Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“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.

Source: Wikipedia

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 Journalone 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.

The Common Good

Source: travelinlibrarian on flickr.com

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.

 

Teaching Skepticism

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.

Source: wburris on Flickr.com

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.