Archive for the ‘authority’ Category

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: 22 July, 2016. This post looks at the draft Framework. For a review of the approved version of the frame “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” please visit https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/revisiting-the-framework-is-authority-constructed-and-contextual/

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ready for round three?

So far I’ve looked at two of the ACRL’s proposed threshold concepts for information literacy, noting that scholarship is only a conversation at a superficial and metaphorical level and that research is indeed inquiry, though the ACRL’s frame describing it is needlessly complex for such a simple, definitional concept. So, where are we?

  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

Looks like it’s time to look at authority.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual


From the ACRL draft framework, we get the following description of authority:

Authority of information resources depends upon the resources’ origins, the information need, and the context in which the information will be used. This authority is viewed with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought.

Experts understand that authority is the degree of trust that is bestowed and as such, authority is both contextual and constructed. It is contextual in that the information need may help determine the level of authority required. For instance, getting a weather forecast before going on a picnic does not require the foremost meteorological authority while a dissertation on the latest weather models may. It is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. For instance, a religious community may recognize the authority of religious leaders and texts which may not be as highly regarded by others who are not part of the community. Scholars within a discipline may value specific publications or publishers over others. Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.

An understanding of this concept enables learners to critically examine all evidence – be it a Wikipedia article or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding – and ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the information need of the moment. Thus, the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents, while remaining skeptical of both the systems which have elevated that authority and the information created by it. The experienced researcher knows how to seek authoritative voices, but also recognizes that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.

First off, we need to be clear on what kind of authority we’re talking about. This ain’t political authority, which is often synonymous with power. Though information literacy absolutely should address issues of power (and kudos to task force member Troy Swanson for carrying the torch on this one), this particular frame is not about systemic inequality, hierarchies of control, or oppressive social structures. Rather, this frame deals with cognitive authority, which deals instead with trust and credibility. And talking about cognitive authority gives me a chance to throw a shout-out to an LIS hero, the late professor Patrick Wilson: librarian, philosopher, and dean of the library school at Berkeley. Working at the intersection of social epistemology and library science (see why I like him?), Wilson wrote the book on authority. Literally. His 1983 Second-Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority is one of the most widely read theoretical works on information literacy.

I’ve written before about the importance of testimonial knowledge and Wilson has argued essentially the same thing: the vast majority of what we know comes from the testimony of other people. As Wilson puts it, “all I know of the world beyond the narrow range of my own personal experience is what others have told me. It is all hearsay. But I do not count all hearsay as equally reliable. Some people know what they are talking about, others do not. Those who do are my cognitive authorities.” (1983, p. 13). These cognitive authorities are the people we deem credible and Wilson points out that this credibility is constrained in several ways. Cognitive authorities are credible only within limited spheres of influence, so, for example, an astrophysicist may not be an authority on literature and vice versa. Some spheres are very small and specialized (the authority on the mating habits of the Sao Tome Shrew) but I should add that many people are authorities in several spheres of influence.It’s also the case that these spheres of authority are contextual. For example, when I’m with my friends and family, I’m the authority on library and information science. But at work or at a conference I’m nothing special and I defer to cognitive authorities of the library world. What makes me an authority in some spheres and not an authority in others is not my expertise–that doesn’t change–but the nature of the relevant community. And that’s actually an important point that Wilson makes: having cognitive authority is not the same as having expertise. Being an expert is having a certain body of knowledge or know-how; being an authority is having credibility within a sphere of influence independently of knowledge or know-how. It’s all in the context. Of course, in many cases, authorities obtain their credibility by being experts or reliable sources for knowledge. But, it’s not a requirement.


Back to the ACRL concept…

Overall, this overview is pretty good; it tracks Wilson’s work pretty closely. There are just a few lines that need to be changed or clarified:

“various communities may recognize different types of authority.”

This is true but I wish the frame was more explicit that (1) while different communities accept different authorities, (2) that doesn’t mean all authorities are equally valid and (3) it doesn’t mean those communities have good information. Sure, evangelical christians take the Bible as their authoritative source on social and scientific issues. But, that shouldn’t imply that the Bible is on par with science when it comes to authority. Then again, many social constructionists have argued just that. Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argued:

But can we then find a way of saying that the considerations advanced against the Copernican theory by Cardinal Bellarmine—the scriptural description of the fabric of the heavens—were ‘‘illogical or unscientific?’’. . . [Bellarmine] defended his view by saying that we had excellent independent (scriptural) evidence for believing that the heavens were roughly Ptolemaic. Was his evidence brought in from another sphere, and was his proposed restriction of scope thus ‘‘unscientific?’’ What determines that Scripture is not an excellent source of evidence for the way the heavens are set up? (1981, 328-9).

On Rorty’s account, Bellarmine’s appeal to scripture (to support a geocentric universe) was just as rational as Galileo’s use of a telescope (to establish heliocentrism). The problem should be obvious. If you don’t see it, then you might try considering how similar reasoning would play out in a moral situation. But, seeing as how I’ve done the anti-relativism thing in the past, lets consider it settled and move on.

“Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.”

First, expertise and authority are not synonymous and they really ought to be distinguished. If anything, the ACRL needs a separate concept for expertise.  Anyway, I’m also concerned by that dangling ‘unduly’ at the end. It seems that this sentence is saying that evaluating some information sources as better than others amounts to improper privileging. But, isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to admit that some kinds of authority/expertise are better than others? Even this very frame admits that a local weather report won’t cut it for doctoral research on climate science. Sorry, ACRL, but I’m going keep on teaching students that it’s a good thing to privilege some information sources over others (in context).

“the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents”

Again, authority represents credibility, not expertise. Though the two often appear together, many so-called authorities aren’t experts at all; many experts aren’t authorities.

“The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials…”

I’d contend that even expert researchers look to types of publications and author credentials for evidence of authority qua community acceptance.

Knowledge Practices

The frame on authority establishes the following dispositions, which I’ll annotate, lightly:

  • “Determine how authoritative information should be for a particular need.”
    • Should be clear that it’s the information source that’s authoritative, not the information itself.
  • “Identify markers of authority when engaging with information, understanding the elements that might temper that authority.”
    • Seems like a good idea
  • “Understand that many disciplines have acknowledged authorities in the sense of well-known  scholars and publications that are widely considered “standard,” and yet even in those situations, some scholars would challenge the authority of those sources.”
    • This is a tricky point. We should never take an information source to be infallible, so it makes sense to question even what we read in in the most influential journals. But, when we question cognitive authority, what are we supposed to do? For example, we can admit that an article in an authoritative journal is wrong without diminishing the authority of the journal. Of course, repeated wrongs will diminish reliability which will diminish credibility, but my point is that we need to be careful: are we questioning the veracity of a source provided by a cognitive authority or are we are we questioning cognitive authority itself. The former does not automatically imply the latter.
  • “Recognize that authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally, and may include dynamic user-generated information.”
    • “may include dynamic user-generated information”? So, you’re saying comments, right? Online articles have comments? What does this have to do with authority?
  • “Acknowledge that they themselves may be seen, now or in the future, as authorities in a particular area, and recognize the responsibilities that entails.”
    • It would be nice if the ACRL mentioned what those responsibilities are.
  • “Evaluate user response as an active researcher, understanding the differing natures of feedback mechanisms and context in traditional and social media platforms.”
    • Again, how do comments and retweets factor into authority. I might be able to accept the practice if the ACRL explained this point, but honestly it just seems like a strange addition. (As an aside, the Framework comes across as having a strange relationship with social media. Whenever social media is mentioned, it feels like an afterthought desperately shoehorned in.)


Again, lightly annotated:

Learners who are developing their information literate abilities are:

  • Inclined to develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives.”
    • I totally agree. Now what does it have to do with authority in particular?
  • “Motivated to find authoritative sources, recognizing that authority may be conferred or manifested in unexpected ways.”
    • No problem here
  • “Aware of the importance ofassessing content critically to the best of their ability.”
    • This is just generally good advice. Not sure how it’s specific to authority.
  • “Recognize that there are potential problems with traditional notions of granting authority.”
    • There certainly are, but it might help to talk about them.
  • “Conscious that maintaining these attitudes and actions requires frequent self monitoring.”
    • “Be aware of what you’re doing.” Good advice across the board. Why is it specifically here. You know, several of the dispositions, throughout the framework, really need to be pulled out and given their own space. I’m thinking it could just be called “Critical Thinking.”


The Verdict: Is authority contextual and constructed?

I’m going to agree with the ACRL on this one: authority is constructed and contextual. Hopefully this concept will bring renewed attention to Wilson’s work on cognitive authority, but I’m not keeping my fingers crossed. Thankfully, the concept as written doesn’t commit itself to either strong constructionism or naive realism, so it should be palatable to a wide range of librarians. However, it would help if the relationship between authority and expertise were fleshed out a little better. If it helps, I’ve got a post on the nature of expertise and another on the expertise of librarians. Really, if there’s a problem with this frame, it’s in the knowledge practices and dispositions. First, the parts on social media are tacked on sort of awkwardly. Second, many of the knowledge practices suffer from lack of explanation. “Markers of authority,” “packaged formally or informally,” “responsibilities that [authority] entails,” “user response.” These aren’t explained in the overview and can be interpreted in many ways. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things open to interpretation, but it does work against the purported “thresholdiness” of the concepts if they can be freely interpreted however librarians want. Third, several of the dispositions are just generally good intellectual traits and it’s hard to see why they are coupled with authority in particular. Other frames make more explicit connections between their dispositions and the concepts in question. This frame? Not so much.

And at three frames in I’ve reached the halfway point. The scholarship frame points to a helpful metaphor, but it also oversimplifies scholarship in an unhelpful way. The research frame gets things right, but it also doesn’t say that much. As Paul Hrycaj pointed out in the comments, “Given the meaning of “inquiry,” this frame seems equivalent to ‘Research is research.'” And the authority frame also gets things right but leaves a lot unexplained. Still, each frame is stronger than the last and I’m hopeful that the trend continues.

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