“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain
You would think that librarians, as a rule, would be more skeptical of data, facts, and other pieces of information than the general public. Most of us spent at least a couple of years working on a graduate degree in library and information science that ostensibly should have prepared us to ask the “hard questions” about what we read and hear in our professional discourse. Perhaps I’m more skeptical than many, but I expect librarians to have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter with the ability to work through information like data and statistics to discern the “damned lies” from reality.
Therefore, I was taken aback by the sturm un drang over the recent statistics in the Library Journal’s annual placements and salary issue by members of the profession. Social media and the library blogosphere lit up with posts and statuses that bemoaned the plight of librarianship and the lack of jobs in the marketplace. After all, Library Journal, one of the more respected sources of information in the profession, paints a dire outlook for the profession with confusing statistics that appear to show employment rates of recent graduates hovering in the area 10-15% for many schools. Dismal indeed! Additionally, the usual suspects that you would expect to call out this type or rhetoric, like the Annoyed Librarian, even took the bait, and saw the results of the survey as “not pretty”. Taking the data at face value does indeed paint a dreary outlook for our profession.
As you dig into the data a little further, you realize that there are some glaring problems with how the data is presented and represented. I’m no statistical wizard, but I could see immediate problems with much of what was presented. Population data is compared side-by-side to sample data. Response rates for the survey are not readily available. The data in the tables is a hybrid of survey responses and data provided by the placement offices of a few schools. The list goes on and on.
I don’t blame Library Journal for the way the data is presented. Could they have done a better job? Sure. Is the data misleading? Yes. Should they have been more forthright with how they presented the data? Absolutely. But as librarians and information professionals we should have dug deeper into the facts presented and drilled down a bit before snatching the doomsday ball and running with it. I guess I expected better from the profession. How can we teach our patrons to be enlightened consumers of information when we were so easily swayed by this information? Do we think that librarianship is such an enterprise bereft of value that we are willing to buy the “big lie” that it’s going to hell in a handbasket?
I wish I had answers to these questions. I know that I have spent the last two weeks talking colleagues and new grads that I am mentoring away from the proverbial ledge. In my own Facebook post about this I learned of many new positions opening at various libraries. Yes, the economy as a whole is pretty bad right now, but there’s no reason to think that were seeing rates of 90%+ unemployment for recent LIS grads. Librarianship will weather this “storm” just as it has previous “storms”. The sky is not falling. Librarianship does indeed have a bright future. Of this I am sure. Regardless of what the pundits and naysayers and their “damned lies and statistics” say about this.
N. B.: There were some in librarianship who saw the errors and called them out on their blogs, including Jacob Berg, His post was the catalyst for me digging into the data and writing this post.
I’m a true believer in the “common good”. The common good is the notion that a community builds shared assets, typically from taxes or other public revenue, that are shared with, available to, and enjoyed by all members of the community. The common good is founded on the human realization that by pooling resources we can be, and ultimately are, stronger as a community than as individuals. The common good forms one of the “core values of librarianship” as defined by the American Library Association, and one of the core values of my own personal philosophy and worldview. I’d be a true believer in the common good if I weren’t a librarian; my being a librarian only solidifies my resolve on this issue.
Many assets can be thought of as “common goods”: Public roads, public parks, public libraries, public schools, colleges, and universities, public hospitals, social security, public housing, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, public health care, and the like. Although we may lag behind our peers, the United States of America has a long history of creating these assets to serve the common good. These assets benefit everyone, and we are all richer, more prosperous, and better off because of them. But the common good appears to be under constant attack in contemporary America.
Much of the current political debates over the Affordable Care Act, funding of Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security, and the social safety net in general, at the federal, state, and local levels, is about the common good. Whenever the citizens of a municipality vote to deny funding to schools, parks, or libraries a piece of the common good dies in that community. Whenever a state legislature votes to defund student aid or education programs, the common good dies in that state. Whenever the federal government shuts down over fiscal matters, or cuts funding for social programs, education, health, and the welfare of the citizens of this country, the common good slips away.
For at least as long as I have been a librarian (15 years), there have been debates over the “future of the library” and whether public libraries are a necessary common good in our communities. On Sunday, a post in TechCrunch, a technology news site, mused about the “end of the library” stating the author’s assertions that the usefulness of the library had ended when “the internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge” and “digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge”. While I do not disagree with the author that the internet and digital resources have changed the information landscape, I am an ardent believer, with many others both inside and outside librarianship, that libraries will and must remain to serve the common good.
There is no denying that there is a “digital divide” in this country. The gap between affluent “haves” who can afford technology and access to information on the internet and through e-books, and poorer “have nots” that do not have the means to afford this technology or access is growing. Libraries often function as a means of bridging this divide and ensuring that all citizens have equal access to contemporary information sources regardless of their “ability to pay”. Libraries have always lived out this mission to serve the common good.
Although the concept of the common good has taken a beating in recent years, I think that the future of the library and other assets that meet the common good are strong. But the common good needs people to assert its usefulness in the community and advocate for community assets that serve this common good. If we do not nurture the common good in our communities, it will wither and die. As librarians, we can become advocates, not only for our libraries, but fall all assets in our communities that serve the common good. We need to turn our anger from news of the demise of the common good into positive action supporting it on our communities. Let us all believe in the power of community and coming together to make something greater than we can as individuals, and spread this belief among our patrons, friends, neighbors, and communities. I’m a true believer in the common good, and want you to be a true believer as well.
Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” — Wikipedia
Yesterday I posted on the need to for academic librarians to teach college and university students critical thinking and critical evaluation skills during library instruction. I feel that the role of the academic librarian is not simply to teach student how to find information sources, but how to think critically about the information sources they find and evaluate information sources both for their research needs and for validity and purpose. Regrettably, these skills are not taught very often in secondary education, and students arrive as college freshman lacking the ability to be “discriminating consumers” of information, media, or facts in general.
I feel that we, as academic librarians, have a duty to not only arm our students with these tools, but to stress the importance of skepticism in dealing with the constant barrage of information, media, news, data, and facts that we encounter in the early 21st century. I find that many students I work with are simply willing to believe anything they see on television or encounter on the internet instead of approaching it with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. But let’s face it, skeptics don’t always command respect in out society that holds the ideologies of “blind faith” and “stand your ground” as law and “capital-T” truth.
This is where academic librarians enter the picture. As educators, our primary role is teaching skepticism. It is our job to instill the “questioning attitude toward knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs” and to teach students how to debate “claims that are taken for granted elsewhere”. As Michael Gorman argues in his book Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century, rationalism is a core value of librarianship. As rational professionals, we are trained to be skeptical of information we encounter. We seek for corroboration of facts and strive for the most accurate data and information sources. We seek to debunk myths, half-truths, and falsehoods. And we seek to impart these values to the students we instruct. To me, library instruction is much more than just “showing students around the library resources”. Library instruction is teaching critical thinking. Library instruction is building inquisitive consumers of information. Library instruction is teaching skepticism.
When I first started my career as an academic librarian over 10 years ago, my “teaching philosophy” when it came to library instruction was simple: Arm students with the tools they needed to navigate library databases, the online catalog, and find information sources needed to write good papers and create good projects. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students over the years, I have found that most students, when pointed in the right direction, are pretty good at searching and finding the sources needed for their own research. Even first-year undergrads and high school students taking college courses for credit can navigate the library’s home page, connect to a “discovery layer” or a large commercial database, and make it do what they need it to do and bring back good results. I credit this to growing familiarity with search concepts in the use of Google and other search engines, better instruction in secondary and elementary education on using library and Internet resources, and better search engines and user interfaces on the Web, on commercial databases, and on library systems.
Increasingly I found myself instructing students on “how to search” or “how to use the online catalog or discovery tools” only to find that many are coming to college with these skills. A trend that I am seeing much more often, however, is a lack of critical thinking skills and the ability for students, undergrad and grad students alike, to evaluate information sources, intelligently and articulately describe why they used a particular source, and lack of a reasoned explanation of why they searched a specific way on the Internet or on more “academic” sources. Students know the “hows” of searching, but not the “whys” of searching or how to determine which results are good and which results are crap. To this end, I have been spending much more time in my library instruction sessions working with students on information evaluation tools, critical thinking skills, and asking many more “why” questions than “whats” or “hows”.
The old adage of “Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime” needs refinement. We not only need to teach students “how to fish” but also how to determine which fish are poisonous, which are too small to keep, and why we are fishing in the first place. The most important skills that academic librarians can teach college and university students, are critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate information sources effectively. The lines between “good” and “not-so-good” information sources have become extremely blurred, and it’s our job to teach our students how to evaluate the “good fish” from “the bad”. We’re not only instructors of search techniques and library research, but instructors in critical thinking and information evaluation. Let’s make our students discriminating fishermen.
Jacob Berg does a great job of dispelling the myth of the “digital native” in his blog post this morning, The “Digital Natives” Myth and Library Science Education. I’m not sure why library and information science, especially LIS educators, have taken such a shine to this concept. Perhaps it’s because we see it as a way to “keep up with changing times”, but as his post (and a lot of subsequent research) has shown, the profession is chasing rainbows in tying itself in knots by looking for new collections and services to serve this “new group” of users.
Sure, college students and younger folks are more tech savvy than others. But what do we really mean by tech savvy? I find myself helping plenty of college-aged students use Microsoft Word or Google Search while they run circles around me in the features of their iPhone or downloading music from the web. I think there’s a long way to go to bridge the divide between “knowing how to use a smartphone” and being a true “digital native”, where being a productive member of the Information Age, with a mastery of technology and information sources, is as natural as breathing. A long way, indeed.
I agree that we need to stop using the terms “digital native” and its cognates “born digital” as soon as possible and face up to the fact that individuals are complex organisms with varied talents, skills, needs, and abilities. We need to be smarter as librarians and information professionals in gauging these needs and responding to these talents, skills, and abilities. If we can do that, a true revolution in our profession will occur.
Chris Bourg of Stanford University Libraries gave a presentation at the Penn State University Libraries a few months ago entitled “Beyond Measure: Valuing Libraries” on assessing academic libraries based on the core values of librarianship as defined by the American Library Association. This presentation, and some other reading that I am undertaking, including Michael Gorman’s “Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century” have me thinking a lot about values-based librarianship lately. Values-based librarianship, as I see it, is professional practice informed by these core values. In other words, in a values-based system our core values forms the guiding principles for what we do as librarians.
Setting our shared values as what guides us as librarians leads to some interesting, and necessary questions. What if who we are as librarians were based on shared values? What would this type of librarianship look like? Would it change the way we manage libraries, build collections, provide information, and facilitate the creation of research and knowledge? What if these shared values informed all that we did as libraries and librarians? Can these shared values answer the why questions of librarianship and show us the importance of what we do as librarians?
I will be exploring these questions and additional readings in the upcoming months as I grapple with the idea of values-based librarianship. Please feel free to comment and stay tuned for more writing on this topic.
In library and information science schools we are coming to terms with, well, terms. Lexicons, vocabularies, common jargon sets and search terms are the tools of our trade. So I ask: Have you noticed though how many verbs have been web-born? Or, in the spirit of web 2.0, social web-re-born?
Tweeting, tagging, PMing, following, up-voting, DMing, pinging-back, liking, pinning, digging, starring, etc… They all have new meaning in our social media infused landscape.
I have tracked the rise of the “coding movement” in librarianship with great interest. It began over 10 years ago with groups like Code4Lib, consisting of tech gurus and programmers who had a love for libraries and were working in or working with libraries on programming, website creation, and other IT-heavy projects. Markup languages like HTML and XML were starting to be taught in ischools and LIS programs. There was a great deal of buzz a few months ago about whether coursework in coding should be part of the LIS curriculum for all students. Finally, I have watched with great interest the DEV DEV Summer of Code camp for teens play out at the Chattanooga Public Library lead by the talented Justin Hoenke. My take on all of this is that it’s great for libraries and great for librarianship.
First a bit of background on my experiences. It must have been about 1982 or 1983 when my father signed my younger brother and I up for “computer courses” at Radio Shack. My father the visionary knew that computers were the future, and he wanted to make sure that we had the skills necessary to meet this “brave new world” head-on. We learned BASIC and LOGO and how to do the most rudimentary of coding. We got books and magazines filled with programs and came home and tried them out on our Apple ][e. We tried, through trial and error, to make the programs better, and fix typos or oversights that the original authors had made.
But more importantly, we learned how to think in a structured, ordered, and organized way. As I progressed through high school and college, my knowledge of computers, coding, and systems analysis grew, and my appreciation of learning “how to think like a programmer” increased. I learned Unix shell scripting, FORTRAN, and C++. I tried my hand at HTML 2.0 and created the most rudimentary of web pages. I learned TeX and BiBTeX to format documents for large academic printing jobs and my term papers. But above all, I learned how to think like a programmer.
Learning how to think like a programmer not only made me good at working with technology or learning programming languages, but it made me a better problem solver. After all, coding and programming is simply a means of solving problems in a technological way, and learning this new “language” was deeper than just learning C++ or BASIC. It was learning a new way to problem-solve. As I learned about loops, and flow charts, and regular expressions, I also learned about solving problems in a systematic, regularized, heuristic way using algorithms and logic. Approaching problem-solving with this new way of thinking ultimately makes me a better librarian.
In addition, this new way of thinking proved invaluable as the Internet took off and technology seemed to creep into every corner of our daily lives. I prided myself on being able to “bridge the gap” between the techies and librarians and library staff in my first two post-MLS jobs working for library automation vendors. My master’s degree taught me how to think like a librarian, but my coding skills taught me how to think like a techie, and this was sorely needed then and now. This ability to operate in two worlds simultaneously — the tech world and the world of librarianship — is something I feel has become incredibly important and a necessity in 21st century librarianship. We are often called upon as librarians and library staff to not only be masters of information, but masters of information technology as well, and training in coding, programming languages, and system analysis and design goes a long way to make sure that librarians are well equipped to operate wherever they are needed.
I am grateful that my father planted the seed that fostered the need in me to understand technology and work with it on an intimate level at an early age. Additionally, I think that all librarians and library school/ischool students benefit from learning this new way of thinking and new way of problem-solving we call “coding”. Coursework in system design, programming, and coding should be part of the LIS curriculum, not to make librarians into coders, but to give librarians an understanding of the way coders think and problem-solve and the way that information technology functions on a level beyond that of an end-user. The only way that libraries and librarians can master technology is to truly understand it, and understanding comes through learning how to code: learning how to think like a coder and problem-solve like a coder.
I have been thinking a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of librarianship lately and recently reread Andre Cossette’s essay: Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, (1976) which was recently translated from French by Rory Litwin, and is available from Litwin’s Library Juice Press. This essay illustrates the lack of philosophical and theoretical thinking in librarianship that has been troubling me as of late, and lays out a “philosophy of librarianship” grounded in the humanist/realist schools of thought that I feel could bring about a renaissance to our profession and pull us out of the malaise that we are currently mired in professionally. I’ll write more about this in a later post, but I want to focus for a moment on why we are currently in this state in the profession.
There is no doubt that S. R. Ranganathan is one of the greats in the field of library science and in the profession of librarianship. Ranganathan is most famous for his Five Laws of Library Science which form much of the foundations of librarianship and are still taught in library and information science programs today. The Five Laws (1957) seek to “reduce the numerous empirical facts of the world of libraries to a small number of basic principles” (p. 20), and are as follows:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his [or her] book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The library is a growing organism.
Much has been written on the Five Laws of Library science in the nearly 60 years since Ranganathan posited them. Librarians and scholars have sought to broaden, refine, or update the Laws, and some have confused the Laws as a “philosophy of librarianship” or some sort of “unified guiding Truth” to the profession as Cossette has illustrated. According to Cossette, Ranganathan himself misunderstood the nature of the social sciences, and sought to create “normative principles” with the Five Laws, instead of more generally accepted aims of social science theory: “to state the existence of regular patterns and necessary relationships among social facts, that is, to examine society as it is.” (p. 12)
I would also argue that when Ranganathan posited these five “normative principles” as “laws”, he effectively shut the door on further debate within the profession about the nature of librarianship, when he named these five principles, essentially law-like generalizations, laws. Laws are typically the realm of the physical sciences and are generally accepted truths that have been tested and confirmed or corroborated. Lawlike generalizations, on the other hand, are “statements in generalized conditional form that fill all the criteria of laws, but have not been tested and confirmed or corroborated. To say that a lawlike statement is highly confirmed, or corroborated, or believed to be true, is different from saying that it is absolutely true, or true-with-certainty, or “True” (with capital “T”).” (Hunt, 2002,p. 148)
By naming these five “lawlike generalizations” “Laws”, Ranganathan placed them on the pedestal of capital-T Truth, and closed the book, albeit accidentally I believe, on testing, expanding, corroborating, and ultimately refuting these principles. Theory in librarianship has suffered because Ranganathan declared the Five Laws of Library Science the capital-L Laws of our profession in 1957. Case closed. No further discussion necessary.
As Cossette concludes in his discussion of Ranganathan:
“[W]e can conclude that The Five Laws of Library Science is a work of science expressed in a philosophical language. Ranganathan wants to uncover the laws of librarianship, which constitutes a scientific method, using a language that leads us to believe it is philosophy. It is this ambiguity in the thought of Ranganathan that has led his followers to their incorrect interpretation. They believe that they have found a philosophy of librarianship because the author spoke of “normative principles”, but it is very much a matter of science.” (p. 13)
My hope is that through an empirical look at generalizations like the Five Laws we can begin the work of creating new theory, grounded in the social study of the phenomenon of libraries and librarianship, and philosophy that seeks to answer why what we are doing is important to society. Let’s start of renaissance of thought in librarianship and move past Ranganathan. He’s served us for almost 60 years, but it’s time we move the profession forward. Let’s resurrect the library theorist.
Like many fellow librarians this summer, I have been participating in Dave Lankes’ Master Course on the New Librarianship MOOC delivered through the iSchool at Syracuse University. Dave has also been interacting with participants and other interested professionals on Twitter using the #newlib hashtag. On Wednesday, Dave offered the following tweet:
— R. David Lankes (@rdlankes) July 24, 2013
which set off a massive Twitter discussion about what I like to call “rockstarism” in librarianship and the role that Library Journal‘s (LJ) annual Movers and Shakers (M&S) list plays into this “-ism”. I captured the Twitter discussion in Storify and it can be found here, if you would like to get the background on this. I had promised in the Twitter conversation that I’d lay out my arguments against rockstarism and the issues I have with the M&S list, so here goes.
I’d like to first define rockstarism as the belief that in order for one to have professional worth, one must be “famous” or well renowned in the profession. Often this fame or renown comes without a body of work backing it up, leading some to wonder why a colleague is so “library famous” without ever “having done shit” as so eloquently put in the Rockstar Librarian quote above. Additionally, marking certain librarians as rockstars without a good explanation why the profession believes them to be rockstars leads to jealousy, hard feelings, and general animosity within professional circles. Rockstarism makes us bad colleagues, fame-driven professionals, and ultimately poorer librarians.
Don’t get me wrong, I think professional accolades are a great thing. Peer recognition is also something to be commended. We should highlight colleagues that are doing good work in libraries and in society and upholding the values and principles of librarianship. I also think that many librarians on the M&S list are doing just that, but there is a danger, as I describe below, in how this list is created and used in our profession. The M&S list is not the “end all, be all” of what makes a good librarian. Not by a long shot.
When the M&S list was first announced by LJ over 10 years ago, I thought that it was odd that a commercial trade magazine would be selecting professionals and holding them up as “the best and brightest” of librarianship. After all, LJ has a commercial interest in librarianship and is hardly either a “neutral party” or “peer driven”. LJ’s purpose is to sell advertising space and sell subscriptions to libraries and library professionals. In my dealings with LJ during my time in vendor-land, I know that LJ would often give better treatment of vendors who advertised heavily in the journal. It was very hard for small or up-and-coming vendors to get any “good press” unless they had a personal relationship with LJ and its writers and editors. While I don’t think that monetary economics are at play in who makes the M&S list, I suspect that those that have relationships with LJ staff or at institutions who have relationships with LJ staff could be given preferential treatment when the M&S list is formed.
Therefore, I think it’s fair to say that the M&S list is not a “peer recognition” award. While librarians and other library professionals nominate people for the M&S list, it is ultimately LJ staff who pick the finalist for the list. Journalists and editors are not peers with librarians, no matter their degree or interest in the profession. Peers typically are the same level, working in the same field, with the same values and interests. I see no way that we can call the M&S list a “peer recognition” award. Furthermore, for M&S to have more value to the profession, I would expect greater transparency on how the list members are chosen and the criteria used to create the list. List members tend to work in very tech heavy areas of librarianship and members on the list who are doing more cutting edge projects and work seem to be more represented on the list.
Additionally, I have heard the M&S list used in some very detrimental ways in the profession. Friends and colleagues tell stories of feeling worthless or dejected because they do good, solid librarianship on a daily basis, serving patrons and building the profession in positive ways, but are not in typical positions in tech, marketing, administration, and the like that garner interest from the M&S selection team. I know of two colleagues that have been nominated multiple times, yet have never made the list in over 10 years. I know of others who have had supervisors question their work because they were not a rockstar or on the M&S list yet. I know of at least 3 people who were on the list at various times, and lost their jobs, not because they were bad librarians, but because they were not living up to “rockstar” status.
So how do we fix this? How do we move away from rockstarism to recognizing librarians in a fair, transparent, equitable, peer-reviewed manner? Here are my suggestions:
- Create an award or an annual list managed, reviewed, and granted by librarians to recognize exemplary work in the profession
- Base this award or list on criteria honoring the values of the profession: Diversity, the Public Good, Intellectual Freedom, and the like
- Be transparent in who is selecting the awardees and how they are being evaluated
- Work harder as a profession to recognize the “unsung heroes” in our profession who may not be working in the “sexiest” of positions, but is providing top-notch service to patrons and improving the profession in a thousand small ways
- Strive to value every member of the profession, regardless of accolades, as a professional and one called to this vocation of service to the public we call librarianship
Together we can combat rockstarism and truly honor those making a difference in the world and in our profession. We all need to “shake it up” and truly get “moving” to make this happen. Will you join me?