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You’ve probably heard of #critlib: that loose affiliation of librarians interested in “critical perspectives on library practice” [link]. Now, I don’t identify with #critlib because. . .reasons. But I do think that the work being done under the mantle of critical librarianship is vital and important work, so it’s something I pay attention to. And one of the things I see an awful lot in #critlib discussions is an uncertainty about the role of critical theory. Reflecting on this, last week I wondered aloud whether anyone would be interested in short overviews of important figures in critical theory. And quite a few people expressed interest. So, I thought a little and I realized something: #critlib is absolutely saturated in the themes and ideas of Paulo Freire–chief architect of critical pedagogy. While his name is rarely explicitly mentioned,1 you still see his influence in talk of praxis, the banking model of education, problem-based learning, enabling student voices, authority being constructed and contextual, scholarship as a conversation, and so on. Personally, I think Freire is one of the greatest educators of the 20th century and his work had a big impact on my development as a teacher. But, I think his work also had some major flaws that people interested in Freire may want to consider. And that’s why I thought I’d take the time to give a brief overview of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy. This is NOT authoritative. It’s just how one librarian who studied Freire back in the day understands critical pedagogy. The goal is fourfold:

  1. To give an overview of Freire’s thought.
  2. To provide definitions and context for frequently used terms (hello, ‘praxis’).
  3. To identify potential criticisms and considerations.
  4. To identify where librarians may find something useful

So, let’s begin…

Caricature of Paulo Freire

by Andre Koehne, CC BY-SA 3.0

Continue Reading »

 

I haven’t blogged in over six months, but I’ve been thinking about getting back into it. I’ve got about a half dozen half-written posts on everything from discovery layers to curriculum design to some 6000 words on critical theory in librarianship. Maybe I’ll publish them one day. Maybe not. But I’ve read a few things over the past few days that I just had to comment on.

As you may have heard by now, the ACRL formally rescinded the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Going forward,  the Framework for Information Literacy represents the official stance of the ACRL on information literacy. Now, I really don’t want to keep doing the ACRL Framework versus ACRL Standards debate. Yes, I’ve been critical of the Framework. I was on the task force that made the thing and I saw how the sausage was made. I think it’s based on an underdetermined educational theory and I think the six frames were chosen through a flawed methodology. I could nitpick the thing to death but I won’t (again). Rather, I just want to go on record that the rhetoric surrounding the Framework debate is its largest problem. After the ACRL announcement, the library instructors on Twitter and email lists got pretty worked up, with some praising the decision and others condemning it. And then I saw someone compare the ACRL decision to Brexit as both were “shortsighted” and would diminish the importance of the ACRL and the UK, respectively and…wow. On one hand, a parochial and voluntary association of librarians replaces one toothless policy statement with another toothless policy statement. On the other hand, a racist, anti-immigrant campaign built on lies and misinformation has just destabilized an entire country, if not the world. Yeah. Pretty much the same.

cusack

Granted, that’s only one arguably offensive comparison, but still it is illustrative of just how hyperbolic people can get over the ACRL’s decisions regarding information literacy. What I can’t seem to figure out is why.

As I see it, the arguments in favor of retaining the Standards all seem to center on either historical convenience. (“we don’t want to have to rewrite our lesson plans”) or political convenience (“like it or not, we still have to assess and to consider accreditation”). On the flip side, most of the rhetoric surrounding the Framework is about “empowering” library instructors to do things the Standards wouldn’t “let them do.” Most of the Framework excitement boils down to “oh, I can finally do this” or “now we can teach that” or some other statements about how liberating and refreshing the Framework is compared to the dusty, old Standards. Outside of that, the usual line is simply that the Framework and Standards can’t coexist and the Framework has now been adopted, so that’s that. But, guess what…

You don’t want to rewrite your lesson plans? Then don’t. The ACRL doesn’t send the Pinkertons after non-compliant libraries. So you should be fine.

You’re worried about assessment or accreditation? Here. That’s the AAC&U VALUE rubric for information literacy. It’s basically the same as the Standards except it’s actually usable. And your faculty will have heard of it. You’re welcome.

You think the Framework opens up new and liberating ways to teach; that the Standards were holding you back? Then you haven’t been paying attention. There is literally nothing being proposed under the Framework that wasn’t already being done either under the Standards or in spite of the Standards. You think we weren’t already teaching that authority is contextual? Or that information has value? Those six frames aren’t new discoveries…they’re codifications of existing thoughts and practices; thoughts and practices that developed within the milieu of the information literacy Standards. The simple truth of the matter is that where the Framework is useful, it’s not original (and where it is original, it’s not useful, I would add).

You think both the Framework and Standards are useful and want to use both? Go for it. The whole line about the two being inconsistent is nonsense. One of the lessons of the Framework is that the ACRL is not concerned with consistency and rigor with respect to theory adoption. The Framework adopted only the parts of threshold concept theory that suited it, so you can adopt only the parts of the Framework that suit you. And that includes ignoring the part that says the Framework and Standards are inconsistent. I mean, it’s written into the danged Framework itself: “each library and its partners on campus will need to deploy these frames to best fit their own situation.”

You think that’s all well and good for those with the privilege, but your boss/library/university requires that you use one or the other? Maybe you love the Framework but your mean old department head refuses to leave the Standards. Maybe you’re not ready to leave the Standards but your director heard about the Framework at a conference and thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. If either is the case, and you are receiving pressure from above to conform to one or the other policy, then just conform. It doesn’t matter. You can easily map the same learning objectives to either the Standards or the Framework. Like I said, there’s nothing new in the Framework. If anything, the Framework is so much broader and vague compared to the Standards, that it’s easier to map to it.1 You may feel forced to accept one of these policies, but that doesn’t control how you interpret it.2

chooseyrownadventureinfolitUltimately, I think we need to get away the rhetoric about what these two documents will and will not let us do and realize that the choice is up to us. Instead of focusing on the merits and demerits of each set of standards (yes, the Framework is a set of standards) we ought to be focusing on the merits and demerits of standardization more generally. Emily Drabinski has a very perceptive rundown of the role that standardization plays in librarianship. I only just read it after writing everything above, but she makes some of the same points, albeit much more intelligently. You should read it. All I can add is that we need to remember that the old Standards and the new Framework are just standards. Though they may use language that appears to be describing some fundamental reality about information literacy, they can’t actually do that. Neither amounts to any substantive theory of information literacy. Neither is authoritative. They’re just interpretations. They’re suggestions. They both serve as frameworks through which we learn to speak a common language. Yes, I think the Framework is a deeply flawed document, but at least when I hear someone say that “scholarship is a conversation” I know more or less where they are coming from and we can have a dialogue.3 As a professional community we need these sorts of shared understandings, and that’s what standards and frameworks do for us.

I feel like I’m just repeating what much smarter librarians have already said, so I’ll give it a rest. Give up on the hand-wringing. Use the Framework. Use the Standards. Use them both. Use neither. In the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter.

doesntmatter
[1] Recently, a local composition instructor did a deep reading of the Framework with us and said that her entire curriculum could fit under the Framework. Whether that’s because the Framework is too vague or that the Framework is overreaching in its scope is unclear.

[2] And if your director is at the point of dictating how you are supposed to interpret an information literacy document, that’s a management problem, not a Standards/Framework problem.

[3] about what a terrible metaphor that is

So, I don’t know if you noticed this, but I haven’t posted anything here since March. To break the streak I figured I’d start by posting the slides from my presentation at the LOEX conference back in Denver in May. Yeah, yeah…I’m six months late on this. But, with the the LOEX Fall Focus only two weeks away, what better time to remind people that some library instructors aren’t down with the ACRL Framework? In fact, my presentation, “Reconsidering Threshold Concepts,” was basically a 45-minute crash-course in the theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical failures of the Framework.

However, don’t read me as saying that embracing the Framework is a dumb thing to do. As I tried to make clear in the presentation (even if the slides don’t convey it), my intent by criticizing the Framework was to strengthen it, not to shame it. After all, there is no perfect theory. About anything. Every theory or framework or method or position can be criticized. The key is in knowing how to deal with those criticisms. And my presentation was about taking hold of the theoretical foundations of the ACRL Framework and giving a good shake to see whether I could feel comfortable standing on it. I’ll let you decide for yourself if you’re comfortable. In the absence of a recording, I can only hope the sentence fragments spread across the slides will suggest a coherent argument.

Oh, and the conference theme was “Perfect Your Craft” and everyone worked really hard to create beer-themed presentations (my personal favorite title being Alison Hicks’ “Drinking on the Job: Integrating Workplace Information Literacy into the Curriculum”). Just had to get that out there in case you viewed the slides and thought I was an alcoholic or something.

http://www.slideshare.net/lanewilkinson/reconsidering-threshold-concepts-loex-2015-denver-co

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.

"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.

Continue Reading »

by quinnanya on Flickr. CC BY-SA

by quinnanya on Flickr. CC BY-SA

I want to tell you a story. A story about the worst library job interview of all time. Lots of library blogs talk about how to apply for jobs, but you don’t often read how to interview prospective librarians. Let this be a cautionary tale for hiring committees. Oh, and the following is all true to the best of my recollection.*

Begin.

Before the interview

Friday morning. I looked over the agenda for my on-campus interview and noticed that there was a 45 minute gap between the time the car picked me up at the hotel and my first appointment. Nothing particularly unusual about that…sometimes traffic is a pain in the ass. Then again, my hotel was only a half-mile away from the library where I was being interviewed. I could actually see the library from my hotel window.

The car dropped me off 3 minutes after picking me up. I had 42 minutes to spare.

So, I decided to head in to the library and see if I couldn’t meet with anyone. I walked up to the front door, took a deep breath to steady my nerves…oh, there’s a card swipe. I don’t have a card.

41 minutes until my interview.

Since the car dropped me off early and I was locked out of the library, I decided to stroll around campus for a bit. This lasted all of 10 minutes before (1) I got bored with the sprawling suburban campus and (2) I got tired of being outside in 40 degree weather without a jacket. So, I headed back to the library just in time to catch a student entering the building. She was kind enough to hold the door open for me. Lane 1, Card Swipe 0.

Since I wasn’t entirely sure where the reference and instruction department was, I went straight to the front desk where a rather bored-looking student worker was staring vacantly at a computer screen. “Excuse me, I’m here for an interview. Could you point me towards Wendy Williams’ office?” “Who?” “Wendy Williams? Head of public services?” “Umm…I don’t believe she works here.”

Normally, I hate it when people refer to college students as “kids.” College students are adults and it’s patronizing to refer to them otherwise. But, this kid needed a reality check. “Well, since she is your boss, I have a feeling she works in here somewhere. Maybe you could look it up?” Pointing across the library, he muttered, “you should ask research services over there.”

24 minutes until my interview.

In my library, the reference desk is in the middle of our information commons. I can see the entire commons and students can see me. This library had no reference desk and the Research Services department was tucked into a suite off to the side. I walked in confidently and was immediately stopped by a student worker. “Can I help you?” “I’m here for an interview.” “Oh. Well, I don’t think anyone is here yet.” I was dropped off for an interview and there was no one there. 22 minutes left and I already want to leave.

“Let me double check.” The student worker invited me to sit down in a small chair next to what I later found passed for a reference desk. You see, this library uses a model where student workers provide reference help. Librarians live in offices down a dimly lit hallway off the main suite. It’s at the student worker’s discretion whether to call a librarian for help. I can’t say I approve of the model, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I’m sitting in this chair that, for some reason, is tucked into the space between the “reference” desk and the door into the suite. I’m pushed all the way against the side of the desk and still I just know that if anyone opens the door I’ll get hit in the shoulder. So I stand up instead and hear the student worker talking to a librarian in her office. Finally!

“Umm…there’s a guy here for an interview.” “Really?” “Yeah, he says he’s meeting Wendy at 9:00.” “Well, she’s not here. Maybe he can sit in the lounge to wait for her?” “I’ll tell him.”

Hey there potential future coworker! Nice to meet you too!

I sat in a rather forlorn looking chair from the 1970s and picked at the fraying canvas.

18 minutes to go.

The first interview

When Wendy finally arrived, I was called back into her office. She had been at this library for at least a coupe of decades. In fact, the majority of the librarians I would meet had been at the library for over a decade. This will be relevant later. Anyway, even though this first scheduled meeting was supposed to be an interview with the head of research services (my potential future boss), it was really more of a 15 minute chat about the weather and my flight. Perfectly polite, but where were the questions I had prepared for? I didn’t get to find out because next I was off to the obligatory presentation. I had to present for 15 minutes about my vision for library instruction, were I to be hired. But first, they were providing a light brunch and meet-and-greet as I prepared for my presentation. Great! I couldn’t get breakfast (on account of the car coming 45 minutes early and all). Let’s just walk over to the classroom where I’ll be presenting and….

Brunch is gone.

The bagels, coffee, and what I presume must have been muffins had already been set upon by the library staff. Crumbs, coffee but no more cups, and a few depressed looking honey-wheat bagels were all they had left me. I hate honey-wheat bagels. No time to get sad, however. I had a presentation in about 15 minutes and I had to get set-up. Guess that meant no time for the meet-and-greet either. Oh well. I did get to talk to the library’s media guy for a bit and he was really cool. But I was still hungry.

At least my presentation went well. I’ve always considered myself a fairly good presenter** and from the reaction of most of the audience, I was saying the right things. Lots of head-nodding and smiles and that sort of thing. Sure, there were some glum-looking people in the back, acting as if this was all a terrible waste of their time, but most of the audience was fairly energetic and they asked some really good questions. As I later found, the energetic audience members were faculty from around campus who just happened to drop in. You can guess who my future coworkers were.

An HR interlude

After my presentation I was whisked upstairs to a meeting with human resources. It was the standard stuff about benefits, promotion, tenure, and all the rest. It also lasted almost an hour. The woman from HR was really nice, really helpful, and she tried her best to make 401(k)s sound interesting. But I got the feeling that even she felt there was a lot of bureaucratic stuff that should probably wait until I got hired to sort out. Things like parking passes and time sheets. I don’t really remember because I sort of zoned out…at this point I didn’t want the job anymore. Everyone I had met to that point seemed either depressed or inconvenienced at having to deal with an interviewee. Only people from outside the library seemed to appreciate my vision. The service models were the exact opposite of how I like to help students. The student workers didn’t even know their boss’s name. My itinerary was so bizarrely off-base that it hinted at deeper organizational issues.

And I didn’t get a bagel.

by davies on Flickr CC BY-SA

by davies on Flickr CC BY-SA

 

The second interview

So after HR is done with me, my itinerary says I have 15 minutes until my interview with the search committee. Good time to hit the restroom and get a drink of water. Except, as soon as the door opens for the HR associate to leave, the search committee comes in, sits down, and starts the interview. No break for me, I suppose. What followed was about an hour or so of the standard interview questions. Initiatives I had planned and executed. Projects that had failed. Vision for library instruction. Professional development. Typical stuff. Until the outside faculty member on the search committee asked a very specific question about a very specific reference book that we don’t actually have here at UTC. I told him I couldn’t answer the question, but that I knew of X, Y, and Z similar resources and that I’d be sure to look at make use of his specific reference book if I had the opportunity. He sat back in his chair: “Gotcha!” All the questions about instruction and public service, all of my careful answers, all undone because I hadn’t used a specific reference book. The mood in the room changed and for the next 20 minutes most of the search committee seemed actively disinterested. I hadn’t used the magic book. I was not worthy. Oh well, at least my 20 minutes to ask questions was coming up. 5 minutes. 4 minutes. 3 minutes. 2 minutes. 1 minute. 0 minutes. -1 minute. -2 minutes. -3 minutes. -4 minutes…wait! Where’s my turn to ask questions? They just kept on grilling me until it was time for lunch.

Lunch

They took me to a chain Italian restaurant just a touch off campus. It wasn’t really authentic; most of the food was jazzed up Olive Garden fare. But it was all right. I looked over the menu and settled on a carbonara. The server came to take our orders. Our orders at an Italian restaurant. Italian food.

Not me #1: “Do you make hamburgers?” “Umm…yes, we have a cheeseburger on the menu.” “Okay, I’ll have it. Well done.”

Not me #2: “I’ll have the cheeseburger too. What’s Boursin?” “It’s a type of cheese.” “Like sliced cheese?” “No, not really.” “I don’t want the cheese on it.”

Me: “I’ll have the broccoli carbonara.”

Not me #3: “Caesar salad.”

Not me #4: “Chopped salad.”

Which of these things is not like the other?

Why didn’t we just go to Red Robin like everyone clearly wanted to?

by jeepersmedia on Flickr. CC BY

by jeepersmedia on Flickr. CC BY

 

Meeting the dean

After lunch there was a half hour tour of the library. It was the all-too-common brutalist hulk that so many colleges built in the 1970s (my library included) and, for the most part, it was functionally equivalent to where I was already working. Nothing stood out aside from one particular art collection that I wished I could have spent more time with. The tour ended at a pair of windowless doors painted the same dark red as the surrounding walls. You could have easily walked past without noticing them. A small brass placard to the right said “Office of the Dean.” The door opened and I stepped inside.

To my surprise, the dean was wonderful. Energetic, intelligent, passionate about student success. She knew about the latest trends in student engagement, instruction, and assessment. She was witty and her candor was off the charts. She reminded me somewhat of my current dean. And when we got to talking, everything clicked. This dean had only been hired less than two years ago. The previous dean had spent over 20 years at the helm and, apparently, was rather hands-off and resistant to change. So, when the new dean came in, she started updating policies and procedures. She pushed for more engagement with students. She forced them to build an information commons (not yet built when I visited). And, she instituted a library-wide reorganization. The position I was applying for was a new position that fell out of the reorganization.

Everything made sense now. No wonder my interview was so bizarre. The staff didn’t like the new org chart. They resented having to change their ways after two decades of virtually no oversight. I come in talking about visions for the future and they’re pining for the past. The dean knew it too. I got the feeling that she was warning me away. She knew I’d suffocate in that work environment.

The grand finale

Of course the best was saved for last.*** Due to the suburban nature of this campus, my final meeting was at a building a half mile from the library where I was scheduled to meet the faculty of the department for which I would be a liaison. We pulled up to the building, parked, and went inside at 2:55. Navigating the maze of hallways we came to a room with a posted schedule: “Meeting with library search candidate. 3:00.” We went inside. And waited.

And waited.

In silence.

By 3:15 it was clear no one was showing up and I was fed up. “I’m a little concerned about the planning here,” I exhorted, “What’s going on?” The committee member explained. “Well I sent an email out a few weeks ago saying you’d be on campus. I don’t know where they are?” “How many confirmed they were coming,” I asked. “Well, we didn’t ask for confirmation. We just sent them the time you’d be here.”

You sent an email a few weeks ago saying you’d have a candidate visiting today. No request for a meeting. No RSVP. Just an information item. For a meeting at 3:00 on a Friday, mind you. I packed up my things and we left.

Walking to the car I pulled out my itinerary. A car was picking me up to go the airport at 4:30. I had over an hour. And though I silently cursed having to go back to the library and wait it out, at least I didn’t have to stand around in 40 degree weather without a coat like a schmuck. Approaching the car we did that thing where you split so you can get around to the passenger-side. She pressed the unlock button on her key fob once. Once is for the driver’s door. Twice is for all the doors. She pressed it once. “Well,” she said, opening her door, “it was very nice to meet you. The committee will be in touch with you in the next few weeks.” “Umm…we’re going back to the library, right?” “No, the car is going to pick you up here. Safe travels!” And she got in her car and left.

For the next hour I sat on a curb with my fingers jammed into my armpits, daydreaming about that Snuggie knockoff I saw in the SkyMall just a day earlier. The car from the airport came just as it started to rain.****

Conclusion

I got a call a few weeks later from someone in HR. Apparently I was one of the top candidates and they wanted to negotiate salary and benefits (before the offer? hadn’t done that before). I asked for a ludicrously high salary out of spite. Then I felt bad and backed down to the maximum salary they offered. An hour later I wrote an email to HR stating that I didn’t want the job under any circumstances. I still don’t know who they eventually hired.

And that is the worst library job interview ever. Yes, this all really happened. Yes, time has probably embellished certain aspects. But not by much. I had the misfortune of interviewing at a library that was experiencing deep resentments between librarians and administration. Where administration was actually on the right side of things to boot. Where old habits didn’t just die hard, they flourished. Where change was a dirty word. Where forward-thinking ideas were seen as a threat, not an asset. I really, really, really hope that it was just that some perfect storm of coincidences lead to this comedy of errors. But I’ll never know. I just wish that library–and especially that dean–the best. Maybe one day I’ll see someone at a conference and it will turn out to be a big misunderstanding. Maybe one day we’ll laugh over the missteps. Maybe one day I’ll visit again.

Maybe one day I’ll get my damn bagel.

[EDIT: Wow. Lots of people are reading this. Like, thousands of people. Maybe now that I’ve got your ear I can add something I regret not adding in the first place: I’m a gainfully employed, middle-class white dude. What counts as a bad interview experience for me may not count as a bad interview experience for you. You see, my expectations of an academic interview are conditioned by certain privileges. I could turn the job down because I was already employed. I could focus on bagels, rather than leering stares and body-image expectations. I could complain that I didn’t get to ask questions, rather than highlight the questions I was asked. Like, “What does your husband think about moving?” Or, “Is that how you would dress if you worked here?” Or, “Which bathrooms should we set aside for you?” I could complain about a question regarding an obscure reference book, rather than detail how an interviewer explained how reference books work. These things and more.

Maybe you find my interview story entertaining. Maybe you find it instructive. I don’t know. But please remember that for every one of my left-over blueberry muffin crumbs and for every second spent waiting for someone to start the interview, there’s a person in need of a job yet forced to put up with countless reminders that their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their identity is on interview too. Mine wasn’t really the worst interview ever. This is just a story about dysfunctional organizations. The moral is simply that how you interview says a lot about your place of work. But, please don’t forget that there are countless librarians and librarians-in-waiting that are forced to deal with far more systemic, institutionalized, and persistent problems. I can joke around because I’m privileged in ways that others aren’t. But don’t mistake my experience as the worst of the worst. I’m lucky that this crap-fest of an interview arose because of organizational incompetence, rather than who I was.

I don’t know what it’s like to interview outside of the skin I’m in. But, I’m doing my best to listen. You should too. #itsnotabouthebagels]

 

by sbogdanich on Flickr CC

by sbogdanich on Flickr CC

* It should go without saying that I won’t say where this interview took place. I won’t even say when. Sometime between 2009 and 2014 is all you need to know. And all names, of course, have been changed.

** Though I still have nightmares about a keynote I once gave. I was informed of a friend’s death less than an hour before going on and lets just say I was distracted and I bombed pretty hard.

*** Actually the best was a conversation I had with one of the search committee members after leaving the dean’s office. But I can’t explain it without identifying the committee member. Let’s just say that I asked a legitimate and innocent question about the reorganization and the response was both so casual and so outrageous that it bears not repeating.

**** Listen, I’m from Detroit. I can handle the cold. And 40 degrees is not cold. But, standing outside for an hour at 40 degrees in a suit and tie isn’t exactly comfortable either. Especially when the wind picks up.

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.