It’s been a few weeks since my last post about the nature of truth and it’s role in information literacy. Liam was violently ill, nieces and nephews came to visit, loads to do at work…you know the drill. But, I do have several aborted posts that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t seem to finish. I have long attempts at addressing issues ranging from the problems of pragmatism in library and information science to why the “articulation problem” rests on a misunderstanding. Along the way I took another stab at answering the many concerns raised by the Academic Librarian. Here’s an effort at answering what I think is his biggest issue with the role of truth in information literacy: is a philosophical inquiry into truth even relevant to librarianship?
Academic concerns, or confusions?
I’ll start by listing the issues Bivens-Tatum raises in his initial post and subsequent blog comments. I’m trying my best to abide by the principle of charity, so I hope this is close to the original intent…
- Inquiring into the nature of truth is redundant. (“The library is part of [a] larger academic enterprise that already assumes [a realist conception] of truth“)
- A philosophical theory of truth “still doesn’t explain why academic research takes place, or why academic libraries collect things.”
- Librarians should remain neutral with respect to the truth of the information they collect (Librarians should hope “for “truth” in the aggregate, not in the truth of any given work“)
- Librarians do not “play much of a role in information literacy” (The job of a librarian “is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation.”)
- Truth is simply not a relevant concept in librarianship; what librarians “teach has more to do with certain academic standards” not truth. (“‘truth’ isn’t a direct professional concern of ours”)
From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
Here is a reconstruction of the argument from my previous two posts…the argument I’d like to make for the relevance of truth to academic librarians:
(1) For any term C that entails necessary conditions (c0, c1, …, cn), if C is relevant to subject S, then cn is relevant to S.
(2) Information literacy is relevant to academic librarians.
(3) Information1 is a necessary condition in defining information literacy.
(4) Subconclusion: So, information is relevant to academic librarians.
(5) The concept of truth2 is a necessary condition in defining information.
(6) Conclusion: So, the concept of truth is relevant to academic librarians.
Again, I realize that this may come across as unreasonably technical, but I want to make a sound argument. The argument above is valid, so if I can show the truth of the premises, then I have made my point. I hope that (1) is uncontroversial…it makes sense as a general epistemic rule. I also hope that (3) is uncontroversial given that information literacy seems to have at least some relation to information. Obviously, (4) follows from (1)-(3). I admit that (5) is an open question, but if it is true, then (6) follows. Proving (5) will let me prove (6), which is the whole point of my research.
Moreover, this presentation makes it easier to show how Bivens-Tatum’s concerns fit in. Specifically, he is objecting to (2) and (6). We can strike the objection to (6) on the grounds that it doesn’t address the argument itself. This leaves premise (2) and the objection that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. I actually find it hard to believe that academic librarians don’t see the importance of information literacy Given the extensive work on information literacy coming out of the ALA and ACRL, the nature of library instruction programs (at least as I have encountered them), and the extent to which reference librarians engage directly with the research process, it seems that information literacy is a direct concern to academic librarians.
Then again, I forget that academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians.3 So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.
But what is relevance, anyway?
The real objection to the role of truth in librarianship has to do with relevance, but what is relevance anyway? Perhaps everyone agrees that truth is relevant to librarians, but we all disagree about what type of relevance we’re dealing with. For most librarians, relevance is a practical issue and the idea is that X is relevant to Y if and only if X yields beneficial consequences for Y. Call this pragmatic relevance. But, pragmatic relevance comes in at least two flavors: relevant to patrons and relevant to librarians.
Patron-centered pragmatic relevance (PCLR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for patrons. This is an incredibly popular position (#echolib, anyone?) and probably the majority view. Recent examples of this pragmatism are seen in the heavy criticism leveled at elements of librarianship not directly relevant to patrons. John Dupuis’s Stealth Librarian’s Manifesto is one of the more recent and clear-cut cases of PCLR. Michelle Boule’s Being Articulate and Finding Context also comes to mind in the way it points to technical vocabularies and theories as a hindrance to librarianship. With PCLR, again and again, relevance to patrons is hoisted as the banner under which every aspect of librarianship must pass. Your patrons don’t get it? Then get out of the “echo chamber”!
On the other hand, library-centered pragmatic relevance (LCPR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for librarians and librarianship. The idea here is that librarians are professionals and projects in service to the profession are relevant, even though patrons may have no idea these projects ever occur. MARC records, metadata, and OpenURL resolvers are instances of library project that are not relevant to patrons. Another good example would be the IL standards drafted by the ACRL. The standards themselves are invisible to non-librarians. Yet, these standards help direct library information literacy programs, so they benefit our patrons indirectly. Assisting patrons is still the normative goal, but the tools and theories for doing so are oriented towards the librarians.
So, we can focus on the consequences our theories have for patrons or we can focus on the consequences our theories have for the profession. Or both.
Librarians serving librarians
This is where I make the controversial claim that not every aspect of librarianship is going to be directly relevant to non-librarians, nor should it. (and the philosophy of librarianship is a perfect example). Some of what we do is going to be directed at policies, technologies, or curricula that are inherently library-centric. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think that this is something we should do more often, not only so that we know what we’re talking about but also so we can figure out where we’re going as a profession, what policies we should adopt, and how we should handle thorny issues like censorship, fair use, and privacy. These and other issues merit discussions that may only be directly relevant to librarians, though indirectly relevant to patrons.
What does this mean for my interest in the nature of truth? Well, Bivens-Tatum expressed the concern that neither information literacy nor truth are relevant to librarianship. I think this objection may be correct in the case of patron-centered pragmatic relevance and incorrect in the case of library-centered pragmatic relevance. From the patron side, I agree that we don’t need to carve out 15 minutes of class time to discuss epistemology. We don’t need to lecture students on information theory or the realism vs. relativism debate. These are patron-centered approaches to information theory and they are obviously absurd. But, for librarians who work with information, understanding the nature of information is highly relevant in how we develop the profession. So, a philosophy of information (i.e., an inquiry into whether information is necessarily true) is relevant to librarians, who can then create policies, curricula, etc. that are relevant to patrons.
For next time
All that’s left is to say something about premise (5): the concept of truth is a necessary condition in defining information. I think that information is necessarily true, but it will take another post to propose an account of what information is, a second post to discuss whether information is true, and yet another to explain how this can strengthen our information literacy programs (not to mention our commitments to freedom of information, privacy, and other issues.). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can pull it off.
(1) i.e., information as an object of inquiry
(2) i.e., the property ‘is true’
(3) Wilder’s 2005 article in the Chronicle may be partly to blame, though his arguments were as ill-informed then as they are today.