In my last post I wrote that librarians are experts on the causal chain of testimonial knowledge. Of course, that’s rather technical language, so I’ve been looking for a friendlier way to explain how and why librarians are experts. We’re the people who act as guides to the network of knowledge claims and cultural expressions that make up our cultural record (or at least that portion of it that fits within our financial and moral constraints), so how can we fit that into 140 characters, so to speak. Then it hit me: the social transcript! I explained Charles Osburn’s social transcript theory in a previous post, but the quick take is that ‘social transcript’ refers to the “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” (Osburn, 134). It’s not just information. It’s not just recorded knowledge. The social transcript is the record of intellectual and aesthetic works that we choose to represent our beliefs, knowledge, values, and culture. As librarians, our role is to act as stewards and guides to that social transcript. Maintaining the social transcript is tantamount to preserving the causal chain of testimony so that we can situate our beliefs appropriately and come to new knowledge and new aesthetic experiences. In the elevator-friendly sense, are experts on the social transcript. But, so what?
I’d like to use this post to say something about the potential upshots to thinking of librarians as experts on the social transcript (i.e., the causal chain of testimony). So, here goes it…
On the value of being a librarian…any type of librarian.
One of the things that bugs me most about librarianship is the endless fragmentation and cordoning-off of various librarian ‘types’. Are you in reference? Instruction? Access services? Cataloging? IT? Archives? Are you a public librarian? Academic librarian? Medical librarian? School librarian? I could list off the various combinations all damned day but, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a librarian and you probably already know that the profession suffers from some pretty severe Balkanization. To a certain extent, that’s to be expected, given the relevant differences between various functions in the library, various types of libraries, and various communities encountered. To make the library run, we need to play different roles.
But, then, why are we all called ‘librarians’? You wouldn’t say that everyone who works at Apple is a software engineer. Or that everyone at Disney World is an “Imagineer”. True, there are organizations like schools, where most members are called ‘teachers’. But, that makes sense because teachers play the same general role, just in different domains. Librarians, on the other hand, play very different roles within their organizations…but all in the same domain.
If we do like many librarians, and go the route of defining ourselves in terms of information particulars (e.g., information literacy, organization of information, access to information, etc.) then we run the real risk of marginalizing our coworkers. Librarians are experts in organizing information? Good for the catalogers, bad for the instructors. Experts in information literacy? Good for the instructors, bad for the catalogers. Experts on literacy? Great for the school librarians, not so much for the medical librarians. Hopefully, you get the drift. In contrast, I think that by defining librarians as experts on the social transcript, we can create a more inclusive environment. Whether cataloging, reference, or archives, we all are playing different roles directed at the same domain of expertise: the social transcript. Likewise, whether school, public, special, or academic, we all have different communities of practice but we all operate within the same social transcript. Whether you’re an academic reference librarian, a public cataloging librarian, or an early childhood literacy school librarian, we’re all applying our expertise within the social transcript and we all deserve the title ‘librarian’.
On the value of fiction
Many librarians want to define librarianship directly in terms of knowledge or information. But, as I’ve asked previously, if libraries are fundamentally places for acquiring knowledge or accessing information, what does that entail for works of fiction? Sure, you could argue that the reason we read The Brothers Karamazov is for insight and knowledge about the human condition, but that’s a rather cynical view of literature and it ignores the emotive and aesthetic value great literature can have. And, of course, the view completely falls apart with popular books like Twilight or the Harry Potter series. Do we read Harry Potter to gain knowledge about child wizardry? Twilight to gain insight into the experiences of teen werewolves? Of course not. We read these books because they entertain us. We read these books because they are part of the cultural landscape. In other words, they are sewn into the fabric of the social transcript. This is why 50 Shades of Grey makes headlines, and far more sexually explicit books in the same library don’t: 50 Shades of Grey is part of our social transcript (Working Stiff…not so much).
On the value of bad information
Of course, our commitment to knowledge and information is a still a pretty big deal. So, it seems odd that we routinely collect, organize, and make accessible bad information. We say we are committed to information literacy or that we are committed to knowledge creation. And yet we keep on buying books on homeopathy. On astrology. On bullshit medical advice that is killing children. Libraries are full of misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. And even with less controversial topics, libraries stock their shelves with books that directly contradict each other. Why?
Part of the reason for this is because, as experts on the social transcript, we understand the difference between primary information and secondary information. By ‘primary information’ I mean the actual claims made by an information source. By ‘secondary information’ I mean the information we can derive about an information source. For example, a physics textbook contains primary information insofar as it reports certain facts about the world. It contains secondary information insofar as that collection of facts, formulae, and theories says something about the social transcript (i.e., secondary information about what we take to be ‘physics’). Likewise, though a book on homeopathy contains a great deal of false information at the primary level, it offers a great deal of valuable secondary information about the social transcript: it tells us what some people think is true. As stewards of the social transcript, we need to provide both what is true as well as what is believed to be true.
Of course, this isn’t to say that any information, misinformation, or disinformation is part of our domain, or that we have to treat misinformation and disinformation equitably. Patrons generally seek knowledge, not deception. So, we generally provide factual information, not fringe theories: I don’t give physics majors articles on astrology or medical students books on homeopathy. Unless they ask for them. Furthermore, scientific and cultural theories are constantly being adjusted. The medical theories of Galen won’t get you through medical school and Newton’s aether theory won’t get you through physics, but at a secondary level of information about information, it’s vital that libraries collect even these discredited theories as a means of enhancing the social transcript and preserving all of the links in the chain of knowledge.
On the value of librarians in a changing world
I’ll add one more upshot: defending the contemporary value of librarians. If we, as a profession, are going to justify our continued existence into the 21st Century, we need to make a strong case. One of the more popular tactics is to reposition librarianship as a social science, which directs our professional focus at information users rather than information itself. I’d be an idiot to suggest that we shouldn’t pay close attention to the information needs of our communities. But, should that be the core of librarianship? When we go before the city council, the school board, or the budget committee, do we want to justify our value by saying, “well, we’re the people who study how communities use information”? Of course not. Research into the sociology of information use may be what we do, but it isn’t what defines us.
So, why not explain that librarians are experts on the social transcript? We’re the ones that make sure that the chain of knowledge is intact, reliable, and accessible. We ensure that our communities have access to the domain of knowledge and culture in a way that makes sense. That last bit is important. Yes, the amount of information available online is staggering. With an Internet connection, the average person has access to quantities of information that are orders of magnitude greater than even that contained in the Library of Congress. But, which information matters? This is where librarians come in: we make that flood of information manageable.
Moreover, defending librarianship in terms of the domain of knowledge or the social transcript gives us a firm foundation for the relevance of librarians in conversations regarding scholarly communication, open access, copyright, and similar important issues. Rather than describe our value with gate counts and grade point averages, we can point to our unique expertise in dealing with the transmission of knowledge across and through barriers. Not only do we curate information to help our patrons discover what matters, we play an active role in shaping the networks that convey that information.
Conclusion: it’s not about information
I guess what I’m trying to say is that information and knowledge are not the bedrock of a philosophy of librarianship. Yes, information and knowledge are integral to a properly functioning library, but they aren’t the things that distinguish us as librarians: we’re neither information scientists nor epistemologists. Instead, we’re experts on the transmission of information and knowledge through testimony. We understand the networks that preserve and deliver knowledge, if not the knowledge itself. Thinking of librarianship in terms of testimony solves some thorny philosophical issues, but if philosophical issues aren’t relevant to you, then just take the aggregate of all the various chains of knowledge and expression available to us. That’s the social transcript. And that’s where librarians live.