Where is the body of the librarian?

Have you been to a library lately? They look like TV salesrooms. (78)

The kind of poetry that belies mortality through the eternalities of hyperspace, through the Google search, is of no use. Poetry is not information. Information is a corpse. (165)

Before we became obligated to our minds, we were obligated to the world. Its bodies conception and celebration and morning. (11)

-Dean Young,The Art of Recklessness.

Here we are, dealers in corpses. Libraries stand accused of forgetting the world, not considering the art of life in our dealings with corpses of digital information, preserved in hypothetical bitstreams. Materiality, conversely looks more like a life lived and one worth living, although Young’s barb about looking like TV salesrooms still rings true. Still, we as librarians place the highest value on information and knowledge, all else comes second. The form of the library and the definition of the librarian both follow the functions we provide for the life of the mind, or so it seems. But in reality, the content we provide is tied directly to materiality, and librarianship is as well. In his book Mechanisms, Matthew Kirschenbaum lays the materiality of “hyperspace” bare:

Computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality. (135, but the whole book, really.)

So much for information as corpse. That is an illusion that computers provide, and it is no one’s fault but our own for propping it up in our library-cum-salesrooms. There was a recent hoopla of Seth Godin’s call to arms for better marketing of libraries, and a number of responses called for the spending of money to follow. But that’s why our libraries look like the salesroom/mausoleums of information that continue to protect the immaterial illusion, and also why the profession puts that which is supposedly immaterial first. As Kirschenbaum fruitfully illustrates, the division between materiality and immateriality is fairly exaggerated. Libraries should choose life and stop pretending that the materiality and supposed lack thereof are concrete. Where are your bodies, librarians?

More personal librarianship and the issue of information literacy.

Think of a project where a student is tasked with producing original historical research from archival materials. She would likely enter an archive with the guidance of an archivist and perhaps work alongside other students and researchers, picking up tacit knowledge about historical research (a field that is in flux) the way. To make sense of what she finds, she might very well need to connect with other students/scholars that also are knowledgeable about the topic and this connection could be evolving and dynamic with multiple feedback loops. (Emphasis mine) -Mark Dahl

More so than information, knowledge is personal. We either build it ourselves, or in some form or fashion we gain knowledge through interactions with other people.  Makes sense: knowledge is something sentient beings do pretty well. Starting with this, I’d like to take up an issue with the ACRL information literacy standards. The emphasis they place on the accessing of information and incorporating it into one’s “knowledge base” takes all kinds of precedence over understanding the social factors that surround the use of information. Essentially, the ACRL standards demand that we teach everyone to play ball within the confines of the library/archives system without ever introducing them to the social system that surrounds it.

We as librarians need to illuminate these things to all of our patrons, and stop hiding the messy truth about what it is we do under a fine layer of jargon that overlays our work. More than measurable outcomes, sometimes I’m more interested to see if I can impart  (on good days) these kinds of “soft” skills alongside the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of teaching people how to  find the stuff they need:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

-David Brooks, The New Humanism

These kinds of things are as important to information literacy, especially for Mark Dahl’s hypothetical student,  who needs to be able to learn from others, monitor their own biases in assessing original historical documents, and find patterns in what they are exploring. That’s what we call “being social.” What we have put at risk in the information literacy objectives is that the researcher is under no obligation to look examine the contexts in which information and knowledge occur before engaging with others, on paper, online, or in person, and the standards systematically ensure that the social aspects of research remain obscured.

The limits of notation and the organizing impulse.

I’m not making this fairly obvious statement so that we can all wring our hands and fret about the downfall of the Western classical tradition. Rather, I’m pointing out that as “crossover” artists continue to take advantage of their unique position, one in which two distinct kinds of cultural capital—the “Western composer” kind and the “hip creative person” kind—are abundantly available in a society that recognizes no inherent contradiction between them, the terms and conditions of production will change for all of us.

Such are the issues surrounding the status of the composer of music. I think this goes to the heart of the Jeff Trzeciak debacle, but I think the issue is a lot more tied to technical know-how and institutional support than it is in music (I could be wrong). The reason I bring up the analogy is specifically because of the comment made on this post, and it addresses what the commenter sees as a particular and unwieldy piece of technical know-how, musical notation:

Common practice music notation has increasingly become inadequate for what composers do today.If you compose music out the conventional 12-equal system, conventional music notation won’t work. -mclaren

Perhaps Trzeciak’s point lies somewhere in here, but I think that both privilege institutionalized forms of understanding over others, to a much greater degree than in music, and also that this makes us all blind to the fact that the organization of information is not proprietary to PHDs, MLIS’, Libraries, Archives, Museums, Content Managers, or any other kind of “Knowledge Worker.” The impulse to organize is prevalent in most people, whether or not they have institutional backing or not.  That impulse is born of passion (or sometimes mere interest) in the object of collection and organization.

Like quilting, archiving employs the obsessive stitching together of many small found pieces into a larger vision, a personal attempt at ordering a chaotic world. It’s not such a far leap from the quiltmaker to the stamp collector or book collector….

Our primary impulse, then, has moved from creators to collectors and archivists, proving Walter Benjamin, once more to be prophetic: “If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’” -Kenneth Goldsmith, “Archiving is the New Folk Art

What separates the knowledge worker type folks from the average collector goes beyond the inclination to collect and organize. It is the impulse to share with others. I suspect this is the same reason that people call themselves composers, because they feel the need not just to create music, but want to harness larger amounts of resources to get their work out. It is unsurprising that traditional musical notation would sometimes turn out to be irrelevant to the process, just as the technical tools of librarianship might (and have) fallen by the wayside from time to time. While archiving is the new folk art, the desire to do it writ large to have an impact on greater numbers of people requires not only the technical knowledge, but also the desire to continue sharing new and old ideas with other people. That’s what makes us all, degrees and job titles aside, librarians.

Why librarians don’t need PhDs, but need the sublime.

The fairy tale is marvelous not only for the extrodinary adventure it narrates but also because these always stay the same, forever identical to the point of seeming unique.

Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, 94.

I’m going to put out a word I have no real place to use. Reification. It came out of the haze of my undergraduate learning, likely from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. But the fallacy of reification is to mistake an idea for a thing. I feel like this is one of the biggest issues with Jeff Trzeciak’s proposal to replace librarians with PHDs and IT folks. The idea is managerial: put people out there who know the information already, but that’s a tricky idea:

Unlike the traditional, Kantian sublime, which supposedly restored us to a knowledge of our own freedom of will and mind in the face of the infinite and amazing, here the entire vast machine of knowledge serves only to remind us that we’re trapped within an inescapable totality.

Librarians, especially reference and instruction folks, have a funny relationship with information and knowledge. We know that information and data are things out there we can find, but stop at the threshold of reifying our own knowledge. By doing so we are able to negotiate with our patrons (yes, a student is a patron: their tuition pays our salaries), and any instruction or assistance becomes a collaborative effort. It allows us to move outside of the imagined totality of reified knowledge that the empirical sublime uses to ensnare.

Quote that:

We must decide who we are rather than be given an identity. In our freely improvised music there is the
opportunity to apply a continual stream of examination. We search for sounds. We
look for the meanings that become attached to sounds. And we have to decide – on
the basis of observable responses – on the musical, cultural and social values that
reside in whatever configurations emerge. The search is surely for self-invention and
social-invention. This is an opportunity to make our world. If we do not act to make our
world then somebody else will invent a world for us.

-Edwin Prévost, noise & capitalism p58.

Consider this:

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.).

-Overdrive Media, 2011

Who is ready to start defining ourselves? I love librarianship, but the massive inferiority complex it maintains has to stop now. I’m sure publishers would like to pretend that without libraries supporting digital books, we as librarians are cutting people off, but what about getting the best deal for our patrons? Librarians are willing to continue funneling taxpayer money into private hands while getting worse and worse deals for that money. Librarianship needs to search for those sounds and explore, not take what is given.

FTW! and getting beyond us.

You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system. -Arlo Guthrie via Robert Greco

A well-ordered humanism does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self. -Claude Levi-Strauss via Robert Greco

These quotes summed up my feelings about our information resources and the web at large. They are full of quirks, tricks and snares, and my best reference work and teaching involves helping the people I work with to be able to game information to their advantage. Any database is an enemy that obstructs real understanding of how things relate to one another. Reference is not the art of designing better systems or databases, full of their special biases and publishers agreements, layered by proprietary search algorithms. It is the art of helping people transcend them. To ask for better systems is to ask for a better way for libraries to co-opt individual thought into our own systems of organization, to flatten the originality of the query to better fit our technology. Reference needs to be that well-ordered humanism that does not put itself before those it serves.

Data dreams and what it means to be a good librarian.

Personalization is the holy grail of education technology, but it can’t be achieved without mechanisms for rich data about each student’s learning. And that data must be persistently stored and appropriately accessible. Matthew neatly turns the traditional metaphor of a “digital locker” on its head by replacing it with the “data backpack” — a container that goes everywhere the student goes.

It sounds nice, being able to keep track of kids so they don’t fall through the cracks. But quickly it is revealed that this O’Reilly Radar blog post is based off of  a white paper written by Lauren B. Resnik and Larry Berger, supported by the Wireless Corporation. It was just acquired by News Corp. If the amount of editorial discretion that News Corp.  tends to exercise goes into educational software used by 3 million students, it is time to be weary of the result. Still, the real question worth raising is this: why is data the holy grail of personalization? This the fallacy of Facebook. When your friendships become wholly data-driven, you lose something along the way.

All of this resonated when I read a blog post Michael Stephens wrote about his Office Hours column  in Library Journal:

I’ve received some good feedback, including this from Nann Blaine Hilyard, director of the Zion-Benton Public Library in Zion, IL:

Michael’s closing paragraph recalls something that Lawrence Clark Powell wrote:   “A good librarian is not a social scientist, a documentalist, a retrievalist, or an automaton. A good librarian is a librarian: a person with good health and warm heart, trained by study and seasoned by experience to catalyze books and people.”

I was one of the lucky ones and received a world-class education, not because of technology, but because of the people who taught me. In libraries as in education, the increased use of technology does not replace the presence of thoughtful, considerate, and well trained librarians. People make personalization, data does not.

Conduits, People, Indexes, People

I was captivated by the boldness of Hickey’s remarks as he referred to the various epochs of contemporary art, declaring that art funded by a granting agency falls flat and lacks creative innovation — that zing and punch.  Historically, the making of art has always been mischievous, as instinctively ingrained in the artist is the urge to challenge power and every authority figure possible.  -Vency Yun @ Art21

In the name of this blog is the subtitle: “this is not about science.” As a result I tend to pull a lot of things from unscienc-y places because as non-scientists, it’s good to get some fresh perspective. This quote got me going on the institutions and fields that librarianship draws its’ current thinking: social science and “information science.” Both of these fields provide valuable insight into what it is we do as librarians, but it also abstracts us from what it is that we do on a daily basis: help people find and create new knowledge. I see a lot of interesting research in LIS land. I see a lot of it that somebody could see coming a mile away. Still, a lot of it tends to be descriptive of what is happening now, but lacks a real discussion about ways to move forward. We’re a conservative bunch, but I sometimes yearn for non-institutional, human, and emotional thinking.

A good challenge to this is David Wedaman’s post at Tame The Web on the end of “Conduit Thinking“:

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.


Copyright Hilary Shedel


This sounds pretty out there, but I happen to agree with it. It’s worth directing this post to somebody who has good advice with those things that sometimes escape the easily conduitable, Seth Godin. He makes the point that TV and radio ads, along with billboards are unmeasurable. They escape the easy metric of counting web-clicks. They have no easy conduit to show their worth to the person buying it. So Godin makes a simple statement: “Try to measure unmeasurable media and use that to make decisions. You’ll get it wrong. Sure, some sophisticated marketers get good hints from their measurements, but it’s still an art, not a science.” Likewise, the “unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political” problems that reference librarians face are unmeasurable and unconduitable. All of this has to do with the abstraction of information that happens when it is collected and organized. The human, the complex, the real knowledge gets lost in the abstraction, in the conduit.

An example: one of the slowmedia bloggers decided to stop using Google to search. Part of why they did this was because of the imposition of SEO practices in obfuscating the actually useful stuff, which is obvious, but their reasoning goes much deeper:

The search engine is thus the extension of what used to be a book’s index. An index leads me quickly to the things that I already knew. I can retrieve the quotes from a book. However an index does not replace the table of contents, let alone an abstract.

Instead, they find that the things friends recommended, the surprises, the quirky turns through other’s knowledge provides a much more satisfying and enlightening search experience. The index is a compilation of things that we already know, the actual text (or other experience, whatever it is) is the unknown, the thing that surprises us and helps us build new knowledge. That’s what libraries are all about. To crib from Vency, cribbing from Albert E: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.”

An apology for the complex OPAC.

I’ve written a little bit about kairos in this blog before. In reading an apology for the role of the librarian, I also found a little bit to say about the complexity of the OPAC. Many have called for its demolition, and to have it replaced with single search boxes. It has been endlessly assaulted by many inside the profession as having too many functions, and a recent comment about educational technology reminded me of that fact:

In education, digital-based obfuscation was unintentionally built into some monolithic learning management tools….Simply because we have the ability to create vast systems with our ingenious programming languages and architectural schemas does not mean those systems are good.

That makes sense to me. I teach classes on Microsoft Office software. I also have seen the slightly astounded look I get when I mistakenly blaze through a catalog for a patron in a hurry. But perhaps all of that complexity underlies a more humane objective than what we give the designers of these softwares credit for. That is the “the ability to respond productively to the moment and its demands.” This kind of responsiveness demands complexity of some kind. As it was discussed at In the Library With the Lead Pipe, that is also who we are as librarians. Our jobs are often multi-faceted, and rarely do we perform a single task. Instead we educate user and fellow staff, we perform outreach, reference, circulation, collection management, programming, provide subject and technology expertise, and make sure that people don’t bring their entire dinner to the library. We’re like our OPACs. Happily, we also have friendlier user interfaces.

Alas, poor OPACs.