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.

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7 thoughts on “Tradition and Community

  1. I am a librarian and an information scientist. I don’t see these as in conflict. You raise some great points and there is a lot to think about here. However, one point. Are you limiting communities to geography or a place? I would say there are plenty of communities formed with no physical foot print (including the invisible colleges and schools of thought in the humanities).

    Anyway, thanks for adding to the conversation.

    • Anytime.

      I don’t see them as conflicting all the time, but there are differences, and I find them to be significant.

      I wouldn’t always limit a community to specific geographies or places (that’s silly) but I don’t think the invisible colleges are without a footprint. It shows up in exchanges, confrences, and publications. They are sustained by institutions and are embedded in ther physical communities. My main issue here is that the distinction between the physical and the digital is unsustainable. Many communities use artifacts for the creation and storage of knowledge, and often in specific places, and the creation and use of digital pathways is a very tactile act. All of this plays into tradition and community, and non-stuffness is still about stuffness, as much as non-placeness has much to do with places.

    • http://individual.utoronto.ca/azuccala_web/InvisibleCollege.pdf

      E-mail use among scientific researchers has also become more prominent, but research
      shows that face-to-face communication is still mostly preferred among invisible college
      participants. E-mail is limited to scientists who know one another quite well: “it is used most by
      scholars who are collaborators or friends” (Koku, Nazer & Wellman, 2001, p. 1752).

      Invisible colleges become more “visible” when scientists are grouped together within a
      defined boundary, regularly procure financial support, engage in a formal selection process and
      shared research vision, and participate in mandatory group meetings (e.g., White, Wellman &
      Nazer, 2004, p. 112). Scientists often make an effort to attending meetings because they
      appreciate the “the value of face-to-face [contact], formally presenting ideas…exchanging views
      with old and new colleagues, taking field trips, and having fun” (Brunn & O’Lear, 1999, p. 299).
      Most of these meetings are now advertised on the World Wide Web, and take place in well developed
      countries (Brunn & O’Lear, 1999; Zuccala, 2004).

  2. I am reminded of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where the [monastery] library was closely-guarded and held various secrets. At times I think that unless you know specifically what you’re doing, where you’re going, and with whom you are interacting, the internet is also a locked tower – despite its promises of openness and transparency.

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