Right now my tenure dossier is being circulated among various and sundry provosts, chancellors, and other administrative types. If you’ve been through the process, you’re probably already aware that these dossiers often have strict requirements pertaining to what needs to be included, what counts as evidence, formatting, section titles, and so on. So, I suppose it really wasn’t a surprise to find that my one-and-a-half page philosophy of librarianship statement would have to be trimmed down to no more than one page before being passed to the next reader. I’ll write a new statement later today but, in the meantime, I thought I’d post the original here.
Philosophy of Librarianship
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”
“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
There is nothing more basic than belief; our lives are little more than the sum total of our beliefs about the world. Our personal histories, who we love, what we wish for the future…every aspect of our selves is mediated by belief. It is for this reason that the abbreviated function of education is to lead us to new belief: we grow and learn as we encounter and adopt new ways of experiencing the world. Of course, belief comes in degrees. While we may be perfectly willing to modify or even reject many of the things we think about the world, certain of our beliefs are held to a higher standard; there are some things about which we are absolutely sure. There are certain things we just know. Finding these certain, indubitable beliefs has occupied us for thousands of years as philosophers, scientists, poets, and artists all seek not just an understanding of the world, but the right understanding of the world. Taken as a whole, and developed over millennia, this quest for knowledge and understanding constitutes the social transcript…and the librarian is its steward. As librarians, it is our job to facilitate this organization of knowledge and, moreover, to assist others in identifying, accessing, and evaluating the recorded knowledge they seek. If you want to know which beliefs best represent the human condition, look no further than the library.
And yet, in our post-information age we are drowning in belief; drowning in information. It is no longer enough for libraries to collect, organize, and make accessible extant beliefs, because there are just too many. What’s more, knowledge has become increasingly contested. The exponential growth in information available to the average person has resulted in a strange sort of intellectual populism characterized by confirmation bias after confirmation bias. What does it mean to proportion your belief to the evidence when Google can put you in touch with evidence for anything? The choices seem to be radical skepticism or base gullibility. The social transcript has run amok.
As an instruction librarian I see it as my responsibility to help patrons and students understand that the world of information is not simple. Information does not and cannot go uncontested. The unimaginably vast amounts of information at our students’ disposal are not evenly distributed and the beliefs therein expressed are not all equally valid. Thus, it is vital that students learn to critically evaluate the information around them. Students must learn how power shapes dominant narratives, how methods of publication affect information quality, how expertise is communicated, and how knowledge is ultimately transferred. Students need to know which information they can trust.
And this issue of trust is no small thing either. As Hume argued, “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men.” Almost every belief we have about the world comes from the testimony of someone else. You only know your date of birth through a birth certificate. You only know the capital of a far-off country because of a map. You only know the chemical weights of the elements from a chart. Indeed, every single thing that happened before your birth or in far-off places you only know from being told it or having read it. Testimony is so important to knowledge that learning which testimonial evidence to trust may be the most basic critical thinking skill there is; learning where to find that evidence is almost just as basic. And the role of the librarian, as steward of the social transcript, is to guard that evidence, make it available, and teach others how to evaluate it.
The books we collect, the journals to which we subscribe, the films we purchase, even the wilderness of the open Internet, all constitute the social transcript and this is where librarians work. In helping others move from unanalyzed information to synthesized knowledge, we help patrons identify the testimonial evidence to ground their beliefs about the world. This is what I do as a librarian at UTC. It’s not about passively providing answers; it’s about actively teaching others how to find the answers. It’s not about organizing information; it’s about showing others why that organization matters. It’s not about deciding expertise; it’s about teaching others how to identify it.
As an instruction librarian at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it is my mission to assist the academic community in the access and evaluation of information, through responsible collection development, reference assistance, and library instruction. In doing so, I am upholding the longstanding tradition of the librarian as a guide to the social transcript.