Feral “Information Literacy”

I’m putting information literacy in quotes because what I’ll be talking about does not speak to being information literate in the traditional, five-standard-ACRL way. This is its opposite.

Outside of fiction’s fancies, feral animals tend to be hunted and despised. They kill stock and ruin crops, menace children and pets, spread disease between the domesticated world and the wild. And yet by wit and appetite, spirit and invention, the feral creature survives in an environment that is neither of its own making nor entirely familiar to its habits of perception.

There’s something more to this feral quality than the savor we find in stories. For what are we in the midst of networked, global, postmodern culture, all of us, but feral creatures of a kind? I’ve long been dissatisfied with the idea of the “digital native”; I’m not convinced that anything can properly be “native” to a habitat that changes so rapidly and thoroughly as networked culture. And the whole notion of nativity, after all, seems tainted with the romanticism of the Wild (a new state of nature is still the State of Nature). The qualities of the feral, by contrast, answer to a particular way of thriving amidst the vast clamor of the online world. The nameless maps onto the pseudonymity and anonymity of digital culture; cunning catches the furtive ways of memes; denying herself the full panoply social cues, the online imagination subsists in an uncanny solitude.

-Matthew Battles, The Call of the Feral.

Digital native is a fantasy invented by the fans of silicon valley to pigeonhole a generation for the sake of selling technology, but the truth is far less convenient.  Not only the digital natives, but many people take on a feral state in their interactions with the internet, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. Likewise, the library is a place where we ought to allow for the feral. The ACRL information literacy standards are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the library. The truth is that most people do not experience the library as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, sometimes not. Some things happen like clockwork and others are highly irregular. Walking through all this highly unstable environment step by step on one’s way to standard five is less desirable not because it is difficult, but because it is quite boring. Designing information literacy instruction without understanding that feral place where many library users reside is about as effective as taming a wolf. We can do it, but what good does that do for the wolf?

There are always hints of dissatisfaction that surround domestication, and it sometimes comes close to romanticizing the “good old days.” A 21st century teacher’s lament:

When I was in high school, we sat in a chair and took notes. We talked about books in English, studied historical events, did labs in science, and did tons of problems in math. We learned and we went off to college and did well. We had almost no support programs in the building.

Now, as teachers, we differentiate, do projects, have students doing online enrichment work, have social workers, psychologists, tutoring and mentoring programs. Yet, students are apparently failing.

We have “improved” education, yet we are “failing”. I don’t get it. We do all this “reform” yet nothing is changing.

It just boggles my mind how we have some many support systems, great teachers, incredible lessons and resources, and yet we are “failing.”

Can anyone explain it?

-David Andrade, Wondering — Why is education suddenly “Failing”?

Maybe high school students were more feral back then? Maybe now that we have so many ways monitor, track, and correct students in the school environment, (but as the author laments, not their parents) it is easier to find and correct those feral students who don’t meet the standards. Is it that there are not more feral students, but that we find them more? Or is it that by investing so much in controls that we value that over other ways of being? There is nothing more frightening to those in control than someone who doesn’t need them. As librarians, we suffer from the same problem. The feral is not for everyone, but a better understanding of it will help us meet our patrons and students where they are, not where we expect them to be.

the internet, the desert, and new theories of libraries.

It’s populated, but every time some side of the internet becomes constructed, the internet finds a new desert for itself.

But when we do the internet, we are not servants, we are doing something that is not really professional. That is exactly why it is powerful.

-Mitos Manetas

Because to me, doing a magazine is still very artificial, I sometimes wake up and say to myself, why do I do that? Who cares?

With the internet, I imediately connect to a community of younger people who actually are sharing something with me.

-Olivier Zahm

It’s worth watching this video. It has space and solemnity, but it is also a conversation. The points that Manetas and Zahm make are, in my mind, foundational to a new understanding of what any library should be. It’s contradictory to say “I want a desert” and “I want conversation,” but it speaks to our most human impulses: to want time to ourselves as well as with others. In a recent(ish) blog post, Christine Madsen writes that:

Prior to the Victorian Era most academic libraries were what Matthew Battles might characterize as “Parnassan” – small, well focused institutions where what mattered was not the quantity of the collections, but the quality.

The goal of any new theory of library must of course accommodate the increasing needs in research and scholarship for large quantities of information, but should not preface quantity of information over all else. As important as the information itself, is providing and supporting an environment that allows for the transformation of that information into new knowledge

Having all of this information is amazing, but noisy. There’s no reason to call for a library-throwback and get all nostalgic about not having access to amazing things, but the “Parnassan” value of focus and quality over quantity, as Madsen illustrates, is not highly regarded right now. Libraries need to be able to make a desert, a place people can focus, fill up, and explore for themselves outside of the crush of anything that distracts us, our professions and obligations included. By the same token, Madsen points out that we also need that space where we can interact with others. Manetas and Zahm are conversing. Libraries cannot be just a desert, and they cannot be just a conversation. They need to meet a complex, human need: they need to be both. As far as I can tell, the current model of libraries is failing to do just that.

Us. And Them. Over and Over Again.

The insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and the refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world (whose institutional character is now becoming indistinguishable from archiving)…. -Nicolas Bourriand, The Radicant, pgs.84-85.

Librarians like to see our collections and services as being lasting, but the ephemeral nature of our interactions with others makes it clear that this is anything but the case. We are challenged by a world where permanence is not a given. The most important thing we can give to our patrons (students, whatever) are those things they can take with them and remake into parts of their world. I think this is part of the problem with the current climate of copyright and how it interferes with research in the arts and humanities. We’re so mentally dependent on obeying the rules of the given system, we lack the imagination needed to move beyond it. Good research is only partially dependent on the materials used, however; the more interesting part is how someone uses them, and if the result is meaningful.

So don’t tie yourselves to any technology, and beyond that, don’t tie yourself to its accompanying ideology if it doesn’t suit you or your patrons. Only develop skills and ideas that you can take with you. Radicant ideas are the most important to pass along.

Heritage = history+ innovation

As we rethink collections, I think we are seeing them more as assets in the sense I have discussed here, as investment is driven by a stronger sense of how they will be used to generate value in research and learning. Of course, some libraries have thought this way for longer: think of how a busy public library manages its collection. And of course, some libraries will continue to have a mission-driven responsibility to collect significant portions of the scholarly record, although we will probably see more collective approaches here.

-Lorcan Dempsey, “Collections Are Library Assets

It’s nice to see a nod to the meaningful in day-to-day library work, “a stronger sense of how they will be used to generate value in research and learning,” but it rings hollow. Dempsey even points out the negative reaction that business-speak engenders in the scholarly community, but he still employs it. My fear is that by doing so, we take a good idea and force it to the easiest way to understand “value,” which is money. It’s fine for Walmart, but if libraries are going to derive thought from the world of commerce, maybe we should look to places where commerce intersects with something besides cheap, disposable goods:

#36  Luxury is about subtracting the ordinary and adding the meaningful.

#13  If Luxury brands don’t incarnate a cultural truth, they become just empty, expensive products.

-Agenda Inc. “50 Thoughts on Luxury

Libraries cannot content themselves with being “value-positive” or “mission-driven.” Those things are merely ordinary to the everyday existence in today’s world. If we really intend to have meaningful libraries, then the goal should be to move services and collections beyond the expected. Libraries are already expensive, it’s good not to make them meaningless, too. I’ve heard of classes that aim to open doors to other worlds for their students. In light of that, we should aim higher than imitating corporate methods of thinking. Given the state of the world economy and its discontents, perhaps we should look to better analogies:

#33 Heritage = history+ innovation