that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.” My question is, why would he want to make such a distinction?
In my last column, I discussed research on cognitive bias and the human mind, and speculated that what librarians call information literacy is a deeply unnatural state. The human mind hasn’t evolved to analyze carefully or think critically without a great deal of effort, and even then, the effort is often misplaced. That’s of course one reason we educate people, and higher education particularly values traits like intellectual curiosity and critical thought that often help us overcome our natural intellectual inclinations. But education is not necessarily a salvation.
Librarians tend to view information literacy in light of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. Information literacy is a set of competencies, a set of things we should be able to do. However, one of the many problems with becoming information literate in any robust sense is that it’s completely unnatural. The entire enterprise goes against the way the human mind tends to gather and use information. Human beings are animals perhaps capable of information literacy, but apparently designed to work in other ways.
Driven by the demands for assessment and presumably the need for statistics to prove our worth, there’s a tendency to link the importance and appreciation of the library to individual interactions with librarians. Students come to reference desks, chat us up, meet in our offices, each one counted, each one destined to be a tick mark in a spreadsheet somewhere proving how useful we are. That might be why librarians occasionally bemoan lower transaction statistics or the lack of students lined up at the reference desk. Fewer reference questions could mean the students need us less. For a lot of assessment, if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.
Librarians always seem to believe they’re living through revolutionary times, and perhaps they are. The world of libraries, like the world in general, is constantly in flux. But let us assume revolutionary change has been the norm in libraries for the last few decades. It’s actually pretty easy to point to historical moments of significant change, analyze their motives, and see how things turned out. We have at least two technological revolutions in libraries that are now distant enough for us to gain some historical perspective.
Even when I was still a student in library school, I noticed that the library literature often included exhortations for libraries and librarians to change. However, too many of them, then and now, do more harm for their cause than good. Rather than analyze any specific calls for change, I want to discuss what I consider the differences between good and bad change rhetoric. The goal of such rhetoric is, presumably, to change people’s opinions. Both good and bad change rhetoric do this, but while good change rhetoric persuades people to consider adopting some change, bad change rhetoric lowers the audience’s opinion of the speaker.
Some librarians like to disparage something they call the “traditional library.” The reasons vary depending on circumstances, and understanding the criticism is made more difficult because no one seems to agree on what a “traditional library” is, except that it exemplifies whatever the critical librarian doesn’t like about libraries or librarianship. I find this sort of rhetoric divisive and self-defeating, but that’s a topic for another column. Instead, I’ll provide a description of traditional libraries as I see them, and offer a brief encomium.
For those who don’t know, the Big Deal is an arrangement with ejournal publishers to bundle their entire content into a large package of ejournals, while charging less than the full content would cost a library through individual subscriptions. An example is Elsevier, which provides something called the “Freedom Package” to academic libraries. For a relatively small percentage of what a library pays for Elsevier subscriptions, the library get access to everything Elsevier publishes. That’s the upside. The downside is that, once locked into multiyear licenses for these Big Deals, libraries are unable to reduce their number of subscriptions or lower their ejournal costs if they need to.
Many of you are probably familiar with the TV movie The Librarian: Quest for the Spear or its sequels. For those who aren’t, the lead character, Flynn Carsen, is a man in his thirties who has never left college. He obtains 22 degrees before he’s finally kicked out. He’s then recruited to be “The Librarian,” the head of a secret, enormous museum of strange and magical artifacts. Recently I was engaged in an online discussion about whether there are or can be a basic set of skills that all librarians should master. I have yet to see a persuasive argument for any particular library-specific skill that absolutely every librarian or library school graduate must have, and I’m pretty sure that’s because no such argument can be made. Most claims about what all librarians need to know or do or think rest on the assumption that there is a mythical creature—The Librarian. However, The Librarian doesn’t exist.