Yesterday a significant chunk of the librarian Twitterverse Twittersphere Twhatever-it’s-called lost its collective cardigans over a critique of the newly implemented ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences. Will Manley, author of the critique in question, argues that the code of conduct is a substantially flawed document and, in support of that conclusion, he raises four concerns: (1) that the group statuses singled out for protection from harassment are undefined and vague, (2) that the policy will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, (3) that much of the code’s language is ambiguous, and (4) that the code does not provide due process for alleged violators. To be honest, I find nothing particularly shocking or offensive about Manley’s criticisms. I also don’t happen to think they are convincing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Where the real drama unfolds is in the comments to Will’s post, which quickly descended into a mess of identity politics, tone-deafness, ad hominem arguments, and general foolishness.

You can read Manley’s post and subsequent comments in their entirety by clicking the word trainwreck.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point analysis of Manley’s concerns: Matthew Ciszek already has a good refutation of Manley’s critique, as does Nina de Jesus. Instead, I want to look more broadly at the issue of anti-harassment policies. Believe it or not, but there are substantive reasons not to reject anti-harassment policies. There are also substantive reasons to endorse said policies. Let’s look at each in turn. (And I apologize in advance for the very rough treatment of each position; I don’t want to take too long a lunch break #newyearsevelibrarian)


The libertarian* argument

Those who reject anti-harassment policies typically make the argument that (1) most harassment is already covered by existing policy and (2) anti-harassment policies stifle otherwise protected speech (or, intellectual freedom). Manley invokes this argument (poorly I might add). On the first part, Eugene Volokh explains that most harassment occurs “one-to-one”, that is, when a speaker is saying things to one listener that the listener clearly doesn’t want to hear. This type of harassment is clearly restrictable on the grounds that restricting it does not infringe upon the speaker’s ability to spread a message or make a public expression of a belief. One-to-one harassment annoys and offends (rather than persuades or convinces) and can therefore be dealt with without violating freedom of speech. Likewise, unwanted physical contact is not speech and, therefore, not at an intellectual freedom issue. If anything, that’s sexual battery, which is wrong in its own rights. However, the free speech libertarian argues that public speech not aimed at an individual is protected no matter how offensive. The libertarian will advocate for the “marketplace of ideas” where there should be no restrictions on the content of public speech. For example, a speaker at ALA Midwinter may want to present arguments against book-challenges raised by fundamentalist Christians. No matter how offended fundamentalist Christians in the audience feel about the presentation (and the ALA code mentions religion), the free speech libertarian would argue that the presentation must be allowed on the “marketplace of ideas” doctrine. Likewise, if speakers wanted to criticize affirmative action, advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment, discuss millennials unfavorably, or otherwise express a contested view, anti-harassment policies could have a chilling effect. Restricting public speech on the basis of its content, no matter how offensive, is antithetical to democratic values, so the argument goes. Think of it this way: while an anti-harassment policy may allow a lesbian or gay audience member some redress against a speaker who argues that homosexuality is immoral, it would also allow a fundamentalist Christian redress against a lesbian or gay speaker who argues that traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality are immoral. The best response is to avoid content-based restrictions all together and allow the truth to emerge on its own. Again, so the argument goes.

Whatever you think of the free-speech libertarian position, you should at least know that it is the dominant view in the United States. You know the whole “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” doctrine? That’s what I’m talking about. This is why the ACLU (in?)famously defended the right of Nazis to assemble in Skokie and the right of Fred Phelps to spout hate. This is why the Supreme Court ruled that both burning a flag as well as burning a cross are protected speech (though illegal on other grounds). The list goes on and the point is clear: offensiveness and emotional outrage do not trump freedom of expression. Like it or not, that’s the status quo. (If you’re interested, Anthony Lewis wrote a history of the libertarian view in his recent book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.)

dignityaintcheapThe dignity argument

So, what’s the alternative? What arguments can be raised in defense of an anti-harassment policy? I think a good counter to the libertarian position is the dignity argument raised by Jeremy Waldron in his monograph The Harm in Hate Speech (though, each chapter was previously published elsewhere and easily Googled). Though Waldron argues in favor of hate-speech legislation rather than anti-harassment policies, the issues are similar enough that Waldron’s arguments apply in both cases. Adapting Waldron, we can make the following argument:First, anti-harassment policies are not directed at thought, they are directed at harm. Specifically, these policies address the harm that harassment causes to the dignity of targeted persons or groups–where a person’s dignity is “a matter of status–one’s status as a member of society in good standing–and it generates demands for recognition and for treatment that accords with that status” (Waldron, p. 60). In the context of the ALA, a librarian’s dignity (or, arguably, any conference attendee) is the assurance of equal standing within the library community. Harassment and intimidation are, by their very nature, demeaning of the dignity of the person or group being targeted, thus depriving them of the “assurance . . . that they can count on being treated justly” (Ibid., p. 85). Note that this has nothing to do with a person’s being offended or made uncomfortable. Offense is subjective; dignity is objective. A frank discussion of sexuality or race might be incredibly uncomfortable for some listeners, but it only becomes harassment if the discussion is calculated to undermine dignity or demean those listeners.

Second, though isolated instances of one-to-one harassment should be able to be handled by existing policy (a concession to the libertarians), many isolated instances of harassment have the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere in which the dignity (i.e., the equal standing) of an entire group is undermined. When left unchecked, harassment can harm this “dignitary order” of the community (ibid., p. 92). Whereas we want conferences to be inclusive of many viewpoints (a concession to the marketplace of ideas doctrine), harassment compounds as an environmental toxin that undermines group dignity and, hence, undermines inclusiveness. A fair marketplace requires that all agents involved are assured equal standing but, to take just one example, harassment on the grounds of sexual identity serves to undermine that assurance among the LGBT community, thus removing them from the marketplace. This winds up not just harming the LGBT community but also harming the entire community who would otherwise benefit from the additional perspectives. Put another way, if we really want a marketplace of ideas, we have to assure all community members that their ideas will be heard.

Third, although regulating to prevent this dignitary harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the adoption of anti-harassment policies. Yes, we want a marketplace of ideas but, just as there are regulations over economic markets, there ought to be regulations curtailing abuse of the intellectual market. Think of the ALA Code of Conference Conduct as a sort of intellectual Glass-Steagall Act maybe. Given that the most frequent types of harassment are based on “race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status” it only makes sense to expressly prohibit those types of harassment in order to improve the intellectual market (there’s a long conversation we could have here about identifying “vulnerable groups” but we can save that for later). I don’t really know if this is even making sense, but in a nutshell, we need the ALA Code of Conference Conduct because it is our best way of assuring librarians of all backgrounds that the library community respects their basic dignity. And we need to provide this assurance because without dignitary order we lose out on the public good of inclusiveness. This isn’t about restricting intellectual freedom, it’s about restricting all and only those actions and words that undermine dignity. So Manley’s fear that Richard Pryor wouldn’t be allowed at an ALA conference is completely unfounded: Pryor may have been offensive, but he didn’t undermine people’s dignity.  Anyway, that’s the quick version of the dignity argument.


I’m just putting these theories out there for people to think about. While I do tend to lean towards the dignity argument, I do have some purely philosophical concerns about it. Likewise, while I’m not convinced of the libertarian argument, I’m not going to think poorly of those who invoke it. Whatever the case, I’m glad that the ALA has a Code of Conference Conduct and I hope that the discussions at Midwinter (in particular Andromeda’s panel on gender issues, which will probably touch on the code of conduct) are more thoughtful than what happened yesterday.


* that’s ‘libertarian’ in the philosophical sense, not the “your crazy 9/11 truther uncle who reads Ayn Rand” sense


Hey gang. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while; I’ll tell you, it’s been a heck of a busy semester. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of ending the year with my last post all the way back in September. So, let’s end the year with everyone’s favorite kind of post: cis-hetero white guy writes some stuff about feminism. There’s no way this can go bad, right?

I’ve been paying close attention to a lot of discussions that have popped-up on the tubes over the past several months, and one that I’ve found particularly interesting involves the intersection of three ideas: librarianship, objectivity, and feminism. Way back in August, Chris Bourg wrote about a queer/feminist agenda in librarianship and then argued that all librarians have implicit agendas. A week later, Barbara Fister wrote about the librarian’s agenda to promote “certain ways of seeking and using evidence.” In October Annie Pho tipped me off to a great little book on feminist theory in library instruction. In November, Andromeda Yelton wrote an excellent piece on the phenomenology of gender, to which Chris Bourg responded with some reservations. Throughout all of this, everyone’s favorite ornery ornis meditated on gender and silencing. And then, on the closely related issue of gender and technology, there were hundreds of tweets and several posts, such as those by Lisa Rabey, Nicholas Schiller, Kate Kosturski, and others. For the best summary of what’s been going on, I recommend checking out the libtechgender project–it’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I know I’m leaving out lots of other stuff, but you get the idea: librarians are concerned about gender and sexuality. And that includes me.

This is the part where I explain that, yes, I do identify as a feminist. Yes, straight white guys are playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. And non-straight and/or non-white and/or non-guys are systematically mistreated/disrespected/ignored/silenced/etc.. No way am I going to dispute that. In fact, I take the systematic discrimination to be so blatantly obvious that there’s no need to argue that it exists: society is set up in such a way as to favor straight white guys to the detriment of everyone else. Question: does that include libraries? Do libraries favor straight white guys? Does librarianship? Does library science? Well, there is that thing about male library directors being disproportionately overrepresented. And LC subject headings can be pretty sexist at times. And for a profession overwhelmingly female, there sure are an awful lot of dudes giving keynotes. And don’t even get me started on the rampant, abject sexism facing tech-leaning library ladies. It’s depressing, to say the least.


Now, an interesting question is whether the sexism facing librarians is (1) a product of more general, societal issues related to sex and gender, or (2) inherent in librarianship itself. Or, more likely, a little of both. So, are male library directors better paid because of pay disparity in employment in general, or because something about librarianship itself creates pay disparity. Is librarianship fundamentally sexist, or does it merely inherit the more general social trends towards discrimination? Likewise, are sexist subject headings (or under-representation of women’s studies concepts) a signal of bias seeping into cataloging from the broader culture, or are the very concepts of cataloging and classification necessarily sexist? Here’s a brain teaser: are women programmers and coders at a disadvantage because of tech culture, or because programming languages are themselves gendered? I could keep raising these sorts of questions, but I think these are sufficient to illustrate a bit of an important divide. When we advocate for a feminist agenda in libraries, we need to be clear as to which feminist agenda we’re rooting for.

First, let’s establish a working definition of feminism: feminism “refers to any theory which sees the relationship between the sexes as one of inequality, subordination, or oppression, and which aims to identify and remedy the sources of that oppression” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition). Of course, “inequality,” “subordination,” and “oppression” have contested meanings. Likewise, the sources of oppression and acceptable remedies are polarizing issues. If you’re going to advocate for feminism in libraries, you’d best figure out what these terms and concepts mean. Of course, there are hundreds (thousands?) of variations on feminist theory, and I have no desire to cover every one (because I can’t). But, there is a natural dividing line between the predominant theories. On one side we have the critical feminists; on the other the analytic feminists. Each side has lots of variations and it may be best to think in terms of a spectrum of feminist theories. I’ll just discuss the poles.

Critical feminists (CFs) trace their lineage to four important 20th Century ideas: psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, phenomenology, and pluralism (alliteration win!). From psychoanalysis, CFs adopt the position that our attitudes towards the world are necessarily shaped by unconscious motivations that are immune to rational reflection. From post-structuralism, CFs adopt the position that all thought and belief is constructed within a language, all languages are shaped by cultural and historical processes, and that, hence, you cannot understand any phenomenon independent of contingent human interests. The idea is that our basic epistemological categories (truth, reason, objectivity, knowledge, etc.) and moral categories (justice, equality, fairness, etc.) can only be understood in context and there are no transcendent, universal concepts or values. From phenomenology, CFs adopt the position that we cannot understand the world independently of the subjective, lived experience. From pluralism, CFs adopt the position that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world. Put it all together, and you get something like this:

  1. Concepts considered fundamental in Western conceptions of philosophy, morality, and politics–like truth, science, objectivity, justice, etc.–were primarily developed by wealthy white guys in the context of a patriarchal society (think of the Enlightenment).
  2. Because of their provenance, these Western “values” only reflect the thinking of the dominant male culture and do not address women’s (or others’) perspectives.
  3. So, things we are told are universal (like truth or justice) are really filled with hidden biases, they aren’t universal, they don’t capture subjective experiences, and they only represent one of many ways of knowing the world.

To name two examples, the post-Enlightenment beliefs that science is the best means of accessing the truth and that democratic systems are the most just, are not reflective of the perspectives of the marginalized and oppressed social groups that played no role in the creation of science and democracy. The task then for the critical feminist is to (1) lay bare the inherent bias and subjectivity in our most basic beliefs about the world and (2) remove those universal claims from their place of privilege by cultivating equal respect for alternative, non-(white/masculine/wealthy/etc.) ways of knowing. Western society was born in patriarchy and dominates the world through its insistence that Western values are superior. But, since “Western” is just a code for “wealthy white men,” we need to reject Western, post-Enlightenment hegemony and look at the world as it actually is: a multifaceted place of innumerable conceptions of reality, with none deserving any place of privilege or dominance. I’ll grant that this only scratches the surface of critical feminist theory. Poke around the critical feminist theory literature and you’ll quickly bump into Marxism, postmodernism, social constructionism, post-colonialism, literary theory, deconstructionism and a wide range of influential theorists including Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and more. But, alas, this is a blog and not an encyclopedia. If you want to read more, Josephine Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions is probably the best general overview. You need this book. You might also want to get your hands on the Continental Feminism Reader. If you just want something online, try Jennifer Hansen’s SEP entry on ‘Continental Feminism‘. (And to the six people who will read this, please share books in the comments if you’d like.)


Okay, so, that’s a very rough sketch of critical feminism and it tends to dominate a lot of contemporary feminist discourse. Yes, different theorists may reject one or two of the four P’s, or disagree about interpretations, but it’s close enough. In contrast, analytic feminism (AF) rejects all of the P’s, more or less. On most interpretations of AF, we can explore unconscious biases rationally, we can assert universal or transcendent truths, we can come to at least a partial understanding of the world outside of subjective experience, and there are some ways of knowing that are superior to others. While the critical feminist argues that things like objectivity are inherently subjective and biased towards patriarchal interests, the analytic feminist would say that objectivity really is possible and, indeed, vital. Importantly, the analytic feminist respects subjective experience, social context, implicit biases and all the things the critical feminist wants to highlight. The distinction is over what we do with objectivity, science, and similar claims to universal, transcendent truths. I think the idea is that systematic oppression of women is not evidence that our values are wrong, but evidence that we haven’t lived up to our values. Generally, AF is cool with science, truth, justice, equality, universal values, and so on, but social and cultural biases have prevented society from living up to those ideals. For the analytic feminist, the goal of feminism is to identify the biases and cultural conditions that have shaped how we use science, what we accept as true, how we set up democracy, and so on. Key analytic feminists include Martha Nussbaum, Ann Cudd, Elizabeth Anderson, Sandra Harding, Susan Haack, and others. The journal Hypatia  is a good source for analytic feminist scholarship. Personally, Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice  is the analytic text that probably most influenced my thinking on feminism. I’ll also confess that my thesis adviser was the thoroughly analytic “Gay Moralist,” John Corvino. Seriously, go watch his videos.

Here’s a good example of the difference: an analytic feminist might say that women are underrepresented in science because society has unfairly discouraged women from pursuing scientific studies (the whole “girls can’t do math” thing or the “men are rational, women are irrational” stereotype…that kind of stuff). The solution is to get society to realize that girls can do math, women are just as rational as men, and good science has nothing to do with what’s between your legs. In contrast, the critical feminist might say that women are underrepresented because scientific inquiry is itself inherently sexist. For example, (in?)famously, Luce Irigaray argued that E = mc^2 is “a sexed equation” which “privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, and which therefore belongs to a “masculine physics” [quoted everywhere]. Irigaray thought that fluid mechanics is systematically ignored in physics because masculinist physics has difficulty coping with fluidity, which is a feminine attribute. You can probably see where this is going.

To the critical feminist, the analytic feminist is committed to perpetuating patriarchal notions of objectivity, truth, and justice. What’s more, in favoring traditionally masculine ideals like science and logical reasoning, analytic feminists are tacitly dismissing more feminine ways of knowing like listening, intuition, subjectivity, and emotion (I’ll assume you’re familiar with Women’s Ways of Knowing. It was required reading in my library science program, and this idea is right at the beginning, pp. 5-7). To the analytic feminist, the critical feminist is a relativist who pushes stereotypes of feminine thinking (intuition, empathy, emotion, nurturing, etc.) and who won’t acknowledge any facts that don’t fit a certain political agenda. Analytic feminists point to the successes of science for all humans and the slow but certain improvement in women’s lives compared to previous generations as evidence that it’s the will to live by our ideals that is the problem, not the ideals themselves. Sure, the analytic feminist will say, men have frequently attempted to use science and objectivity to back-up their sexism, racism, classism, etc. But, that’s because those men were assholes, not because science is sexist. To which the critical feminist will respond with something about how the very categories by which we judge “improvement” in women’s lives or “success” in science are affected by biases. “You’re a relativist! You’re supporting the patriarchy!” And around and around it goes.


Now, if you’re a librarian, this all may seem like academic quibbling. And a lot of it is. But, whether you align with more critical or more analytic feminists will affect how you approach issues of diversity, harassment, equality, etc.. While both analytic and critical feminists agree in the pursuit of social justice, diversity, empowering women, and eliminating biases from, they might take different routes to achieve those ends.
For example…

Information Literacy

  • CF rejects ACRL standards and things like the Project SAILS standardized test because they reinforce patriarchal power (Accardi, pp. 76-77) and fail to “provide space for student voice or experiential knowledge” (Ibid., p. 84). Information literacy is better measured through qualitative methods like reflective journals and interviews. In contrast, AF can accept ACRL standards and quantitative assessment tools, though it would seek to eliminate bias from said tools. Both men and women can be information literate in the same way, we just need to remove the obstacles to women’s achievement.

Collection Development

  • A CF might seek to establish a stand-alone women’s studies collection in a library, based on the premises that current classification standards are biased and that a separate collection would unite women scholars on campus. An AF might reject a stand-alone women’s studies collection and favor strengthening existing disciplinary collections through the addition of material about women, sexism, class, etc. (This was a real debate. See Lee, 2003. A great case study, though I don’t like her sweeping use of the term “non-feminist.” “Different-feminist” might be better.)


  • Males and females are frequently ascribed different management traits: analytical vs. intuitive, assertive vs. democratic, goal-oriented vs. people-oriented, tough vs. understanding, and so on. Should we encourage the same traits in both men and women (whatever those traits may be)? Or do men and women necessarily manage differently? Do these traits have any connection to the overrepresentation of male library directors? See Voelck, 2003 for more on this.

I could go on with examples, but this is already a pretty long post.

Basically, what we have, is a methodological distinction between two somewhat over-lapping takes on feminism, and the distinction can be distinguished in how you answer a simple question:

Are women oppressed because our societal ideals of justice and knowledge are flawed, or because as a society we aren’t living up to those ideals?

Maybe you favor the former. Maybe the latter. Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. But, the important thing to understand is that “feminism” is not a monolithic theory. Where feminists agree is that women are treated differently than men in society and that treatment is overwhelmingly oppressive and unjust. But, not all feminists are concerned with the same issues. Not all feminists are postmodernists. Not all feminists have the same attitudes towards justice, equality, and so on. Seriously, go read Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum back-to-back. Better yet, read Nussbaum’s brutal takedown of Butler and ask how feminism can admit of such divergent methods. Importantly, we should all realize that not every criticism of a feminist project is anti-feminist silencing. Sometimes feminists disagree. Going back to the discussion of feminist agendas in librarianship, we can ask whether our agenda should “debunk the myth of scientific objectivity and value-neutrality” (Bourg), or whether our agenda should adopt the implicitly scientific stance of helping patrons “form opinions based on the [objective] evidence” (Fister). So long as we can all agree that the current state of the world is less than ideal for women and that something needs to be changed, I think that’s a good start.


One last thing, you may have noticed in this post a conspicuous absence of class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, and other topics commonly discussed by feminists. There are two reasons. First, 2500 words is long enough. Second, the same distinction between more critical and more analytic approaches applies. Also, I just want to reiterate that there is a ton of stuff left unsaid. I’d be happy to delve into more technical points in the comments.


by ktylerconk on Flickr, CC BY

One of my favorite things about the old beaux-arts Carnegie libraries is that they usually feature inspirational quotations inscribed deep into their marble friezes, architraves, and whatnot. For example, you may recognize the line in the image above from the New York Public Library. “But above all things Truth beareth away the victory.” Sounds pretty awesome, right? It’s almost as if the library is gently reminding visitors that it’s in the truth-business and since truth is the most powerful thing in the world, if you just stop in and look around, you’re bound to come out a winner! Actually, that’s exactly what it means; the line comes from the King James version of 1 Esdras and the dude who said it ended up winning a speech-writing contest hosted by King Darius I.* (For any millennials reading this, Darius was the dad of the evil king in 300.)

Anyway, inspirational quotations are sort of a mainstay in libraries and, to that end, the new library here at UTC will feature around 100 quotes in and around the building. To facilitate the short turn-around given by the architect, we recently asked the campus community to submit quotations related to libraries, learning, education, and the like. Of course, the last thing we want is to chisel something into granite only to have a student or professor loudly declaim against a misquotation. So, we’ve been attempting to verify as many quotes as possible and, to date, we’ve fact-checked 298 quotations, proverbs, aphorisms, and sayings. In the process, I’ve had time to think about how something as simple as a quotation can act as a barometer of how we understand truth and knowledge in libraries. Allow me to explain…

First, here’s a quote we received that has been attributed to Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

You know, that would look pretty cool in one of the group study rooms. Poking around Google, you’ll see the quote repeated in most of the popular quotation websites. It’s included in dozens of books of quotations. It’s listed at wikiquote.org as appearing in the 1984 book Curing Nuclear Madness, edited by Frank Sommers and Tana Dineen (Toronto: Meuthen, p. 158). The American Library Association includes it at libraryquotes.org. It even sounds like the kind of thing Margaret Mead would say. And, to top it off, it’s quoted on literally every page at the official Institute for Intercultural Studies website. You know, the institute that Margaret danged Mead founded. Obviously, I marked it as verified and I approved it for use in the new building.

Except, I didn’t. Even with multiple sources–some highly reputable like the ALA and the IIS–I marked the Mead quote as unverified and unfit for use in the new library. Popular quotation websites are, as most librarians know, filled to the brim with misquotations. The book mentioned on WikiQuote is an incredibly obscure book of New Age social psychology written by a sex therapist. The ALA list of library quotes lists “The newsletter of the Friends of the Largo Public Library, FL” as the “primary” source.** Even the IIS admits (on the FAQ page) that “we have been unable to locate when and where it was first cited.” The one thing missing is a primary source. Without a book, article, interview, or other work by or featuring Margaret Mead, I’m not going to call the quote verified and it won’t go in the library.

Am I being stubborn? I suppose some librarians may think I am. And here we can point to a rather mundane example of how our philosophical theories and attitudes inform professional practice. In contrast to the common argument that librarians need more discussion of practice and less theory, I want to show how deep philosophical convictions play a real role in professional practice. Let’s look at three common librarian attitudes towards truth: constructionism, pragmatism, and realism.

First, if you consider the massive amounts of agreement regarding the Mead quote to be sufficient verification for using it in a library, then you are most likely a social constructionist. This is a somewhat common view and it holds that the truth is whatever we have agreed is the truth. Typically, this agreement takes place through social processes. For the social constructionist, we are justified in believing that Mead said it…because everyone agrees she said it. Further, the social constructionist approach is highly skeptical of authority or credibility. To the social constructionist, what matters is reliability or consensus (Lankes, 2007)*** so it’s the consensus about Mead’s quote that matters, not the nitpicking about primary sources. Dave Lankes of “new librarianship” fame is a good example of a social constructionist.

Second, you may believe that the potential value of the quote for students and the lack of proof that Mead didn’t say it are enough to consider it verified. In this case, you are most likely a pragmatist. That is, you probably believe that truth is whatever we find most useful to believe. For the pragmatist, the quote should be verified because Mead said it for all intents and purposes. Practically speaking, adding Mead’s name gives the quote social and intellectual cachet and doesn’t deprive anyone of their claim to authorship. Likewise, practically speaking, attributing the quote to Mead helps spread Mead’s rather important and compelling worldview. Nitpicking over primary source documents misses the point: truth is about what is most practical and useful to believe, not what is “out there” in the world, and believing that Mead said it is more useful than attributing it to an anonymous source.  Lots of librarians identify as pragmatists (see Crowley, 2005, Spanning the theory-practice divide in library and information science. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.).

Finally, if you withhold judgment about the quote and refuse to verify it in the light of massive social and practical agreement, you may just be a realist. The realist takes as a starting point the belief that Mead either did or did not say something about thoughtful committed people. There is an objective fact of the matter and determining that fact requires absolute a high degree of certainty. A recorded interview, a text written by Mead, a letter…the bar for the realist is set fairly high and a verified quote can only be one with a clear, direct, and unambiguous provenance. No matter what people agree she said, or what practical exigencies require, the realist approach hinges on (for lack of a better term) objective evidence. True, some may argue that a book or letter or interview are just texts and texts can be wrong. This is why realism (at least in fact-checking quotations) is very concerned with authority control. This is also why realism does give preference to expertise in the forms of authority and credibility. Interestingly, the realist (and the pragmatist, to a certain extent) does think that consensus and reliability are important. But, that’s qualified as consensus by credible sources and reliable at leading to truth. Ultimately, the realist position is to only call the quote verified to the extent that objective, authoritative evidence supports it.

Now, in many (most?) cases, all three theories will agree. Did Francis Bacon say that “knowledge is power”? To the constructionist everyone agrees he did, so he did. To the pragmatist, it makes the most practical sense to accept that he did, so he did. For the realist, you can find “nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” in the original text of Bacon’s Meditationes Sacræ, so he did. All three theories agree that Bacon’s immortal words are verified. It’s only in the difficult cases that theory or worldview will start to distinguish decisions. This is especially visible in quotes attributed to the most famous and prolific thinkers: Einstein, Twain, King, Angelou, Jefferson, Franklin…anyone whose name can lend gravitas to a pithy saying. And, I should add, this isn’t just a library issue, as the recent proliferation of Tea Party misquotations adequately demonstrates. Indeed, as a realist, I get pretty ticked off when politicians and pundits misattribute or just invent quotes from people like Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and other important folk. Especially when those false quotations stand in direct opposition to what their supposed speakers actually believed (as is usually the case). For those interested in a decidedly realist approach to fact-checking and verification of famous quotations, I recommend the Quote Investigator.

In the end, does any of this matter for practicing librarians? Aren’t we more concerned with the day-to-day practice of librarianship, not abstract philosophical navel-gazing? Well, I suppose that depends on what you want to take away from it. I, for one, think it matters to a certain degree. In information literacy, what do concepts like credibility, relevance, or accuracy mean if not in light of these philosophical worldviews? In scholarly communication, isn’t the emphasis on impact factors and citations evidence of the social constructionist push for consensus building? Isn’t research in evidenced-based librarianship evidence of pragmatic or realist tendencies? Where you fall on these and other issues in large pat depends on your philosophical outlook. So, does philosophy guide practice? As Sydney’s Paul Redding just wrote, in response to Australian MP Jamie Briggs’ assertion that philosophical inquiry isn’t practical,

“In the division of intellectual labour, philosophers work mainly at the level of the hinges between thoughts, on those concepts deeply embedded within the argumentative threads weaving through our culture. But these are threads that have started somewhere with the formation of beliefs, and end somewhere in actions. As the concepts on which philosophers work are typically located a long way from where these threads start or terminate, philosophical research is generally described as “pure” rather than “applied”. But “pure” does not mean “irrelevant”. Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?”

Yes. Philosophical worldviews affect practice. It’s called praxis and it deserves as much attention as it can muster. You can quote me on that.


by DennisM2 on Flickr. CC BY

* Actually, he won so hard that Darius gave him financial and political backing to lead the Jews out of Babylon and build the Second Temple. Dude’s name? Zerubbabel.

** Just an aside: the ALA libraryquotes.org website treats newsletters and desk calendars as “primary sources.” Of all the professional organizations you’d expect to understand “primary source” you’d think the ALA would be right at the top.

*** However, Lankes’ discussion seems pretty inconsistent. He argues that “the most common way to become an authority…is through reliability” (681) and then claims that “reliability and authority can be seen as opposite ends on a spectrum” (681). Are these interlocking concepts or polar opposites? Lankes is unclear. In any event, the realist advocates for authority and reliability, not authority instead of reliability.

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.


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