Is truth relevant to librarians? (Once more with feeling)
February 28, 2011 by Lane Wilkinson
I’ve been chasing so many ideas down so many rabbit holes that I haven’t posted in a few weeks. So, just to get something out there, I’m posting the same thing twice as an experiment. This is the unpretentious post that avoids the unnecessary jargon and technical stuff. But, if you like the analytical stuff, you can take a look at the analytic mix. It’s unfortunately technical, so you can skip it if you’d like. In any event, my hope is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
As I outlined in previous posts, I’m interested in the relationship between truth, information, and information literacy. The feedback I’ve received has been enormously instructive and the project seems to be headed down some interesting paths. However, one concern stands out above all others: is the concept of truth even relevant to librarians? I thought it might be worthwhile to say a little something to the effect that, even if the concept of truth is invisible to our patrons or to the everyday practicalities of librarianship, it is still relevant to the profession.
Academic concerns, or confusions?
Wayne Bivens-Tatum has raised quite a few thought-provoking points about the role of truth in librarianship. Though I think several of his points are the result of us just talking past one another and getting confused by one another’s positions, he does make a few claims that simply cannot be ignored. In particular, he makes the claim that:
Truth is relevant to information literacy broadly conceived, but I’m not sure librarians play much of a role in information literacy. I wouldn’t send physics students to astrology books, but outside of factual questions, which I rarely get, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to the point where truth as such played a role in what I was doing with students.
As I read it, there are two main arguments here. One is that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. The other is that truth doesn’t play much of a role in librarianship. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that information literacy and truth apply to librarianship, but I’d like to think otherwise. So, I’ll try to say something to the effect that truth is relevant to information literacy and information literacy is relevant to librarians.
From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
I’ll admit it: my previous “career” in philosophy has colored my perceptions of librarianship. For what it’s worth, when I decided that the life a philosophy professor wasn’t for me, I could have chosen any number of alternatives. Law school, an MBA, a teacher’s certificate, perpetual adjunct work…I have friends who went down each road. But, I was always motivated to do something about the lack of information literacy I kept running into with my students (though I didn’t know the term at the time). After several years and hundreds of term papers, it was very clear that the inability to find, access, and critically evaluate source material appropriate for scholarly research was a major barrier in higher education. Sure, I would assist them in my class, and they would do fine, but I wanted to address IL from a cross-disciplinary angle. Couple that with my existing interests in information theory, epistemology, and logic, and library and information science seemed like the right choice. Why? Well, because the LIS program seemed to be the only one that addressed information literacy head-on and information literacy was what I was most interested in.
So, if information literacy isn’t something that librarians play a role in, I seem to have made a huge mistake. But, I do teach general information literacy skills almost every day. From showing a student how to select appropriate sources to assisting a student with a citation, the opportunities for IL instruction are everywhere. And it isn’t just in the classroom; every moment on the reference desk is a teachable moment, too. I don’t just “give some initial guidance on search and evaluation;” I give advice, insight, and instruction on search and evaluation. In less than five minutes a librarian can teach a patron a transferable skill or concept. And when we consider 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, 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. 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.
Library Science/Information Science
There are several possible roles for librarians in the coming decades and one that I think we should be cultivating is a bit of a throwback to days-gone-by: the cultural role of librarians as authorities on information. Librarians used to be the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge and information. Google has all but demolished that cultural position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be ambassadors for information. If anything, I’d like to see librarians do more to sell themselves as authorities on the world of information in general. Librarians should be clamoring for interviews about Wikileaks, copyright legislation, information technology, and other information-related current events. We should brand ourselves as the experts on information and information related issues. To put it another way, we work in applied information theory and we have the ability to position ourselves as society’s information experts. But, we can only do this if we treat information theory as a relevant concern.
But what is relevance, anyway?
However we position ourselves, they bottom line is that information is the stuff we trade in, whether or not information literacy in particular is relevant. So, studying and understanding information is something we should be engaged in. Does that address the relevance issue? Well, yes and no. I think the real problem is that there are at least two types of relevance that are commonly discussed in libraryland and I think the distinction is best described by analogy…
Last night at dinner, Khristy offered a helpful analogy for how I’m envisioning the role of information in librarianship: think of librarianship like the financial world of economists, brokers, bankers, tellers, and more. For example, economists “analyze the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”(Wikipedia). They analyze the flow of goods and services across various networks and they develop policies, procedures, and theories for managing and understanding that flow. They analyze and inform policies, they serve as advisors, and they construct the foundational theories. Then again, economists are only one part of the financial world. The money is actually handled by brokers, traders, bankers, tellers, etc. Whereas an economist may debate contractionary versus expansionary fiscal policies, the teller is actually counting out the change. The various aspects of money and finance that count as “relevant” will vary between all of these different roles. An economist may be interested only in what is relevant to the financial world in general. The stockbroker may be interested only in what’s relevant to investors.
Now, what if we replace “goods and services” or “money” with “information”? Who studies the production, distribution and consumption of information? Who handles practical aspects of working with information? Why can’t it be librarians? After all, we’re uniquely situated to address almost every angle on information and information-related issues. We should join the computer scientists and programmers, the internet gurus, and the social network entrepreneurs as the go-to sources for the theory and the practice behind information. So, I propose that we think of librarianship in the same way we think of the financial sector; only, instead of dealing in money, we deal in information. This gives librarians enormous clout and places us near the center of the information ecosystem. (Of course, librarians tend to not to have such diverse roles as you’ll see in finance; so librarians have to be economists and bankers at the same time, so to speak.)
Following the analogy to its conclusion, it’s clear that what counts as relevant with respect to information will depend on what role we’re playing. Certain issues are only relevant to librarians when they act like economists: drafting policies, creating curricula, tackling ethical issues…in other words, surveying the profession and the information ecosystem in general. However, just as a stockbroker or banker uses economic theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting investors, so to do librarians use information theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting patrons.
So, there are two types of relevance: relevant to librarians and relevant to patrons, and both are important. Looking back at my interest in the nature of truth, information, and information literacy, I’ll concede that none of it is going to be very practical or show direct relevance to my day-to-day dealings with students. But, I’m hoping that it will be relevant to the economic side of librarianship, and help me to understand the increasingly complicated nature of information in libraries.
So, where do we stand? The philosophical concept of truth is probably not going to do a bit of difference in how I build collections, manage the reference interview, direct research consultations, or teach classes. But, if truth plays a role in understanding what information is, and if studying the nature of information can inform collection development policies, reference services, information literacy, and beyond, then the concept of truth can make a difference. It may not be relevant to patrons, but it is relevant to librarians.
Here’s where I want to go in the next few blog posts: First, I’ll propose that libraries adopt Floridi’s semantic conception of information. Later, I’ll discuss whether misinformation and disinformation count as information, and if so, what kind of information. Finally, I’ll see if I can’t make a case that adopting the semantic conception of information–and understanding the role of misinformation and disinformation–can strengthen our information literacy programs, not to mention our commitments to privacy, freedom of information, and more.