Archive for the ‘librarianship’ Category

Right now my tenure dossier is being circulated among various and sundry provosts, chancellors, and other administrative types. If you’ve been through the process, you’re probably already aware that these dossiers often have strict requirements pertaining to what needs to be included, what counts as evidence, formatting, section titles, and so on. So, I suppose it really wasn’t a surprise to find that my one-and-a-half page philosophy of librarianship statement would have to be trimmed down to no more than one page before being passed to the next reader. I’ll write a new statement later today but, in the meantime, I thought I’d post the original here.


Philosophy of Librarianship

Lane Wilkinson


“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”


“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

There is nothing more basic than belief; our lives are little more than the sum total of our beliefs about the world. Our personal histories, who we love, what we wish for the future…every aspect of our selves is mediated by belief. It is for this reason that the abbreviated function of education is to lead us to new belief: we grow and learn as we encounter and adopt new ways of experiencing the world. Of course, belief comes in degrees. While we may be perfectly willing to modify or even reject many of the things we think about the world, certain of our beliefs are held to a higher standard; there are some things about which we are absolutely sure. There are certain things we just know. Finding these certain, indubitable beliefs has occupied us for thousands of years as philosophers, scientists, poets, and artists all seek not just an understanding of the world, but the right understanding of the world. Taken as a whole, and developed over millennia, this quest for knowledge and understanding constitutes the social transcript…and the librarian is its steward. As librarians, it is our job to facilitate this organization of knowledge and, moreover, to assist others in identifying, accessing, and evaluating the recorded knowledge they seek. If you want to know which beliefs best represent the human condition, look no further than the library.

And yet, in our post-information age we are drowning in belief; drowning in information. It is no longer enough for libraries to collect, organize, and make accessible extant beliefs, because there are just too many. What’s more, knowledge has become increasingly contested. The exponential growth in information available to the average person has resulted in a strange sort of intellectual populism characterized by confirmation bias after confirmation bias. What does it mean to proportion your belief to the evidence when Google can put you in touch with evidence for anything? The choices seem to be radical skepticism or base gullibility. The social transcript has run amok.

As an instruction librarian I see it as my responsibility to help patrons and students understand that the world of information is not simple. Information does not and cannot go uncontested. The unimaginably vast amounts of information at our students’ disposal are not evenly distributed and the beliefs therein expressed are not all equally valid. Thus, it is vital that students learn to critically evaluate the information around them. Students must learn how power shapes dominant narratives, how methods of publication affect information quality, how expertise is communicated, and how knowledge is ultimately transferred. Students need to know which information they can trust.

And this issue of trust is no small thing either. As Hume argued, “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men.” Almost every belief we have about the world comes from the testimony of someone else. You only know your date of birth through a birth certificate. You only know the capital of a far-off country because of a map. You only know the chemical weights of the elements from a chart. Indeed, every single thing that happened before your birth or in far-off places you only know from being told it or having read it. Testimony is so important to knowledge that learning which testimonial evidence to trust may be the most basic critical thinking skill there is; learning where to find that evidence is almost just as basic. And the role of the librarian, as steward of the social transcript, is to guard that evidence, make it available, and teach others how to evaluate it.

The books we collect, the journals to which we subscribe, the films we purchase, even the wilderness of the open Internet, all constitute the social transcript and this is where librarians work. In helping others move from unanalyzed information to synthesized knowledge, we help patrons identify the testimonial evidence to ground their beliefs about the world. This is what I do as a librarian at UTC. It’s not about passively providing answers; it’s about actively teaching others how to find the answers. It’s not about organizing information; it’s about showing others why that organization matters. It’s not about deciding expertise; it’s about teaching others how to identify it.

As an instruction librarian at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it is my mission to assist the academic community in the access and evaluation of information, through responsible collection development, reference assistance, and library instruction. In doing so, I am upholding the longstanding tradition of the librarian as a guide to the social transcript.


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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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By Unnamed WPA photographer (WPA photo Via [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of years ago, Dave Lankes published his Atlas of New Librarianship to widespread acclaim. Motivated by the accelerating pace of change in the field, Lankes asked, “What is librarianship when it is unmoored from cataloging, books, buildings, and committees?” The answer, he contends, can be found in a new mission for librarians: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Lankes’ book is insightful, thought-provoking, and a testament to his passion for librarianship. I also happen to find New Librarianship a very problematic framework for the profession. At the time the book came out, I criticized it for it’s social constructionism and I argued that the “Conversation Theory” of knowledge at the heart of New Librarianship impedes learning, disenfranchises minority voices, and works against the idea of the library as a valuable social institution. I won’t rehash these arguments in detail (you can go back and read them if you want) but it’s worth pointing out that even though I find fault with his theory, I still respect the hell out of Professor Lankes for his dedication to librarianship and for the passion he instills in others.

So, anyway, Syracuse is now offering a MOOC on New Librarianship…starting today! And, I signed up (along with thousands of other librarians). Taught by a team of most-excellent library school folks, this MOOC will attempt to accomplish two things. First, the class will attempt to provide “a foundation for practicing librarians and library science students in new librarianship.” Second, the class will try to “generate discussion about the future direction of the profession.” Both of these are important and I highly recommend that you join in. Seriously, go sign up if you haven’t.

I signed up mostly because I’m  interested in seeing how other librarians react to Lankes’ worldview for librarians. Do other librarians have the same reservations I have? They may. They may not. But I’m willing to modify my beliefs in light of better evidence or argument. I also signed up because I’m interested in seeing how New Librarianship has evolved over the past two years. In particular, there are a few open questions about New Librarianship that I hope will be answered…

Open question #1: What about fiction?

If the focus of New Librarianship is on knowledge creation, where does that leave creative works such as popular fiction, music, and movies? To me, something just doesn’t sound right about saying that people read Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey primarily for the purposes of knowledge creation. I’m not saying that we can’t or don’t learn things from fiction…of course we do. But, I don’t think that’s the primary reason we read novels. Maybe it’s the humanities major in me, but I think New Librarianship is incomplete without an account of the role of aesthetic enjoyment, cultural enrichment, or emotional connection as encountered in creative works.

Open question #2: What about librarians who don’t work in public services?

In a widely quoted passage, Lankes claims that “I have long contended that a room full of books is simply a closet but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library” (p. 16). In other words, the library is the librarian, not the collection. This view of the librarian as a conversation facilitator is easy to accept for librarians working in reference, instruction, makerspaces, children’s libraries, and other positions where the majority of your time is spent directly interacting with patrons. But, what of the librarians in cataloging, archives, electronic resource management, web development, and other generally non-public facing roles within the library? If librarianship isn’t about collections, what does that mean for librarians who manage collections? Basically, the New Librarian can either (1) argue that things like cataloging and archives aren’t part of the future of librarianship or (2) argue that the definition of “facilitates conversation” is broad enough to include collection-oriented library responsibilities. The first response would probably entail that librarians who work strictly with the collection aren’t really librarians. I don’t have to explain how problematic that response would be. The second response would require interpreting “facilitates conversations” so broadly as to be meaningless. Where does facilitation end? Hopefully, a third alternative will come to light over the course of the class.

Open question #3: What about the autodidacts?

New Librarianship is all about starting conversations within a community, and that’s a good thing. But, what does New Librarianship mean for the person who wants to learn by themselves? Lots of research-savvy library users are perfectly content using the library without any direct intervention from the librarians on duty. Lankes does address self-directed learning insofar as he claims that conversations can happen internally for an individual. The idea being that we have an internal dialogue that counts as conversation. But, as with the definition of ‘collection’ this approach seems to strain what we normally think of as ‘conversation’. Basically, if the theory requires that even thinking is a form of conversation, then what isn’t conversation and why call it conversation at all? Why not just say that we gain knowledge through a combination of conversation, reasoning, observation, sensory-perception, reflection, and so on? Hopefully, the MOOC will offer more explanation of Conversation Theory.

Open question #4: What about non-institutional libraries?

A while ago I wrote about the DIY library trend, which I contrasted with “institutional” libraries (i.e., the places that employ librarians). If it takes a librarian to make a library, then what does New Librarianship have to say about Little Free Libraries? Should we work to convince our communities to stop calling them ‘libraries’? Who really decides what a library is? Communities? Librarians? Library-school professors? It can get pretty tricky when you start to think about it and I hope the MOOC will address the apparent tension between community beliefs about libraries and theoretical frameworks of librarianship.

Of course, there are other open questions, but these are the ones on my mind the morning before the Master Class in New Librarianship begins. It’s true: I do not identify with New Librarianship. Shoot, I actually identify with the polar opposite of New Librarianship. I hold what I’ll call the functional view of librarianship: a librarian is a person responsible for all or part of a library, where ‘library’ means a shared, organized, and searchable collection of information objects. To me, librarians are defined by their relation to a collection. To a New Librarian, that counts as stinkin’ thinkin’. But, in order to avoid the problems of social constructionism, as well as to address issues surrounding creative works, diverse roles within our profession, self-directed library users, and non-institutional libraries, I’m going to stick with the functional account. Yet, even though I’m not going to become a New Librarian, I’m ecumenical in my approach to theory-construction and I want Lankes’ vision to succeed. My hope is simply that the MOOC will offer a more robust version of New Librarianship than we’ve seen in the past. Fingers crossed and maybe I’ll see you in class!


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CC-BY-NC-SA by Ric e Ette on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ric e Ette on Flickr

Wow. It’s been two months since my last post. But I can explain. You see, back in January we got a new roommate and in between dealing with his insomnia and his incontinence I just haven’t had time to sit down and think about library stuff.

Anyway, a few days ago I came across a couple of posts about the relationship between librarians and coding. From March 5, Wayne Bivens-Tatum explains why he ignores the calls for librarians to learn how to code. In contrast, at Library Journal on March 6, Matt Enis reports that programming and coding skills are fast becoming essential for librarians. So, which is it? Must a librarian know Python or Ruby in order to be successful as a librarian or to improve a community? Or, is the clarion call for coding in librarianship just another manifestation of misguided technological solutionism?

Well, it kind of depends on what we mean when we say that coding is “essential” for librarianship. On a weak interpretation, that just means that it’s something librarians should be familiar with at some minimal level. That is, coding is weakly essential in librarianship if only some librarians need to master coding and the rest just need to be able to understand what coding is, how it relates to libraries, what can reasonably be asked of code, and whatever threshold concepts are required in order to work alongside the people who actually write the code. On the other hand, coding is strongly essential in librarianship if all librarians need to be able to write and use workable code themselves to solve problems and/or create new services. Put another way, if coding is weakly essential for librarians, then all librarians need to learn the basic principles of coding. If coding is strongly essential, then librarians need to learn the principles of coding as well as learn one or more programming languages.

Essential Logic

“Essential Logic” CC BY-NC-SA by affendaddy on Flickr

Coding and strong essentialism

I’m going to start by looking at the strong view: librarians should be able to write code. For example, last December, Bohyun Kim described the state of the art of coding in libraries this way:

Librarians’ strong interest in programming is not surprising considering that programming skills are crucial and often essential to making today’s library systems and services more user-friendly and efficient for use. Not only for system-customization, computer-programming skills can also make it possible to create and provide a completely new type of service that didn’t exist before.

Compare to Andromeda Yelton’s four reasons librarians should learn to code: to optimize existing workflows, to improve usability, to communicate with vendors and IT, and to empower librarians to create new services. Kim and Yelton are both appealing to the same two overarching arguments in support of strong essentialism about code in librarianship. First, there’s the maintenance argument: most library systems and services require constant attention, so librarians need to learn how to code to maintain their systems, to talk to vendors, to improve efficiency, and so on. Second, there’s the forward-thinking argument: it is only by embracing coding that librarians can provide new, forward-thinking services to patrons like makerspaces, hackerspaces, 3D printers, and more. And these justifications are, by and large, correct: library systems do, in fact, benefit from librarians who can code and libraries are, in fact, pursuing forward-thinking projects like LibraryBox and attracting forward-thinking coder communities built around things like maker culture. But, are these really arguments that all librarians need to know how to code? I’m not convinced they are.

You see, both the maintenance argument and the forward-thinking argument for strong coding skills rest on a fundamental category mistake between the librarian and the library. What these arguments show is not that all librarians need to code, but that all libraries need coders. Same goes for most of the skills we encounter in librarianship: there is no universal set of skills that are strongly essential in librarianship, but there are skills that are strongly essential for libraries. And it’s probably worth pointing out that maintaining systems and creating forward-thinking digital tools are not the only things libraries do. Libraries might also need readers’ advisory skills, instruction skills, reference skills, archiving skills, collection development skills, and so on.  And all of these skills are only weakly essential insofar as a library only needs some librarians to master them, so long as the rest of the librarians meet some threshold understanding.* Basically, there are a lot of great skills out there, and it would be great to learn them all, but we’ve got to prioritize. I would love to learn to code, but my time is spent learning about assessment, classroom management, information literacy, pedagogy, and whatever else is going to help me do my job better. It’s not that coding is unimportant, it’s just that in my role within the library coding is less important than other concerns. As Bivens-Tatum put it in his post, “If I had needed to learn to code for work, I’d have done it. The thing is, that’s true for most skills.” Really, I see no substantive reason to consider any particular skill strongly essential for librarianship.

"don't need it" by 1a1e on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

“don’t need it” by 1a1e on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

“But wait,” the objection goes, “then what’s the point of library school, if not to provide a common skill-set?”

And my response is that if the reason you go to library school is for vocational training, then you’re doing it wrong. And if your library school only taught you to be a practitioner, then shame on your library school. Library school is (nominally) graduate school and the focus should be on cultivating the principles, values, and knowledge that undergird librarianship. Yes, there are some threshold concepts to which all librarians should be exposed: organization of information, archiving, research methods, and, yes, coding (and a great many more). But these are only weakly essential and are adequately covered in the five or six survey courses every LIS program requires. Now, we might decide to specialize, in which case coding could be an extremely important skill in digital content management or archives (to name but two). But, other tracks might need to prioritize other skills. Again, it’s our shared principles and knowledge that should be universal, not any specific skill-sets. (For more on what these principles may be, check out my posts on expertise.)

Long story short…

Some librarians need to learn how to code and pick up one or more programming languages, but most librarians don’t. And while most librarians might not need to learn how to code, all librarians should understand the basic principles and foundations of coding, if only so that they can better communicate with those who do learn and apply programming languages.** Heck, even Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s dismissive attitude towards code is only possible because he has a basic understanding of code: the very ability to “steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter” requires some understanding of what coding problems look like, what correct code looks like, and so on.***

So, coding is a weakly essential skill in librarianship: all librarians need to know what a programming language is, how to talk about it, and what coding can and can’t do. But, then again, that’s how it is with every other skill in librarianship. The only things that are strongly essential in this profession are our values and principles; our theories and concepts. Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill. And the next time someone says that “all librarians must have skill X”, ask if they really mean “all libraries need someone with skill X.” I bet you’ll find they actually mean the latter.

[In the meantime, if you want to brush up on your coding skills, join me on Codeacademy.com: I just started Ruby and we’ll see how it goes.]

* (Of course, the number of discrete  skills required of each librarian goes up as staffing levels go down to the point where a library that only employs one librarian might need that librarian to be skilled at everything. But, that doesn’t affect my larger point.)

** (And, from a pedagogical standpoint, it could be that teaching a programming language is the best way to teach the principles of coding. But, that’s a pedagogical tactic, not a tacit admission of strong essentialism. )

*** (Also, just to be clear, HTML is a markup language, not a Turing-complete programming language. So, strictly speaking, WBT’s position on HTML is irrelevant to the issue of coding in libraries. Still, the same “learn it on the fly” approach to programming languages is popular, so for my purposes it’s a distinction without a difference.)

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In my last post I wrote that librarians are experts on the causal chain of testimonial knowledge. Of course, that’s rather technical language, so I’ve been looking for a friendlier way to explain how and why librarians are experts. We’re the people who act as guides to the network of knowledge claims and cultural expressions that make up our cultural record (or at least that portion of it that fits within our financial and moral constraints), so how can we fit that into 140 characters, so to speak. Then it hit me: the social transcript! I explained Charles Osburn’s social transcript theory in a previous post, but the quick take is that ‘social transcript’ refers to the “oral and written communications that are passed on to subsequent generations as knowledge of many kinds, and therefore to be critiqued, accepted, rejected, or even ignored” (Osburn, 134). It’s not just information. It’s not just recorded knowledge. The social transcript is the record of intellectual and aesthetic works that we choose to represent our beliefs, knowledge, values, and culture. As librarians, our role is to act as stewards and guides to that social transcript. Maintaining the social transcript is tantamount to preserving the causal chain of testimony so that we can situate our beliefs appropriately and come to new knowledge and new aesthetic experiences. In the elevator-friendly sense,  are experts on the social transcript. But, so what?

I’d like to use this post to say something about the potential upshots to thinking of librarians as experts on the social transcript (i.e., the causal chain of testimony). So, here goes it…

On the value of being a librarian…any type of librarian.

“Balkan topography” on Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA)

One of the things that bugs me most about librarianship is the endless fragmentation and cordoning-off of various librarian ‘types’. Are you in reference? Instruction? Access services? Cataloging? IT? Archives? Are you a public librarian? Academic librarian? Medical librarian? School librarian? I could list off the various combinations all damned day but, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a librarian and you probably already know that the profession suffers from some pretty severe Balkanization. To a certain extent, that’s to be expected, given the relevant differences between various functions in the library, various types of libraries, and various communities encountered. To make the library run, we need to play different roles.

But, then, why are we all called ‘librarians’? You wouldn’t say that everyone who works at Apple is a software engineer. Or that everyone at Disney World is an “Imagineer”. True, there are organizations like schools, where most members are called ‘teachers’. But, that makes sense because teachers play the same general role, just in different domains. Librarians, on the other hand, play very different roles within their organizations…but all in the same domain.

If we do like many librarians, and go the route of defining ourselves in terms of information particulars (e.g., information literacy, organization of information, access to information, etc.) then we run the real risk of marginalizing our coworkers. Librarians are experts in organizing information? Good for the catalogers, bad for the instructors. Experts in information literacy? Good for the instructors, bad for the catalogers. Experts on literacy? Great for the school librarians, not so much for the medical librarians. Hopefully, you get the drift. In contrast, I think that by defining librarians as experts on the social transcript, we can create a more inclusive environment. Whether cataloging, reference, or archives, we all are playing different roles directed at the same domain of expertise: the social transcript. Likewise, whether school, public, special, or academic, we all have different communities of practice  but we all operate within the same social transcript. Whether you’re an academic reference librarian, a public cataloging librarian, or an early childhood literacy school librarian, we’re all applying our expertise within the social transcript and we all deserve the title ‘librarian’.

On the value of fiction

By Flickr user Metadata Deluxe (CC BY 2.0)

Many librarians want to define librarianship directly in terms of knowledge or information. But, as I’ve asked previously, if libraries are fundamentally places for acquiring knowledge or accessing information, what does that entail for works of fiction? Sure, you could argue that the reason we read The Brothers Karamazov is for insight and knowledge about the human condition, but that’s a rather cynical view of literature and it ignores the emotive and aesthetic value great literature can have. And, of course, the view completely falls apart with popular books like Twilight or the Harry Potter series. Do we read Harry Potter to gain knowledge about child wizardry? Twilight to gain insight into the experiences of teen werewolves?  Of course not. We read these books because they entertain us. We read these books because they are part of the cultural landscape. In other words, they are sewn into the fabric of the social transcript. This is why 50 Shades of Grey makes headlines, and far more sexually explicit books in the same library don’t: 50 Shades of Grey is part of our social transcript (Working Stiff…not so much).

On the value of bad information

By Flickr user Mr. Reivaj (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Of course, our commitment to knowledge and information is a still a pretty big deal. So, it seems odd that we routinely collect, organize, and make accessible bad information. We say we are committed to information literacy or that we are committed to knowledge creation. And yet we keep on buying books on homeopathy. On astrology. On bullshit medical advice that is killing children. Libraries are full of  misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. And even with less controversial topics, libraries stock their shelves with books that directly contradict each other. Why?

Part of the reason for this is because, as experts on the social transcript, we understand the difference between primary information and secondary information. By ‘primary information’ I mean the actual claims made by an information source. By ‘secondary information’ I mean the information we can derive about an information source. For example, a physics textbook contains primary information insofar as it reports certain facts about the world. It contains secondary information insofar as that collection of facts, formulae, and theories says something about the social transcript (i.e., secondary information about what we take to be ‘physics’). Likewise, though a book on homeopathy contains a great deal of false information at the primary level, it offers a great deal of valuable secondary information about the social transcript: it tells us what some people think is true. As stewards of the social transcript, we need to provide both what is true as well as what is believed to be true.

Of course, this isn’t to say that any information, misinformation, or disinformation is part of our domain, or that we have to treat misinformation and disinformation equitably. Patrons generally seek knowledge, not deception. So, we generally provide factual information, not fringe theories: I don’t give physics majors articles on astrology or medical students books on homeopathy. Unless they ask for them. Furthermore, scientific and cultural theories are constantly being adjusted. The medical theories of Galen won’t get you through medical school and Newton’s aether theory won’t get you through physics, but at a secondary level of information about information, it’s vital that libraries collect even these discredited theories as a means of enhancing the social transcript and preserving all of the links in the chain of knowledge.

On the value of librarians in a changing world

I’ll add one more upshot: defending the contemporary value of librarians. If we, as a profession, are going to justify our continued existence into the 21st Century, we need to make a strong case. One of the more popular tactics is to reposition librarianship as a social science, which directs our professional focus at information users rather than information itself.  I’d be an idiot to suggest that we shouldn’t pay close attention to the information needs of our communities. But, should that be the core of librarianship? When we go before the city council, the school board, or the budget committee, do we want to justify our value by saying, “well, we’re the people who study how communities use information”? Of course not. Research into the sociology of information use may be what we do, but it isn’t what defines us.

So, why not explain that librarians are experts on the social transcript? We’re the ones that make sure that the chain of knowledge is intact, reliable, and accessible. We ensure that our communities have access to the domain of knowledge and culture in a way that makes sense. That last bit is important. Yes, the amount of information available online is staggering. With an Internet connection, the average person has access to quantities of information that are orders of magnitude greater than even that contained in the Library of Congress. But, which information matters? This is where librarians come in: we make that flood of information manageable.

Moreover, defending librarianship in terms of the domain of knowledge or the social transcript gives us a firm foundation for the relevance of librarians in conversations regarding scholarly communication, open access, copyright, and similar important issues. Rather than describe our value with gate counts and grade point averages, we can point to our unique expertise in dealing with the transmission of knowledge across and through barriers. Not only do we curate information to help our patrons discover what matters, we play an active role in shaping the networks that convey that information.

Conclusion: it’s not about information

I guess what I’m trying to say is that information and knowledge are not the bedrock of a philosophy of librarianship. Yes, information and knowledge are integral to a properly functioning library, but they aren’t the things that distinguish us as librarians: we’re neither information scientists nor epistemologists. Instead, we’re experts on the transmission of information and knowledge through testimony. We understand the networks that preserve and deliver knowledge, if not the knowledge itself. Thinking of librarianship in terms of testimony solves some thorny philosophical issues, but if philosophical issues aren’t relevant to you, then just take the aggregate of all the various chains of knowledge and expression available to us. That’s the social transcript. And that’s where librarians live.


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Photo by pkingDesign on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In my last post, I briefly discussed the meaning of the word ‘expert’, ending with a question: “Are librarians experts and, if so, experts on what?” I’m actually working on a paper at this very moment on the issue, but I thought the blog might be a good place to knock around some ideas. So, in this post I want to take a look at how academic librarians understand their own expertise and offer a brief account of how and why academic librarians can accurately be called experts.


First, I want to start with a problem. An old problem, actually, that goes all the way back to one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, the Charmides. In the passage that follows, Socrates and his interlocutor Critias are attempting to determine how an average person can tell a legitimate doctor from a quack…

Socrates: Then he who conducts his inquiry aright will consider the doctor, as a medical man, in connection with cases of health and disease.

Critias: So it seems.

S: And will inquire whether, in what is said or done in such cases, his words are truly spoken, and his acts rightly done?

C: He must.

S: Well now, could anyone follow up either of these points without the medical art?

C:No, indeed.

S: Nobody at all, it would seem, but a doctor; and so not the temperate man either: for he would have to be a doctor, in addition to his temperance.

[Charmides, 171b-c., trans. W. Lamb]

Call this the Paradox of Expertise: how can a non-expert evaluate the claims made by an expert? If we just blindly accept what an expert says, then we’re gullible. But, it would seem that the only way we can correctly evaluate the claims made by putative experts…is to become experts ourselves. But, then, we wouldn’t need to consult the experts in the first place, now would we?

As librarians, this is especially problematic because we are tasked with managing massive quantities of information, most of which we know little to nothing about. Though we may actually be subject-specialists in one or two disciplines, most librarians are charged with providing assistance across all disciplines. For example, I recently provided some research assistance for a graduate thesis in computational enjuneering ingenearing engeniering…I can’t even spell it I’m so not an expert. How can an idiot like me help a student research a complicated topic without knowing at least as much about that topic as the student asking for help?

What’s more, our patrons don’t seek out misinformation or disinformation; they don’t want to be deceived. No, our patrons seek information “in order to bring about good epistemic outcomes. That is, they want to acquire knowledge, true beliefs, justified beliefs, understanding, etc.” (Fallis, 2006). They come to the library for knowledge…so how can non-subject-specialist librarians facilitate their search? If I’m not an expert on quantum mechanics, how can I help generate new knowledge about quantum mechanics? Put another way, how are students justified in accepting the information the librarian provides?

Well, there are two main approaches to getting around the Paradox of Expertise: criticize the very idea of expertise and show that it is inapplicable or try to figure out some area of expertise that can get librarians through Plato’s trap. First, the negative, or “critical”, approach…


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by Flickr user Chris Pirillo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you read TheAtlantic.com regularly, then you may have seen a recent article entitled “Wikipedia and the Shifting Definition of ‘Expert‘” by resident Wikipedia-booster Rebecca J. Rosen. According to Rosen, even though Wikipedia is deferential to expertise, changes are afoot:

a new study from researchers at Stanford University and Yahoo Research points to a complementary phenomenon: The definition of what makes someone an expert is changing…Expertise, to these researchers, isn’t who a writer is but what a writer knows, as measured by what they read online.

Actually, what she links to is a summary of a poster presentation from the 2012 World Wide Web conference in Lyon. The poster, entitled “A Data-Driven Sketch of Wikipedia Editors“, presents the findings of an as yet unpublished study by a couple of computer scientists from Yahoo! Research and a doctoral student from Stanford. The longer paper, entitled “Smart but Fun: A Data-Driven Portrait of Wikipedia Editors,” is still under review so I won’t pull any juicy citations from it, but it’s worth a read anyway. But, basically, the researchers pulled data from the Yahoo! Toolbar and compared the search behavior of Wikipedia editors to that of other Web users. They found that Wikipedia users tend to be “more sophisticated than usual Web users” and “deeply immersed in pop culture.” No big surprise. (Except for the “more sophisticated” bit. I don’t know any tech-savvy people who would willingly install the Yahoo! Toolbar.) Anyway, Rosen zeroes in on the researchers claim that “[i]ntuitively, someone is an expert in a topic if their interest is significantly above average.” She adds that “it’s a new and radically distilled understanding of expertise: An expert is someone who knows something.” All this supposedly lends credence to Maria Bustillos’s infamous claim that Wikipedia has meant “the death of the expert.” Or, at the very least, it’s signaled a new sense of expertise that is gradually usurping traditional notions of credibility.

The experts aren’t dead

If you’ve bothered to click on the links, you’ll see pretty quickly that Rosen’s article is ill-informed and that she probably hasn’t read the very study she cites. Likewise, you’ll see that the authors of the study have a weak grasp of what it means to be intuitive. “Intuitively, someone is an expert in a topic if their interest is significantly above average”? In what world is that intuitive? Apparently a world where correlation implies causation, I guess. A world where compulsive gamblers are experts on game theory, teenage boys are experts on the female reproductive system, and toddlers are experts on differential geometry. I think we all can agree that merely showing a great deal of interest in a subject does not make you an expert on said subject.

"Mama! Dada! Positive Gaussian curvature!"

I think there are more plausible and certainly more well-thought-out definitions of what an expert really is. In his widely anthologized article “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?”, Alvin Goldman proposes the following definition of what it means to be an expert:

 [W]e can say that an expert (in the strong sense) in domain D is someone who possesses an extensive fund of knowledge (true belief ) and a set of skills or methods for apt and successful deployment of this knowledge to new questions in the domain. Anyone purporting to be a (cognitive) expert in a given domain will claim to have such a fund and set of methods, and will claim to have true answers to the question(s) under dispute because he has applied his fund and his methods to the question(s). (p. 92)

So, you can be an expert so long as you satisfy two properties: you’ve got to know a lot about something and you have to be able to apply that knowledge to new situations. For example, a particle physicist is not an expert on subatomic particles merely because she knows a lot about them. She also has to be able to make predictions, solve problems, and be able to adapt to new discoveries. That is, the expert is the one who can reliably solve problems in particle physics. In contrast, the Wikipedia editors on the particle physics page are not experts because they are interested in the page. Neither are they experts if they’re read a lot and have a lot of domain knowledge. They’re only experts on particle physics if they can successfully apply their knowledge in new and challenging situations. Basically, if a given Wikipedia editor is capable of searching for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, I’d say she is probably an expert on particle physics.

And, if you think about it, this comports well with our standard distinction between expert and amateur. An amateur is very interested in a subject and knows a lot about it. An expert knows a lot about it and can put that knowledge to use as a tool for discovering new questions and finding new answers. This, of course, is not to say that amateurs can’t discover anything new–they certainly can and do all the time. But, experts do it consistently and reliably.

But, are we paying attention to the experts?

Here’s the thing: geeky postmodernists love Wikipedia because, to them, Wikipedia represents a destabilizing force. The success of the world’s largest encyclopedia has supposedly meant the end of the old, post-Enlightenment hegemony of ‘expertise’, ‘truth’, and ‘objectivity’. Now, we live in a world where the expert is dead, where individual genius and creativity are symptoms of “Romantic snobbery“, and where quaint notions of ‘fact’ are officially deceased. But, of course, this is all just so much sophism and intellectual mysticism. Truth, fact, objectivity, and expertise are safe, secure, and just as they have always been. In fact, as I argued a few weeks ago, Wikipedia is actually surprisingly deferential to traditional, scholarly expertise; Wikipedia is founded on a deep respect for authoritative knowledge. So, contra the postmodern geeks, the experts aren’t dead…we’re just not paying attention to them.

And it’s true! We are willfully ignoring expertise. Homeopathy is a billion dollar industry. Horoscopes appear in every “news”paper. People think gays and lesbians shouldn’t adopt, that Obama is a secret Muslim, that there’s no agreement on climate change, that intelligent design is legitimate science, and that vaccines cause autism, just to name a few pants-crappingly stupid beliefs that people would stop believing if they just listened to the damn experts. Actually, that last one about vaccines is a good example of just how dangerous it is to ignore genuine expertise. For a great overview of why and how non-experts should defer to experts, take a look at Stephen John’s “Expert Testimony and Epistemological Free-Riding: The MMR Controversy” in the July 2011 Philosophical Quarterly (you may be able to find a free copy if you poke around a little).

by Flickr user chrisheuer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

by Flickr user chrisheuer (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Are librarians experts?

Basically, an expert is someone with the requisite skills and knowledge to discover and answer new questions in a given domain. It’s not just about what we know, it’s about whether and how we can use what we know. As a librarian, this brings up an interesting couple of questions: are librarians experts and, if so, what is our area of expertise? Postmodern librarians like LeMoine (2012)Martin (2009)Stover (2004), argue that librarians are non-experts. Realists like Pressley and Gilbertson (2011), O’Kelly and Lyon (2011), and Crosby (2001) argue that librarians are experts on information and information seeking. There’s actually no consensus about whether librarians are experts or “generalists.” And though I do think that librarians are experts, I’m not so sure that calling us experts on “information” is accurate.

In my next post, I want to tackle the question of whether and, if so, how librarians are experts. It’s an especially interesting problem given that we reference librarians routinely assist patrons in researching subjects about which we know very little…so how and why are patrons justified in trusting our help? And in case you think this is just idle, armchair philosophy, remember that there is an active movement afoot to replace academic librarians (generalists) with subject-specialist post-docs (experts).  Figuring out whether librarians are experts is a crucial step in explaining our worth. And rather than claim that the definition of ‘expert’ has been radically altered, or that the expert is dead, or that expertise doesn’t matter, I’d like to argue that it most certainly does and now more so than ever.

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