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.

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2 thoughts on “Crafts and subject guides.

  1. While I see your point, I find myself disagreeing. As a web designer in a library, I feel that the use of templates is vitally important, from a usability standpoint: if every subject guide looks wildly different, especially if any guide lacks a clear focal point or starting place (here, I’m thinking of LibGuides that librarians are left to do with as they will–very few of us have the self control to make them simple and straightforward, instead opting to put in everything we know, in all three columns, “just in case”), students and researchers will not find the guides useful.

    Heaven help the researcher (or librarian) doing research in multiple subject areas!

    • Amen! I hope we all can match usability with custom content that actually reflects the field surveyed. I might be able to on a good day, but I’m still not sold on my own efforts.

      Sorry to not be clear, but by technology, I mean all of the digial and analog aparatuses (sic?) we use to describe, store and retrieve knowledge. The subject guide’s the tip of that titanic-sinking hulk.

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