Archive for May 13th, 2011

[Reposted on May 13, because Blogger ate the original.]

When I first caught wind of The Atlas of New LibrarianshipI was so excited that I think I peed my pants a little bit. According to the press releases, the author, R. David Lankes, had created a monumental survey of the theoretical foundations of librarianship. He was going to advocate “a new librarianship based not on books and artifacts but on knowledge and learning.” Early reviews by assorted library luminaries were glowing, and ACRL was making a big to-do about the book’s release. All in all, this book is a BIG DEAL. So, imagine my excitement when my copy arrived. Here I am, keenly interested in the philosophical foundations of librarianship (and information science) and I finally get to read the book that promises to set it all straight!

My initial reaction after reading this hefty tome can be summed up in seven words:
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

Allow me to explain…

In his introduction, Lankes offers this statement of intent:

The Atlas before you is an attempt to…look to the history of the field for the core and constant while looking to even deeper theory of how people know to help shape the future. (p. 3)

I like this. The future of librarianship will be shaped by our epistemological commitments. In moving from an artifact-based librarianship to a knowledge-based librarianship, librarians need to understand what knowledge is, how it is obtained, and how it can be used. In other words, philosophy matters to librarianship.

So, with an eye towards epistemology, Lankes offers a field-wide mission statement for librarianship. Something to guide the discipline into the future, come what may. And, here it is:

Awesome. I support the hell out of this mission. I’ve already ordered the ribbon magnets for my pick-up truck. The key, of course, is that libraries need to focus on knowledge creation rather than mere artifact collection. Historically, Lankes argues, libraries have been focused on artifacts: recorded knowledge, information-as-thing, books, media, technology, etc. However, the future will need librarians of a different sort. It will need librarians who can actively work within their communities to foster knowledge creation and learning, regardless of the available artifacts. 
Lankes returns to this point several times, and I agree with him. His discussion is often compelling and certainly worth a read. Unfortunately, when he turns his attention to knowledge creation (the new core of librarianship) everything breaks down. 
Knowledge Creationism
If you are reading the Atlas and hoping for a serious discussion of knowledge, you’re looking in the wrong place. Despite being the heart of his mission statement, Lankes’s treatment of knowledge wouldn’t pass a Freshman philosophy (or sociology or psychology or computer science) course. In fact, I’ll go so far as to argue that his reliance on constructivist epistemology works against his own mission statement and is ultimately more harmful to librarianship than beneficial (more on that in the next post).
You see, Lankes has adopted Conversation Theory as his conceptual framework for librarianship. In a nutshell, Conversation Theory holds that knowledge is constructed through conversation. If you think this sounds like a constructivist epistemology, you’re right. Lankes is explicitly advocating a form of radical constructivism as the epistemological foundation for librarianship. Knowledge, on this account, is socially constructed and refined through dialectic. As Lankes puts it, knowledge is “the requisite domain understanding necessary to converse” (p. 66). More formally,

Knowledge is a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants. (p. 32)

The terms ‘agreement’, ‘memory’, ‘language’, and ‘conversant’ are loaded terms for Lankes, and I don’t have the time to nitpick every little detail (though I will on request), so I will just point out that notably absent from Lankes’ treatment of knowledge are the concepts of truth, justification, warrant, objectivity, or other standard epistemic concepts. For Lankes, knowledge is a shifting, malleable set of “agreements”, each of which is founded solely in intersubjective agreement, rather than objective or factual reality. In other words, it’s epistemic relativism. To see just what this entails, Lankes offers the following conversation:

“So if two men having a conversation about a topic they know little about, can we truly say that knowledge is created?” “Yes,” I said. “For those two people, if they are willing to act on the agreements they have developed, it is knowledge.” “But what if they are idiots?” “It is still knowledge, although I would imagine that their knowledge would change if they tried out their agreement and it didn’t work.” OK, I realize I have just lost most of the positivists in the crowd, but please give me a moment to explain… (p. 117-118) [The subsequent explanation is question-begging.]

When asked to clarify his views, Lankes admits that even a false belief can be knowledge. It seems pretty clear that he is just confusing knowledge with belief, which is a regrettably common error. But, following the principle of charity, I’ll take him at his word and assume that Lankes is, in fact, claiming that knowledge claims are truth-independent.

But, I want to be clear here and avoid creating a straw-man. Lankes is advocating epistemic relativism, but he does not explicitly say that facts are socially constructed. For example, in his discussion of source amnesia he discusses the importance of avoiding factual error and even points to mind-independent, objective facts as epistemically relevant (“I [made an error] based on a set of agreements I attributed to an artifact, not what was in the artifact” (p. 42)). However, he is inconsistent throughout the book and there are points where he implicitlyappeals to a base fact-constuctivism. I know it’s an over-simplification, but fact-constructivism is a member of those relativistic theories to the effect that all truth is socially constructed, or that there is no objective reality independent of contingent human agreements. Given the well-established incoherence of this sort of straight-forward relativistic thinking, I can’t in good conscience attribute it to Lankes. [For a short introduction to the lunacy of relativism/constructivism, see Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge]

Relatively speaking, I’m no expert
So, Lankes doesn’t advocate a relativist position about facts, but he does advocate relativism about what justifies our beliefs. The epistemic relativism inherent in Conversation Theory manifests itself in the way the theory insists that our beliefs about the world are justified through a process of negotiation. Sure, there may be an external reality, but there is no privileged way of accessing that world: all we have are our conversations and agreements. We become justified in believing this or that because we have come to a “shared understanding” about the object of our belief. Our knowledge is not shaped by an external reality; in fact, we don’t even have access to any external reality. It’s internalized social agreements all the way down.

If this sounds postmodern, it is. But, it’s hard to tell if Lankes understands this. True, he does have an agreement supplement for “Postmodernism”, but it doesn’t add anything to his Atlas. He claims that postmodernism “reinforces the idea of constant change and adaptation” (p. 344), which is nice, but not particularly unique to postmodernism. So, how does postmodern thought influence new librarianship? Lankes picks out the reference interview as a particularly good exemplar of postmodern librarianship. He writes:

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, two main roles in postmodernism are the “expert” and the “philosopher,” both of which serve roles in the reference interview…by seeking to better understand these roles the librarian can become more comfortable and adept in the reference process.” (p. 344) 

Again, that’s nice, but not particularly postmodern. What’s worse, it’s a gross misreading of the SEP article on postmodernism. The SEP article is making reference to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984), where Lyotard describes himself as playing the language games of both a philosopher and an expert. (It probably doesn’t help that Lyotard admitted that for this book he just made things up and cited things he never read.) Interestingly, just a few lines past the misquoted text, the SEP includes Lyotard’s true pronouncement: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Lyotard, 1984, xxiv). How would that affect New Librarianship?

Lankes’ approach leads inevitably to the conclusion that knowledge is causally distinct from any external reality or facts. There may be  facts, but they don’t adjudicate between knowledge and other belief states. He even goes so far as to admit that this is the case. And his response?

There are critics of constructivism. They argue that it denies the existence of a true reality–that philosophically there are issues with creating a worldview of complete relativism…[but] in the context of new librarianship, we do not necessarily have to enter into the philosophical debate about constructivism because we are looking more narrowly at its concrete applications as a learning theory and at its application within the cosmos of librarianship. (p. 216-17)

That’s it? A theory of the theoretical foundations of librarianship, with knowledge-creation at the center…and the deep philosophical problems don’t matter? Moreover, the equivocation between constructivism as an epistemological theory and constructivism as a learning theory is not just philosophically sloppy, but grossly misleading. To propose a constructivist epistemology and then fall back on constructivist learning theory in the face of criticism shows a profound misunderstanding of both.

Straw librarianship

Lankes admits that his theory is a work in progress, going so far as to ask that readers “poke and prod at the framework” (p. 186) and acknowledging that “two different people reading this can come to different conclusions: Lankes is crazy or Lankes got it right” (p. 33). Of course, this self-deprecating humility does not extend to alternative accounts of librarianship. Indeed, on several occasions, Lankes shows his hand insofar as he tries to force the Bush “patriot vs. terrorist” style false dilemma. Either you agree with him, or you are part of the problem. This is, at best, philosophically sloppy and, at worst, intellectually dishonest. Consider the following quote:

The annoyed librarians of the world who seek the status quo and see their mission as recorded knowledge, the collection of artifacts, and the maintenance of organizations labeled libraries…They will cry foul against relativism and new age ideas (p. 172)

The rhetorical implication is that critics of Conversation Theory…those who “cry foul against relativism”…are stuck in an outdated, outmoded worldview. Hey, that must be me! But, this false “with us or against us” thinking is unnecessarily divisive. Granted, Lankes does encourage the debate between “bibliofundamentalists” and his proposed model, but only insofar as “it means there is a conversation, and we are learning” (p. 172). (Wait, so now librarians have to beg the question as well?)

The fact is that there are alternatives to Conversation Theory and there are alternative knowledge-based missions for librarianship. Lankes paints librarianship in an either/or situation. Those who look to librarianship in terms of collecting and making available information are referred to as “traditional”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”. Those who adopt his theory (he’s addicted to the rhetorical “we”) are “enlightened” and “fight against ignorance and intolerance” (p. 185). And no other options exist! What happened to pragmatism, empiricism, rationalism, critical idealism, existentialism, Marxism, or other philosophical theories? No compelling reason to accept social constructivism or Conversation Theory is to be found in the entire Atlas, you’re just “an annoyed librarian” if you disagree.

Even more unfortunate, this new mission for librarians has been discussed for decades, in various forms. That librarianship is about knowledge, rather than artifacts, is a common view in the metaphilosophy of Joseph Nitecki or the social epistemology of Jesse Shera as well as in recent work such as the hermeneutical phenomenology of John Budd and the social transcript approach described by Charles Osburn. There is a healthy, vibrant literature on the importance of knowledge-creation in libraries, but the Atlas conveniently ignores the lot of it, which is a shame because a great deal of the book would benefit from the more philosophically coherent existing literature.

Next time
Summing up, The Atlas of New Librarianship is pretty much a let-down. It adopts a relativist world-view, it is philosophically sloppy and it ignores the existence of any competing philosophy of librarianship. Of course, I realize that there are a few librarians who don’t see that there is anything wrong with relativism. So, in the next post, I’ll try to provide both arguments and examples of the dangers of relativistic thinking in library science. From impeding learning to reinforcing social divisions, epistemological constructivism is not the path we as librarians want to be taking. We need a better map.

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