Tradition and Community

Handmade Portraits: The Sword Maker from Etsy on Vimeo.

This video is very heavy-handed, but it gave me pause. Korehira Wantanabe’s major concern is not “innovation,” it is keeping a tradition alive by teaching a disciple who will surpass him.  David Lankes propses to make the claim that  “A new librarianship is emerging, taking the lessons learned over that nearly 3,000 year history to forge an approach based not on books and artifacts, but on knowledge and community. “  I just want to untangle this knot, because while Lanke is right to emphasize community, he overlooks the role of materiality in the formation of community. Wantanabe participates in a community based on a physical artifact. His understanding of it is informed by artifacts from the past, and he judges the success of his disciple on the artifacts he will create. In his thesis, Lankes overlooks the fact that our communities are built around shared artifacts, that learning and the creation of a community that will last needs artifacts to sustain it. I’m going to include books, born-digital media, and buildings in my list or artifacts. They are all parts of a community of practice, or to use an older term, a tradition.

In a desire to be “change agents,” librarians set up unneeded tensions within their communities. Consider some quotes from the ebook frontlines at the ACRLog:

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

The answer ought to be no. If a community like the humanities is working out their own dealings with materiality, it is not in our interest to force new habits upon them, even if they fly in the face of the new paradigm of the digital, lease-access world. Using words like “tradition” is supposed to be avoided, because “innovation” and “speed” are in. It’s worth reading a little bit of Robert Hassan:

Temporal rights and temporal sovereignty would feed directly into democratic control over the forms and pace of temporal production in society. If the issue of temporality were made more salient, then the blanket acceleration that we experience under neoliberal globalization would rightly be viewed as illogical, and as ultimately inefficient and wholly unsustainable. Empires of Speed, 233.

True community building takes time. Participating in a community and in a tradition take time. The demands placed on our communities to respond quickly to their crises are perpetrated by those very forces which have sought to mask materiality with the gloss of “participation” in a digitized world. But a lifetime is short, so make something that lasts. That’s the goal of community. Lankes’ makes this proposal:

If you walk away from this talk believing that I see no value in cataloging, or books, or buildings, I have been unclear. All of these have been valuable to get us to today. However, their past value does not dictate their future value. We must constantly question everything we do, not to seek fault, but to test fitness. If a service adds value, we keep it. If it does not, we celebrate its past, and then move on. The mission and our values endure, the tools and functions we use to achieve this mission must change with the times.  -“A New Librarianship for a New Age”

For the first 2,900 years, librarianship was part of a humanist tradition, and it bears those marks, even with the new tools and functions we’ve been working with over the past 100 years. Like making swords, tools are part of a tradition, and the values of a community are reflected in them.  As a humanist and librarian, tools and tradition are not so handily untangled.