When I first caught wind ofThe Atlas of New Librarianship, I 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)
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:
Knowledge is a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants. (p. 32)
“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.]
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 ofsource 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)
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)
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 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.
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.