Archive for the ‘social transcript’ Category

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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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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