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"The Hall of Enlightenment" by virtusincertus on Flickr CC-BY

“The Hall of Enlightenment” by virtusincertus on Flickr CC-BY

Recently, nina de jesus argued that libraries perpetuate systematic, institutionalized oppression by virtue of adhering to the democratic principles and values espoused during the Age of Enlightenment.[1] Her argument can be summarized as follows:

Premise 1:   Libraries embody and perpetuate the values of the Enlightenment.

Premise 2:   The values of the Enlightenment are oppressive.

Conclusion: Libraries embody and perpetuate oppressive values.

On its face, this is a valid argument, which is just to say that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well.[2] Yet, validity is no substitute for soundness and we can rightly ask whether de jesus’ argument is, in fact, a sound one. Are her premises true?

This post will attempt to argue that de jesus’ argument is flawed in its second premise: hidden within the claim that the values of the Enlightenment are oppressive are historical and methodological assumptions that significantly weaken her argument. This is not to say that libraries are immune from institutionalized oppression. Rather, the argument I wish to make is that the values of the Enlightenment are not the proximate cause for ongoing oppression. If anything, as I hope to show, the historical and material “conditions that both caused and are caused by the Enlightenment”[3] are frequently mischaracterized and misunderstood. The values of the Age of Reason, far from being a direct cause of institutionalized oppression in libraries, may be the best cure.

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consume less live more by grahamc99

Last week I had an interesting Twitter conversation regarding a popular rhetorical strategy surrounding maker-spaces, New Librarianship, participatory culture, and the other assorted “big ideas” for the future of libraries.  Now, I think makerspaces are pretty cool and I certainly don’t want anyone to think I want to be slagging on making/hacking/tinkering but, even though makerspaces are rad, they’re being marketed with some pretty suspect rhetoric. Let me give you a few examples:

“We believe the library of the last century is the library of consumption, an institution that reflects the broadcast era of media, the place where you watch, read, and listen passively from an armchair. The library of this century is the place where new social relationships are forged and knowledge is created, explored, and shared.” (Nate Hill & Jeff Goldenson, “Making Room for Innovation”, Library Journal, May 16, 2013 [link])

“Librarianship is not about artifacts, it is about knowledge and facilitating knowledge creation. So what should we be spending our precious resources on? Knowledge creation tools, not the results of knowledge creation.” (Dave Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship, p. 43)

“So what does it mean for libraries to give our communities the tools, access, training, and permission to make, hack, and tinker instead of simply consume?” (Laura Britton, “The Makings of Maker Spaces, Part 1”, Library Journal, Oct. 1, 2012 [link])

“By bringing makerspaces into libraries, we can adapt to changing student needs and supporting knowledge creation in addition to knowledge consumption.” (Erin Fisher, “Makerspaces Move into Academic Libraries”, ACRL TechConnect, November 28, 2012 [link])

“Based on the idea that libraries are for creation, not just consumption, maker spaces don’t just upend the normal programming model—they have the potential to reinvent the public library.” (Brian Kenney, “Meet Your Makers”, Publishers Weekly, Mar. 29, 2013 [link])

“The consumption library, to me, is the library that sort of sits back and waits for people to come inside of its doors, to discover what they have, to take it home, to consume it in the privacy of their own home, to consume it one as a time as individuals. Whereas the creation library is the library that sort of embraces that idea of imagination and begins to redesign even its physical space in terms of creation.” (Ken Roberts, “The Future of Libraries”, Dec. 6, 2012 [link])

Did you catch it? The common thread and the favored tactic in the literature surrounding libraries and maker-spaces is to draw a sharp distinction between the consumption of knowledge and the creation of knowledge. By ‘knowledge consumption’ most writers seem to mean reading; by ‘knowledge creation’ most seem to mean hacking, tinkering, building, making, or collaborating. And the way the conversation is being shaped by this rhetoric, it’s clear that knowledge consumption is old and in the way and what we really need is to forge ahead into a bright future of knowledge creation. Yes, some librarians make the case that we need both creation and consumption (e.g., “…in addition to knowledge consumption”), but the rhetorical device is still in play: knowledge can be either consumed or created, and the library of the future is weighted towards creation.

And, so, I tweeted:

consumecreatetweet

This sparked a long discussion of creation vs. consumption, but as is usually the case with Twitter, it was sort of all over the map. So, I figured I should explain my reasoning here on the blog. Put simply, the rhetoric of knowledge consumption versus knowledge creation equivocates over the concept of knowledge, forcing an adversarial false dilemma. What’s worse, if we try to clarify the equivocation, it quickly becomes apparent that it makes absolutely no sense to contrast knowledge consumption with knowledge creation because, in the context of a library, they’re the same damned thing. Allow me to explain…

First of all, there are two wildly different senses of ‘knowledge’ at play in the consume/create rhetoric. Start with the type of knowledge in “knowledge creation”: what is getting created? Well, makerfolk surely aren’t talking about printing knowledge on a Makerbot. At least, I hope they aren’t, because that would be some next-level craziness. No, makerbrarians are most likely talking about creating a certain type of new beliefs, which brings us to the first type of knowledge: epistemic knowledge. And all we mean by creating epistemic knowledge is something along the lines of coming to new justified, true beliefs. It’s like, “if you tinker with an Arduino, you will acquire knowledge” and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. We acquire new beliefs and new knowledge all the time: it’s called learning.

But, what about the type of knowledge in “knowledge consumption”? Can we consume beliefs? That is, can we consume mental states?  Ummm, no; your psychic vampire otherkin friend is just delusional. But, we can consume recorded knowledge. Someone knows or believes something, they want to share it, and so they write it down, film it, paint it, and so on. That recorded knowledge is now something consumable: you can read it, watch it, view it, and so on. And we consume recorded knowledge/belief all the time: it’s called information.

So, when I hear makerbrarians proclaim that traditional libraries are about knowledge consumption and future libraries are about knowledge creation, I make a mental substitution: traditional libraries are about information, future libraries are about learning, and so libraries must move away from information in order to facilitate learning.

Wait…what?

This may come as a shock, but libraries have been places of learning for quite some time. It’s kind of our schtick. On the flip side, it’s not clear what a pure creation space would be in the absence of  information “consumption.” I’m pretty sure that you need to manipulate some information to make that 3D print of Chewbacca riding on a TARDIS, or whatever it is that 3D printers do.

3d Millennium Falcon by John Biehler CCBYNCSA

KHAAAANNNN!!!!

Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that, when taken literally, the knowledge creation vs. knowledge consumption distinction is simply bad rhetoric. If anything, consumption and creation–understood as information and learning–are inseparable: you need one to achieve the other. So, saying that we need to replace one with the other is, for lack of a better term…dumb. But, of course, it’s just sloppy rhetoric; the participabrarians don’t really mean to imply that libraries have never been about knowledge creation. Perhaps they mean something more like this…

Traditionally, libraries have invested mostly in the collection, preservation, and provision of access to certain types of information and certain types of cultural objects (i.e., literature) all for the purposes of self-directed learning and/or enculturation. But, in the future, libraries will need to invest more heavily in providing their communities with the tools needed to create technologically-mediated cultural objects and information. It’s not that creation and consumption are opposed to one another, rather, the balance is simply shifting away from collecting information and shifting towards collecting the tools required to process information.

Is that better? Closer to the intent of the consume/create distinction? I think it probably is. But, even the watered down version is still problematic because it highlights a rather sizable lacuna in the maker movement manifesto: what makes learning to build a small computer or learning to design and 3D print a small plastic object a greater social good or more intrinsically valuable than the myriad other types of learning available in the library?* Is learning how to make your iPhone open your garage door a more valuable skill than learning a new language? Is there something available in the Thingiverse to help patrons study for finals? For the GED? For the citizenship exam? Is there an app for storytime? Sure, geek elites like Cory Doctorow will argue that making and hacking are absolutely critical to the future of information literacy (“If computers are on your side, they elevate every single thing we use to measure quality of life. So we need to master computers — to master the systems of information, so that we can master information itself. That’s where makers come in” [link]). But, we’re not all technological determinists like Doctorow and it’s a hell of a category mistake to assume that understanding a piece of hardware is necessary for information literacy. It’s like saying that you have to be able to make a paintbrush to appreciate art (or to be a painter). Other fablabrarians make vague pronouncements about improving communities, like, “instead of building better bombs, emerging technology can help build better communities” [link]. Again, I’m sure you can improve a community through tinkering, but you can also improve it through promoting literacy or providing information about sustainability or literally a million other activities. So, it’s still not clear how the future of libraries is in tinkering.

I’m not saying that the things you can do in a maker space aren’t cool, useful, and important. They absolutely are. I’m completely okay with saying that makerspaces have a place in the library because they do address certain, important information needs. But, I’m not sold on the thoroughly Whiggish rhetoric that makerspaces are the inevitable future of what libraries should be and, moreover, I am uncomfortable with rhetoric that pits makerspaces against other library offerings. Even if the makerbrarians concede that the consume/create distinction is just a catchy soundbite or elevator pitch to throw out when we need to show the “continued relevance” of libraries to potential funding sources, all that implies is that non-maker services somehow aren’t relevant. Put another way, not only is the consume/create distinction a false dichotomy, and not only does it avoid questions of social value, but it’s also unnecessarily adversarial. A library patron who wants to read a book is not “simply consuming.” Story-time can also “embrace imagination.” The “results of knowledge creation” are often cherished parts of a community. Let’s change the rhetoric and treat all of our community and patron needs with respect, not just the needs that can be met with ABS and LEDs.

bookend_2_small_preview_featured

* I should acknowledge that some makerspaces also include activities like sewing, crafting, bicycle repair, and other non-digital offerings. Some rent tools or guitars. Some will even show you how to butcher a hog. These are all awesome. Shoot, I’d love to be able to take a bike tech class. And, if you squint hard enough, you can probably come up with a story that all learning is, in a way, making. But, generally speaking, when librarians talk about makerspaces they’re talking about the 3D printing/hacking/app-building/Arduino programming sort of digital makerspace.

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By now I’m sure you’ve read about the spate of little, free libraries popping up all over the place; if you’re lucky, you may have even seen and used one. The idea is simple: volunteers build and install small book depositories in public spaces, inviting passers-by to take a book, leave a book, or both. The Little Free Library Project of Madison, Wisconsin is one of the more successful projects, though a lot of attention is also given to urban hacking Department of Urban Betterment project in New York City. Wherever they find a home, these DIY libraries are rightly heralded as testaments to reading, sharing, and community.

I think institutional libraries can learn a lot from these tiny upstarts. DIY libraries reinforce that libraries are social institutions, they fulfill needs that library theorists often ignore, and they provide an indirect commentary on the relationship between libraries and media. Here’s a short list of lessons that I think librarians can learn from the DIY library movement.

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Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, 2025 14th Street

Photo by tunnelbug on Flickr
I’d like to take a moment to riff off of a tidy little post by Joe over at all these birds with teeth (BTW, one of my top two or three favorite library blogs). Joe’s recent post, “Drinking the Kool-Aid“, takes a look at the claim that we are heading towards a post-text world where video will become the dominant method of communication. As some have argued, video will soon eclipse text as the primary means of communication recording and sharing information. And libraries, following the trend away from knowledge collection and towards knowledge production, should follow suit and direct training, resources, facilities, even our very mission as librarians towards the new paradigm. But, as Joe argues,

The matter of the fact is that text is not dead (“Text” is a part of the world of visual communication) and if we intend to be taken seriously as sites of production then it behooves us to keep the lines to the past open for those in the future.

And he’s absolutely right. There is no prima facie reason to abandon a technology simply because something new and different has come along. Sure, it sometimes goes that way: we replaced the typewriter with the computer in less than two decades. Then again, for all the gee-whiz technology we’re buying, I’ve got five bucks that says you’ve got a pen or pencil within your reach.

That’s vintage Canadian money. I’m all about the Lauriers, baby.

Where am I going with this?

There’s an unfortunate tendency in some library circles to view new technologies or new theories as the one and only future of librarianship. It’s said that ebooks will replace print books, smartphones will replace desktops, the cloud will replace local storage, and so on. And that’s just the tech side of things. Library practice sees the same push towards replacement. Patron driven acquisitions will replace collection development. Transliteracy will replace information literacy. Knowledge construction will replace knowledge collection. Tagging will replace classification systems. You get the idea. And, you know, some of that may in fact happen. But, a lot of it won’t. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s worth keeping around. New Coke was grody to the max. The New Age movement is patent nonsense. New Jack Swing? Color Me Sadd.

Wow. That’s just one “Ooh, baby, ooh” from the worst pun ever. Sorry.

by stgermh on Flickr

My point is just that some of our current practices are in need of replacement, but others will outlive each and every one of us. Sure, saying that text is dead is just hyperbolic rhetoric, not meant to be taken seriously. But, the threat of thinking in terms of obsolescence is very real. For all we know, ebooks may go the way of the microfiche; for all we know, social tagging may go the way of the card catalog. Maybe so, maybe not. But we should at least avoid the rhetoric; we shouldn’t turn our backs on the past because something better might come along.

Don’t get me wrong. The pitfalls of techno-theoretical boosterism don’t entail that we shouldn’t be advocates for new technologies and theories. If we don’t actively pursue, explore, and recommend new technology or new theory, we won’t be going anywhere as a profession. We need to embrace new technologies and see how far we can push them, even if they do turn out to be worthless in the long run. The important thing is that we don’t pretend that existing technologies no longer matter when something new comes along. We shouldn’t think in terms of replacement, we should think in terms of addition or enhancement. That is, we shouldn’t look at our print books begrudgingly because we think they’ll soon be replaced. We shouldn’t resent what we have because we want what’s yet to come.

If ebooks replace print books, so be it, but we shouldn’t give print books the cold shoulder just because Kindles just got cheaper. And we shouldn’t throw around hyperbolic “X is dead” statements until X is truly long gone. Spending time on future technology and trends is absolutely vital to our profession. But so is spending time on past technologies and trends, and we need to remember that the utility of the technologies and theories of the present can only be determined in relation to the past. I’m not saying we need to start teaching all about microfilm in library instruction or that the scriptorium is integral to the modern library. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that advancement necessarily means replacement. As Joe says: “it behooves us to keep the lines to the past open for those in the future.” Again, we shouldn’t resent what we’ve got because something better might come along. Let text and print die a natural death, don’t let them die from neglect.

Yes, I know that these books weren’t replaced by ebooks.
They were replaced by nothing at all.

by shanegorski no Flickr

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Image by naturalkinds
My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they
haven’t disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qual-
ities for me to use.
(Allen Ginsberg)
A few weeks ago, a philosophy of librarianship thing started going around [link] [link] [link] [link]. I started to write out my own philosophy of librarianship statement, but (1) I was distracted by a massive collection review project, (2) I had to finish a book chapter, and (3) I can’t write a succinct philosophy of librarianship statement. I found myself double-checking everything and running down far too many rabbit holes. So, in lieu of a philosophy of librarianship, I’d like to recommend what I feel is (despite its flaws) the most powerful recent statement of library philosophy: Charles Osburn’s The Social Transcript (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009).


My books piled up before me for my use
I’ve only seen a handful of previous reviews of Osburn’s book. Wayne Bivens-Tatum correctly notes that Osburn’s treatise is about “why the library exists rather than how it functions” and that “[w]hat Osburn tries to do…is uncover the larger philosophy governing libraries and their role in our culture so that we may see more clearly.” (p. 584). This really is a book about libraries as socio-cultural linchpins. And, as Mike Matthews has described it, Osburn avoids the common pitfalls of library philosophy “by emphasizing the study of the library as an object, rather than trying to articulate a library philosophy from a strictly subjective (i.e., librarian’s) point of view” (p. 90). This is not a “how-to” book heavy on praxis. This is a book written from the proverbial Archimedean standpoint, on the outside, looking in.

Both Bivens-Tatum and Matthews criticize Osburn’s overwrought prose and excessive use of direct quotations (something Osburn even admits, p. xii). And I agree: Osburn quotes from so many wildly varied sources that his argument is, more often than not, obscured by other voices. It’s excessive to the point that he veers dangerously close to plagiarism at points.* Still, the overarching message is powerful and instructive, regardless of whose message it really is.

Waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t disappeared
I’m going to try to reconstruct Osburn’s thesis and argument as best I can, though I may be taking some liberties for the sake of not-wanting-to-make-you-have-to-read-a-5000-damned-word-review.

The library, Osburn argues, is not so much a place, but a sociocultural function. From the Peripatetics of Alexandria through the monastic era and down to today, the library qua place has changed hands repeatedly, and each time with different political and social intent. Yet, the common thread that has carried the library through more than 2,000 years of Western society has been its function as the means by which we preserve the “social transcript”. As he writes, “the organization, differentiation, and integration of extant knowledge for use by humanity, now and in the future, constitute the abbreviated single function of the library” (p. 241).

Drawing on sociology, political science, education, evolutionary theory, and more, Osburn argues that history writ large is the story of cultural progress mediated by continued access to the cultural record. Humanity advances through millennia only by virtue of shared memories, values, imaginative creations, and intellectual achievements. Collectively, these shared artifacts form a “social transcript”, a means of preserving and transmitting our beliefs through time. Osburn defines the social transcript as “both 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 for the time being” (p. 134). Even more succinctly, Osburn offers this: “the social transcript can be considered culture in transit” (p. 135).

Osburn writes, “none of this is mysterious when placed in the context of the library as function, as a cultural technology. That function is stewardship of the social transcript” (p. 258). And I think I agree with him. Rather than start with librarianship, as most grand theories seem to do, it seems more fitting to start with the library itself. Librarianship thus exists as a response to the deeply ingrained cultural technology of “the library”, and not the other way around. By situating the library in society, Osburn provides the necessary starting point for understanding how librarians, library science, and librarianship should proceed as cultural stewards.

Time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use
Of course, Osburn’s book is far from perfect. As mentioned above, the excessive number of citations are incredibly distracting and are often of only marginal relevance. Further, Osburn is frequently inconsistent insofar as he presents a lengthy discussion of the social utility of aesthetic works (books, poetry, plays, etc.), yet reverts back to describing cultural progress strictly in terms of the transmission of knowledge. When it comes time to actually define the social transcript and its role in cultural progress, aesthetic considerations seem to take a backseat.

Finally, and most damningly, Osburn completely ignores the impact of the Internet on the social transcript. I’m no Twopointopian by any means, but to ignore the effects of digital communication and storage seems extraordinarily negligent…especially for a book published in 2009. I can already hear the digital desperadoes proudly retort that the digital world in general (and social media in particular) allows us to act as our own cultural stewards, obviating the need for libraries. “Who needs libraries when there’s Google?” There are plenty of good responses; I’m sure you can name a dozen off the top of your head. But, for Osburn to set the library up as a cultural steward, and then ignore the Internet’s challenge to the cultural record, is evidence of an incredible oversight. If anything, digital media are the largest challenges to social transcript theory, and Osburn has nothing to say. As far as his version of social transcript theory is concerned, books are the end of the line.

I’d like to explore social transcript theory further, because I think that the theory can, in fact, answer the tension between libraries and the Internet. In the next post, I’ll try to explain why social transcript theory offers a better alternative to other popular theories. I really do think that Osburn has the right idea, and I encourage you to get a copy of The Social Transcript, with the one caveat that, for all of the book’s research and erudition, the argument is, ultimately, left incomplete. But, that’s not such a bad thing. At least it gives us something to do.

Essential Readings in the Philosophy of Library and Information Science

  • Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 11, Issue 1, January 2011: 584-585.
  • Matthews, Mike. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” Reference & User Services Quarterly, Vol. 50, Issue 1, Fall 2010: 90-91.
  • Osburn, Charles. The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009.

Image by nedcc, on Flickr

 * Yes, plagiarism is a serious charge to level at someone. But, for example, Osburn writes

Sponsorship of the library has changed hands frequently throughout history, moving from the nobility, the priesthood, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. Concurrently, however, the library increased dramatically in size, geographic ubiquity, and complexity; created for it was a body of rules and procedures as it evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly extended its clientele base. And through all that, as Jesse Shera points out (1973, p. 94), the library did not change its basic mission, “which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records”… (Osburn, p. 18-19)

Compare to Shera (1973):

The sponsorship of the library, then, has throughout history and during varying periods of time, been assumed by the nobility, the priesthoods, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. The library has increased dramatically in size and complexity, created a body of more or less standardized rules and procedures, evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly widened its clientele, while not changing its basic mission, which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records for benefit of the individual and, through the individual, of society. 

I’m going to assume that this is just a case of sloppy scholarship, but it rides a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable use and it’s hardly an isolated incident. Here’s hoping the second edition is more accurate in its source attribution. 

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I just wanted to throw out a link to Jason’s repost of Eli Neiberger’s killer presentation about the future of the codex. This really is the best presentation I’ve seen in a long while and it’s must-watch content for librarians.

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