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.

Hipsters and the library technology backfire.

This isn’t concrete proof of anything, but it echoed some concerns that I have, raised in a recent article in the New Review of Academic Librarianship, entitled “The Information and Learning Commons: Some Reflections”:

These so-called “digital natives” are the first generation to grow up with computers and the Internet. Chances are that they do not remember the first time they used a computer. Many regularly use computers for both school and entertainment. P. Ragains describes the Millennial generation as having “grown up around computers their entire lives and spent all of their teen years searching the web [and] armed with superior technical skills” (35). Nonetheless, the digital divide remains a significant issue, even among members of the supposedly technologically savvy Millennial generation. Charles Becker strongly rejects this notion of Millennials as “digital natives.” He calls it “a dangerous myth and a primary example of how labeling a generation is a disservice” (350). Maureen E. Wilson agrees and adds that “technologically disadvantaged” students, who are frequently first-generation college students and often come from working-class families, may have much less access to technology than their peers, which can hinder them in their educational pursuits (66). Research supports this assumption by finding that similar percentages of Americans from the 19 to 29 age bracket (83%), the 30 to 49 age group (82%), and the 50 to 64 age group (70%) use the Internet (Britton 4). Contrary to the generational stereotype, a significant number of Millennials arrive at college without the basic technological understanding required to function in the university environment.

Becker, Charles H. (2009) Student Values and Research: Are Millennials Really Changing the Future of Reference and Research?. Journal of Library Administration49 , pp. 341-364.

Ragains, P. (2006) Information Literacy that Works: A Guide to Teaching by Discipline and Student Population Neal-Schuman , New York

Wilson, Maureen E. Coomes, Michael D. and DeBard, Robert (eds) (2004) Teaching, Learning, and Millennial Students. Serving the Millennial Generation. pp. 59-71. Jossey-Bass , San Francisco

Britton, D. B. (2007) The Digital Economy Fact Book 9th ed., The Progress and Freedom Foundation — Web. 3 Aug. 2010. <>

But there’s something in the air. From hipsters observing hipsters, keep your ear to the ground:

The youngest subcultures seem to know that the internet is convenient and also that the internet is a nuisance. In defiance of those graduates of the earlier hipster generation who, aging, retooled themselves as messianic, internet-fetishistic prophets and publicists, children born as the 80’s advanced seem to have their birthright in perspective. –Mark Greif, Epitaph for the White Hipster, in What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation (p164-165)

Yes, citing youth subculture is likely not the best example, but in addition to the socio-economic reasons that a student wouldn’t be as technologically savvy, it’s also worth noting that technology, like other cultural products, are things that people use to define and explore their identities. Don’t be offended that they don’t use our online resources, it’s our own fault that we often aren’t paying attention and miss out on the big picture because we only react to those things which are nearest and dearest to us (budgets, vendors, the “literature”, our professional reputations). My advice is to go ride a fixie.

Looks like the kids will be alright after all.

Wikipedia, for the bootstraps.

It appears that this result is consistent with Head and Eisenberg’s (2010) finding, demonstrating that most students use Wikipedia anyway. That is, they merely do not inform their professors that they use Wikipedia and avoid citing it in their papers.


The two top reasons for not verifying information were Wikipedia use for obtaining background information and Wikipedia use for obtaining an idea of a topic. Other highly rated reasons were the following: overall good enough content, Wikipedia use due to easy accessibility, the need for time to check with other sources, Wikipedia use due to convenience, and need for mental effort to check with other sources.

Finally, students are not discouraged to use Wikipedia, despite their professors’ discouragement of Wikipedia use in general. Interestingly, students’ observing their peers’ experiences with Wikipedia was correlated to their use of Wikipedia, their consideration of Wikipedia as one of the top Web sources and their satisficing with Wikipedia. Despite the need for further empirical studies, it appears that the results are consistent with recent studies, demonstrating that peer endorsement increasingly becomes important in their acceptance of information sources to the Net generation, as opposed to formal authorities in networked environments (Flanagin and Metzger, 2008; Ito, et al., 2009). Further research is needed to examine whether and how social endorsement plays out in students’ credibility judgment of social information sources.

Is there really a need for further research, once you’ve verified what is generally true about information seeking behavior? I’m not a digital native/of the net generation (born 1981, if you have to know), but I feel like the focus on the specific resource misses the point. Students always learn from other students and in their own experience that using Wikipedia to get a quick overview works fine, and that they will get in trouble if they cite it. Alternatively, taking a hit on the paper might just be less important than other things they’re doing. They learn from their peers, much in the same way that if I have a question about librarianship, I ask other librarians around me before I consult the literature, because most of the time, peers and local practice matter more. Besides, we’re social creatures. We all love a good chat.