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Archive for August, 2014

by vuhung on Flickr. CC-BY 2.0

by vuhung on Flickr. CC-BY 2.0

A few posts back I mentioned Patrick Wilson’s 1983 book Second-Hand Knowledge [link], in which he argues that librarians ought to pay more attention to cognitive authority. I started writing a book review last week but I quickly realized that Wilson’s discussion is actually pretty weak. I mean, for a guy with a PhD in philosophy from Berkeley, it’s surprising how philosophically sloppy and under-researched his arguments are. But, there are a couple of interesting positions he takes and I’d like to quickly outline one that I think might be a bit polarizing.

The general argument of the book goes something like this:

  1. Most of what we believe comes from the testimony of other people (which includes texts, video, etc.)
  2. But, we don’t count all information sources as equally reliable: “some people know what they are talking about, others do not. Those who do are my cognitive authorities.” (p. 13).
  3. Cognitive authorities can be defined in terms of a social relationship in which one person has epistemic influence over another person with respect to some sphere of interest.
  4. There is a “knowledge industry” created in part to regulate cognitive authority. This includes formal institutions like publishers, universities, academic societies, and libraries that help regulate the social relationship of cognitive authority. It also includes informal theoretical systems that determine spheres of interest. These informal systems can be seen in the way intellectual fashions change over time (e.g., New Criticism vs. structuralism vs. post-structuralism vs. deconstructionism…each has its own criteria for authority).
  5. Libraries are a part of the knowledge industry that regulates cognitive authority.
  6. So, librarians should understand cognitive authority and their relationship to it.

It takes a while for Wilson to address libraries and librarians, but in Chapter 6 he turns his attention to the role of the library in the knowledge industry and he reflects on why people use libraries in the first place: they want information. But not just any information. They don’t want misinformation. They want quality information from cognitive authorities. But, given that libraries are literally filled with misinformation, there seems to be a need for some sort of quality control either at the point of collection or the point of access. Ideally, there should be someone to help information seekers determine if they’ve got the best available information. Wilson asks, “can those professionally responsible for information storage and retrieval act as quality controllers?” (p. 171).* In other words, what makes librarians trustworthy sources of information? Well, there are a few options.

First, it would seem to be the case that in order to effectively evaluate information, we ought to be experts on the relevant subject area. So, if a student comes to the reference desk looking for articles on Aztec funerary practices, I need to be an expert on Aztec funerary practices in order to identify which articles are the best. And so it goes for any subject area: a science librarian must be at least as much an authority on scientific matters as a practicing scientist, a medical librarian must be equal in expertise to a medical doctor. Occasionally you’ll even hear librarians (or, more typically their administrators) talk about hiring more PhDs to fill subject librarian lines: “we need experts.”

The only problem is that outside of the field of library science itself it’s impossible for a librarian to have authoritative expertise on anything but a very small aspect of a library collection. We hire ‘science’ librarians and ‘medical’ librarians, not ‘organometallic chemistry’ librarians and ‘cardiology’ librarians. Even a librarian with a PhD in a given field is only going to have expertise in certain areas of that field; the PhD is a mark of specialization, not omniscience. Put simply, librarians can’t be expected to be polymaths.**

However, even if we lack subject-expertise, we may have some other expertise. Maybe, Wilson suggests, librarians are “authorities on authority.” Maybe the librarian is the person who “can be trusted to tell us who else can be trusted” (p.179). We don’t have to be experts in the fields in which we can identify authorities; we just need some way determining who deserves to be taken as having cognitive authority. Sort of a meta-level evaluation of information. This certainly seems a compelling possibility, and it does lend credence to our insistence on spreading the gospel of information literacy. But, Wilson makes an interesting argument on this point. If a librarian isn’t a subject expert, all she can use are “indirect tests” of authority. These include asking

  1. What is the present reputation of the author of this information?  (p. 166)
  2. Who is the publisher? (p. 168)
  3. Is the information intrinsically plausible? (p. 169)

Here, Wilson has crafted the beginnings of what would later develop into information literacy (even looks a little like the CRAP test doesn’t it?). But, Wilson is quick to point out that these indirect tests are something that almost any person can master. If librarians’ judgments about information quality “are based not on expertise in the subject matter concerned but only on external signs and clues, then they are based on the same sorts of things that any other person ignorant of the subject matter would have to use” (p. 181). So, librarians can’t claim some special expertise or credibility when it comes to evaluating information. There are no trade secrets. So, even if we try to elevate information literacy as the locus of our expertise, we fail.

And here we get to the reason I wrote this post: the possibly polarizing position.

If Wilson is right that librarians are not cognitive authorities on anything other than library science itself, then why do information-seekers trust librarians? The answer is not that librarians are specialists. Quite the contrary. Librarians are delegates. It isn’t that librarians are better than average at making decisions about cognitive authority, it’s that they are no worse and so people trust librarians to work on their behalf (p. 186).

Let that sink in for a moment.

Librarians love arguing their roles in their communities. Are we activists? Educators? Gatekeepers? And we love arguing about the lack of rigor in library school programs.*** Maybe we ought to stop beating ourselves up over what intellectual, political, or moral mission makes us different from the communities we serve. Maybe we just are our communities? In a certain sense, this is liberating; we can learn to evade the detachment that characterizes our profession. We can meet our communities as equals, not experts. We can understand the reasons that motivate movements like New Librarianship or critical librarianship. Wilson was on to something.

Then again, what do we lose as delegates? Probably not our professional stature: we’d still be authorities/experts on library science.  But, perhaps our gravity outside of library science? The librarian is a cultural archetype and we are often called-on to weigh-in on non-library issues. Perhaps some of our advocacy? The delegate view would completely invalidate many ALA resolutions as being outside a far narrower conception of our expertise; as Wittgenstein said, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Perhaps our commitment to intellectual freedom? After all, we’d be responsible for following community opinion, even if that opinion lends itself towards intellectual conservatism. Perhaps our value as an information resource? Wilson certainly didn’t anticipate the Google age. Perhaps whatever professional pride we have left?  It’s hard to say. But it’s worth thinking about. I’ll concede that this post barely scratches the surface and I hope someone else is inspired to investigate.

Summing up: Are librarians authorities on information? Are we experts on information literacy? Wilson’s argument suggests that no, we aren’t. We’re delegates appointed by our communities. I highly recommend reading Wilson’s Second-Hand Knowledge.  Like I said, most of it is shoddy philosophy. But there are a few important insights. Personally, I’m not convinced by Wilson’s librarian-as-delegate argument. I’ve covered the paradox of authority and expertise in the past [one, two, three] and I reached a very different conclusion from Wilson, one in support of librarians as cognitive authorities. But, Wilson’s argument shouldn’t be discounted. Take it on my authority.

 

by adulau on Flickr. CC-BY-SA 2.0

by adulau on Flickr. CC-BY-SA 2.0

* Of course, librarians have a standard response when asked to provide quality control: evaluation requires subject expertise and librarians only have expertise in information handling and librarianship (p. 173). So, librarians have to be neutral, which is a deeply problematic position to take. And impossible to boot.

** Not to say that there aren’t librarians who are expert authorities on certain topics. There certainly are. But, professionally speaking, requiring librarians to be authorities on entire fields or entire collections is like asking for unicorns.

*** Personally, I think that programs that focus more on information science can and often do have intellectually challenging and engaging classes.

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UPDATE: July 29, 2016. This post reviews the draft version of the ACRL Framework. For a review of the final version of “Information has Value” please visit this link: https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/revisiting-the-framework-does-information-have-value/

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Well, we’ve reached the last frame of the draft ACRL information literacy revision: Information has Value. Here’s the full list if you want to go back and read about the others:

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

This is an especially interesting frame. Not only is it a late addition to the framework (the other five have been around since the first draft in February), but it also may be the most widely accepted and discussed concept in the framework. Just search for the phrase “information has value” and you’ll get thousands of hits from the business world, computer sciences, the medical field, education, libraries, and others. Add the keyword ‘library’ and you’ll still get thousands of hits. This concept is so uncontroversial and commonplace that it’s difficult to pinpoint just how it’s “troublesome” in the sense of being a threshold concept. But it’s not too difficult to show that it’s troublesome in other ways…

Overview

From the draft framework:

Information has Value acknowledges that the creation of information and products derived from information requires a commitment of time, original thought, and resources that need to be respected by those seeking to use these products, or create their own based on the work of others. In addition, information may be valued more or less highly based on its creator, its audience/consumer, or its message.

Experts understand that this value designates information as intellectual property, and therefore, recognizes three important dimensions of value. First, information can act as a commodity, and as such, creators can use their work for financial, reputational, social, or civic gains. These motivations may determine how information sources are shared whether given freely, offered for sale, or leased for temporary access. Information users have responsibilities as both consumers and creators of information based on the work of others. Academic and legal practices such as proper attribution of sources and complying with copyright are a result.

Second, as intellectual property, information sources are affected by economic, sociological, and political influences. The means of production may privilege some voices over others. Some search systems may privilege some sources over others due to economic incentive. Experts understand the consequences of selecting appropriate research methods (such as applying the correct statistical analysis to data), the limitations of publishing practices (such as scholarly journals’ lack of interest in publishing negative research results), and the boundaries to accessing the information ecosystem (such as populations without internet access or obstacles created by paywalls).

Finally, experts recognize that their online activity and information they contribute to online sites can be used for economic gain by the sites themselves. Such uses may include personal information harvested from social media sites or advertisements placed on “free” web tools or apps. One’s online presence is monitored, tracked and, ultimately, monetized.

Following the committee’s logic, we can pull out three descriptive components of this frame:

  1. Information sometimes behaves as a commodity.
  2. The flow of information is affected by economic, social, and political influences.
  3. Web services can use the information you provide for their own economic gain.

And, further, we can pull out two prescriptive responsibilities:

  1. Respect the labor of information creators by adhering to proper source attribution.
  2. Respect the commodification of information by complying with copyright.

Interestingly, these two prescriptive components are tied to the first descriptive element: information as commodity. There are no corresponding prescriptive elements to the second and third descriptive elements. I mean, sure we can make inferences. Perhaps experts stand against economic, social , and political influences on information creation? Perhaps we should work to make information more accessible? Perhaps we should be careful about what information we share online? Or, maybe just describing the current state of affairs in the information ecosystem is enough. But, if that’s the case, why are there those two prescriptive claims regarding intellectual property rights?

Elsewhere, Jacob Berg has argued that this frame conceals a morally suspect take on intellectual property. Copyright law is broken, he argues, yet here we have the ACRL advocating that experts on information literacy should comply with a system “that every information professional should know is broken, at odds with the common good and encouraging innovation.” That being said, I’m not sure it’s as dire as Berg argues. The ACRL could just be describing economic reality: copyright exists; be careful.

Regarding the claim that information is affected by social forces, I’m first struck by how odd the ACRL’s first example is. Experts understand the consequence of selecting the correct statistical analysis? What does that have to do with economic, political, or social influences? Is there some post-colonial version of ANOVA that I haven’t heard of? A t-test that resists neoliberalism? Don’t get me wrong, understanding statistical methods is important for successful research, but I don’t see the link to economic/social/political influence. I might also add that if the common criticisms of LIS research are any indication librarians are decidedly not experts on quantitative methods.

Moving on, it’s absolutely true that journals handle negative results far differently from so-called significant findings. Likewise, accessibility is clearly affected by social and economic forces. But, at least from a social justice perspective, there is the opportunity here for the ACRL to take a more substantial position on racism, heteronormativity, sexism, and similar systemic oppressions. I wish they would have and overall I feel the second claim is part of the way towards a valuable insight, but there is a lot left unpacked and unsaid.

Finally, I’m glad the ACRL is promoting more responsible digital stewardship of personal information. Nothing wrong with that as far as I can tell.

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Knowledge Practices (Abilities)

Learners who are developing their information literate abilities:

Give credit to the original ideas of others through proper attribution and citation.
This is the closest the ACRL gets to discussing plagiarism.

Recognize the meaning of intellectual property in the United States.
I’m not comfortable with the U.S.-centric bias here, but I suppose if the ACRL is only meant to govern U.S. academic libraries then that’s the way it has to be.

Understand that intellectual property is a social construct that varies by culture.
Hm. While intellectual property is certainly a social construct, the degree of variations between cultures might be contestable, if the near universal support for treaties like Berne, UCC, WIPO, and others is to be believed (WIPO has 187 member states). Perhaps the moral significance attached to intellectual property varies between cultures, but that’s not what this knowledge practice says. I suppose you could make the claim that United Nations special agencies like WIPO represent the vestiges of Western imperialist/colonial hegemony, but even postcolonial studies have been drifting away from focusing on the lingering effects of past colonialism and instead focusing on the impact of contemporary capitalism….Basically what I’m trying to say is that the relationship between intellectual property and culture is far more complicated than this knowledge practice suggests.

Articulate the purpose and distinguishing characteristics of copyright, open access, and public domain.
Define some terms? Okay. But then what?

Know how to find open access materials.
Okay.

Differentiate between the production of original information and remixing or re-purposing open resources.
Okay.

Manage their online presences responsibly.
Okay.

Decide where their information, as knowledge creator, should be published.
Get rid of that silly “as a knowledge creator” clause. It’s trite and meaningless.

Dispositions

Learners who are developing their information literate abilities:

Respect the original ideas of others and the academic tradition of citation and attribution.
I’m worried about the conjunction. I see nothing wrong with respecting the original ideas of others. But respecting the “academic tradition of citation and attribution?” There’s an equivocation here between respect qua holding something or someone in high esteem and respect qua deference to authority. I don’t respect APA style in the same way I respect a person’s intellectual output. Break this disposition into two parts for clarity.

Value the creative skills needed to produce information.
“Creative skills needed“? Is it implied somewhere in this frame that all information production is preceded by a creative act? Like we should value the “creativity” of the weather report? I think there are other valuable skills beyond the creative.

See themselves as contributors to the information market place rather than only consumers of it.
What if they don’t buy into the commodification of information? What if they want to subvert the “information market place”?

Recognize issues of access or lack of access to information sources.
I might add that, more importantly, they should recognize privilege. I’m sure lots of students know that some people can’t access information. The real insight is in having students recognize their own information privilege (or lack thereof).

Understand that some individuals or groups of individuals may not be represented within the information ecosystem.
Hm. Which groups might those be? I know that there are serious issues of under-representation and marginalization facing certain social groups. But complete non-representation? Maybe an undiscovered village in the Amazon? I’d change this disposition to focus instead on the systemic marginalization and under-representation of certain voices. Non-representation suggests lack of awareness. Marginalization suggests intent. The latter is the more salient moral problem.

Overview

This frame has a lot of potential and it does hint at some subversive tendencies (at least by librarian standards). But I can’t shake the feeling that this is a missed opportunity for the ACRL to make a bolder statement about social justice. I understand there are probably political concerns that prevent the framework from taking a truly radical position. But that just goes reinforces one of the messages of “Information has Value”: even this framework is beholden to a particular social, economic, and political outlook. Which, when you think about it, sort of undermines any pretext of universality for the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy. In the document meant to guide academic libraries across the country we have the admission that the document itself can only be understood in it’s social and political context.

And so, like Ouroboros, the Framework ends by consuming itself; as information it’s value is a function of commodification, social/economic/political influences, and digital stewardship. What’s the economic value to the ACRL of putting out a brand new framework? How do the committee members writing this framework benefit? Has the document properly attributed it’s sources, or is the list of “suggested readings” at the end count? Does it matter that the introduction to the Framework only cites it’s own task force members? What’s the social and economic context of the Delphi Study that provides us with these threshold concepts? What privileges played into the construction of the framework? Which voices were not represented? Does it matter that the ACRL won’t tell us?

If this frame is taken at face-value then these questions matter and, in the absence of answers or explanations, the value of the Framework itself can be called into question. That being said, I still think the task force that put this document together should be commended for their hard work. The framework is a step in the right direction and though I doubt my nitpicking will be given much consideration, I am optimistic that the next draft–and there has to be one–will lead to more answers than questions.

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