Crafts and subject guides.

Machinery gives speed, power, complete uniformity and precision, but it cannot give creativity, adaptability,  freedom, heterogeneity. These the machine is incapable of, hence the superiority of the hand, which no amount of rationalism can negate. Man prefers the free to the fixed and standardized. -Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman

In this way, the product of academic work is really a craft. It is rarely uniform or machine generated. So why are we tempted to use templates for subject guides? No discipline is ever exactly like another, so no overview of different fields should look alike. Given the powerful tools we have to write these guides, we are still tempted to fall into industrial-era modes of description, standardizing the appearance of wildly varied human knowledge for the sake of lining  it up with they way library technology works. The subject guide too is a craft, to be made by hand. It prescribes the interaction between a person (ideally a student, but perhaps another librarian) and the resources at hand. It sketches the relationship between of a community of scholars and their body of work so that others may follow.

The frenetic search for change also governs industrial production, though for different reasons: each new object, the result of a new process, drives off the market the object that has immediately preceded it. -Octavio Paz, “Use and Contemplation” in In Praise of Hands, pg. 23.

The traditional work of librarians has always been to manage access to deep stores of information so that others may be introduced to it. But we also need to be producers as well as storekeepers. The compartmentalization of storage and production is a holdover from the fetishization of industry. We need to do both so that we can teach others to do both. That’s not such a tall order, even for a subject guide.


Professor Jones and The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.”

Using expert knowledge no teacher could have inculcated, young hackers risk jail to expose public falsehoods and build solidarity with peers overseas by fucking around on the internet. They’re not willing to leave the problems of their inherited world for moribund labor unions or withering socialist parties. Students in America could try a different kind of strike based on what’s occurred in Cairo and Athens — out of the classroom and into the streets. And how much better would that be for their future happiness, how much better for their souls?

-Malcom Harris

Those are harsh words.  Not every professor out there is Professor Jones, but we all have the potential to emancipate students by giving them permission to explore outside the dictates of those “petty kooks and jowly tyrants” that we have the potential of being. Indy barely has the patience for his students, so well versed at following those prescribed interests. It’s clear that outside of the classroom, Prof. Jones could “teach” his students a lot of things, but the classroom sets up a distance between the students and the things to learn about. It makes him a horrible teacher and a great adventurer. Jacques Ranciere outlines the issue clearly:

The explicator’s special trick consists of this double inaugural gesture. On one hand, he decrees the absolute beginning: it is only now that he act of learning will begin. On the other hand, having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it.

The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pgs. 6-7

What makes for learning, and what makes for an interesting life is doing, either Indy or kids in Egypt or Greece illustrate the point. Ranciere repeatedly states that intelligence is nothing special, and with the proper time and application people can teach themselves to do anything. So the calling is this: to emancipate people. To tear down the barriers that explication puts in between people and the things that interest them. The things that prevent the doing. Finding things in a library, taking those things, and doing something interesting with them is not the privileged domain of so-called “smart people.” No librarian should forget that.

Crate-digging and personal librarianship.

Opposed to traditional information literacy, take the art of crate-digging as a model. The emphasis goes to inter-personal connection, not being a know-it-all, deep interest, and that tingly excitement from a major find. If education should aspire to greater heights than mere certification, then libraries are poised to be at the front as a central place where students can connect with the things that interest them. In your head, replace “records” with “articles” or “books” or “websites” or “resources” or “bibliographies” or what-have-you. All of a sudden, it gets exciting.

I go after records whenever I have the bread to spend on them, plain and simple. Whatever I’m on the hunt for, I like to take my time and get as personal as possible with the shop and the joints I choose to listen to while I’m there. Sometimes relationships and conversations will bring you more bounty in your digging than just winging it and being a know it all.

What I like is to discover a record on the field with the fisherprice portable, or by trading with my records mates. I like to have records in my collection that means something to me, a feeling, a memory, I remember where I found most of my records, this is important to me. I also like to refresh my collection often, I hate when a record is not listened, It’s like wasted it. I prefer to trade or sell records often to gain more new records. It’s the adrenaline of the discovery that motivates me, no matter what kind of music it is.

Non-Science “Information Literacy”

“I just wanted to find out where the boundaries were. I’ve found out there aren’t any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me.”

Transliteracy, riddled with oddities and intellectually locked down still leaves me with information literacy, which looks more like librarian training lite and less like teaching people to navigate their own paths, at least on rough days.

Being visual art, the work, in Saltz’s view, shouldn’t need to be read–only seen– and its sociological bent suggests that the artists no longer feel compelled to “meet the objective demands” of the artistic field. (This might have been true for some time now, but Younger than Jesus appears to have proven it definitively.) Trading its self-referentiality for referential- ity–to life, to the world–this work has supposedly thrown off the yoke of, well, art. (Saltz would say art theory.)

In general, this looks to be a pretty good thing, and a model for libraries to consider, stop creating services for libraries, start making them for people. I don’t think this needs to be as revolutionary as what many make it out to be. Libraries have done and will continue to do good things for people, so it’s important to remember that there are probably things libraries did better in the past than they do now, and there are things we’ll do in the future better than what we did in the past. The whole “progress” thing is kind of passe, isn’t it?

On the other hand, I find often operative-very widely, for instance, in the conduct of the behavioral sciences
– -a very human and very understandable tendency (but no less objectionable for being understood) to do the things that we already know how to do. We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand. -Abraham Kaplan, The Age of the Symbol, p.304

Kaplan’s right and wrong about this. He’s married to the idea that in order to move forward, we need to solve problems, but we only apply what we have on hand to do so. I think the real potential for expansion is to look  for interesting things before they become our problems, otherwise we fall into the trap that Kaplan sees. This is an opportunity to stop reacting to the forces that influence the profession and start working on librarianship on it’s own terms. No longer trying to solve problems allows us to practice humanistically, and move quicker than the dictates of the scientific method as applied to librarianship. Saltz thinks art has done this by working with a “sociological bent” and I’d like to propose that we do so using a humanistic bent.

This is what I take Ranciere to mean when he says, “[C]ontemporary art is, quintessentially, art defined by the erasure of medium specificity, indeed by the erasure of the visibility of art as a distinct practice.”39 He can still refer to “contemporary art” even as he denies its “visibility”– that is, he doesn’t distinguish it as a figure against the ground of what he calls the “distribution of the visible” or the “distribution of the sensible.”40 -Mary Leclere, The Question of (e)quality: Art in the Age of Facebook

Information literacy, for lack of a better term can no longer sustain itself as a practice where it makes itself a visible, five-step program. Traditional, goal-oriented information literacy is important to the library, but an ongoing obsession with the visible aspects of it undermine creative and critical use of information. Maybe it is just our business to provide know-how to get the stuff, but if we want to move beyond information literacy,  and into a more diverse practice, it is necessary to erase or reconfigure or  the strict structure on which we perform.