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My books piled up before me for my use
I’ve only seen a handful of previous reviews of Osburn’s book. Wayne Bivens-Tatum correctly notes that Osburn’s treatise is about “why the library exists rather than how it functions” and that “[w]hat Osburn tries to do…is uncover the larger philosophy governing libraries and their role in our culture so that we may see more clearly.” (p. 584). This really is a book about libraries as socio-cultural linchpins. And, as Mike Matthews has described it, Osburn avoids the common pitfalls of library philosophy “by emphasizing the study of the library as an object, rather than trying to articulate a library philosophy from a strictly subjective (i.e., librarian’s) point of view” (p. 90). This is not a “how-to” book heavy on praxis. This is a book written from the proverbial Archimedean standpoint, on the outside, looking in.
Both Bivens-Tatum and Matthews criticize Osburn’s overwrought prose and excessive use of direct quotations (something Osburn even admits, p. xii). And I agree: Osburn quotes from so many wildly varied sources that his argument is, more often than not, obscured by other voices. It’s excessive to the point that he veers dangerously close to plagiarism at points.* Still, the overarching message is powerful and instructive, regardless of whose message it really is.
Waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t disappeared
I’m going to try to reconstruct Osburn’s thesis and argument as best I can, though I may be taking some liberties for the sake of not-wanting-to-make-you-have-to-read-a-5000-damned-word-review.
The library, Osburn argues, is not so much a place, but a sociocultural function. From the Peripatetics of Alexandria through the monastic era and down to today, the library qua place has changed hands repeatedly, and each time with different political and social intent. Yet, the common thread that has carried the library through more than 2,000 years of Western society has been its function as the means by which we preserve the “social transcript”. As he writes, “the organization, differentiation, and integration of extant knowledge for use by humanity, now and in the future, constitute the abbreviated single function of the library” (p. 241).
Drawing on sociology, political science, education, evolutionary theory, and more, Osburn argues that history writ large is the story of cultural progress mediated by continued access to the cultural record. Humanity advances through millennia only by virtue of shared memories, values, imaginative creations, and intellectual achievements. Collectively, these shared artifacts form a “social transcript”, a means of preserving and transmitting our beliefs through time. Osburn defines the social transcript as “both oral and written communications that are passed on to subsequent generations as knowledge of many kinds, and therefore to be critiqued, accepted, rejected, or even ignored for the time being” (p. 134). Even more succinctly, Osburn offers this: “the social transcript can be considered culture in transit” (p. 135).
Osburn writes, “none of this is mysterious when placed in the context of the library as function, as a cultural technology. That function is stewardship of the social transcript” (p. 258). And I think I agree with him. Rather than start with librarianship, as most grand theories seem to do, it seems more fitting to start with the library itself. Librarianship thus exists as a response to the deeply ingrained cultural technology of “the library”, and not the other way around. By situating the library in society, Osburn provides the necessary starting point for understanding how librarians, library science, and librarianship should proceed as cultural stewards.
Time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use
Of course, Osburn’s book is far from perfect. As mentioned above, the excessive number of citations are incredibly distracting and are often of only marginal relevance. Further, Osburn is frequently inconsistent insofar as he presents a lengthy discussion of the social utility of aesthetic works (books, poetry, plays, etc.), yet reverts back to describing cultural progress strictly in terms of the transmission of knowledge. When it comes time to actually define the social transcript and its role in cultural progress, aesthetic considerations seem to take a backseat.
Finally, and most damningly, Osburn completely ignores the impact of the Internet on the social transcript. I’m no Twopointopian by any means, but to ignore the effects of digital communication and storage seems extraordinarily negligent…especially for a book published in 2009. I can already hear the digital desperadoes proudly retort that the digital world in general (and social media in particular) allows us to act as our own cultural stewards, obviating the need for libraries. “Who needs libraries when there’s Google?” There are plenty of good responses; I’m sure you can name a dozen off the top of your head. But, for Osburn to set the library up as a cultural steward, and then ignore the Internet’s challenge to the cultural record, is evidence of an incredible oversight. If anything, digital media are the largest challenges to social transcript theory, and Osburn has nothing to say. As far as his version of social transcript theory is concerned, books are the end of the line.
I’d like to explore social transcript theory further, because I think that the theory can, in fact, answer the tension between libraries and the Internet. In the next post, I’ll try to explain why social transcript theory offers a better alternative to other popular theories. I really do think that Osburn has the right idea, and I encourage you to get a copy of The Social Transcript, with the one caveat that, for all of the book’s research and erudition, the argument is, ultimately, left incomplete. But, that’s not such a bad thing. At least it gives us something to do.
Essential Readings in the Philosophy of Library and Information Science
- Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 11, Issue 1, January 2011: 584-585.
- Matthews, Mike. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” Reference & User Services Quarterly, Vol. 50, Issue 1, Fall 2010: 90-91.
- Osburn, Charles. The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009.
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* Yes, plagiarism is a serious charge to level at someone. But, for example, Osburn writes
Sponsorship of the library has changed hands frequently throughout history, moving from the nobility, the priesthood, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. Concurrently, however, the library increased dramatically in size, geographic ubiquity, and complexity; created for it was a body of rules and procedures as it evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly extended its clientele base. And through all that, as Jesse Shera points out (1973, p. 94), the library did not change its basic mission, “which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records”… (Osburn, p. 18-19)
Compare to Shera (1973):
The sponsorship of the library, then, has throughout history and during varying periods of time, been assumed by the nobility, the priesthoods, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. The library has increased dramatically in size and complexity, created a body of more or less standardized rules and procedures, evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly widened its clientele, while not changing its basic mission, which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records for benefit of the individual and, through the individual, of society.
I’m going to assume that this is just a case of sloppy scholarship, but it rides a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable use and it’s hardly an isolated incident. Here’s hoping the second edition is more accurate in its source attribution.