One of my favorite things about the old beaux-arts Carnegie libraries is that they usually feature inspirational quotations inscribed deep into their marble friezes, architraves, and whatnot. For example, you may recognize the line in the image above from the New York Public Library. “But above all things Truth beareth away the victory.” Sounds pretty awesome, right? It’s almost as if the library is gently reminding visitors that it’s in the truth-business and since truth is the most powerful thing in the world, if you just stop in and look around, you’re bound to come out a winner! Actually, that’s exactly what it means; the line comes from the King James version of 1 Esdras and the dude who said it ended up winning a speech-writing contest hosted by King Darius I.* (For any millennials reading this, Darius was the dad of the evil king in 300.)
Anyway, inspirational quotations are sort of a mainstay in libraries and, to that end, the new library here at UTC will feature around 100 quotes in and around the building. To facilitate the short turn-around given by the architect, we recently asked the campus community to submit quotations related to libraries, learning, education, and the like. Of course, the last thing we want is to chisel something into granite only to have a student or professor loudly declaim against a misquotation. So, we’ve been attempting to verify as many quotes as possible and, to date, we’ve fact-checked 298 quotations, proverbs, aphorisms, and sayings. In the process, I’ve had time to think about how something as simple as a quotation can act as a barometer of how we understand truth and knowledge in libraries. Allow me to explain…
First, here’s a quote we received that has been attributed to Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
You know, that would look pretty cool in one of the group study rooms. Poking around Google, you’ll see the quote repeated in most of the popular quotation websites. It’s included in dozens of books of quotations. It’s listed at wikiquote.org as appearing in the 1984 book Curing Nuclear Madness, edited by Frank Sommers and Tana Dineen (Toronto: Meuthen, p. 158). The American Library Association includes it at libraryquotes.org. It even sounds like the kind of thing Margaret Mead would say. And, to top it off, it’s quoted on literally every page at the official Institute for Intercultural Studies website. You know, the institute that Margaret danged Mead founded. Obviously, I marked it as verified and I approved it for use in the new building.
Except, I didn’t. Even with multiple sources–some highly reputable like the ALA and the IIS–I marked the Mead quote as unverified and unfit for use in the new library. Popular quotation websites are, as most librarians know, filled to the brim with misquotations. The book mentioned on WikiQuote is an incredibly obscure book of New Age social psychology written by a sex therapist. The ALA list of library quotes lists “The newsletter of the Friends of the Largo Public Library, FL” as the “primary” source.** Even the IIS admits (on the FAQ page) that “we have been unable to locate when and where it was first cited.” The one thing missing is a primary source. Without a book, article, interview, or other work by or featuring Margaret Mead, I’m not going to call the quote verified and it won’t go in the library.
Am I being stubborn? I suppose some librarians may think I am. And here we can point to a rather mundane example of how our philosophical theories and attitudes inform professional practice. In contrast to the common argument that librarians need more discussion of practice and less theory, I want to show how deep philosophical convictions play a real role in professional practice. Let’s look at three common librarian attitudes towards truth: constructionism, pragmatism, and realism.
First, if you consider the massive amounts of agreement regarding the Mead quote to be sufficient verification for using it in a library, then you are most likely a social constructionist. This is a somewhat common view and it holds that the truth is whatever we have agreed is the truth. Typically, this agreement takes place through social processes. For the social constructionist, we are justified in believing that Mead said it…because everyone agrees she said it. Further, the social constructionist approach is highly skeptical of authority or credibility. To the social constructionist, what matters is reliability or consensus (Lankes, 2007)*** so it’s the consensus about Mead’s quote that matters, not the nitpicking about primary sources. Dave Lankes of “new librarianship” fame is a good example of a social constructionist.
Second, you may believe that the potential value of the quote for students and the lack of proof that Mead didn’t say it are enough to consider it verified. In this case, you are most likely a pragmatist. That is, you probably believe that truth is whatever we find most useful to believe. For the pragmatist, the quote should be verified because Mead said it for all intents and purposes. Practically speaking, adding Mead’s name gives the quote social and intellectual cachet and doesn’t deprive anyone of their claim to authorship. Likewise, practically speaking, attributing the quote to Mead helps spread Mead’s rather important and compelling worldview. Nitpicking over primary source documents misses the point: truth is about what is most practical and useful to believe, not what is “out there” in the world, and believing that Mead said it is more useful than attributing it to an anonymous source. Lots of librarians identify as pragmatists (see Crowley, 2005, Spanning the theory-practice divide in library and information science. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.).
Finally, if you withhold judgment about the quote and refuse to verify it in the light of massive social and practical agreement, you may just be a realist. The realist takes as a starting point the belief that Mead either did or did not say something about thoughtful committed people. There is an objective fact of the matter and determining that fact requires
absolute a high degree of certainty. A recorded interview, a text written by Mead, a letter…the bar for the realist is set fairly high and a verified quote can only be one with a clear, direct, and unambiguous provenance. No matter what people agree she said, or what practical exigencies require, the realist approach hinges on (for lack of a better term) objective evidence. True, some may argue that a book or letter or interview are just texts and texts can be wrong. This is why realism (at least in fact-checking quotations) is very concerned with authority control. This is also why realism does give preference to expertise in the forms of authority and credibility. Interestingly, the realist (and the pragmatist, to a certain extent) does think that consensus and reliability are important. But, that’s qualified as consensus by credible sources and reliable at leading to truth. Ultimately, the realist position is to only call the quote verified to the extent that objective, authoritative evidence supports it.
Now, in many (most?) cases, all three theories will agree. Did Francis Bacon say that “knowledge is power”? To the constructionist everyone agrees he did, so he did. To the pragmatist, it makes the most practical sense to accept that he did, so he did. For the realist, you can find “nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” in the original text of Bacon’s Meditationes Sacræ, so he did. All three theories agree that Bacon’s immortal words are verified. It’s only in the difficult cases that theory or worldview will start to distinguish decisions. This is especially visible in quotes attributed to the most famous and prolific thinkers: Einstein, Twain, King, Angelou, Jefferson, Franklin…anyone whose name can lend gravitas to a pithy saying. And, I should add, this isn’t just a library issue, as the recent proliferation of Tea Party misquotations adequately demonstrates. Indeed, as a realist, I get pretty ticked off when politicians and pundits misattribute or just invent quotes from people like Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and other important folk. Especially when those false quotations stand in direct opposition to what their supposed speakers actually believed (as is usually the case). For those interested in a decidedly realist approach to fact-checking and verification of famous quotations, I recommend the Quote Investigator.
In the end, does any of this matter for practicing librarians? Aren’t we more concerned with the day-to-day practice of librarianship, not abstract philosophical navel-gazing? Well, I suppose that depends on what you want to take away from it. I, for one, think it matters to a certain degree. In information literacy, what do concepts like credibility, relevance, or accuracy mean if not in light of these philosophical worldviews? In scholarly communication, isn’t the emphasis on impact factors and citations evidence of the social constructionist push for consensus building? Isn’t research in evidenced-based librarianship evidence of pragmatic or realist tendencies? Where you fall on these and other issues in large pat depends on your philosophical outlook. So, does philosophy guide practice? As Sydney’s Paul Redding just wrote, in response to Australian MP Jamie Briggs’ assertion that philosophical inquiry isn’t practical,
“In the division of intellectual labour, philosophers work mainly at the level of the hinges between thoughts, on those concepts deeply embedded within the argumentative threads weaving through our culture. But these are threads that have started somewhere with the formation of beliefs, and end somewhere in actions. As the concepts on which philosophers work are typically located a long way from where these threads start or terminate, philosophical research is generally described as “pure” rather than “applied”. But “pure” does not mean “irrelevant”. Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?”
Yes. Philosophical worldviews affect practice. It’s called praxis and it deserves as much attention as it can muster. You can quote me on that.
* Actually, he won so hard that Darius gave him financial and political backing to lead the Jews out of Babylon and build the Second Temple. Dude’s name? Zerubbabel.
** Just an aside: the ALA libraryquotes.org website treats newsletters and desk calendars as “primary sources.” Of all the professional organizations you’d expect to understand “primary source” you’d think the ALA would be right at the top.
*** However, Lankes’ discussion seems pretty inconsistent. He argues that “the most common way to become an authority…is through reliability” (681) and then claims that “reliability and authority can be seen as opposite ends on a spectrum” (681). Are these interlocking concepts or polar opposites? Lankes is unclear. In any event, the realist advocates for authority and reliability, not authority instead of reliability.