Archive for the ‘epistemology’ Category

Graffiti of the work propaganda written in Greek

Konstantinos Koukopoulos on FLickr, CC BY

I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.

As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.


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by mattbuck, CC-BY-SA 3.0

by mattbuck, CC-BY-SA 3.0

So, I’ve been trying to come up with a research agenda. I mean, I can’t be the “Framework is stupid” guy forever;1 I don’t want to get pigeonholed.

Anyway, it’s Sunday night and I’m thinking that if I’m going to turn my back on whatever the ACRL comes up with, I’ve still got to have a working concept of “information literacy” (or something to that effect.) Well, I’ve had this idea rattling around for over a year and the other day I finally thought I’d pursue it. So I fired up the LISTA database and started searching for something I figured some librarians somewhere had already researched thoroughly: Bayesian interpretations of information literacy.

Nothing. Not a single article. I checked a few of the major journals. Nada. Google Scholar? Just one 2002 article by Carol Gordon (formerly of Rutgers and clearly on to something). I headed over to Twitter and asked where the rest of the research was? Crickets. From what I can tell, no librarians are applying Bayesian theory to information literacy. Shoot, the impression I’m getting is that most information literacy librarians have never even heard of Bayesian inference. So that’s going to be it. My research agenda will be to introduce a Bayesian approach to information literacy.

But what does that even mean? Here’s a brief overview:


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by ktylerconk on Flickr, CC BY

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.


by DennisM2 on Flickr. CC BY

* 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.

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Do you remember when the dot-com bubble burst? How about that time Elián González lost at hide and seek? Or when the Supreme Court gave George Bush the presidency? Remember the premiere of Survivor and how much you hated the dude with the beard? Do you remember when iMacs looked like fishtanks? Did you know that Destiny’s Child was once a quartet? If you do remember any 0f this stuff then good for you! Now you can name a half dozen things that have happened since the ACRL Information Literacy Standards were last changed.

That’s right.

The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards–the ones that start with “The information literate student…blah blah blah” and then get broken into 22 performance indicators and 87 distinct outcomes–were formally approved on January 18, 2000. Over 13 years ago. For a profession that prides itself on its web-savvy, it seems a bit odd that the document which Steven Bell just described as “one of, if not the most essential document, related to the emergence of information literacy as a recognized learning outcome at many institutions of higher education” harkens back to a time when the most popular method of accessing the Internet involved AOL 5.0 and a dial-up connection.


Thankfully, the ACRL is taking steps to remedy this situation by creating a task force dedicated to writing new information literacy competency standards for higher education. Here’s the charge:

Update the Information literacy competency standards for higher education so that they reflect the current thinking on such things as the creation and dissemination of knowledge, the changing global higher education and learning environment, the shift from information literacy to information fluency, and the expanding definition of information literacy…

I won’t go into all of the messy details about why these standards need to be retired but it suffices to say that at 13 years old they probably need to be revisited. If you want more specific gripes and recommendations regarding the current IL standards, check out the recommendations from last year’s review task force.

Oh yeah…did I mention that I’m on the task force? Yeah…I have no idea why, but I was asked to help write new information literacy standards for the ACRL. The task force has only just started working, so there isn’t much to report yet, but over the next year I plan on sharing what I can here on the blog. And what better way to start than to explain my general take on information literacy and the future of the ACRL standards?


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MacGyver. Bart. Doogie. Theo. If you were a boy in middle school in the early ’90s, the playground arguments over who was the coolest guy on television featured some predictable characters. I’ll admit I thought these guys were pretty rad but, at the time, the television personality I most wanted to be was “the kid with a report due on space”:


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SOCRATES: In the matter of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and whom deserting we shall destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice; is there not such a principle?

CRITO: Certainly, there is, Socrates.

      –Plato, Crito, 47c-d [trans. by Benjamin Jowett] [link]

It seems that Wikipedia is getting into trouble with the experts…again. As he explains in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education), Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse, an academic with years of experience researching the Haymarket Affair (i.e., an expert on the topic), ran into difficulty editing the Wikipedia article on the event because his suggested improvements constituted original research, contradicted the scholarly majority opinion, and lacked sufficient source attribution. Basically, Messer-Kruse attempted to correct commonly believed factual inaccuracies and was summarily shot-down.


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If David Weinberger is to be believed, the Internet hasn’t just changed how we access information, it has altered the very meaning of ‘knowledge’. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Weinberger claims that “for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument.” Supposedly, the networked, collaborative, and social nature of the Internet has changed our very understanding of knowledge to the point that knowledge is no longer tied to concepts of truth, objectivity, or certainty. Instead, as Weinberger argues in his recent book, Too Big to Know, “knowledge is a property of the network” (p. xiii). That is, the Internet has profoundly changed what it means to be a fact, to be true, or to be known. This book has been making the rounds among librarians, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain Weinberger’s argument and what librarians should–and should not–take away from it.


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Courtesy of Brandon Doran CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I really kicked the hornets’ nest with my last post, and library constructivists are going out of their way to defend what I believe to be an indefensible position. I should point out that on the constructivist view my arguments for realism are an equally valid viewpoint, so why the fuss? I should also point out that I find it odd that, when pressed, the most common constructivist retorts I’m seeing are: “But, look at all the oppression in the name of science!” Should I even dignify such naïveté with a response? Of course there is oppression in the name of science, but that has nothing to do with science. Really, if you can name it, someone has probably been oppressed by it, and that includes social constructionism. Completely abandoning rationality and objectivity because bad things have happened in the name of rationality and objectivity is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Tell you what, here’s a bit of Latin you can get as your next bitchin’ tattoo: cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. Better yet, tattoo it on the baby, so you don’t forget. (Bonus if you add “4 Lyfe” after it.) 

“Pokemon 4 Lyfe”
Bob Jagendorf. CC BY 2.0 

Anyway, two things have come out in the ensuing debate that are commonly confused. On the one hand there is the question, “What is the world really like?” Is it a social construct or is it a mind-independent reality? On the other hand, there is the question, “What can we know about the world?” Are claims to knowledge socially constructed, or are they objective? Though these are separate philosophical issues, and I tried to distinguish between the two when I covered constructionist theories, I’ve been asked to explain my views on each. First, I’ll address the issue of what the world is really like; the metaphysical realist vs. anti-realist debate.

NKESR stands for “Use Common Sense, Dummy”
Why am I a metaphysical realist to begin with? I suppose I could give a personal history of the courses I took and the lectures I’ve given, but you kind of had to be there. Instead I’ll take an old lecture I gave in a philosophical problems class and blog-o-tize it for mass consumption. (Skip it if you really don’t want to read about Kant.)

Start with Kant, who held that things that exist independently of our minds cannot be known “in themselves”. These objects (noumena he called them) are only experienced through representations in the mind. In fact, according to Kant, all we have direct access to are our mental representations of external objects (he called these phenomena). Some philosophers ran with this idealism and created theories to the effect that we can have no knowledge of the world outside of ourselves and our own minds. But, Kant had a trick up his sleeve. Our mental representations are remarkably well structured. Things like causality, extension in space or the fact that things persist through time are inescapable constraints on how we see the world (he called these schema). Where do these constraints come from? His answer was that they come from the external objects themselves. So, we may not have access to the physical objects in themselves but we do have access to the causal and relational properties between them.

Filtered through a few centuries, Kant’s theory leads to Kantian Epistemic Structural Realism. This is the view that we cannot know anything about physical objects in themselves, but we can know their causal and relational properties. For example, I may not be able to see atoms, but I can describe the way they interact, make predictions, and use atoms to investigate other aspects of nature. So, scientific theories are just accounts of the causal and relational properties of objects, and not of the objects themselves. Yet, this is still a realism because it acknowledges that certain relationships do in fact obtain in some external reality, even if the objects themselves cannot be directly experienced.

Now, for one last twist. Scientific experimentation is remarkably consistent in its results. Actually, the successes of science are the best evidence that reality is not a social construct. In fact, as Putnam put it, realism is the only attitude that doesn’t make the successes of science miraculous. (See this article for a brief overview). In reference to Kantian structural realism, I think that the remarkable consistency and predictive power of our scientific theories is the best evidence that the objects they describe really do exist. The causal and relational properties described by our theories are so powerful, that the objects in those relations must be real. So, call this neo-Kantian Epistemic Structural Realism (NKESR). That’s what I believe. There are some good criticisms of this position, especially Arthur Fine’s Natural Ontological Attitutde and Bas van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism. These are criticisms that I take seriously, though answering them exceeds the scope of this post.

(Update 5/25/11: No sooner did I post this than PNAS published an article somewhat corroborating Kantian psychology: apparently intuitions about Euclidean geometry are innate and independent of social constructs…including language. Neat!)

So, the simple version is just that whatever reality is actually like, socially constructed or not, if you jump out the window, you’re going to fall. It just so happens that the best account for why this is the case is that there really is an external, physical world. To quote a contemporary realist philosopher, “What they eat don’t make us shit…Real talk.”

“Girl, concepts are just freely repeatable elements
in propositional representational contents. Real talk.”

So, what is knowledge?
Everything I just said was about metaphysical realism (ontological realism). How we should describe reality is a separate, epistemological issue. The question becomes, “What can we know about the world?” I should take a second to say what knowledge is, in order to set up epistemological realism. Knowledge is non-accidentally true belief. To say that you know that the head office of the American Library Association is in Chicago means that

  1. You believe the ALA head office is in Chicago,
  2. It is true that the ALA head office is in Chicago, and
  3. You are justified in believing that the head office of the ALA is in Chicago.
What are truth and justification? Well, in my last post I explained constructivist theories of truth (fact), and those don’t work, so let’s go with what works and adopt a correspondence theory: a proposition is true if it corresponds with reality. Constructivists should have no problem accepting this theory, for them reality is a social construct so truth would just be what corresponds to social agreements. But, as I showed earlier, reality is objective and external, so truth corresponds with that. Now, what about justification? That’s actually a HUGE thing to answer. 

You see, we can accept that there is a mind-independent physical reality, but that doesn’t tell us what we are justified in believing about that reality (inversely, we can be realists about our theories, but not about physical objects. cf. instrumentalism). Epistemic social constructionism tells us that all beliefs about reality are equally valid social constructs and that though there may be genuine facts out there, there is no privileged way of representing the world. Boghossian (2006) describes it this way:

Of course, the world doesn’t just inscribe itself onto our minds. In trying to get at the truth, what we do is try to figure out what’s true from the evidence available to us: we try to form the belief that it would be most rational to have, given the evidence. But is there just one way of forming rational beliefs in response to the evidence? Are facts about justification universal or might they vary from community to community? (p. 58)

Most of the more persuasive constructionists follow this type of epistemic constructionism; Richard Rorty is a prime example of someone who follows this line. According to Rorty, facts aren’t socially constructed and relative at all. The same facts hold for everyone, everywhere. This is a metaphysical realism. BUT, Rorty hastens to add that there is not a privileged way of representing the world. We can create wildly different epistemic systems based on the same evidence, and all of these systems are equally valid. So, it isn’t that facts are relative, it’s that facts about rational belief are relative. For the epistemic constructivist, knowledge is still justified, true belief, but justification is relative to a particular community. As Boghossian puts it, “different people may rationally arrive at opposed conclusions, even as they acknowledge all the same data” (p. 59)

On the flip-side, epistemological realism tells us that there is, in fact, a right way and a wrong way to represent the world and we can accurately represent the world as it really is. So, what is the right path to knowledge? I for one follow a reliablist account of justification: a belief is justified if it is the outcome of a reliable, truth-conducive process. Since the scientific methodology is the most reliable, truth-conducive process, the scientific methodology gives us a true account of reality. And just to be clear, a scientific methodology is not the same as the hard sciences. The scientific methodology is just the application of logic, reason, empirical evidence, experimentation, etc. to questions of fact. So, for example, on the question of which is better, the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification system, we use logic, reason, and analysis to examine each carefully. The context, the social agreements, the ingrained biases…these are still relevant and important factors that we must consider as evidence or “experimental controls”. When I want to figure out which to adopt in my library, there is a fact of the matter that one is better than the other in my situation, and I can figure it out through reason. If I were a constructivist about knowledge, I may appeal to tradition, to holy scripture, to what feels right, or some other method of justification, since none are superior. As a realist, I appeal to reason and evidence. Since I want to be done with the philosophy part of this post, I’ll just direct you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need more, because I’m supposed to be talking about libraries.

Courtesy of nualabugeye. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Libraries and Objectivity

Okay, back to libraries. What am I advocating for the foundations of library and information science? Well, I think LIS should be committed to the following things:

  1. Metaphysical realism: There are mind-independent facts about the way the world really is.
  2. Epistemological realism: We can, in fact, accurately represent the way the world really is.
  3. Reliablism: We are justified in believing the truth of our representations if those representations are the product of a reliable, truth-conducive process.
  4. Scientism: Scientific methodology (reason and evidence) is the most reliable, truth-conducive justificatory process.
The best approach to a philosophy of librarianship begins with embracing reason and truth, understanding that both are grounded in an objective reality. Our metaphysical commitments and epistemic commitments are united insofar as our knowledge claims are about real things and can be evaluated in terms of an objective reality. Let me quickly cut a misconception off at the pass: social interaction, culture, bias, and all the other weapons of constructivism are still relevant in an important way. There are biases in how we evaluate information. There are cultural influences on what we believe. There are social processes that inform us. But all of this is at a different level from actual knowledge. I have to keep coming back to the very important and often overlooked distinction between what we think about the way the world is, and how the world really is. A great deal of what we think about the world is, in fact, socially constructed. But, the way the world really is is independent of what we think. Since the demythologizing of the ancient Milesian philosophers, the concepts of objectivity, reason, rationality, and truth…in a word knowledge…have been developed to cut through our socially constructed biases and lift the veil on reality.
Demolition science
Librarians who want to treat all knowledge and truth as socially constructed are adamant that we need to get in on the construction business and assist our patrons in creating their realities. I’ve already said what I think about that. My proposal is that libraries enter the demolition business instead. We need to use the tools of reason and objectivity to tear down cultural biases, falsehoods, and misconceptions. We need to provide society with the tools to stand up to misinformation, disinformation, and deception. We need to blast a big-ass hole in the wall and let our patrons become educated and enlightened so they can stand up to whatever society throws at them. It’s that whole speaking truth to power, truth-shall-set-you-free thing that guided us through the liberalism of the 1960s. Let me give some brief examples:

Collection Development
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will force libraries to only collect what the librarians have deemed to be acceptable knowledge. Far from it. Libraries should provide access to as many varied viewpoints and perspectives as possible, because these perspectives are the evidence we use to determine what is true and what is false. My library makes available books and articles in favor of intelligent design and in favor of evolution. A constructivist would say that the library collects these contradictory positions because both are equally valid accounts of the world. A realist would say that only one theory is correct, but in order to determine the truth, you have to consult all of the evidence. So, as realist librarians, we are committed to making available the widest possible selection of viewpoints because each is another bit of evidence for or against the way the world really is.

Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will turn reference librarians into authoritarians who pass judgment on what counts as acceptable knowledge. First, our epistemic commitments are distinct from our moral commitments, and reference librarians have a moral obligation not to assume how or why patrons will use the information they seek. All we can assume is that information seekers often do have the goal of acquiring true beliefs (Fallis, 2004). By directing patrons to the viewpoints most relevant to their information need, we can be assured that we are providing them with the relevant evidence. Second, we have to avoid focusing on information wants and instead focus on information needs. When a patron asks for information, we should avoid simply handing over all and only the materials that meet that specific request. Realism entails that information exists independently of what we believe, so the realist librarian focuses on identifying a patron need and satisfying that need with the best resources available. Obviously, what the patron wants will usually be a part of the information need, but other viewpoints may be relevant, and it is the reference librarian’s job to acknowledge that they exist.

For example, when a student asks for books and articles that prove that homosexuality is immoral, I won’t take the constructivist approach and hand over only what will confirm the student’s preconceptions. I’ll take the realist approach and direct the student to books and articles about homosexuality and morality, which include competing theories, and I’ll let the student use that evidence as he sees fit. Hopefully, the student will critically examine all of the relevant arguments and come to understand the way the world really is (Which is that homosexuality is not immoral. I am inflexible on this, so constructivists, don’t even try to argue the point.) I should add that this applies to all information needs, regardless of what the reference librarian believes. If a patron wants to show that homosexuality is immoral, he needs to look at all the evidence; if a patron wants to show that homosexuality is not immoral, she needs to look at all the evidence. Put another way, the scientific approach is to critically examine all the relevant evidence in order to form true beliefs.

Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tall you that realism will lead to artificial hierarchies and divisions in how we organize information. They routinely criticize the supposed rigidity of the “ontologies”  librarians impose on information and offer the “wisdom of the crowds” as non-discriminatory and emancipatory alternatives. The Semantic Web, folksonomies, even Wikipedia as an authority control…these are purported to be the way of the future. In contrast, the realist cataloger knows that these crowd-sourced options are incredibly powerful tools, but she recognizes that information has a life outside of what we believe.

Library Instruction
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will force library instructors to adopt an authoritarian stance and force students to adopt one and only one predetermined method of research. Realism in instruction begins with the acknowledgement that research skills are not monolithic; there are several methods of access and evaluation. However, there are better and worse ways of accessing and evaluating information. These evaluative tactics have to be themselves evaluated, and this is only possible if research is directed towards something fixed, such as information that exists independently of what we believe. One of the most common forms of research you’ll see among college students is research ex post facto. Students decide on a thesis, write their arguments, and then look for articles that support their position. This method of research becomes a means of corroboration, rather than a means of discovery. As I showed in my last post, this method of “research” is consistent with constructivism…perhaps even preferred by constructivism. If social agreements are the path to knowledge creation, then it only makes sense to seek out agreement and adopt it as justification. But, from a realist stance, this simply will not do. The scientific approach begins by abandoning preconceptions and letting the available evidence guide us. Students should collect information first, synthesize it, and let it determine whether the thesis is or is not supported. The scientific method is to adopt a hypothesis, test it, and either confirm it or change it in light of the evidence. This is the realist approach to research and information literacy.

I should add that, over the past week, I have repeatedly seen critics and supporters of realism mistakenly confuse constructivist epistemology and social constructionism with constructivist and constructionist learning theories. Mixing and matching these is a flat-out category mistake, but it occurs with alarming regularity. For the record, I am only critical of the epistemological theories. Philosophical realism is entirely consistent with constructivist teaching techniques (as Socrates no doubt would have lead you to conclude.)

“Damn, Crito, bust off my sizzurp!”

This ain’t a scholarly paper
This is just a cursory explanation of a realist foundation for librarianship; there’s a lot more to be said, for sure.
I’ll probably wind up posting more on realism in the future, but for now I’d like to end this long post with one final observation that was just pointed out an hour ago in the comments to the last post. As Paul H. points out,

Even a thoroughgoing realist can admit that language is a social construct. A realist might say that we construct a language to enable us to talk about objective reality; the fact that the language is socially constructed doesn’t affect objective reality. For example, French people have a different set of agreements for their language than English speakers—we can all admit that—but the French and English speakers are still talking about the same reality, we can say they agree with each other or disagree, etc.

Paul is absolutely right. Realism does not deny that there are social constructs. Languages, libraries, the internet, governments…these and more are excellent examples of social constructs. All realism posits is that these socially constructs are aimed at something real and objective, and they can be evaluated accordingly.  So, I’m not denying the weak sense of social construction. I’m not denying that social factors influence us all the time. This weaker sense of constructivism is uncontroversial, uninteresting, and it doesn’t add anything valuable to the conversation about the theoretical foundations of librarianship. If anything, I’m discussing the stronger form of constructionism in order to avoid creating a straw-man argument.

So, If you disagree with me, I say “Awesome!” Let me know how and why. I’m not a terribly good philosopher, so I may have jumbled things up a bit. I’m also pretty green as a librarian, so let me know what aspects of library science I need to work on (I know cataloging is one area). This blog is my source for peer-review, where I can bang out an idea and see if it sticks well enough to write a more formal treatment, so feel free to chime in.

Reading list

  • Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Fallis, D. (2004). On verifying the accuracy of information: Philosophical perspectives. Library Trends, 52(3), 463-487. [link]
  • Fine, A. (1984). The Natural Ontological Attitude. In Leplin, J. (ed.). Scientific Realism (pp. 83-107). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Goldman, A. I. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. New York: Oxford.
  • van Fraassen, B. (1976). To save the phenomena. Journal of Philosophy, 73(18), 623-32. [link]

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“Knowledge”, courtesy of Halans. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[An aide to President George W. Bush] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (Ron Suskind, 2004)

Social constructionism, constructivism, post-structuralism, standpoint epistemology, deconstructionism….ever heard of these? Chance are, if you’ve taken a look at some of the recent literature in the philosophical aspects of librarianship, you’ve come across these and/or similar theories. Variously lumped together under the aegis of postmodernism, these theories are distinct, yet they are united through a common belief that we have no epistemic access to a mind-independent reality. Some of these theories go even further and claim not only that we can’t know anything about the world outside of ourselves, but that there isn’t even an objective, mind-independent reality at all—reality is subjective. In effect, these theories advocate various forms of relativism. I’ve criticized this type of relativistic thinking in previous posts, but perhaps it’s time to clarify. Specifically, I want to explain why relativism, in all of its forms, is harmful to librarianship. This type of thinking is self-refuting, it impedes learning, it disenfranchises those who most need our help, it obstructs social progress, and it erodes the value of libraries in society.

The dominant form of relativistic theory in librarianship is constructionism. Generally speaking, constructionism is the theory that our concepts and beliefs about the world are constructed rather than discovered. Constructionist theories deny that the external, mind-independent world (if there is one) is the source of our claims to knowledge. Everything we think about the world around us is the product of some sort of constructive process. However, there are a few forms of constructionism, and I don’t want to mix them up. You see, the first big question for constructionists is “who is doing all of this construction”? We can make a neat division between social constructionists and constructivists.

Social constructionists believe that societies, institutions, or other social groups are the determining factor in how we construct our world-views. On this account, knowledge, information, and truth are determined by large-scale social negotiations and conventions. So, for example, the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true only in virtue of the fact that the scientific community has agreed that it is true. There is no external fact of the matter about electrons, there are only contingent social agreements.

On the other hand, constructivists believe that individuals, alone or in small groups, are the ones constructing knowledge, truth, and information. So, you accept the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true because you have chosen to agree that it is true (either agree with someone else, or agree with yourself). Your belief is constructed by conversation, communication, or some other discourse and it is entirely contingent on what you agree that reality is like. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”

In both cases, knowledge is constructed, rather than discovered, and an objective reality (if there is one) has no causal effect on what we believe to be true about the world. It is a separate question whether there even is an objective reality at all. As presented above, constructionist theories are committed to the view that our claims to knowledge are based in contingent, social or interpersonal agreements. But, some constructionists go even further and make the claim that reality, itself, is constructed. The idea is that there is not a mind-independent world “out there” at all. The distinction I want to make is between constructionism about our beliefs and knowledge and constructionism about reality and fact. Fact-constructionism implies knowledge-constructionism, but not necessarily the other way around.

Fact-constructionism describes those theories that hold that truth is a relative concept. This shows up quite often in conversation, for example, when you hear phrases like “that’s true for you”. The general idea is that there are no objective facts in the world and all truth-claims are relative to a particular culture, individual, historical period, or other source of subjectivity. It follows that the objects we talk about in the world (and the facts corresponding to them) are subjective constructs. To take an overused example, truth relativism requires us to accept that the geocentric model of the Solar System (with Earth at the center) was (or still is) true for many cultures, and the heliocentric model of the Solar System is true for other cultures. Because of this difference between the facts that different cultures (or individuals) accept, there is no independent fact of the matter. The truth of how the Solar System is arranged depends on your outlook.

Knowledge constructionism admits that there may in fact be an objective, mind-independent reality, but that there is no privileged way of accessing that reality. In effect, there are many competing yet equally valid forms of rationality. There is more than one “way of knowing”. So, Western science is just one of many epistemic systems, though there are others out there. For example, the Ptolemaic view of a geocentric universe was founded in an epistemic system based in scriptural authority. The Copernican heliocentric system was founded on the epistemic value of empirical evidence and a rudimentary scientific method. In deciding between scriptural authority and empirical evidence, proponents of epistemic relativism suggest that each is an acceptable means of describing the world, and neither is necessarily better than the other.

(I admit to painting in fairly broad brush-strokes here, but I think these are charitable interpretations of constructionist theory. If any constructivists or social constructionists would like to correct my descriptions, I’d be happy to include revisions.)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Why believe in constructionism?
Why is constructionist thinking popular among? I think Paul Boghossian is on the right track when he writes,

Ideologically, the appeal of the doctrine of equal validity [that all claims to knowledge are equally valid] cannot be detached from its emergence in the post-colonial era. Advocates of colonial expansion often sought to justify their projects by the claim that colonized subjects stood to gain much from the superior science and culture of the West. In a moral climate which has turned its back decisively on colonialism, it is appealing to many to say not only–what is true–that one cannot morally justify subjugating a sovereign people in the name of spreading knowledge, but that there is no such thing as superior knowledge only different knowledges, each appropriate to its particular setting (2006, pp. 5-6)

To post-colonialism, I might add that the history of oppression in the name of absolute knowledge also includes the subjugation of women, minorities, non-heterosexuals, and lower economic classes. Absolutist, objective facts are routinely pointed to as a means of disenfranchisement and maintaining power. So-called “scientific” theories about racial intelligencewomen’s ability to think rationally, or that homosexuality is a mental disorder are often held up as evidence that objective thinking has routinely lead to oppression. Since these theories have since been abandoned, so the argument goes, it must be the case that the scientific worldview doesn’t get things right, and therefore there is no “superior knowledge only different knowledges.”

Constructionist theorists often describe their positions as liberatory or empowering, and they portray themselves as a counter to the positivist, conservative, fundamentalist, oppressive, authoritarian theories that adopt an objective stance towards reality. Positivism, in particular, is often held up as the scapegoat for what ails society and constructionism is the only alternative. Is it any wonder that many librarians would want to gravitate towards “anti-positivist” theories?

Libraries and social constructionism
Libraries are at a watershed moment. The past two decades have seen a technological and informational revolution not seen since the so-called Gutenberg Revolution. The democratizing effect of the internet has found librarians shying away from their old roles as the archivists and arbiters of knowledge and the rise of social media has found us celebrating the participatory culture. Indeed, the new information landscape is so democratic, so participatory, and so complex, that it has lead librarians to reconsider the very meanings of the terms “true” and “knowledge”. How can there be a single, objective fact-of-the-matter to which libraries are somehow privileged, when the participatory internet seems to accept all claims to knowledge?

I think the fear is that if we adopt objective, realist theories of truth or knowledge, then we will be situating the library above the flow of information on the internet, thereby distancing ourselves from the information-seekers we depend upon. If librarians cling steadfast to objectivity and realism, we will be casting ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner of information, thereby standing in the way of a free and open information exchange. Here’s a sampling of this fear in the literature:

Without this suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political. (Labaree and Scimeca, p. 63)

Cultural diversity and recruitment practices within academic libraries are currently limited by the profession’s dominant worldview. Moreover, unmodified Enlightenment worldview values of rationalism and individualism necessarily condition the profession’s overall understanding of diversity and fairness. (Weissinger, p. 37)

By scientizing itself, LIS may be attempting to intimate a relationship with the so-called “hard” sciences. From a critical theorist’s perspective, this suggests that the claim to legitimacy by  service is being replaced by a claim of legitimacy that is inherited by relying on empirical method: an appeal to the a priori truth and universal application of  the methods. Moreover, social and linguistic distances are increased between user and LIS because reliance on technical performance to imply responsibility removes LIS from the role of a responsible agent. (Benoit, p. 463)

When one discourse takes up a dominant position in relation to others it potentially means that marginalized groups within, for example, an organization are forced to use tools that have been created to further the interests of other more “powerful” groups. (Sundin and Johannisson, p. 35)

The modern library experience for both librarian and user is structured by the values of order, control, and suppression…Such an experience is ultimately grounded in a positivist epistemology which renders the library an emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place. (Radford, 1998, p. 621) 

The recurring theme is that objective, fact-oriented approaches to knowledge are destined to lead to alienation and disenfranchisement. Information will be suppressed, collections will be decimated, cultural diversity in the workplace will suffer, LIS practitioners will abdicate themselves of responsibility, the powerful will continue their oppression, and the library will become an “emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place.” With this sort of characterization of realism in the literature, is it any wonder that librarians are attracted to constructionist theories? I’ll answer these criticisms of realism in the next post, but for now I’d like to turn my attention to the problems of constructionist thinking.

Where it all breaks down
What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer. Let me explain.

(1) Fact-Constructionism is self-refuting.
Let’s assume that fact-constructionism is the correct theory to adopt. The theory entails that there are no universal facts, everything is socially constructed. But, isn’t the pronouncement that “all facts are socially constructed” an absolute statement? The only way that fact-constructionism can survive is to admit that it is not a universal theory, thus allowing realists to continue being realists. Of course, this is the sledgehammer approach, Paul Boghossian offers a more precise and even more damning criticism: constructionism leads to a theory that “consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.” (Boghossian, p. 56). For example, look at Lankes’ Conversation Theory. His brand of constructivism  asks librarians to think of knowledge as “a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants” (Lankes, p. 32). So, the claim “electrons are negatively charged” is to be interpreted as “According to the agreement we have reached, electrons are negatively charged.” But, isn’t the description of this agreement an absolute statement? We can’t have that! So, we have to reword it as, “according to the agreement we have reached, there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” Oops! Still absolute! One more time: “According to an agreement we have reached, there is an agreement we have reached according to which there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” The infinite regress is unavoidable; at some point there simply have to be mind-independent, objective facts. Any theory that is based in acceptance, agreement, or assent as the foundation for truth will fail in this respect.

(2) Constructionism impedes learning
Paradoxically, knowledge-constructionism is purported to be a boon to education, even though it actively undermines the learning process. (I should be clear: there is a distinction between constructivist epistemology and constructivist or constructionist learning theories. This distinction is consistently ignored, which leads to some fairly significant problems.) Consider the student who comes to the reference desk inquiring after books or articles that prove that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can and should be treated (I have had this request). Assume that this student was raised in a devout Christian home, home-schooled, and has otherwise always lived within a community that believes that homosexuality is a a mental disorder. It follows from constructionism that this student knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder. His community of discourse has discussed homosexuality persistently and consistently, the relevant agreements have been reached, and so their belief constitutes knowledge. But, if the goal of education is to learn, and learning is knowledge creation, then I, as a reference librarian, would be acting against this student’s best interests if I provided anything that contradicted his “knowledge”. So, all I can do is hand him a pre-1974 DSM-II and a few articles from fundamentalist websites and send him on his way. Here’s my question: how can a student be expected to learn when everything he or she believes upon entering the library is already knowledge? Put another way, how do we define ‘learning’ without appealing to knowledge?
I suppose the constructivist might respond: “But, it’s about creating new knowledge.” But, this doesn’t make sense. If prior beliefs already constitute knowledge, why change them? Unless we adopt a realist stance and distinguish between “is true” and “is believed to be true” or “knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder” and “believes that homosexuality is a mental disorder”, all claims to knowledge are equally valid and there is no point in learning.

(3) Constructionism disenfranchises those who most need our help and obstructs social progress
Of course, as librarians, we must operate within the socially constructed bounds of our profession. Our social agreements with other librarians dictate how we are to act as librarians. Indeed, if constructivism is true, our entire code of ethics is a social construct. To that end, the desegregation of libraries during the Civil Rights Era must have been unprofessional and against our code of ethics. If our social group had agreed that public libraries should not be integrated (as was the case in libraries throughout the South), then any librarian who checked-out a book to an African-American was violating his or her responsibilities as a librarian. And the black patrons who sought to improve their own knowledge? Well, according to constructionism, they should have just “agreed to disagree” with the white majority and been content in their own indigenous knowledge. As Boghossian puts it, clearer that I can:

if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful (p. 130)

If it really is social agreement all the way down, and there is no privileged way of knowing about the world, then who is to criticize epistemic systems that are founded in tradition and scriptural authority? For the constructionist, there can be no substantive criticism of entrenched social agreement, hence there can be no social progress. And if there can be no social progress, the mission of libraries is reduced to little more than a warehouse of artifacts for maintaining the status quo. [Yes, this is what social constructionism and constructivism really entails. If you can’t tell how much this pisses me off, I think we’re almost at 2,500 words.]

(4) Constructionism erodes the value of libraries in society.
Since social constructionism and constructivism stand in the way of social progress, disenfranchise the oppressed, and impede learning, in the constructionist world these cannot be core library values. So, in their absence, what is left of the library? Well, the value that libraries provide as a source of entertainment is intact. Likewise, the value of libraries as a meeting place is maintained. But, these are hollow values and they make the library little more than a public park or town hall. These are good things, but they are a far cry from the once and future mission of the library as a place of knowledge and learning, a place where our community can better itself through education.

“Beach House” courtesy of skagman CC-BY 2.0

A library built on sand
I’m adopting this metaphor from Noretta Koertge’s 1998 A House Built on Sand, because I think it is the perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with social constructionism. For as fascinating as some constructivist theories are, and for as compelling as their social ambitions can be, these theories lack a meaningful foundation. In fact, that lack of a foundation is often a point of pride. But, once we start down the path of social construction, we have to give up any sense of the library as a place of knowledge, learning, or social progress. These are foundational concepts, and constructionism will not allow them to exist without being subjected to intersubjectivity and bias. Where libraries were once viewed as the bedrock for an enlightened society, constructivism erodes that cultural solidity and replaces it with shifting uncertainty. And that uncertainty opens the door to doubt, which I would hope libraries would like to avoid.

Surprisingly, one of the best defenders of the profound importance of objective knowledge and rational foundations is one of the architects of social constructionism: Bruno Latour. Yeah…that Bruno Latour. In recent years, Latour has turned his back on postmodern studies in general and social constructionism in particular, and he dropped quite a bombshell with his 2004 article “Why has critique run out of steam?” I started this post with a rather long quote from a Bush aide (thought to be Karl Rove), and I’ll end with another lengthy quote, this time from Latour:

I’d like to believe that…I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. (Latour, p. 227)

I realize that this is a long blog post, but I admit that it barely scratches the surface and it paints in rather broad strokes. But, after four hours, I think I’ll retire. I’d be delighted to defend my take on constructionism if any social constructionists want to step forward with particulars.

In the next post, I’ll try to defend objective knowledge as the most intuitive, progressive, and flexible approach to librarianship. Rather than take the constructionists at their word and believe that objectivity is undermined by hidden biases, cultural differences, power struggles, or whatever other social forces are out there, it is much simpler and liberating to understand that biases, cultural differences, power struggles, and other social forces are undermined by objective knowledge. This is the real power of libraries.

Some things I pulled off the shelf while thinking about this post

Criticism of social constructionism

  • Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Koertge, N. (1998). A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.

  • Meiland, J. W., & Krausz, M. (1982). Relativism, cognitive and moral. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Sokal, A. (2008). Beyond the hoax: Science, philosophy, and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sosa, E., & Villaneuva, E. (2002). Realism and relativism. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Windschuttle, K. (1997). The killing of history: How literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past. New York: Free Press

Social constructionism in library science
A short list of recent articles in scholarly publications. This is just what I’ve read in the past year, and I’m sure there’s more out there:

  • Andersen, J. and Skouvig, L. (2006). Knowledge organization: A sociohistorical analysis and critique. The Library Quarterly, 76(3), 300-322.
  • Benoit, G. (2002). Toward a critical theoretic perspective in information systems. The Library Quarterly, 72(4), 441-471.
  • Campbell, D. G. (2007). The birth of the new web: A Foucauldian reading of the semantic web. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 43(3/4), 9-20.
  • Haider, J. (2007). Conceptions of “information poverty” in LIS: A discourse analysis. Journal of Documentation, 63(4), 534-557
  • Huang, S. (2006). A semiotic view of information: Semiotics as a foundation of LIS research in information behavior. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 43(1), n.p.. [link]
  • Labaree, R. V., & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical problem of truth in librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 78(1), 43-70.
  • Lankes, R. D. (2011) The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Olsson, M. (2007). Power/knowledge: The discursive construction of an author. The Library Quarterly, 77(2), 219-240.
  • Radford, G. P. (1992). Positivism, Foucault, and the fantasia of the library: Conceptions of knowledge and the modern library experience. The Library Quarterly, 62(4), 408-424.
  • Radford, G. (1998). Flaubert, Foucault, and the Bibliotheque Fantastique: toward a postmodern epistemology for library science. Library Trends, 46(4), 616-34. 
  • Sundin, O., & Johannisson, J. (2005). Pragmatism, neo-pragmatism and sociocultural theory: Communicative participation as a perspective in LIS. Journal of Documentation, 61(1), 23-43
  • Weissinger, T. (2003). Competing models of librarianship: Do core values make a difference? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 29(1), 32-39.

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AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Andrew Coulter Enright

I’ve been chasing so many ideas down so many rabbit holes that I haven’t posted in a few weeks. So, just to get something out there, I’m posting the same thing twice as an experiment. This is the unpretentious post that avoids the unnecessary jargon and technical stuff. But, if you like the analytical stuff, you can take a look at the analytic mix. It’s unfortunately technical, so you can skip it if you’d like. In any event, my hope is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

As I outlined in previous posts, I’m interested in the relationship between truth, information, and information literacy. The feedback I’ve received has been enormously instructive and the project seems to be headed down some interesting paths. However, one concern stands out above all others: is the concept of truth even relevant to librarians? I thought it might be worthwhile to say a little something to the effect that, even if the concept of truth is invisible to our patrons or to the everyday practicalities of librarianship, it is still relevant to the profession.

Academic concerns, or confusions?

Wayne Bivens-Tatum has raised quite a few thought-provoking points about the role of truth in librarianship. Though I think several of his points are the result of us just talking past one another and getting confused by one another’s positions, he does make a few claims that simply cannot be ignored. In particular, he makes the claim that:  

Truth is relevant to information literacy broadly conceived, but I’m not sure librarians play much of a role in information literacy. I wouldn’t send physics students to astrology books, but outside of factual questions, which I rarely get, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to the point where truth as such played a role in what I was doing with students.

As I read it, there are two main arguments here. One is that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. The other is that truth doesn’t play much of a role in librarianship. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that information literacy and truth apply to librarianship, but I’d like to think otherwise. So, I’ll try to say something to the effect that truth is relevant to information literacy and information literacy is relevant to librarians.

From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
I’ll admit it: my previous “career” in philosophy has colored my perceptions of librarianship. For what it’s worth, when I decided that the life a philosophy professor wasn’t for me, I could have chosen any number of alternatives. Law school, an MBA, a teacher’s certificate, perpetual adjunct work…I have friends who went down each road. But, I was always motivated to do something about the lack of information literacy I kept running into with my students (though I didn’t know the term at the time). After several years and hundreds of term papers, it was very clear that the inability to find, access, and critically evaluate source material appropriate for scholarly research was a major barrier in higher education. Sure, I would assist them in my class, and they would do fine, but I wanted to address IL from a cross-disciplinary angle. Couple that with my existing interests in information theory, epistemology, and logic, and library and information science seemed like the right choice. Why? Well, because the LIS program seemed to be the only one that addressed information literacy head-on and information literacy was what I was most interested in. 
So, if information literacy isn’t something that librarians play a role in, I seem to have made a huge mistake. But, I do teach general information literacy skills almost every day. From showing a student how to select appropriate sources to assisting a student with a citation, the opportunities for IL instruction are everywhere. And it isn’t just in the classroom; every moment on the reference desk is a teachable moment, too. I don’t just “give some initial guidance on search and evaluation;” I give advice, insight, and instruction on search and evaluation. In less than five minutes a librarian can teach a patron a transferable skill or concept. And when we consider the extensive work on information literacy coming out of the ALA and ACRL, the nature of library instruction programs (at least as I have encountered them), and the extent to which reference librarians engage directly with the research process, it seems that information literacy is a direct concern to academic librarians. 

Then again, academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians. So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.

Library Science/Information Science
There are several possible roles for librarians in the coming decades and one that I think we should be cultivating is a bit of a throwback to days-gone-by: the cultural role of librarians as authorities on information. Librarians used to be the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge and information. Google has all but demolished that cultural position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be ambassadors for information.  If anything, I’d like to see librarians do more to sell themselves as authorities on the world of information in general. Librarians should be clamoring for interviews about Wikileaks, copyright legislation, information technology, and other information-related current events. We should brand ourselves as the experts on information and information related issues. To put it another way, we work in applied information theory and we have the ability to position ourselves as society’s information experts. But, we can only do this if we treat information theory as a relevant concern.

But what is relevance, anyway?
However we position ourselves, they bottom line is that information is the stuff we trade in, whether or not information literacy in particular is relevant. So, studying and understanding information is something we should be engaged in. Does that address the relevance issue? Well, yes and no. I think the real problem is that there are at least two types of relevance that are commonly discussed in libraryland and I think the distinction is best described by analogy…
Last night at dinner, Khristy offered a helpful analogy for how I’m envisioning the role of information in librarianship: think of librarianship like the financial world of economists, brokers, bankers, tellers, and more. For example, economists “analyze the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”(Wikipedia). They analyze the flow of goods and services across various networks and they develop policies, procedures, and theories for managing and understanding that flow. They analyze and inform policies, they serve as advisors, and they construct the foundational theories. Then again, economists are only one part of the financial world. The money is actually handled by brokers, traders, bankers, tellers, etc. Whereas an economist may debate contractionary versus expansionary fiscal policies, the teller is actually counting out the change. The various aspects of money and finance that count as “relevant” will vary between all of these different roles. An economist may be interested only in what is relevant to the financial world in general. The stockbroker may be interested only in what’s relevant to investors. 

Now, what if we replace “goods and services” or “money” with “information”? Who studies the production, distribution and consumption of information? Who handles practical aspects of working with information? Why can’t it be librarians? After all, we’re uniquely situated to address almost every angle on information and information-related issues. We should join the computer scientists and programmers, the internet gurus, and the social network entrepreneurs as the go-to sources for the theory and the practice behind information. So, I propose that we think of librarianship in the same way we think of the financial sector; only, instead of dealing in money, we deal in information. This gives librarians enormous clout and places us near the center of the information ecosystem. (Of course, librarians tend to not to have such diverse roles as you’ll see in finance; so librarians have to be economists and bankers at the same time, so to speak.)

Following the analogy to its conclusion, it’s clear that what counts as relevant with respect to information will depend on what role we’re playing. Certain issues are only relevant to librarians when they act like economists: drafting policies, creating curricula, tackling ethical issues…in other words, surveying the profession and the information ecosystem in general. However, just as a stockbroker or banker uses economic theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting investors, so to do librarians use information theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting patrons.

So, there are two types of relevance: relevant to librarians and relevant to patrons, and both are important. Looking back at my interest in the nature of truth, information, and information literacy, I’ll concede that none of it is going to be very practical or show direct relevance to my day-to-day dealings with students. But, I’m hoping that it will be relevant to the economic side of librarianship, and help me to understand the increasingly complicated nature of information in libraries.

For next time
So, where do we stand? The philosophical concept of truth is probably not going to do a bit of difference in how I build collections, manage the reference interview, direct research consultations, or teach classes. But, if truth plays a role in understanding what information is, and if studying the nature of information can inform collection development policies, reference services, information literacy, and beyond, then the concept of truth can make a difference. It may not be relevant to patrons, but it is relevant to librarians. 

Here’s where I want to go in the next few blog posts: First, I’ll propose that libraries adopt Floridi’s semantic conception of information. Later, I’ll discuss whether misinformation and disinformation count as information, and if so, what kind of information. Finally, I’ll see if I can’t make a case that adopting the semantic conception of information–and understanding the role of misinformation and disinformation–can strengthen our information literacy programs, not to mention our commitments to privacy, freedom of information, and more. 

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