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.

By pink hats, red shoes on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Last week I stumbled across an interesting thought-experiment put forth by the Beyond Literacy project. The project, organized by Michael Ridley, former Chief Librarian at Guelph, asks that we posit a “post-literate future…in which literacy (reading and writing; visible language) has been displaced, replaced, or exceeded by a new or evolved capacity, capability or tool.” [link]. Imagine: a world in which reading and writing are no longer dominant or even important means of communicating information. What would such a world look like? Ridley points to neural prosthetics, telepathy, collective consciousness, and other “trans-humanist” possibilities, though he is careful to acknowledge that, from our current, thoroughly literate situation, it’s difficult to make predictions. Hence, the thought-experiment. You should really go and read it, or at least read the first chapter. Then, come back for my initial thoughts on the post-literate condition.

Back already? Dang, that was quick. It’s almost as if you only read part way down the Beyond Literacy introduction before yelling “NO, DAMN IT, NO!” with such force that your browser ran back here to hide. And, you know, if you’re a librarian, having a  knee-jerk reaction is entirely justifiable. I mean, Ridley has got to be trolling us, right? The very first claims he makes are: “reading and writing are doomed” and “literacy as we know it is over.” What the heck!? Well, in his defense, I think that a visceral reaction to a clearly provocative theory is kind of the point. Beyond Literacy is a thought-experiment: it’s meant to test our intuitions and make us think about literacy from a novel, if not original, position. Thought-experiments have enormous pedagogical value and, what’s more, they can be kind of fun, too. After all, asking what the world would be like without literacy isn’t all that different from asking what the world would be like with zombies, and we certainly enjoy doing that. At least, we sometimes do…


However, not all thought-experiments succeed equally. Some thought-experiments stand the test of time: Plato’s cave allegory, Descartes’ method of doubt, Foot’s trolley problem, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” Other thought-experiments, not so much. Though I appreciate the sincerity that Ridley brings to Beyond Literacy, I think the entire project fails on account of its argumentative structure, its methodological foundations, an extremely limited interpretation of ‘literacy’, and a general inconsistency in both terminology and presentation. I’m going to address the concerns, but first I should probably attempt to reconstruct his argument(s) as charitably as possible, so that we’re all on the same page.

The Argument: Literacy is doomed

Except, I can’t. Ridley doesn’t provide an overarching argument for post-literacy. Instead, in nine “chapters” we get a series of reflections on literacy that read more like a commonplace book than an extended argument about reading and writing. In particular, Ridley appeals to the technological determinism of the Toronto School of communication theory (Marshall McLuhan and Eric Havelock) and its descendants (Neil Postman, David Weinberger), proponents of the “literacy thesis” (Walter Ong), assorted futurists (Ray Kurzweil, Max Brockman), and new-age mysticism masquerading as science (Fritjof Capra) among others. In total, Ridley cites about 130 sources in a series of posts totaling fewer than 9,000 words (I counted). The presentation is thus heavily influenced by McLuhan’s mosaic approach: no linear argumentation, no consistent case of evidence, no commitment to coherence. It’s just a whole lot of references to a motley crew of sources and its up to us to figure out what to make of it. For a thought-experiment, the “I’m going to say some random things to get you talking” approach can work rather well, but Ridley’s penchant for absolute statements leads me to believe that there must be some structure or underlying argument. So, here’s a brief overview of what he has to say about post-literacy…

In Chapter 1, Ridley begins by establishing some basic observations about reading and writing: “the alphabet is simply a tool…[h]umans excel in making tools…[so] it only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.”

In Chapter 2, Ridley admits that “reading and writing are good”: reading is a “profound,” “subversive”, and meaningful activity. Yet, the onslaught of digital texts complicates our traditional relationship with reading. So, though reading and writing are good, “they are just not good enough.”

Chapter 3, focuses on reading as an addiction and it’s pretty much a red herring. The only relevant line is the last, wherein Ridley posits that we may be “blind to the possibility of a future beyond literacy, beyond our drug.” Our deep-seated affection for literacy might compromise our ability to envision a world without it.

In Chapter 4, Ridley correctly notes that, rather than being harbingers of the “perceived decline of literacy,” media like the Internet are, in fact, parasitic on literacy: the Internet represents “the triumph of literacy not its demise.” As such, Ridley claims, “a replacement for literacy will require a greater level of capability and capacity than that of these relatively primitive technologies.” This is all well and good, but in the second half of the chapter, Ridley busts out some stunning non sequiturs: Literacy is doomed “because it is very hard to master” (which, I suppose, is why so few of us can read). Writing is ” difficult, imprecise, and highly prone to error and misinterpretation.” Quoting Ong, literacy is “aggressive.” Referencing Shlain, literacy represents “the rise of patriarchy and the decline of feminine values and egalitarianism [sic].” And, quoting Levi-Strauss, “the primary function of writing…is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.” The descent into absurdity is palpable.

He was just pissed that he could never get his monkey to talk.
by sidknee23 on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Chapter 5 begins with some statistics about world literacy rates, moves to some statistics about the explosion in publishing and reading in the United States and then makes the following perplexing observation, presented here in its entirety, without comment:

“If literacy marks the transition from thinking about things to thinking about the representation of things (abstractions, ideas, thought) then post-literacy may be understood not as dealing with abstractions but embodiment. Later we will talk about post-literacy and dance.”

Chapter 6 visits David Weinberger’s “too big to know” argument: the Internet provides access to more information than we could ever process, so cognition is evolving into a networked system of “web-form thought” as opposed to the “long-form thinking” ushered in by the book. (Elsewhere, I’ve already discussed how incoherent this argument is.)

Chapter 7 asks that we “explore languages and societies as they transition from an oral culture to a literate culture” as a means of understanding how our communication media (or, literacy) affect the brain and cognition. Curiously, Ridley cites Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, and Jack Goody as proponents of this approach, despite the fact that they never did any anthropological research to substantiate their claims that literacy conditions cognition. (In contrast, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole (1981) actually did explore the transition from an oral to a literate culture. Her research showed that Havelock, Ong, and Goody were dead wrong.) In any event, the chapter provides a series of observations related to how literacy ostensibly rewires the brain. Post-literacy, it follows, must be geared towards “creating or evolving the post-literate brain.”

Chapter 8 begins with the pronouncement that “[i]f we can agree that post-literacy is a positive development…then we need to consider what would it be like.” In the absence of any arguments to the effect that post-literacy is a positive development, this comes across as yet another non-sequitur. The chapter then describes how “reading and writing will not be easily displaced” despite the (ill-defined) “fatal flaws” of literacy.

Finally, Chapter 9 provides examples of post-literacy: the aforementioned cognitive prosthetics, telepathy, collective consciousness, smart drugs, and all-around trans-humanism, ending with a reference to a supposed “Bill of Rights” for robots in South Korea. Aside from a bunch of excited, though ambiguous, news stories from 2007, I can find no evidence that the government of South Korea ever actually considered such a thing.

So, there you have it. “Beyond Literacy.” Literacy is good, but it isn’t good enough, so we need to start thinking about the next stage in human communication and development. Hence, the thought-experiment. Only, I’m unconvinced that the thought-experiment can even get off the ground until a few serious flaws are addressed. Allow me to explain…

Pictured: why most experiments don’t succeed

Problem #1: Methodological doubts

The first thing to notice is that Beyond Literacy is beholden to a particular academic position known as technological determinism. Popularized by a group of Toronto-based scholars in the middle of the last century, this is essentially the idea that, both historically and factually, technology is the driving force that shapes our psychological and social states, as opposed to the inverse view, that our social conditions shape our technologies. In particular, communications technologies (i.e., media) are held as the dominant forces conditioning human cognition. For example, Havelock (1963) argued that the philosophical, scientific, political, and artistic achievements of Classical-era Greece were directly caused by the invention of the Greek alphabet. Likewise, McLuhan’s (1964) infamous and widely misunderstood “the medium is the message” suggests that the media we use to communicate information are more important, influential, and meaningful than information itself. That is, it doesn’t matter what you read on the Internet at all, the only thing that truly affects you is the Internet itself. To the Toronto School, we can add the assorted futurists and digital utopians that argue for knowledge too big to know, singularities, transhumanism, and related projects.

More narrowly, Ridley focuses on written language as the core technology that shapes our minds in these profound ways. And in this he is echoing the so-called “literacy thesis” popularized by theorists like Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1926), Jack Goody (1963, 1977) and Walter Ong (1982). Briefly, this is the idea that there are distinct, incommensurable modes of thought that distinguish oral cultures from literate cultures. Pre-literate cultures think differently and, according to the aforementioned theorists, they lack things like logic, reason, metaphor, truth, and other cognitive categories that distinguish “literate” culture. It’s clear that accepting post-literacy as presented requires accepting these theses. Ridley’s basic argument is that written language has run its course and human progress requires moving to the next level of communication technology (technological determinism) and that, furthermore, that transition will create new categories of human thought (literacy thesis).

The only problem is that we have no good reason to accept either thesis as true. Technological determinism is a highly reductionist theory and it’s greatest proponents, Havelock and McLuhan, have been criticized heavily for cherry-picking evidence, oversimplifying historical events, and resting their theories on post hoc observations that preclude generalization. I admit that McLuhan made some important insights: technology does affect us in profound ways. But, he also spouted a lot of  impenetrable nonsense that gets passed off as profundity  (a common strategy among pop-academics…see also, Derrida, Žižek, and Butler). Trust me, there are far more lucid theorists exploring the impact of technology on human progress in a far more intellectually robust way. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s masterful The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) is a prime example. Likewise, the literacy thesis advanced by Goody and Ong has been consistently proven wrong. Believe it or not, “primitive” cultures can actually reason pretty well. Shoot, actual anthropological research is turning up evidence of things like innate geometrical reasoning, innate moral reasoning skills, and anthropologists find overwhelmingly more evidence in favor of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar then the Sapir-Whorf thesis.

But, I don’t want to get distracted. The basic idea is that the fundamental methodological assumptions made by the Beyond Literacy thought-experiment are incredibly contentious and do not necessarily represent mainstream academic thought on the history and development of language and literacy. Before the thought-experiment can really proceed, a defense of this methodology is probably in order. (Take it to the comments if you’d like.)

Who needs substance when you’ve got clever typography?
by danielweireesq on Flickr, CC BY-NC

Problem #2: That’s not literacy

For the sake of argument, let’s grant Ridley the literacy thesis and continue. A second problem arises when we stop to reflect on what, exactly, Ridley means by literacy. For example, he discusses reading in terms of “stories and ideas” [Chapter 2] and of literacy as “a tool for reflection and concentration” [Chapter 5]. Reading is described as “profound,’ “mysterious,” and “subversive.” Throughout “Beyond Literacy”, he writes exclusively of books and stories, and of deep-thought and wisdom. Honestly, after reading about post-literacy, you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that literacy is defined as “the ability to hold an extended conversation about Proust.”

The problem is that the ability to read and write is not the same thing as the ability to read books. The vast majority of what we read is remarkably mundane. Street signs, checkbooks, tax returns, cereal boxes…heck, if you’re familiar with  “sodium laurel sulfate” (and I know you are) then you have proof that reading is not always so highfalutin as Ridley suggests. I mean, UNESCO doesn’t promote literacy so that the people of Burkina Faso can finally find out what happens to Harry Potter. Literacy is much more basic than that. By implicitly defining literacy as the ability to read literary works, post-literacy is limited strictly to moving beyond literature, and that’s a much weaker position than “reading and writing are doomed.” Put another way, literacy is a foundational skill and book-reading is a specific application of that skill. Mistaking the latter for the former is an egregious oversight.

Problem #3: Language concerns

Let’s assume that we allow the thought-experiment to proceed. It still isn’t clear how post-literacy relates to language itself. In the simplest sense, language is a system for communicating thought or other cognitive states and a writing system is the symbolic representation of that language (through morphemes, phonemes, pictographs, or other means). Is post-literacy suggesting that when we move beyond literacy we will move beyond the need to symbolically represent thought? My guess is that Ridley would say this is exactly the idea: cognition will change in such a way that we will no longer need to represent thought through symbolic language. Okay, but we should think carefully about just how widespread symbolic language really and truly is. For example, the post-literate world will have to find a substitute for programming languages which, in order to be machine-readable, have to be written. You can’t code without writing because the second we start applying logic to manipulate objects (electrons, photons, magnetic particles, etc.), we need a symbolic representation of a language.  It may only be 1s and 0s, or ifs and thens, but it’s a written language all the same.  Of course, there may in fact be a way to transition information processing to something non-linguistic, and I’m not enough of a computer engineer to make that call. But, we also have the problem of semantic information and at a more fundamental level, post-literacy obviates the need for semantic information itself, which I don’t think is an acceptable outcome even for post-literate cheerleaders. What I’m trying to get at is that the post-literate world will necessarily be a post-information world as well, and that’s a hell of a consequence.

Problem #4: What to do with all those books?

What happens if we grant post-literacy everything it seems to entail and we actually enter the post-literate world? Well, if we agree with Ong and McLuhan, and if we can no longer read and write, and if our brains have progressed to some alternate mode of language processing, then it follows that the previous several thousand years of communication through written language will become incomprehensible and inaccessible. Our literature, science, philosophy, and other cultural productions will be to post-literate society what the paintings at Lascaux are to a literate society. And don’t think Ridley can respond with, “we’ll just translate our science and literature out of print and into the new, post-literate mode of communication.” Due to his methodological assumptions, Ridley is committed to the view that the post-literate brain will be completely unable to make sense of anything created by the literate brain (just as Ong argued for the incommensurability of the pre-literate and the literate brain). 

My point is that the post-literacy thought-experiment involves more than simply hypothesizing our ability to communicate in the future, it also requires that we consider what it means to turn away from literally every idea we’ve had for the past 5,000 years. We’re talking everything from philosophy to science to  engineering to religion…I mean, post-literacy is actually sacrilegious in at least two or three of the major world religions. Again, it’s not that these are insurmountable issues. Rather, the thought-experiment simply needs to address them in the first place. It shows a stunning lack of self-awareness to characterize the transition away from literacy as merely “a bit disruptive.”

“Yeah…uh…you’re on your own with this one.”
by umar nasir on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


Problem #5: “Tools? Really?”

Maybe the heart of the problem is a mere category mistake: literacy is not a “tool.” Ridley deems alphabets and reading and writing tools and, I agree, tools get replaced all the time by better tools. But it’s hard to see what literacy has in common with tools. I can see how reading and writing and alphabets may be skills, or abstractions, or quasi-logical systems…but tools? If alphabets and literacy are tools then I suppose numbers and mathematics are tools as well, so let’s get post-numerical while we’re getting post-literate. Or not. Honestly, Ridley is probably right that if literacy is a tool, then we can make a better tool. After all, it’s not like we still use ancient tools like wheels, ramps, and pulleys anymore, right?

The key problem here is one of consistent presentation. At times Ridley treats literacy as a tool and applies the tenets of technological determinism. At other times, he treats literacy as a skill or cognitive process to explain its importance. And throughout the text, he mixes and matches observations on printed books, ebooks, handwriting, orality, storytelling, and other language-related things. Wedging these all under the aegis of “literacy” leads Ridley to equivocation, which seriously undermines the thought-experiment. Hopefully future drafts will pay more attention to consistency.

Beyond “Beyond Literacy”

I could probably poke holes in Beyond Literacy all day, but I think I’ll take a rest. Please don’t think I am entirely dismissive of post-literacy; I’m really curious about the future of language. I’m just hesitant about accepting absolute statements about the future when their only evidence is vague, incoherent, or post hoc. Sure, I suppose that reading books could eventually be supplanted by something else entirely. I also suppose that we may yet find technologies that improve on print or that augment our interactions with theprinted word. But, I’m highly skeptical that we’ll get rid of reading and writing as a major form of communication. After all, despite the theories of McLuhan, Ong, Goody, our print culture hasn’t exactly snuffed out spoken language yet.

So, take a look at the Beyond Literacy thought-experiment and try to avoid knee-jerk reactions. I really do think that there is a great pedagogical value to thinking about post-literacy. And while I may find the thought-experiment itself intellectually sloppy and thoroughly unconvincing, I do think it’s important to think about the effects of technology on literacy. If you’d care to comment, I’m sure the Beyond Literacy group would love to read, hear, or telepathically digest your thoughts.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the University of Illinois as a part of Ethics Awareness Week. My presentation, entitled “It’s Not Just Privacy, Porn, and Pipe-Bombs,” was well-received and I want to thank the organizers for inviting me. The talk was, essentially, an extended look at the themes and issues I raised a few posts back, wherein I argued that librarianship lacks an actionable ethics of service for handling the typical librarian/patron interaction. Our professional codes are better understood as broad values statements and our library school curricula tend to focus on extreme examples (like pipe-bombs) as thought experiments. These are good things, but we also need a decision procedure for resolving the dilemmas that arise when our professional values and our policies come into conflict. Here are the slides, if you’re interested:

And while you can look at the slides and follow the hastily written accompanying notes, perhaps it would be a good idea for me to briefly explain my take on libraries and the ethics of service…

It starts with ethics…

If we’re going to talk about professional ethics, it’s a good idea to figure out just what a “professional” is. That is: why do we need a specifically professional ethics in the first place? Why not just follow general ethical principles? I mean, respect for privacy and equal treatment seem like things that everyone should agree to, right? So, why do librarians need a special code? Understanding the nature of librarianship qua profession is an important step in answering these questions and, after a few weeks of thinking about it, I think I’ve figured out the four properties common to all professionals. But, before I describe them, I need to make a brief foray into ethics proper.

Put simply, ethics is the study of morality, where ‘morality’ refers to the norms, ideals, and virtues that guide our behavior. Morality itself comes in at least two flavors (mmm…flavors). At the broadest level, we have the common morality. These are the norms, ideals, and virtues applicable to ALL moral agents (cultural relativists be damned). The common morality is what applies to everyone everywhere at all times. Don’t lie, cheat, and steal without a damned good reason. Return kindness with kindness. Respect others. Don’t kick babies. You know, that sort of thing.

Except this baby. You can kick this baby.
By Flickr user mrseb, CC BY-ND

Separate from the common morality, we have community-specific moralities. These are the norms, ideals, and virtues that arise within specific communities, and that do not apply to all moral agents, in general. Typically, community-specific moralities arise from religious, cultural, or institutional practices. For example, a particular religion might have a moral prohibition against eating pork. That doesn’t mean that no one on Earth should eat pork, just that members of that community shouldn’t. Other examples include attorney-client privilege, how we treat gender and sex differences, or how we respond to plagiarism…different comunities have different norms. The important thing to remember is that the common morality trumps community morality every time. If your community thinks, for example that kicking babies is awesome, or that we should deny women the same rights as men, then your community has a problem.

What’s more, we’re all members of lots of different communities and we often run into ethical dilemmas when one set of community norms conflicts with those of another community (even one of which we are a member, like if your religious values conflict with your political values, for example).  And that’s not to say that communities of practice are always small subsets of society at large. Communities can be organized around professions, cultures, religions, races, sexual orientations, countries…heck, everyone who ever lived are part of a community. And you and I are both parts of several communities. And some communities have almost identical values, and some communities have slight changes, and some communities are so into baby-kicking that they might only have one member (I’m looking at you, Todd). Long story short, as librarians, we have community-specific values that guide our behavior in addition to the general, common moral principles that guide everyone. So, what’s up with our professional  community?

Four principles (or, what a librarian, a lawyer, and a plumber have in common).

Well, the first thing to understand is that professional roles are socially constructed by a community. Communities have things that have to get taken care of, so they designate certain community members to take care of those things. If building are burning down, a community will designate professional firefighters. If people are getting sick, a community will designate professional doctors. If information needs to be organized and made accessible (among other things), then a community will designate librarians.

Second, professional roles are a function of certain skills or expertise. We don’t make any jackass a doctor, just the ones with medical expertise. We don’t allow anyone to be a librarian, just the ones with the skills and expertise the community needs. (Quick aside: I’m not saying that not everyone can be a librarian, just that you need to learn how before a community should entrust you with the position. Anyone can be a librarian if they want, you’ve just got to gain the expertise though reliable means. Sometimes that’s library school, sometimes it’s experience, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.)

Admittedly, some professional skills are more desirable than others.
by the_exploratorium, CC BY-NC-SA

Third, professionals are entrusted with specific decision-making authority on behalf of the community. If you are a professional, then you are entrusted with the ability to make decisions on behalf of others. Lawyers make legal decisions. Electricians make wiring decision. Librarians make information decisions. And so on. The role of the professional is to use his or her expertise to make decisions on behalf of a community. For librarians that means spending a community’s money (e.g., taxes, tuition, and insurance premiums) or deciding what materials to make available or what educational services to offer. And so on. Professional librarians make decisions on behalf of their schools, hospitals, universities, cities, counties, States, countries…and usually some combination of these.

Fourth, and finally, professionals accept certain practical obligations through their roles. By which I mean professionals might have special legal obligations, specific employee handbooks, or similar practical (i.e., non-moral) obligations that guide their behavior. For librarians, this manifests itself in our special attention to copyright legislation, the PATRIOT act, vendor contracts, and other practical concerns we have to deal with when providing service to our communities.

Professional ethics

Now, because I’ve only had a few weeks to think this through, I’m not absolutely beholden to these four principles of professional identity. Likewise, there may be others I’m forgetting. But, the important thing is that from these four principles of professionalism we can cleanly derive four ethical corollaries.

First, if your role is socially constructed by a community, then you should act on behalf of your community (or communities). Don’t undermine your professional status by making decisions that undermine the trust your community has placed in you. Remember your stakeholders. If your school has entrusted you with an educational mission, then, by golly, be an educator. If your city has entrusted you with a mission of providing equitable access to information, then, by golly, provide that access equitably. But, always remember that you are part of a community. Let’s say that Frat-boy Fred comes to your college reference desk and asks for the answers to his homework. Sure, you aren’t supposed to discriminate on the basis of educational attainment, but your community (i.e., your school) has entrusted you with an educational mission as well as an information-organization (or whatever)  mission. Create the teachable moment, don’t give out homework answers. Of course, if you are a public librarian with a similar but different mission, you may, in fact, be obligated to give Frat-boy Fred the homework answers. It all depends on the role your community has entrusted you with. (And, just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should just do what we are told: the universal, common morality always trumps community-specific morality.)

Second, if your role is a function of your expertise, then you should act within your expertise. Don’t give out legal advice if you aren’t a lawyer. Don’t be a patron’s therapist unless you really are a therapist. Don’t give medical advice unless you are a health professional. I don’t let dentists tell me how to shelve my books, and I sure don’t tell dentists how to fix my teeth. Conversely, as professionals, we shouldn’t deny our expertise to our community. If a patron asks you for help, and you can help, then you should. Don’t deny information because your religion says the information is immoral. Don’t be a jerk because you’re sick of people asking for help with JSTOR. Professionals are obligated to help within the bounds of their expertise. And, importantly, you should adopt professional development as not just a practical, job-advancement value, but as a moral value. A lawyer who doesn’t understand recent legislation is a bad lawyer. A librarian who doesn’t understand contemporary information needs and services is a bad librarian. Your community expects more.

Third, if you are to make decisions on behalf of your community members, then you should respect their autonomy. Remember that, as a librarian, your patrons are coming to you and voluntarily ceding certain decision-making authority. Respect that. The ability to make decisions on behalf of another person is a precious responsibility, not to be taken lightly. Likewise, your patrons haven’t ceded everything: they are still autonomous individuals and it is incumbent upon you, as a professional, to honor and respect the autonomy that has not been ceded. Don’t be a paternalistic jerk. Sure, you might think your patrons are rotting their brains by reading Fifty Shades of Grey, but their freedom to read is theirs, not yours.  You might think that the patron homeschooling her kids with conservative propaganda is doing something wrong but, when she asks for that science book that has Jesus riding a Brachiosaurus on the cover, you need to respect her decision.

by Flickr user mockstar, CC BY-ND

Finally, given that we have profession-specific practical demands, we should understand our practical obligations. We are morally obligated to have at least some understanding of intellectual property and copyright laws, of vendor contracts, of our employee handbooks, and of similar contractual and quasi-contractual obligations. I should probably point out that law and morality are parallel, yet distinct, concepts: we often encounter immoral laws. So, following the law or our library policies is not sufficient for acting in a morally responsible way. However, we should always understand that, in some instances, doing the right thing will create negative practical consequences. Emailing a student an article might get me in trouble for violating policy (“we aren’t a document delivery service!”), but it might also be the right thing to do. An important distinction we need to understand is the distinction between right/wrong and praise/blame. In many cases, we can do the morally wrong thing, yet not be blameworthy. An example might be the librarian who refuses to place an entire book on electronic course reserves due to the likely threat of a lawsuit from the publisher. Making information accessible and supporting the educational mission of the university might be primary moral values, but a librarian may not be blameworthy for setting these values aside in order to avoid severe practical consequences. Or maybe she is blameworthy. The important thing is just to acknowledge the distinction between right/wrong and praise/blame. We need to understand our practical obligations and we need to be willing to accept the practical consequences of our actions. If you’re going to break or bend policy to do the right thing, then you should at least understand the practical consequences and be prepared to defend your decision.

The short version

Our professional codes of ethics are valuable documents. Things like the ALA Code of Ethics, Ranganathan’s Five Laws, the Library Bill of Rights, and similar documents, provide us with our default, baseline moral values as library professionals. They are our starting point and they help describe our functions within our communities. Often, in the pursuit of we morally responsible service to our patrons, our professional codes come into conflict with our other community-specific norms. When this happens, we need some way of weighing and balancing our competing ethical demands. My humble suggestion is that, when our values come into conflict, we balance our obligations by considering four things:

  1. Is my decision consistent with my professional role within the community (or communities)?
  2. Is my decision consistent with my expertise?
  3. Does my decision respect the autonomy of the patron?
  4. Am I willing to accept the practical consequences of my decision?

It also helps to keep in mind that professional ethics is not about creating checklists of what to do in every conceivable situation. Rather, it’s about understanding our ethical environment and balancing competing moral obligations in a responsible and critically reflective way. I’m not going to tell you what to do when a patron comes to you and asks for information on how to build a pipe-bomb. Instead, I’m just going to suggest that you consider the stakeholders in your community, consider the limits of your expertise, consider the patron’s autonomy, and consider the practical consequences of whatever decision you make. That’s it, four simple principles to help balance competing ethical demands. Sure, there’s a lot of explaining I’ve left out; it would probably take a book to cover everything in sufficient detail. But, I haven’t written a book. All I did was talk for 45 minutes to a room filled with awesome librarians. Feel free to ask questions or tell me what an idiot I am in the comments, I’m always glad to hear it!

Photo by loneblackrider on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my last post, I posed an ethical scenario involving whether or not to waive library late fees. Sixteen people voted and here’s the breakdown:

Case 1, The Harry Potter fan: The vote was 10 to 6 in favor of letting the casual reader check out the last book in the Harry Potter series.

Case 2, The G.E.D. student: The vote was 13 to 3 in favor of letting an unemployed woman check out a G.E.D. study guide despite her library fines.

Case 3, The stranger: The vote was 11 to 4 in favor of letting a complete stranger check out a G.E.D. study guide, despite library fines.

Most of the comments in favor of waiving library fines argued that library fines are a disincentive to use the library, rather than their intended function as a disincentive to keep books beyond their due dates. Most of the arguments against waiving the fines pointed to the importance of personal responsibility on the parts of our patrons. In both cases, the fundamental issue seems to be the fairness, though interpreted quite differently. Those who wanted to waive fines tended to argue that fine policies in and of themselves are unfair to patrons. Those who did not want to waive the fines tended to argue that consistent application of library policy is necessary to make the policy fair. Finally, several comments pointed out that an ILS typically allows staff to override holds on accounts, so there may be other options.

I’m not surprised that most people would let the woman in Case 2 check out the GED study guide; I know I would. It seems to be a straightforward test of our commitment to improving  our community. However, I am rather surprised at the vote for Case 1. Waive or override fines because someone really wants to read a Harry Potter book? Really? Perhaps I didn’t make the scenario realistic enough. For those who would waive the fine for the Harry Potter fan, what would you do in the following case:

Case 4, Pumpkin Spice Latte: A woman comes to the circulation desk to check out Fifty Shades of Grey only to find that she must pay a $10 fine. She admits that she has the cash but she really wanted to buy a pumpkin spice latte after leaving the library. Would you override the hold on her account or waive the fine?

I’m not going to answer this one, because I’d like another shot at starting a new discussion. In the interests of getting a more even split, I’m going to propose another library dilemma, one that happens every Fall semester at our reference desk. Let me know what you think in the comments. (No Google Form this time; it didn’t work the way I had hoped.)

Photo by selva on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


A library service scenario: The music assignment

You work at the reference desk in an academic library. Every semester, Professor Jones assigns a devilishly tricky “library treasure hunt” to his music history students. The assignment consists of 50 music trivia questions and no guidance as to where to find the answers. Here’s an easy one: how many times did Kirsten Flagstad sing the role of Brünnhilde in the 1939-1940 season at the Metropolitan Opera? (Yes, that’s a real question on a real assignment.) After several semesters of the same assignment, the reference desk has put together a document with the answers to all 50 questions. How would you handle the following situations…

Case 1: The last-minute student

The day before the assignment is due, a frazzled student comes to the reference desk and asks for the answers to half of the trivia questions. Do you give her the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?

Case 2: The very last minute student

Ten minutes before the assignment is due, a frazzled student comes to the reference desk and asks for the answers to all of the trivia questions. Do you give him the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?

Case 3: The music history professor

Professor Smith is considering assigning a similar project for his music history students. He has an answer form with half of the answers filled in and he knows that he could probably find all of the answers on his own if he spent a few hours, but he asks you for half of the answers so he can save some time. Do you give him the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?


What, exactly, are the ethical dilemmas here? Do all three patrons have the same information need? Does the amount of work each patron has already put in matter? Do the research abilities of the patrons matter? Would your answer change if you worked in a public library? Can you create another case that leads to additional ethical dilemmas? Feel free to comment below!



Photo by Stefan Baudy on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

You know my last blog post? The one about library ethics and service? Would you believe that it got me invited to speak at UIUC next week? Yeah, me neither, but I’m going anyway.

One thing I find especially interesting about this invitation is that, to date, I haven’t written very much about library ethics. This, despite the fact that I used to teach professional ethics, I took every ethics seminar available in grad school, and I even wrote my Master’s thesis in meta-ethics. What the heck! Why haven’t I blogged about library ethics?

Here’s the plan: rather than write long essays about ethical theories or issues, I’m going to start posting short ethical and practical dilemmas for you to discuss. No pipe-bombs and porn here; I intend to keep it to realistic problems that the average librarian might reasonably be expected to encounter. My intent is not to lecture about how we should or should not make ethical decisions, rather, I just want to discuss our moral intuitions as librarians and professionals. In technical terms, this is an exercise in descriptive rather than prescriptive ethics. If I can get a discussion going, I’ll post a follow-up next week as well as a new dilemma.

In what follows, I’m going to provide an actual library service scenario. This actually happened (more or less). First, I’ll provide some background information, though it’s up to you to determine what is relevant. After providing the scenario, I’ll give three variations. Add to the story if you’d like, change the scenario how you please, or make any adjustments that you feel are necessary; the scenario is a discussion prompt, not a story problem. Using either the comments or the embedded form  let me know what you would do in each case and whether there are any ethical or practical issues that are worth considering.

Photo by yuan2003 on Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

A library service scenario: The library fines

Just before close on a Friday afternoon at your small, neighborhood branch of a large urban public library, a woman comes to the circulation desk to return six items that are each five days late. At $0.50 per day for each late item, her fine is $15. Combined with the $15 worth of fines already on her account, she is now on the hook for $30. Library software (the ILS) allows library staff to waive fines, but it will not allow patron check-outs if total fines exceed $20 due to library policy.  Given that library privileges are suspended once fines top $20, this woman will be unable to check out new items until she pays at least $10. The current head of the circulation department takes library policy very seriously, but she has already gone home for the day.

These are the material facts. How would you react given the following variations:

Case 1: Harry Potter The woman is a longtime library patron and you know that she has recently fallen in love with the Harry Potter series. The six late items are the first six books in the series. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She really wants to finish the series over the weekend, she doesn’t have $10, there’s no time to get to an ATM before close, and just wants to check out the seventh and final Harry Potter book.

Case 2: The G.E.D. The woman is a longtime library patron and you know that she is currently unemployed due to downsizing at a local manufacturing plant. The items she turned in late are mostly study guides and other test preparation materials for the G.E.D., which she intends to take the following week. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She has $10 in her purse, but she had hoped to use it to buy fuel for her car so she can get to the G.E.D. testing facility. The book she would like to check out is the final G.E.D. study guide she needs to finish her test preparation.

Case 3: The stranger You do not recognize this patron, this is only her third visit to the library in as many years and therefore you know nothing about her. She explains that she has fallen on some hard luck and she is currently unemployed due to downsizing at a local manufacturing plant. The items she turned in late are mostly study guides and other test preparation materials for the G.E.D., which she intends to take the following week. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She has $10 in her purse, but she had hoped to use it to buy fuel for her car so she can get to the G.E.D. testing facility. The book she would like to check out is the final G.E.D. study guide she needs to finish her test preparation.

Using either the blog comments or the anonymous Google Form, feel free to discuss each case in the scenario. I’m really curious to see what you think and I hope I can get at least a small discussion going about ethical and practical dilemmas in librarianship.

By SomeDriftwood on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0


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