By Unnamed WPA photographer (WPA photo Via [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of years ago, Dave Lankes published his Atlas of New Librarianship to widespread acclaim. Motivated by the accelerating pace of change in the field, Lankes asked, “What is librarianship when it is unmoored from cataloging, books, buildings, and committees?” The answer, he contends, can be found in a new mission for librarians: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Lankes’ book is insightful, thought-provoking, and a testament to his passion for librarianship. I also happen to find New Librarianship a very problematic framework for the profession. At the time the book came out, I criticized it for it’s social constructionism and I argued that the “Conversation Theory” of knowledge at the heart of New Librarianship impedes learning, disenfranchises minority voices, and works against the idea of the library as a valuable social institution. I won’t rehash these arguments in detail (you can go back and read them if you want) but it’s worth pointing out that even though I find fault with his theory, I still respect the hell out of Professor Lankes for his dedication to librarianship and for the passion he instills in others.

So, anyway, Syracuse is now offering a MOOC on New Librarianship…starting today! And, I signed up (along with thousands of other librarians). Taught by a team of most-excellent library school folks, this MOOC will attempt to accomplish two things. First, the class will attempt to provide “a foundation for practicing librarians and library science students in new librarianship.” Second, the class will try to “generate discussion about the future direction of the profession.” Both of these are important and I highly recommend that you join in. Seriously, go sign up if you haven’t.

I signed up mostly because I’m  interested in seeing how other librarians react to Lankes’ worldview for librarians. Do other librarians have the same reservations I have? They may. They may not. But I’m willing to modify my beliefs in light of better evidence or argument. I also signed up because I’m interested in seeing how New Librarianship has evolved over the past two years. In particular, there are a few open questions about New Librarianship that I hope will be answered…

Open question #1: What about fiction?

If the focus of New Librarianship is on knowledge creation, where does that leave creative works such as popular fiction, music, and movies? To me, something just doesn’t sound right about saying that people read Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey primarily for the purposes of knowledge creation. I’m not saying that we can’t or don’t learn things from fiction…of course we do. But, I don’t think that’s the primary reason we read novels. Maybe it’s the humanities major in me, but I think New Librarianship is incomplete without an account of the role of aesthetic enjoyment, cultural enrichment, or emotional connection as encountered in creative works.

Open question #2: What about librarians who don’t work in public services?

In a widely quoted passage, Lankes claims that “I have long contended that a room full of books is simply a closet but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library” (p. 16). In other words, the library is the librarian, not the collection. This view of the librarian as a conversation facilitator is easy to accept for librarians working in reference, instruction, makerspaces, children’s libraries, and other positions where the majority of your time is spent directly interacting with patrons. But, what of the librarians in cataloging, archives, electronic resource management, web development, and other generally non-public facing roles within the library? If librarianship isn’t about collections, what does that mean for librarians who manage collections? Basically, the New Librarian can either (1) argue that things like cataloging and archives aren’t part of the future of librarianship or (2) argue that the definition of “facilitates conversation” is broad enough to include collection-oriented library responsibilities. The first response would probably entail that librarians who work strictly with the collection aren’t really librarians. I don’t have to explain how problematic that response would be. The second response would require interpreting “facilitates conversations” so broadly as to be meaningless. Where does facilitation end? Hopefully, a third alternative will come to light over the course of the class.

Open question #3: What about the autodidacts?

New Librarianship is all about starting conversations within a community, and that’s a good thing. But, what does New Librarianship mean for the person who wants to learn by themselves? Lots of research-savvy library users are perfectly content using the library without any direct intervention from the librarians on duty. Lankes does address self-directed learning insofar as he claims that conversations can happen internally for an individual. The idea being that we have an internal dialogue that counts as conversation. But, as with the definition of ‘collection’ this approach seems to strain what we normally think of as ‘conversation’. Basically, if the theory requires that even thinking is a form of conversation, then what isn’t conversation and why call it conversation at all? Why not just say that we gain knowledge through a combination of conversation, reasoning, observation, sensory-perception, reflection, and so on? Hopefully, the MOOC will offer more explanation of Conversation Theory.

Open question #4: What about non-institutional libraries?

A while ago I wrote about the DIY library trend, which I contrasted with “institutional” libraries (i.e., the places that employ librarians). If it takes a librarian to make a library, then what does New Librarianship have to say about Little Free Libraries? Should we work to convince our communities to stop calling them ‘libraries’? Who really decides what a library is? Communities? Librarians? Library-school professors? It can get pretty tricky when you start to think about it and I hope the MOOC will address the apparent tension between community beliefs about libraries and theoretical frameworks of librarianship.

Of course, there are other open questions, but these are the ones on my mind the morning before the Master Class in New Librarianship begins. It’s true: I do not identify with New Librarianship. Shoot, I actually identify with the polar opposite of New Librarianship. I hold what I’ll call the functional view of librarianship: a librarian is a person responsible for all or part of a library, where ‘library’ means a shared, organized, and searchable collection of information objects. To me, librarians are defined by their relation to a collection. To a New Librarian, that counts as stinkin’ thinkin’. But, in order to avoid the problems of social constructionism, as well as to address issues surrounding creative works, diverse roles within our profession, self-directed library users, and non-institutional libraries, I’m going to stick with the functional account. Yet, even though I’m not going to become a New Librarian, I’m ecumenical in my approach to theory-construction and I want Lankes’ vision to succeed. My hope is simply that the MOOC will offer a more robust version of New Librarianship than we’ve seen in the past. Fingers crossed and maybe I’ll see you in class!


Do you remember when the dot-com bubble burst? How about that time Elián González lost at hide and seek? Or when the Supreme Court gave George Bush the presidency? Remember the premiere of Survivor and how much you hated the dude with the beard? Do you remember when iMacs looked like fishtanks? Did you know that Destiny’s Child was once a quartet? If you do remember any 0f this stuff then good for you! Now you can name a half dozen things that have happened since the ACRL Information Literacy Standards were last changed.

That’s right.

The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards–the ones that start with “The information literate student…blah blah blah” and then get broken into 22 performance indicators and 87 distinct outcomes–were formally approved on January 18, 2000. Over 13 years ago. For a profession that prides itself on its web-savvy, it seems a bit odd that the document which Steven Bell just described as “one of, if not the most essential document, related to the emergence of information literacy as a recognized learning outcome at many institutions of higher education” harkens back to a time when the most popular method of accessing the Internet involved AOL 5.0 and a dial-up connection.


Thankfully, the ACRL is taking steps to remedy this situation by creating a task force dedicated to writing new information literacy competency standards for higher education. Here’s the charge:

Update the Information literacy competency standards for higher education so that they reflect the current thinking on such things as the creation and dissemination of knowledge, the changing global higher education and learning environment, the shift from information literacy to information fluency, and the expanding definition of information literacy…

I won’t go into all of the messy details about why these standards need to be retired but it suffices to say that at 13 years old they probably need to be revisited. If you want more specific gripes and recommendations regarding the current IL standards, check out the recommendations from last year’s review task force.

Oh yeah…did I mention that I’m on the task force? Yeah…I have no idea why, but I was asked to help write new information literacy standards for the ACRL. The task force has only just started working, so there isn’t much to report yet, but over the next year I plan on sharing what I can here on the blog. And what better way to start than to explain my general take on information literacy and the future of the ACRL standards?

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consume less live more by grahamc99

Last week I had an interesting Twitter conversation regarding a popular rhetorical strategy surrounding maker-spaces, New Librarianship, participatory culture, and the other assorted “big ideas” for the future of libraries.  Now, I think makerspaces are pretty cool and I certainly don’t want anyone to think I want to be slagging on making/hacking/tinkering but, even though makerspaces are rad, they’re being marketed with some pretty suspect rhetoric. Let me give you a few examples:

“We believe the library of the last century is the library of consumption, an institution that reflects the broadcast era of media, the place where you watch, read, and listen passively from an armchair. The library of this century is the place where new social relationships are forged and knowledge is created, explored, and shared.” (Nate Hill & Jeff Goldenson, “Making Room for Innovation”, Library Journal, May 16, 2013 [link])

“Librarianship is not about artifacts, it is about knowledge and facilitating knowledge creation. So what should we be spending our precious resources on? Knowledge creation tools, not the results of knowledge creation.” (Dave Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship, p. 43)

“So what does it mean for libraries to give our communities the tools, access, training, and permission to make, hack, and tinker instead of simply consume?” (Laura Britton, “The Makings of Maker Spaces, Part 1″, Library Journal, Oct. 1, 2012 [link])

“By bringing makerspaces into libraries, we can adapt to changing student needs and supporting knowledge creation in addition to knowledge consumption.” (Erin Fisher, “Makerspaces Move into Academic Libraries”, ACRL TechConnect, November 28, 2012 [link])

“Based on the idea that libraries are for creation, not just consumption, maker spaces don’t just upend the normal programming model—they have the potential to reinvent the public library.” (Brian Kenney, “Meet Your Makers”, Publishers Weekly, Mar. 29, 2013 [link])

“The consumption library, to me, is the library that sort of sits back and waits for people to come inside of its doors, to discover what they have, to take it home, to consume it in the privacy of their own home, to consume it one as a time as individuals. Whereas the creation library is the library that sort of embraces that idea of imagination and begins to redesign even its physical space in terms of creation.” (Ken Roberts, “The Future of Libraries”, Dec. 6, 2012 [link])

Did you catch it? The common thread and the favored tactic in the literature surrounding libraries and maker-spaces is to draw a sharp distinction between the consumption of knowledge and the creation of knowledge. By ‘knowledge consumption’ most writers seem to mean reading; by ‘knowledge creation’ most seem to mean hacking, tinkering, building, making, or collaborating. And the way the conversation is being shaped by this rhetoric, it’s clear that knowledge consumption is old and in the way and what we really need is to forge ahead into a bright future of knowledge creation. Yes, some librarians make the case that we need both creation and consumption (e.g., “…in addition to knowledge consumption”), but the rhetorical device is still in play: knowledge can be either consumed or created, and the library of the future is weighted towards creation.

And, so, I tweeted:


This sparked a long discussion of creation vs. consumption, but as is usually the case with Twitter, it was sort of all over the map. So, I figured I should explain my reasoning here on the blog. Put simply, the rhetoric of knowledge consumption versus knowledge creation equivocates over the concept of knowledge, forcing an adversarial false dilemma. What’s worse, if we try to clarify the equivocation, it quickly becomes apparent that it makes absolutely no sense to contrast knowledge consumption with knowledge creation because, in the context of a library, they’re the same damned thing. Allow me to explain…

First of all, there are two wildly different senses of ‘knowledge’ at play in the consume/create rhetoric. Start with the type of knowledge in “knowledge creation”: what is getting created? Well, makerfolk surely aren’t talking about printing knowledge on a Makerbot. At least, I hope they aren’t, because that would be some next-level craziness. No, makerbrarians are most likely talking about creating a certain type of new beliefs, which brings us to the first type of knowledge: epistemic knowledge. And all we mean by creating epistemic knowledge is something along the lines of coming to new justified, true beliefs. It’s like, “if you tinker with an Arduino, you will acquire knowledge” and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. We acquire new beliefs and new knowledge all the time: it’s called learning.

But, what about the type of knowledge in “knowledge consumption”? Can we consume beliefs? That is, can we consume mental states?  Ummm, no; your psychic vampire otherkin friend is just delusional. But, we can consume recorded knowledge. Someone knows or believes something, they want to share it, and so they write it down, film it, paint it, and so on. That recorded knowledge is now something consumable: you can read it, watch it, view it, and so on. And we consume recorded knowledge/belief all the time: it’s called information.

So, when I hear makerbrarians proclaim that traditional libraries are about knowledge consumption and future libraries are about knowledge creation, I make a mental substitution: traditional libraries are about information, future libraries are about learning, and so libraries must move away from information in order to facilitate learning.


This may come as a shock, but libraries have been places of learning for quite some time. It’s kind of our schtick. On the flip side, it’s not clear what a pure creation space would be in the absence of  information “consumption.” I’m pretty sure that you need to manipulate some information to make that 3D print of Chewbacca riding on a TARDIS, or whatever it is that 3D printers do.

3d Millennium Falcon by John Biehler CCBYNCSA


Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that, when taken literally, the knowledge creation vs. knowledge consumption distinction is simply bad rhetoric. If anything, consumption and creation–understood as information and learning–are inseparable: you need one to achieve the other. So, saying that we need to replace one with the other is, for lack of a better term…dumb. But, of course, it’s just sloppy rhetoric; the participabrarians don’t really mean to imply that libraries have never been about knowledge creation. Perhaps they mean something more like this…

Traditionally, libraries have invested mostly in the collection, preservation, and provision of access to certain types of information and certain types of cultural objects (i.e., literature) all for the purposes of self-directed learning and/or enculturation. But, in the future, libraries will need to invest more heavily in providing their communities with the tools needed to create technologically-mediated cultural objects and information. It’s not that creation and consumption are opposed to one another, rather, the balance is simply shifting away from collecting information and shifting towards collecting the tools required to process information.

Is that better? Closer to the intent of the consume/create distinction? I think it probably is. But, even the watered down version is still problematic because it highlights a rather sizable lacuna in the maker movement manifesto: what makes learning to build a small computer or learning to design and 3D print a small plastic object a greater social good or more intrinsically valuable than the myriad other types of learning available in the library?* Is learning how to make your iPhone open your garage door a more valuable skill than learning a new language? Is there something available in the Thingiverse to help patrons study for finals? For the GED? For the citizenship exam? Is there an app for storytime? Sure, geek elites like Cory Doctorow will argue that making and hacking are absolutely critical to the future of information literacy (“If computers are on your side, they elevate every single thing we use to measure quality of life. So we need to master computers — to master the systems of information, so that we can master information itself. That’s where makers come in” [link]). But, we’re not all technological determinists like Doctorow and it’s a hell of a category mistake to assume that understanding a piece of hardware is necessary for information literacy. It’s like saying that you have to be able to make a paintbrush to appreciate art (or to be a painter). Other fablabrarians make vague pronouncements about improving communities, like, “instead of building better bombs, emerging technology can help build better communities” [link]. Again, I’m sure you can improve a community through tinkering, but you can also improve it through promoting literacy or providing information about sustainability or literally a million other activities. So, it’s still not clear how the future of libraries is in tinkering.

I’m not saying that the things you can do in a maker space aren’t cool, useful, and important. They absolutely are. I’m completely okay with saying that makerspaces have a place in the library because they do address certain, important information needs. But, I’m not sold on the thoroughly Whiggish rhetoric that makerspaces are the inevitable future of what libraries should be and, moreover, I am uncomfortable with rhetoric that pits makerspaces against other library offerings. Even if the makerbrarians concede that the consume/create distinction is just a catchy soundbite or elevator pitch to throw out when we need to show the “continued relevance” of libraries to potential funding sources, all that implies is that non-maker services somehow aren’t relevant. Put another way, not only is the consume/create distinction a false dichotomy, and not only does it avoid questions of social value, but it’s also unnecessarily adversarial. A library patron who wants to read a book is not “simply consuming.” Story-time can also “embrace imagination.” The “results of knowledge creation” are often cherished parts of a community. Let’s change the rhetoric and treat all of our community and patron needs with respect, not just the needs that can be met with ABS and LEDs.


* I should acknowledge that some makerspaces also include activities like sewing, crafting, bicycle repair, and other non-digital offerings. Some rent tools or guitars. Some will even show you how to butcher a hog. These are all awesome. Shoot, I’d love to be able to take a bike tech class. And, if you squint hard enough, you can probably come up with a story that all learning is, in a way, making. But, generally speaking, when librarians talk about makerspaces they’re talking about the 3D printing/hacking/app-building/Arduino programming sort of digital makerspace.

by gfoots on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

On February 1 of this year, philosopher Brian Leiter announced a poll to determine the “best book publishers in philosophy in English.” On February 5, after receiving over 500 votes, Leiter posted the results. I don’t think anyone was surprised to see Oxford as the Condorcet winner by a landslide, followed by the usual cast of characters: Cambridge, Harvard, Routledge, and so on. Almost as an afterthought, Leiter added that “at the very bottom of the list of 34 were Peter Lang…and then Edwin Mellen Press, which lost to Oxford 407-1, and to Peter Lang by 73-39.  I don’t know much about either, but both do publish a significant number of philosophy titles.”

I would imagine that Professor Leiter now knows more than he ever cared to know about Edwin Mellen Press given the chain of events that followed. I won’t offer a full summary here, but let’s just say that the strange case of Edwin Mellen Press begins* in 2010 with a librarian who had the temerity to assert his professional opinion that EMP is a “junk publisher” specializing in “second-class scholarship” at “egregiously high prices”. And from there, we get a tawdry tale of alleged libel, lawsuits, petitions, partial retractions, spurious domain names, deranged legal threats, and oh so much more. Check out Colleen Flaherty’s “Price of a Bad Review” at Inside Higher Ed for a good review of the beginnings of the EMP drama and check out “Edwin Mellen Press Demonstrates How Not To Respond To Criticism” at Techdirt for a good overview of more batshit insane recent developments. Anyway, throughout this unfolding drama there have been quite a few mentions of a boycott [here, here, all over the Chronicle forums, etc.]. And that’s the bit I want to address…

On March 29, in a now removed (but easily found) post, Wayne Bivens-Tatum announced that the ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group would meet at ALA Annual in Chicago to discuss a provocative question: Should we buy philosophy and religion materials from publishers who sue libraries and librarians?” Strangely, ACRL requested that the topic be changed and Bivens-Tatum acquiesced, replacing the initial question with a more abstract (hence, less provocative) question: “are publishers suing or threatening to sue libraries or librarians threats to academic freedom for librarians?” This is still an important and interesting question, but I want to go back to the first question. Should we as purchasing agents boycott litigious publishers?**

by quinn.anya on FLickr, CC BY-SA

by quinn.anya on FLickr, CC BY-SA

Should we buy philosophy and religion materials from publishers who sue libraries and librarians?

Well, the first thing to do is to clarify what sort of litigation we’re concerned with: not all law suits are created equal. Currently, the salient instances of library litigation are (1) the EMP shenanigans and (2) the civil action brought by Oxford, Cambridge, and SAGE against Georgia State over e-reserve policies. Calls to boycott the publishers in the Georgia State case have been floating around for a while, but I think Kevin Smith is absolutely correct in pointing out that this sort of boycott cannot be unilateral; it requires consultation with the teachers, students, and other researchers that make up the campus community because “this deplorable lawsuit is not a “library problem,” it is an academic problem; an issue that needs to be addressed by the higher education community.” As librarians, it’s not our call to make and we should not boycott Oxford, Cambridge, or SAGE without having a (very important) discussion with the campus community. Can the same reasoning be applied to the EMP situation or similar cases? I think not…for a few different reasons.

First, the issues at the heart of the Georgia State case are, as Smith argued, indicative of wider problems in academe and librarians are not the only stakeholders in the matter. Hell, we’re not even the primary stakeholders (that would be the students, teachers, and researchers). A unilateral boycott against Oxford and Cambridge, on the grounds that they have an adversarial interpretation of copyright law, is indefensible without the approval of at least the primary stakeholders (i.e., the teachers, students, and researchers who are most affected by access to e-reserves). On the other hand, librarians are by definition the primary stakeholders on issues relating to academic freedom for librarians. If a publisher is acting in a manner that directly challenges or threatens librarians’s professional expertise, then I think it is fairly easy to make the argument that librarians should have the freedom to initiate a boycott.

Second, though the Georgia State suit is problematic in a number of ways, it is ultimately an issue of intellectual property law (fair use and copyright infringement) and thus it is a different beast from situations like the EMP litigation which constitute issues of intellectual freedom (defamation vs. critical professional opinion). Intellectual freedom is clearly a moral concern, given that it is predicated on fundamental rights of self expression, and it is this moral dimension that suggests a boycott may be appropriate. This is not to say that IP issues are unimportant, just that they are primarily practical concerns rather than explicitly moral concerns (though there are frequently secondary moral considerations), and it should be the moral dimension that drives the boycott. Keep in mind that boycotts are essentially punitive measures and that punishment in general can only be sanctioned on moral grounds.

Finally, even though I think that boycotts are appropriate if (1) librarians are the primary stakeholders and (2) the boycott is raised on moral grounds, I think the potential harm to our communities is worth considering. That is, even if librarians are completely justified in boycotting a publisher on moral grounds, it may be wrong to boycott if it would place an undue burden on our community. This is one reason that boycotting Oxford and Cambridge would be so difficult, even if librarians were otherwise justified in boycotting. After all, as Leiter’s poll suggests, Oxford and Cambridge are the top two most respected scholarly publishers in philosophy (SAGE doesn’t publish monographs in philosophy). It’s not that they are so important that they can’t be boycotted, just that moral decision making is a balancing act and the potential negative impact of boycotting Oxford and Cambridge is far more severe than the potential impact of boycotting a much smaller press. 

So, in answer to the question of whether to purchase books from publishers who sue librarians (or libraries), I say we are unilaterally justified in boycotting these publishers when (1) librarians are the primary stakeholders, (2) the boycott is primarily raised on moral grounds, and (3) the potential harm caused by the boycott is outweighed by the potential good. If a boycott fails to meet any of these three conditions, then it should not be a unilateral decision by the library. If the stakes aren’t moral, if we aren’t the primary stakeholders, or if the harm creates an undue burden on our community, then we should hold back on boycotting.

by twicepix on Flickr, CC BY-SA

by twicepix on Flickr, CC BY-SA

Edwin Mellen

Now, the sensitive questions. First, are librarians the primary stakeholders in the Edwin Mellen situation? Second, would a boycott of Edwin Mellen be raised primarily on moral grounds? Finally, are the potential harms caused by a boycott of Edwin Mellen justifiable on balance? If the answer to all three questions is “yes”, then go ahead and get to boycotting. Otherwise, do not make a unilateral decision to boycott without securing either the assent of the primary stakeholders, solid moral reasoning, or a means of reducing potential harm.

Personally, however, the issue of boycotting Edwin Mellen isn’t an issue for me at all because I’m not really in a position to boycott a scholarly press from which I would not willingly purchase books in the first place. It’s sort of the same way I don’t eat at Olive Garden, not because I’m boycotting them, but because I don’t like their food. Similarly, I don’t buy from Edwin Mellen, not because I’m boycotting, but because independent from the quality of their books they don’t publish titles that fit my criteria for collection development. To date, I have not received any faculty requests for books published by Edwin Mellen and neither have any UTC faculty have published with Edwin Mellen. I could go to the EMP website, but they only list reasons to publish with EMP, not reasons to purchase from them. And as for holdings at other libraries, sure, places like Harvard might have over 4,000 titles by Edwin Mellen. But, Harvard also has over 1,000 titles from actual vanity publisher Vantage Press, so the mere fact that Harvard owns something is in no way a mark of quality and in no way relevant to my purchasing decisions.

So, that leaves me with book reviews. Thankfully, Brian Leiter also has a poll covering the most influential book reviewers. Within the top five sources for book reviews in philosophy only two Edwin Mellen books have been reviewed, both by Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews (the most influential reviews according to Leiter’s poll) and both reviews specifically mention bad editing (“It is not a well-edited book” and “this is a provocative book that deserved better editing.” There have been no recent reviews that I can find in Philosophical Review, MindPhilosophy & Phenomenological Research, or Ethics (just a couple of mentions under ‘Books Received’). Even if we look at the least influential reviews, Choice hasn’t reviewed EMP since 2005 and Library Journal hasn’t in even longer. Of course, a lack of reviews in top journals does not imply that Edwin Mellen publishes inferior books; all I’m pointing out is that I really have no reliable means for assessing their quality and relevance to my collection.  Given my limited funds, it would be irresponsible of me to spend money blindly.***

In a nutshell, the reason I have no intention of boycotting the Edwin Mellen Press goes back to the event that started this whole farrago. Put simply, I won’t buy from the Edwin Mellen Press not because of the lawsuit but because they are the lowest ranked publisher in philosophy according to Brian Leiter’s survey and I can find no reliable means (faculty requests, book reviews, etc.) to determine otherwise. Truth be told, I was only vaguely familiar with Edwin Mellen before the case against Askey materialized. Now that the press has willingly subjected itself to intense scrutiny, I can’t help but think that, boycott or no boycott, the damage has already been done.

Just a random picture of a smashed cantaloupe.

* Actually, EMP has a rather interesting history prior to 2010, but prior events aren’t germane to the current round of legal maneuvering.

** I’m going to use ‘boycott’ in what I presume is the everyday (i.e., Wikipedia) sense: “an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for social or political reasons.” And I’m going to discuss it strictly in terms of purchasing. There is a wholly distinct issue of whether potential authors should refrain from publishing through Edwin Mellen. This latter boycott is far less problematic and I see no prima facie reason to object to it, so I’m not going to talk about it.

*** For the record, the library at UTC currently holds 132 titles from the Edwin Mellen Press. Of the 23 titles received since 2008, 19 were on the approval plan. Since 2001, only one Edwin Mellen title has entered the philosophy and religion collection…also an approval title. In light of recent events, the approval plan has been modified.

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ric e Ette on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ric e Ette on Flickr

Wow. It’s been two months since my last post. But I can explain. You see, back in January we got a new roommate and in between dealing with his insomnia and his incontinence I just haven’t had time to sit down and think about library stuff.

Anyway, a few days ago I came across a couple of posts about the relationship between librarians and coding. From March 5, Wayne Bivens-Tatum explains why he ignores the calls for librarians to learn how to code. In contrast, at Library Journal on March 6, Matt Enis reports that programming and coding skills are fast becoming essential for librarians. So, which is it? Must a librarian know Python or Ruby in order to be successful as a librarian or to improve a community? Or, is the clarion call for coding in librarianship just another manifestation of misguided technological solutionism?

Well, it kind of depends on what we mean when we say that coding is “essential” for librarianship. On a weak interpretation, that just means that it’s something librarians should be familiar with at some minimal level. That is, coding is weakly essential in librarianship if only some librarians need to master coding and the rest just need to be able to understand what coding is, how it relates to libraries, what can reasonably be asked of code, and whatever threshold concepts are required in order to work alongside the people who actually write the code. On the other hand, coding is strongly essential in librarianship if all librarians need to be able to write and use workable code themselves to solve problems and/or create new services. Put another way, if coding is weakly essential for librarians, then all librarians need to learn the basic principles of coding. If coding is strongly essential, then librarians need to learn the principles of coding as well as learn one or more programming languages.

Essential Logic

“Essential Logic” CC BY-NC-SA by affendaddy on Flickr

Coding and strong essentialism

I’m going to start by looking at the strong view: librarians should be able to write code. For example, last December, Bohyun Kim described the state of the art of coding in libraries this way:

Librarians’ strong interest in programming is not surprising considering that programming skills are crucial and often essential to making today’s library systems and services more user-friendly and efficient for use. Not only for system-customization, computer-programming skills can also make it possible to create and provide a completely new type of service that didn’t exist before.

Compare to Andromeda Yelton’s four reasons librarians should learn to code: to optimize existing workflows, to improve usability, to communicate with vendors and IT, and to empower librarians to create new services. Kim and Yelton are both appealing to the same two overarching arguments in support of strong essentialism about code in librarianship. First, there’s the maintenance argument: most library systems and services require constant attention, so librarians need to learn how to code to maintain their systems, to talk to vendors, to improve efficiency, and so on. Second, there’s the forward-thinking argument: it is only by embracing coding that librarians can provide new, forward-thinking services to patrons like makerspaces, hackerspaces, 3D printers, and more. And these justifications are, by and large, correct: library systems do, in fact, benefit from librarians who can code and libraries are, in fact, pursuing forward-thinking projects like LibraryBox and attracting forward-thinking coder communities built around things like maker culture. But, are these really arguments that all librarians need to know how to code? I’m not convinced they are.

You see, both the maintenance argument and the forward-thinking argument for strong coding skills rest on a fundamental category mistake between the librarian and the library. What these arguments show is not that all librarians need to code, but that all libraries need coders. Same goes for most of the skills we encounter in librarianship: there is no universal set of skills that are strongly essential in librarianship, but there are skills that are strongly essential for libraries. And it’s probably worth pointing out that maintaining systems and creating forward-thinking digital tools are not the only things libraries do. Libraries might also need readers’ advisory skills, instruction skills, reference skills, archiving skills, collection development skills, and so on.  And all of these skills are only weakly essential insofar as a library only needs some librarians to master them, so long as the rest of the librarians meet some threshold understanding.* Basically, there are a lot of great skills out there, and it would be great to learn them all, but we’ve got to prioritize. I would love to learn to code, but my time is spent learning about assessment, classroom management, information literacy, pedagogy, and whatever else is going to help me do my job better. It’s not that coding is unimportant, it’s just that in my role within the library coding is less important than other concerns. As Bivens-Tatum put it in his post, “If I had needed to learn to code for work, I’d have done it. The thing is, that’s true for most skills.” Really, I see no substantive reason to consider any particular skill strongly essential for librarianship.

"don't need it" by 1a1e on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

“don’t need it” by 1a1e on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

“But wait,” the objection goes, “then what’s the point of library school, if not to provide a common skill-set?”

And my response is that if the reason you go to library school is for vocational training, then you’re doing it wrong. And if your library school only taught you to be a practitioner, then shame on your library school. Library school is (nominally) graduate school and the focus should be on cultivating the principles, values, and knowledge that undergird librarianship. Yes, there are some threshold concepts to which all librarians should be exposed: organization of information, archiving, research methods, and, yes, coding (and a great many more). But these are only weakly essential and are adequately covered in the five or six survey courses every LIS program requires. Now, we might decide to specialize, in which case coding could be an extremely important skill in digital content management or archives (to name but two). But, other tracks might need to prioritize other skills. Again, it’s our shared principles and knowledge that should be universal, not any specific skill-sets. (For more on what these principles may be, check out my posts on expertise.)

Long story short…

Some librarians need to learn how to code and pick up one or more programming languages, but most librarians don’t. And while most librarians might not need to learn how to code, all librarians should understand the basic principles and foundations of coding, if only so that they can better communicate with those who do learn and apply programming languages.** Heck, even Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s dismissive attitude towards code is only possible because he has a basic understanding of code: the very ability to “steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter” requires some understanding of what coding problems look like, what correct code looks like, and so on.***

So, coding is a weakly essential skill in librarianship: all librarians need to know what a programming language is, how to talk about it, and what coding can and can’t do. But, then again, that’s how it is with every other skill in librarianship. The only things that are strongly essential in this profession are our values and principles; our theories and concepts. Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill. And the next time someone says that “all librarians must have skill X”, ask if they really mean “all libraries need someone with skill X.” I bet you’ll find they actually mean the latter.

[In the meantime, if you want to brush up on your coding skills, join me on Codeacademy.com: I just started Ruby and we'll see how it goes.]

* (Of course, the number of discrete  skills required of each librarian goes up as staffing levels go down to the point where a library that only employs one librarian might need that librarian to be skilled at everything. But, that doesn’t affect my larger point.)

** (And, from a pedagogical standpoint, it could be that teaching a programming language is the best way to teach the principles of coding. But, that’s a pedagogical tactic, not a tacit admission of strong essentialism. )

*** (Also, just to be clear, HTML is a markup language, not a Turing-complete programming language. So, strictly speaking, WBT’s position on HTML is irrelevant to the issue of coding in libraries. Still, the same “learn it on the fly” approach to programming languages is popular, so for my purposes it’s a distinction without a difference.)


In a recent tweet, Professor David Lankes asked a seemingly easy question:


And he got quite a few responses:


There are quite a few more responses, but you get the drift: librarians don’t have a common definition of information in practice. Which is weird, given the primacy of information in librarianship. But, it’s entirely understandable. ‘Information’ is a tricky word and the responses to Lankes’s tweet further underscore that librarians mean all sorts of mutually exclusive (sometimes even contradictory) things about information. But, I don’t think it has to be that way and I’d like to recommend Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780199551378) as essential reading for librarians interested in the concept of information (for a much abbreviated version, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Semantic Conceptions of Information“).

The semantic conception of information

Luciano Floridi is sort of the architect of the philosophy of information and his Information: A Very Short Introduction is a great starting point for librarians interested in an account of information that coheres with the information types and processes we deal in. This rather slim, pocket-sized book is accessible to information novices, though the implications of Floridi’s semantic approach to information are relevant to library professionals at any level. Building off of an entry in the SEPInformation provides a “map of the main senses in which one may speak of information” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 discusses the nature of our current “information revolution”, defined as a “process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe” sparked by information and communication technologies (p. 12). And though Floridi isn’t naively idealistic like the more popular information technology pundits (e.g., Kurzweil, Shirky, Vinge, etc.), the chapter is still a bit of a diversion from the meat of the book: mapping the meaning of information. Chapter 2 is where you’ll find the conceptual heart of the text, and though it addresses several core concepts in information theory, I’ll just cut to the chase: here’s the general definition of information (GDI), presented on page 21:

σ is an instance of information, understood as semantic content, if and only if:

(GDI.1) σ consists of n data, for n ≥ 1;
(GDI.2) the data are well-formed;
(GDI.3) the well-formed data are meaningful.

Put another way,

Information is well-formed, meaningful data.

That information is a species of data is generally uncontroversial, though it’s helpful to adopt a coherent definition of data and Floridi provides a diaphoric definition of data: a datum is a difference or lack of conformity within some context (p. 23). You’ll probably note that this is a variation on Mackay’s (1969) “distinction that makes a difference” or Bateson’s (1972) “difference which makes a difference.” Really, though, it’s the ideas of well-formedness and meaningfulness that set GDI apart from the more technical conceptions common in electrical engineering. Floridi explains that to say that data is well-formed is just to say that “the data are rightly put together, according to the rules (syntax) that govern the chosen system, code or language being used” (pp. 20-21). And meaningfulness entails that “the data must comply with the meanings (semantics) of the chosen system, code or language in question” (p. 21), keeping in mind that semantic information is not necessarily linguistic (e.g., images can be meaningful). In fact, Floridi points out that GDI entails that “the actual formatmedium and language in which data, and hence information, are encoded is often irrelevant and disregardable” (p. 25). This result should be of particular interest to librarians, especially given the increasingly complicated and competitive world of information resources in our purview.

The remainder of Chapter 2 analyzes several key concepts and distinctions including analogue and digital data, binary data, and the various types of data and information that fit GDI. The latter discussion should be especially enlightening for librarians. You see, data come in a few varieties: primary data, secondary data, metadata, operational data, and derivative data. Primary data are “the principle data stored in a database” or document (p. 30). Secondary data are “the converse of primary data, constituted by their absence” (p. 30). Metadata are “indications about some other (usually primary) data” (p. 31). Operational data are “data regarding the operations of the whole data system” (p. 31). And derivative data are “data that can be extracted from some other data” through inference, deduction, or similar means (p. 31). It follows that we can describe semantic information in much the same way: primary information, secondary information, and so on. I highly recommend that we librarians pay close attention to these distinctions and, in particular, the distinction between primary data and secondary (and derivative) data can help make sense of the crucial distinction between something being information and something being informative. For example, in a series of blog comments on 3D printing (Hugh Rundle vs. David Lankes), the question was raised as to whether the plastic doodads created on a Makerbot are information and, if so, whether 3D printing is relevant to libraries. It should be clear that the 3D printed objects are not themselves primary information, though they do transmit secondary or derivative information. Whether libraries should be tasked with stewardship of all forms of information, or whether they should limit their domain to, say, primary data and metadata, is an open question and a clear professional dividing line.

“deciphering kryptos” by Luciano Bello on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The rest of the book

Whew! That’s a lot of theory. But the book keeps on trucking. Chapter 3 discusses non-semantic conceptions of information by way of discussing Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (which, by the way, is probably the most important paper in the history of information theory and shame on you if you haven’t read it!). Chapter 4 discusses various constraints and affordances of semantic information. Floridi raises the important question of whether semantic information is necessarily true, discusses degrees of informativeness, Hintikka’s (1973) “scandal of deduction”, and the Bar-Hillel-Carnap Paradox (1953). Whether information is necessarily true is a particularly interesting concern for librarians interested in information literacy, where evaluation plays a prominent role. Likewise, defining semantic information as well-formed, meaningful, and true data can help to make sense of misinformation and disinformation. Chapters 5-7 address physical, biological, and economic information as notable subsets of semantic information. Chapter 8 concludes the text with an overview of the ethics of information and, in a short epilogue, Floridi seems to advocate for treating information ethics as a form of “holistic environmentalism” (p. 119).

Though ostensibly a book about information in general, Information is really an argument for the relevance of the concept of semantic information. Floridi’s overarching division between semantic and non-semantic (i.e., Shannon) information is best laid out by analogy:

[T]he difference between information in Shannon’s sense and semantic information is comparable to the difference between a Newtonian description of the physical laws describing the dynamics of a tennis game and the description of the same game as a Wimbledon final by a commentator.  (p. 48)

Hey Newton, explain THIS!

Picking the “right” information

So, there are a lot of competing definitions of ‘information’ out there. Yet, as Losee (1997) explains, “most definitions of information refer only to the subset of information as studied in that particular discipline” (p. 254). So, what a librarian means by information and what an electrical engineer means by information are usually very different things. And both are quite different from the necessarily imprecise colloquial use of information. But, there’s nothing wrong with polysemy. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with imprecision in ordinary language: we have meaningful conversations about information all of the time and we don’t act like nit-picky trolls or pedantic jerks about it. Pieter Adriaans (2012) offers a helpful analogy:

The situation that seems to emerge [with the concept of information] is not unlike the concept of energy: there are various formal sub-theories about energy (kinetic, potential, electrical, chemical, nuclear) with well-defined transformations between them. Apart from that, the term ‘energy’ is used loosely in colloquial speech.

Anyway, what we need is a conception of information that addresses the types of information and information processes most relevant to the practice of librarianship. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of “what is librarianship”, so let’s just consider the normal information types to be documents  in the functional sense (à la Paul Otlet or Suzanne Briet)  and normal information processes to involve things like archiving, organizing, accessing, and preserving said documents, keeping in mind that documents are not necessarily physical and not necessarily linguistic. Broadly, a document is “any material basis for extending our knowledge” (Schurmeyer, 1935, quoted in Buckland, 1997). For more on functional documentation, see Michael Buckland’s 1997 “What is a ‘document’?”

Picking the “right” information for library science means picking a conception of information that comports with documents and related processes. This entails that we need a conception that is concerned with meaningfulness and with knowledge (cf. Schurmeyer). Non-semantic approaches like Shannon’s are useful for engineers and computer scientists, but they are inapplicable for library science insofar as they are concerned with signal transfer and computability, rather than meaningfulness. Basically, if things like documents, learning, knowledge, or meaningfulness are relevant to libraries and librarians, we need a conception of information that addresses meaning…and that’s the semantic conception. Thus, as an outline of semantic information, Floridi’s book is an essential reading in the philosophy of LIS and I urge you to pick up a copy. [And just as a reminder, you can read an abbreviated version of Floridi's book in the SEP: Semantic Conceptions of Information]

bu quinn.anya on FlickrCC BY NC-SA

bu quinn.anya on Flickr

Stuff I cited

Adriaans, Pieter. “Information.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012).  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information/

Bar-Hillel, Yehoshua and Rudolf Carnap. “Semantic Information.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4 (1953): 147-157. [Link to JSTOR]

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Buckland, Michael. “What is a ‘Document’?” The Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48 (1997): 804-809. [Link to preprint]

Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hintikka, Jaako. Logic, Language Games and Information. Kantian Themes in the Philosophy of Logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Losee, Robert M. “A Discipline Independent Definition of Information.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (1997): 254-69. [Link to HTML on author's website]

MacKay, Donald M. Information, Mechanism and Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

Shannon, Claude. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-656. [Link to PDF]

by Aimanness photography on Flickr, CC BY

by Aimanness photography on Flickr, CC BY

If candor or sincerity is a universal value, it is evident that the maxim “one must be what one is” does not serve solely as a regulating principle for judgments and concepts by which I express what I am. It posits not merely an ideal of knowing but an idea of being; it proposes for us an absolute equivalence of being with itself as a prototype of being. In this sense it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are. But what are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are, if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are?

-Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.  p. 59

A few weeks ago, I found myself just up the road in Nashville for the ACRL Immersion Intentional Teacher program…sort of a professional retreat for instruction librarians. The program is designed for “the experienced academic librarian who wants to become more self-aware and self-directed as a teacher” and, to that end, we spent four days discussing and reflecting upon ourselves as teachers. Now, I’m not going to describe what we actually did for those four days, but let’s just say that Play-Doh, episodes of Glee, and activities designed by Parker Palmer don’t quite fit my learning style. So, in lieu of a descriptive account, I thought I’d pull together some of the notes I took and attempt to explain what I took away from Immersion.

A big part (maybe the whole point?) of Intentional Teacher involved the idea that, as instruction librarians, we have some sort of inner teacher that is the seat of our integrity and identity. In turn, our effectiveness as teachers is directly tied to the extent to which we allow our inner teachers to flourish. Yet, that inner teacher is often restrained by a combination of fears and unrecognized assumptions about our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. So, we set out to uncover our fears and assumptions through a process of critical reflection and the intended outcome was that we would “deepen our identity and integrity” as teachers.

Yet, all of that critical reflection lead me to a different conclusion: rather than enhancing my effectiveness as a library instructor, the attempt to identify as a teacher is what prevents me from being a better library instructor. Ironically, I can now credit the Immersion Intentional Teacher program with helping me to realize that I am not a teacher in some existential sense of the term. So, what am I? Well, I’m an instruction librarian who teaches some 40 one-shot research methods classes every semester, who organizes workshops, who helps to design award winning activities, who helps design curricula, and who does most of the other things that fall under library instruction. But, I’m not a teacher.

Now, you might think that anyone who gets paid to teach is a teacher, or that anyone who teaches people is a teacher, so I should clarify what I mean by ‘teacher’. In the broad sense, a teacher is someone who teaches something and in this sense…sure, I’m a teacher: I teach students how to improve their research skills. But, this is just the basic agentive sense of ‘teacher’ and it’s philosophically uninteresting to slap an -er on a verb and call it a day. One who does is a doer. One who makes is a maker. One who says is a sayer. One who thinks is a thinker. If being a teacher is just being a person who teaches something, then pretty much everyone is a teacher and there’s nothing particularly distinguishing about it. As the Boy is currently learning: everyone poops…but that doesn’t mean we need to critically reflect on our identity and integrity as poopers (though, to be fair, it will get you a sticker on the Potty Chart).

by koocbor on Flickr, CC BY-SA

by koocbor on Flickr, CC BY-SA

Anyway, when I say I’m not a teacher, I don’t mean it in the broad, boring, agentive sense. And neither does the Intentional Teacher program. Intentional Teacher was after a deeper, existential sense of ‘teacher’, that is, the sense in which one self-identifies as a teacher. It’s about becoming the “librarian as teacher” or even some quasi-Heideggerian “Being-as-teacher.” It’s this type of teacher that I’m not. My sense of self is in no way tied to being a teacher. In fact, the more I try to “be” a teacher in some deep, existential sense, the further removed I become from the thing that brings students into my classroom in the first place: they come because I’m a librarian.

Part way through the Immersion program, I remembered a great piece that Char Booth wrote for In the Library with the Lead Pipe in which she argued that librarians are persistently beset with similar questions of identity. That is, we have a nasty habit of trying to define our roles by appeal to something other than “librarian”; it’s the “librarian as __________” problem. As she explains, “no matter whence the identity question comes, inhabitants of libraryland tend to produce iterations of the same answer: our continued relevance depends on becoming more like something else entirely.” (You know the drill: “librarian as rock star,” “librarian as search engine,” “librarian as facilitator,” or, in my case, “librarian as teacher.”)

To put the obligatory philosophical spin on it, the “librarian as __________” issue is an issue of bad faith. In attempting to mold ourselves into the roles we think we should embody, we are only deceiving ourselves. The “librarian as teacher” is often indistinguishable from Sartre’s famous café waiter: we play the role of ‘teacher’ in the same way the waiter “plays with his condition in order to realize it.” And because social roles are necessarily defined externally, we are necessarily circumscribing our selves. We lose our all-important authenticity when we attempt to define ourselves in terms of social expectations.*

by MyTangerineDreams on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

So, trying to identify as a teacher is bad faith because I’m not a teacher,  I’m a librarian. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to suck at library instruction. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care deeply about student success. I can still be a teacher in the broad, agentive sense and I can be pretty damned good at it. In fact, library instruction is pretty much my favorite part of my job and I am deeply committed to information literacy (though I hate the term).  But, what I don’t need to do is deceive myself into thinking I’m a “librarian as _______.” Channeling Sartre, Booth explains it perfectly:

The more we recommend to each other that we become the someone elses we see fit, the more we risk missing that the deceptively prescriptive identity/utility question is being answered descriptively. Our new reality is like our old reality, only a little more adaptive and a lot more self-reflexive (or vice versa, you tell me). Librarian as ________ analogies are useful in exploring our response to a critically transformative time in the trajectory of our profession, but their function as metaphor should not be overlooked lest we creep too far from our own (rather amazing) archetype.

And that’s what I learned at Immersion Intentional Teacher: that I am not a capital-T “Teacher” in some grand, existential sense. I’m not a “librarian as teacher,” I’m a “librarian as librarian.” I teach, but that’s not what brings students into the library. They come because I’m a librarian;  the instruction part is just value added. (And it sort of makes sense when you look at our library instruction curriculum for the massive First-Year composition program where our most important learning outcome is that students understand how their librarians and their library can help them succeed.) Maybe a better way to describe what goes on in library instruction is in terms of the master/apprentice relationship? I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. Regardless, it’s not what I was expected to take away from Immersion. But I’m all right with that and I think the Immersion experience was a great success in spite of the intended outcomes.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. I could probably sum it all up by writing “read the Char Booth article” and just leave it at that. She explains it a lot better, anyway. So, perhaps I can conclude by posing the question to the six people who might actually read this blog: are you a teacher?

[EDIT: I just realized that I forgot to add a very important part: I'm not saying that library instructors can't identify as teachers. Of course they can. Some of the best library instructors I know are wonderful teachers in the deeper, existential sense. All I'm saying is that identifying as a capital-T "Teacher" isn't necessary for a library instructor. At least, it isn't for me.]


* I’m well aware that “librarian” is also a role we often play-act, so it can be just as much an instance of bad faith to identify as a librarian. My response is two-fold. First, it’s been about six years since I last taught Sartre, so I’m a bit rusty. Second, as Sartre argues, bad faith is constitutive: it leads us to attempt to be what we are not through an act of negation. However, if I do in fact embody the virtues of “librarian” then my bad faith isn’t “bad” faith. It’s when we attempt to fit our virtues into a role that we falter, but that’s a different beast from embodying authentic virtues that merely coincide with a role. Of course, Sartre takes everything a step further and claims that sincerity itself is bad faith. But, I find his argument for for this conclusion unconvincing.


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