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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Professional in “Information Professional”

Since we’re discussing academic and public libraries this week, let’s compare them in another way. (As for you “special” librarians, I’ll ignore you like the rest of the profession does!)

It’s been the contention of many that public libraries are there to give people what they want, provided of course they want multiple copies of bestselling novels, scratched DVDs, and waiting in line to use slow computers with dated software.

Is there anything that librarians in public libraries can tell people they need? Or better, is there anything they can tell people they shouldn’t want, and thus won’t be supplied?

In academic libraries, that’s what librarians do all the time. Academic librarians buy certain kinds of books and journals because they’re better than other ones, and then they try to teach students to evaluate the information they find so that they can also pick better information.

I’m sure you noticed I said better, and not different. That’s because I mean better. A scholarly article from a leading peer reviewed journal on Topic X is better than, say, a comparable Wikipedia article or a website from some high school students. It’s better as information, and that’s what libraries are there to provide. If you want to know public opinion, a wide-ranging statistical survey adhering to the best procedures for conducting such surveys is better than you polling a few friends on Facebook.

There are areas where people seem to think distinctions of quality can’t be made. There’s no arguing about taste, as the saying goes. I don’t think there are as many of those areas as some people claim, though. Hence, the common experience of preferring one film/ tv show/ book to another, even when recognizing the other is in fact a better film/ tv show/ book. Everyone likes junk food some of the time, and some people like junk food all of the time. There are people with fat lumpy minds just as there are with fat lumpy bottoms.

But when it comes to actual information about things, the distinction is all but eliminated. There are standard sets of questions academic librarians ask and teach others to ask about any information. Who created it? What are their credentials and expertise? Who funded it? What are their biases? Who published it? What else to they publish? How timely is it? They make distinctions about quality all the time, and their expertise, such as it is, consists in the ability to make these distinctions.

The professional authority to make such distinctions disappears when libraries start talking about “customers” and giving people what they want. I just looked at the NYT best seller list for hardcover nonfiction. The top book at the moment is something called Crimes Against Liberty: an Indictment of President Barack Obama by David Limbaugh. Because it’s the top bestseller, I’m assuming a lot of libraries are also buying it. I looked at the Amazon preview of the book, and asked the standard questions about the book.

It’s written by someone who seems to write exclusively for conservative websites and presses. The Regnery press exclusively publishes conservative books. Thus, the book is almost certainly preaching to the choir, and the choir doesn’t demand argument so much as affirmation. It makes grand, provocative claims that can’t possibly be proven and are to any reasonable observer close to nonsense.  For example, it claims that  [Obama] “has been one of the most fundamentally dishonest chief executives in our history [and]…has proven more divisive than any president in the modern era, including George W. Bush.” The first claim cannot possibly be proven, and the second claim tells us a lot about the author, but absolutely nothing about Obama or Bush. Besides, LBJ and Nixon were more divisive than either of them.

The book is obviously a typical partisan political hack job with no concern for standards of evidence, reasoning, facts, or argument. No responsible academic librarian would recommend this book as a reliable source of information about anything except the culture of political partisanship in the United States. If money wasn’t an issue, librarians might buy it and pair it with books like Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? as examples of how not to write reasonable, carefully argued books, but that’s about it.

An academic librarian could easily say, don’t buy this. Don’t read it. It’s not worth the money or the shelf space. The only people who would want to read the book are the people who think Obama’s a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law on the country, and most of them can’t read well anyway.

But why would any library buy a book like this? Or any book by Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, or any of the other political hacks who produce books that are supposedly nonfiction, but are quite clearly bad books with bad arguments and partisan rhetoric? Why buy any book that clearly fails the most basic tests librarians use to evaluate information?

One answer might be, because the public wants it, or at least parts of the public. But large parts of the public want complete foolishness. Is it the librarian’s role to supply that want? Or is it the librarian’s role to make distinctions? To say, this book is good, this one bad. This one has a regard for evidence, arguments, and facts, and this other one is little better than propaganda?

Another answer might be the standard librarian line that all views need to be represented. But why? What about views that are demonstrably false? Why do they merit representation? The library should supply information, not misinformation.

If librarians aren’t allowed to make those distinctions, to refrain from buying a book because its nonsense, then what are they good for? What expertise as information professionals do they really have if they can’t make professional distinctions about the relative quality of information and enforce that distinction by what they buy?

Poor readers accuse me of trashing public libraries. Instead, I merely ask questions about professionalism. Librarians are supposedly information professionals, which means that are supposed to evaluate information. Are they allowed to exercise their judgment in cases like this, or is the response usually just to buy whatever’s popular that people might want? And if they aren’t allowed to exercise that judgment, then it seems to me they lose an important component of their professionalism. If all we do is supply whatever information people want regardless of its quality, then we’re not information professionals. We’re store clerks who have to pretend the customer is always right, even when it’s obvious the “customer” is a raving imbecile.

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Comments

  1. Real Librarian says:

    When the public libraries shut down because of funding cuts and academic libraries get closed because of a change of focus in the wake of education reform; there will be special libraries and specialized librarians doing professional work.

    More professional work than either public or academic.

    In the public realm, for better or for worse you conform to your community and the needs and wants, no matter what your professional training tells you what to do.

    In academia, you can sit back on your tenured ass and do what you want.

    In the Special Library world, you put out a polished professional performance or you are canned.

  2. anonymous says:

    I understand the reasoning of your argument here, AL. But the librarians as tastemakers — and in a way, a moral compass — seems a bit heavy handed.
    What about those people who are not disciples of the Glen Becks and Michael Moores of the world, but still want to critically read what they wrote? Should the library not purchase the book for them because it is ill-informed? It is not as if the librarian can prevent a book from becoming a bestseller. Part of being an engaged citizen is keeping informed about the world, and if part of that world is best-selling propaganda slingers, then so be it. We need the trash to show us what a well reasoned argument is in the first place. Perhaps public libraries should just purchase fewer copies of the heavily circulated trash, leaving some dollars for the well reasoned stuff too.

  3. Walt Lessun says:

    Short bio: I started my career in special libraries — Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio — way back in 1977. I put my excellent library school education to work immediately (Clarion University of Pa.). My library was part of the Central Ohio Inter-library Network so I got to know public librarians and academic librarians. I also got to participate actively in the Ohio Library Association, the Mid-west Federation of Library Associations and the State Library of Ohio Advisory Committee for Institution Library Services. I learned from everyone and everyone learned from me. I wrote grants, broke up inmate fist fights, got to build a library from the ground up at another Ohio prison, worked to build a college program for inmates through the University of Findlay,made a pretty good transition to academic librarianship and, finally, became a community college library director in Michigan. Special libraries are not bad places to begin careers (especially when jobs are hard to come by). Enough said.

  4. Bibliotecher says:

    Can someone please explain to this MLIS student why there is so much “beef” between the librarian factions?

    Library envy? “My stacks are bigger than yours”-type of stuff?

    Bueller? Anyone?

  5. Josh says:

    For someone who implies that she is good at making distinctions, you are incredibly myopic. Do me a favor: search the catalogs of Ivy League universities for the authors that you decry. (For the record, I decry them too.) You will find many, if not all, have works by those authors. Why? Because, for better or worse, they and their works are representative of certain political ideologies in this country. Secondly, because someone interested in studying the zeitgeist would have to familiarize themselves with such works. Has it not occurred to you that one of Glenn Beck’s books might become this generation’s Mein Kampf? (You’ll find that “junk food” book in academic libraries, too.)

    It is one thing for a library to have a book by Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter on its shelves. It is another thing entirely for a librarian – be it academic, public, or special – to pull one off the shelf and say to a student/patron/whatever “this is a balanced, objective work on your topic. It would be a great choice as a source for your term paper.” I know no librarian, public or academic, who would say this. Just because public librarians necessarily make different collection development decisions than academic ones doesn’t mean they are any less able to make distinctions where it matters – pairing patrons with the resources they need and want.

  6. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    Bibliotecher, its simple academic libraries are often considered nicer places to work with better pay and benefits then public libraries. To keep this reputation they have to prove they do more “library work” then public library. So tons of public librarians who dislike cleaning up after children and adults and get paid better dream of making it to academic libraries. But the academic libraries dont like that so they keep them out. So yes its shelf envy big time.

  7. Captain Dooley says:

    I would say it is true that some maybe even many public libraries have gone overboard in the quest for higher circulation numbers. Getting 20 or 30 or more copies of these books and the latest DVD’s at the expense of other materials. Most of us would like to buy the better reveiwed items – but it just depends on the collection development philosophy of the library director de jour at each particular library.

  8. RefLady says:

    I am a public librarian. I buy the dreck from both sides of the political spectrum because my patrons want the material and they have the right to read it. Would I reccommend any of it to a student? No. It seems obvious to me that public libraries are not academic libraries; they do not have the same missions, nor should they. Do I buy multiple copies of any of those titles? No. And when they “walk” I generally do not replace them. Do I buy serious non-fiction? Yes, of course I do. Do I have aspiration of becoming an academic librarian? I am nearing retirement, so no; earlier in my career I did not have any desire to be an academic librarian. I remember too well the service, or lack thereof, provided by college and university librarians, who were usually much too busy fawning over/upon the faculty, wishing mightly to attain tenure themselves. There is room in the profession for all types of librarians; what there is no room for are snide attacks one upon the other. There are competant librarians in all types of library, as there are those we wish had chosen some other career. This infighting is, perhaps, one reason why librarianship does not get the respect heaped upon other professions.

  9. Slareck says:

    Chances are, this guy Limbaugh’s book is not even legitimately or genuinely popular on such a massive scale – http://theimmoralminority.blogspot.com/2009/09/conservative-bulk-book-buying-machine.html, and see The Conservative Book Club’s deals as they’re undoubtedly desperate to get rid of the backstock.

    As to the AL’s question, Josh (5) is dead on. Not only the public has a legitimate curiosity, but so do history and political science professors, and other members of the elite class that the AL distinguishes from the imbecilic masses.
    Further, the AL states “libraries should spread information, not disinformation,” but this would inevitably require libraries (especially academic ones) to remove hundreds of books from their shelves, and to tear pages out of books, and so on. Not everyone uses the information to obtain veridical semantic information – some use it to explore the intellectual landscape of today and yesteryear, and many of them are smart enough to do the evaluation themselves, Mme Gatekeeper.
    Is this just a straw man post, or are you serious?

  10. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    BTW – lots of academic librarians are eligible for neither rank nor tenure. I would be one of those.

  11. Brooklyn Librarian says:

    As a public librarian, I spend much time telling people in BA and especially graduate programs that they do not want to check out that young adult-level book to use while writing their thesis. I find myself explaining constantly why they should be using a more scholarly work and doing graduate-level work in a graduate-level library. Unfortunately, they all seem reluctant to use their university library.

    While I do think the quality of scholarly research is going down, I also find myself thinking that academic librarians really need to do more outreach to college classes. The students may be drinking coffee in their info commons but they are walking into a public library for reference help.

  12. Real Librarian says:

    Please give provide a working definitions of information and disinformation.

    These definitions have to work in all situations and not alienate anyone. For example, if you are a library with strong Catholic leanings, you should be careful carrying books by Galileo.

  13. True Librarian says:

    RE: (As for you “special” librarians, I’ll ignore you like the rest of the profession does!)

    No problem, AL – we special librarians pretty much ignore all of you, as well.

  14. snoopylibrarian says:

    As a public librarians, we choose books that will educate children who are required to write papers on a variety of subjects. Every book that is purchased for the young adult and juvenile nonfiction collections is chosen deliberately seeking the most accurate information in a form the children will read. I would also like to point out that as a child of libraries I developed a passion for reading and without that passion for learning, for filling my mind with knowledge I would have drowned in the public school and academic libraries offerings. And as the parent of college students today I find the same feelings of love for knowledge which were developed at story time and summer reading programs. Not reading 25 books a semester and issuing forth 25 boring book reports on biographies, histories, historical fiction, government, science. etc.

  15. VT Librarian says:

    The idea of the librarian as an arbiter of good taste is actually rather 19th-century, a time in which arguments over whether libraries should include “low art” vs. “high art” were much in vogue.

    In the academic library I work in today, I have to balance “what people want” with “what does the college need in order to fulfill it’s teaching mission.” If fulfilling that mission requires access to books by Ann Coulter et al., then I’m going to buy them, regardless of how despicable to me personally I may find her opionions.

    I would think by now that arguing that topic X or Y is not a fit topic for study would have gone the way of the argument for or against online resources. Everything and anything is a potential target for research and scholarship today. Professionalism in librarianship means (in part) putting aside one’s personal biases and doing whatever the job requires.

    PS: @Real Librarian, who wrote: “In academia, you can sit back on your tenured ass and do what you want.” I’m not sure what planet you’re writing from, but this is as silly and thoughtless a comment as I’ve seen in a long time.

  16. Bruce Campbell says:

    Josh knocked the snob-ball pitch right out of the park. You are deluded if you think public librarians – who received their MLS from an ALA accredited institution- would seriously recommend Hannity/Beck/Moore to a student writing an academic paper.

    When public librarians are assisting students writing a paper they take a different approach to the reference interview than say if a patron approaches and says, “I like Da Vinci code, what other books are like that?”

    I’m enjoying you constantly stirring the pot and fomenting skirmishes among the public and academic set. Do us all a favor and do some volunteer work at a public library. The work there is sometimes slow, so you could still blog. At public libraries you don’t have to be sycophantic to profs or deans and publish stale stuff, which you would never speak of to anyone outside of the profession. You also get to assist people with real problems, and not the ones looking for the software that will format their paper automatically to the APA style.

    See how it feels when I write that way about where you work? Good.

    Signed,
    A community college librarian

  17. It Girl says:

    “I find myself explaining constantly why they should be using a more scholarly work and doing graduate-level work in a graduate-level library. Unfortunately, they all seem reluctant to use their university library.”

    I’m sorry, but I honestly believe that should be the professor’s job, not yours. If professors allow students to use such resources, of course the students will! Only when the professors reject the resources will the students develop better researching skills.

  18. Dan says:

    While I loved college life and academic libraries in particular, people like AL who work on niversity campuses and feel that they are the center of the universe, smarter and better than the rest of us, are common enough to be a just a cliche. These sheltered residents of the ivory tower are irritating, but ridiculous and amusing.

  19. Spekkio says:

    Slightly off-topic, but Michael Moore is not in the same category as Glenn Beck. The aforementioned “Dude, Where’s My Country?” includes 26 pages of notes and sources. For the film “Fahrenheit 9/11″ he compiled a 363-page book including notes and sources.

  20. Mr. Kat says:

    It’s equally funny when academic researchers inform the library on resources they need to conduct their research, and the academic librarians snubs their nose at them and tell them they simply cannot get those resources. And these libraries are shocked when those departments turn around and issue votes of No Condifence on the “support survey” drafted up in emergency session in face of library budget cuts.

    At this point, I would leave the material selection up to the researchers, and the research guidance up to their advisors and their instructors. In most cases, these human resources are far better than any librarian could ever hope to be unless the librarian was also active in that particular field. Given the number of fields versus the number of active academic librarians, that’s simply impossible.

    In short, that means the library has one mission in life: supply material on demand. If the library is unable or unwilling to accomplish that mission, then it’s going to get reorganized by the administration!

  21. Dodi says:

    After working 30 years in public libraries I am now working in an academic library. My experience has been that academic libraries have to be choosier about what they buy because they don’t have half the money the public library has to build their collections.

  22. Librarian Kris says:

    AL, I love your blog because you tell the truth and there’s not enough of that. I think you genuinely like libraries as they aspire to be and try to cut through the ridiculousness to get there. It seems like it’s hard enough to be a librarian fighting for quality information and good books without us tearing each other down for not being the right sort of librarian. I’ve been a public librarian and I’ve been a school librarian. I’ve never been an academic librarian but some of my dearest friends are. Plus, the best library mission I’ve ever heard, the one I live by to this day came from a special librarian. Trust me, there’s real professionalism and real incompetence everywhere.

  23. Right-Wing Nut-Job says:

    Spekkio wrote: “Michael Moore is not in the same category as Glenn Beck…’Dude, Where’s My Country?’ includes 26 pages of notes and sources…”

    Like Spekkio, I’m also slightly off topic. And I’m clearly a couple of weeks late to the conversation. So nobody’s going to read this. But I’ll survive. These blog comment things are more about talking to the wall than having a reasonable conversation anyway.

    I just looked. Beck’s latest release — the paperback edition of something about idiots and small minds and big government — runs 25 pages of endnotes. So by Spekkio’s logic, Beck can’t possibly be biased. Right?

    And, no. That doesn’t make me believe Beck at face value any more than the 26 pages of endnotes make me trust Moore to provide an objective analysis of anything.

    In fact, the titles and covers of both books (along with their publication dates) tell me right away at which end of the political spectrum the authors stand.

    Citing references does not ensure an unbiased work. And the flavor of Moore’s films and writings is punditry just as clearly as anything from Beck or Coulter. Moore is as much left-wing as Limbaugh is right-wing.

    And while we could argue political ideology all day and never get anywhere, I really do have a point to make on the professional librarian front:

    Pundits and propaganda come from the idiots on the other side of the aisle. Our side doesn’t produce them. Our guys just tell the Truth.

    Or, to quote Ambrose Bierce from The Devil’s Dictionary, a bigot is “One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.”

    We all have this lovely human tendency to call the people we agree with unbiased. Or “fair and balanced” if you prefer.

    And that’s something we have to get over when serving as librarians.