A few posts back I mentioned Patrick Wilson’s 1983 book Second-Hand Knowledge [link], in which he argues that librarians ought to pay more attention to cognitive authority. I started writing a book review last week but I quickly realized that Wilson’s discussion is actually pretty weak. I mean, for a guy with a PhD in philosophy from Berkeley, it’s surprising how philosophically sloppy and under-researched his arguments are. But, there are a couple of interesting positions he takes and I’d like to quickly outline one that I think might be a bit polarizing.
The general argument of the book goes something like this:
- Most of what we believe comes from the testimony of other people (which includes texts, video, etc.)
- But, we don’t count all information sources as equally reliable: “some people know what they are talking about, others do not. Those who do are my cognitive authorities.” (p. 13).
- Cognitive authorities can be defined in terms of a social relationship in which one person has epistemic influence over another person with respect to some sphere of interest.
- There is a “knowledge industry” created in part to regulate cognitive authority. This includes formal institutions like publishers, universities, academic societies, and libraries that help regulate the social relationship of cognitive authority. It also includes informal theoretical systems that determine spheres of interest. These informal systems can be seen in the way intellectual fashions change over time (e.g., New Criticism vs. structuralism vs. post-structuralism vs. deconstructionism…each has its own criteria for authority).
- Libraries are a part of the knowledge industry that regulates cognitive authority.
- So, librarians should understand cognitive authority and their relationship to it.
It takes a while for Wilson to address libraries and librarians, but in Chapter 6 he turns his attention to the role of the library in the knowledge industry and he reflects on why people use libraries in the first place: they want information. But not just any information. They don’t want misinformation. They want quality information from cognitive authorities. But, given that libraries are literally filled with misinformation, there seems to be a need for some sort of quality control either at the point of collection or the point of access. Ideally, there should be someone to help information seekers determine if they’ve got the best available information. Wilson asks, “can those professionally responsible for information storage and retrieval act as quality controllers?” (p. 171).* In other words, what makes librarians trustworthy sources of information? Well, there are a few options.
First, it would seem to be the case that in order to effectively evaluate information, we ought to be experts on the relevant subject area. So, if a student comes to the reference desk looking for articles on Aztec funerary practices, I need to be an expert on Aztec funerary practices in order to identify which articles are the best. And so it goes for any subject area: a science librarian must be at least as much an authority on scientific matters as a practicing scientist, a medical librarian must be equal in expertise to a medical doctor. Occasionally you’ll even hear librarians (or, more typically their administrators) talk about hiring more PhDs to fill subject librarian lines: “we need experts.”
The only problem is that outside of the field of library science itself it’s impossible for a librarian to have authoritative expertise on anything but a very small aspect of a library collection. We hire ‘science’ librarians and ‘medical’ librarians, not ‘organometallic chemistry’ librarians and ‘cardiology’ librarians. Even a librarian with a PhD in a given field is only going to have expertise in certain areas of that field; the PhD is a mark of specialization, not omniscience. Put simply, librarians can’t be expected to be polymaths.**
However, even if we lack subject-expertise, we may have some other expertise. Maybe, Wilson suggests, librarians are “authorities on authority.” Maybe the librarian is the person who “can be trusted to tell us who else can be trusted” (p.179). We don’t have to be experts in the fields in which we can identify authorities; we just need some way determining who deserves to be taken as having cognitive authority. Sort of a meta-level evaluation of information. This certainly seems a compelling possibility, and it does lend credence to our insistence on spreading the gospel of information literacy. But, Wilson makes an interesting argument on this point. If a librarian isn’t a subject expert, all she can use are “indirect tests” of authority. These include asking
- What is the present reputation of the author of this information? (p. 166)
- Who is the publisher? (p. 168)
- Is the information intrinsically plausible? (p. 169)
Here, Wilson has crafted the beginnings of what would later develop into information literacy (even looks a little like the CRAP test doesn’t it?). But, Wilson is quick to point out that these indirect tests are something that almost any person can master. If librarians’ judgments about information quality “are based not on expertise in the subject matter concerned but only on external signs and clues, then they are based on the same sorts of things that any other person ignorant of the subject matter would have to use” (p. 181). So, librarians can’t claim some special expertise or credibility when it comes to evaluating information. There are no trade secrets. So, even if we try to elevate information literacy as the locus of our expertise, we fail.
And here we get to the reason I wrote this post: the possibly polarizing position.
If Wilson is right that librarians are not cognitive authorities on anything other than library science itself, then why do information-seekers trust librarians? The answer is not that librarians are specialists. Quite the contrary. Librarians are delegates. It isn’t that librarians are better than average at making decisions about cognitive authority, it’s that they are no worse and so people trust librarians to work on their behalf (p. 186).
Let that sink in for a moment.
Librarians love arguing their roles in their communities. Are we activists? Educators? Gatekeepers? And we love arguing about the lack of rigor in library school programs.*** Maybe we ought to stop beating ourselves up over what intellectual, political, or moral mission makes us different from the communities we serve. Maybe we just are our communities? In a certain sense, this is liberating; we can learn to evade the detachment that characterizes our profession. We can meet our communities as equals, not experts. We can understand the reasons that motivate movements like New Librarianship or critical librarianship. Wilson was on to something.
Then again, what do we lose as delegates? Probably not our professional stature: we’d still be authorities/experts on library science. But, perhaps our gravity outside of library science? The librarian is a cultural archetype and we are often called-on to weigh-in on non-library issues. Perhaps some of our advocacy? The delegate view would completely invalidate many ALA resolutions as being outside a far narrower conception of our expertise; as Wittgenstein said, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Perhaps our commitment to intellectual freedom? After all, we’d be responsible for following community opinion, even if that opinion lends itself towards intellectual conservatism. Perhaps our value as an information resource? Wilson certainly didn’t anticipate the Google age. Perhaps whatever professional pride we have left? It’s hard to say. But it’s worth thinking about. I’ll concede that this post barely scratches the surface and I hope someone else is inspired to investigate.
Summing up: Are librarians authorities on information? Are we experts on information literacy? Wilson’s argument suggests that no, we aren’t. We’re delegates appointed by our communities. I highly recommend reading Wilson’s Second-Hand Knowledge. Like I said, most of it is shoddy philosophy. But there are a few important insights. Personally, I’m not convinced by Wilson’s librarian-as-delegate argument. I’ve covered the paradox of authority and expertise in the past [one, two, three] and I reached a very different conclusion from Wilson, one in support of librarians as cognitive authorities. But, Wilson’s argument shouldn’t be discounted. Take it on my authority.
* Of course, librarians have a standard response when asked to provide quality control: evaluation requires subject expertise and librarians only have expertise in information handling and librarianship (p. 173). So, librarians have to be neutral, which is a deeply problematic position to take. And impossible to boot.
** Not to say that there aren’t librarians who are expert authorities on certain topics. There certainly are. But, professionally speaking, requiring librarians to be authorities on entire fields or entire collections is like asking for unicorns.
*** Personally, I think that programs that focus more on information science can and often do have intellectually challenging and engaging classes.