“Occupy” and going Back to the Future

I’m occupying LIS research literature. I’m indignant that its impact on practice is minimal, and I don’t believe it is only practitioners’ lack of application or researchers’ lack of skill – it’s a gap that both sides need to help fill. For practitioners, this may come in the form of a shift from relying on anecdotal information in making decisions about services and collections; for researchers, it could be a focus on how the results of a study are communicated.

-Eric Frierson, “Occupy the Research and Practice Divide

I like where Frierson is going with this, I’d love to see more research I can use, and conversely, would like to see more work time justified to do so, I would also like to raise a rhetorical question: is this really part of the “Occupy” strategy? This is a call to more actively participate in a already existing system, which is to say, engage it and support it by participation and/or resistance. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m a part of it too. But Occupy calls for things beyond that. By way of Slavoj Žižek in the Parallax View, Occupy starts at Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to.”

It requires a look back to a much less institutionalized time to really see some radical work being done, and to some extent, I don’t think that PHD programs nor in general, viewpoints that diminish “anecdotal” perspectives will be the primary movers, if you are strategically invested in the “Occupy”, a better place to look would be further back in history, and also, to the public libraries. It’s not that theory and practice should not meet, but that “Occupy” exists in a space much different than our own, and while institutions can and should engage in the discussion, the real action is more dynamic. As the occupiers of Taqhir Square wrote to those in Oakland:

We stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized, and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection’. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.

The research arm of librarianship is full of privatized interest and buracracy. They are over-policed and interested in protecting the status quo: “information” over wisdom and knowledge, statistics over a view of life which is full of humanity. If librarianship is going to thrive, it’s not going to be in those journals, nor in the endless hype cycles of library blogging on trendy, technologially driven topics. It’s got to be about people. Over at Monoskop, a extended piece by architect Nikki O’Loughlin examines the practices of public libraries in the United States. O’Loughlin unearths various models for the distribution of books in public space, both urban and rural. These set up a confluence between spaces in people’s lives and the presence of knowledge artifacts that might interest them for whatever reason. By doing this, dialogs across life-spaces could happen, with the library directly involved. All of this is facilitated by an inexpensive and transferable technology (books, in this case). The a heavily institutionalized library just can’t do this with the same aplomb, and digital products don’t provide the physical, social space for interaction, on top of their barriers to entry. I’m not recommending slavishly reproducing the past, but rather to look at times of radical change and how libraries dealt with them. What was that about doomed to repeat it?

Read the whole thing, breath in the radical and stop thinking about theory and practice as seperate. That only holds you back. Librarians, join your 1% to your 99%.


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.

Librarian as constructive destroyer.

Librarianship is getting to a new critical point. While there’s much to be said for the social-science, standards-based, technologically-driven, business-speak librarianship that is the bread-and-butter of the library blogosphere, more and more critical voices are starting to question the efficacy and usefulness behind its ethos. It’s time to be much more vocal. Start talking.

My proposal is that libraries enter the demolition business instead. We need to use the tools of reason and objectivity to tear down cultural biases, falsehoods, and misconceptions. We need to provide society with the tools to stand up to misinformation, disinformation, and deception. We need to blast a big-ass hole in the wall and let our patrons become educated and enlightened so they can stand up to whatever society throws at them. It’s that whole speaking truth to power, truth-shall-set-you-free thing that guided us through the liberalism of the 1960s.

-Sense and Reference

Why are we in such a hurry to embrace a clinical, digital future in which technologies become our gods instead of our tools? Why do we insist that the future lies in e-readers when census data indicate that, as of 2009, 43 million people lived in poverty?  Why do some academic librarians behave as if public librarians are brainless half-wits, and why do public librarians let them get away with it? Why on earth aren’t more of us unionized? Why does Seth Godin get to dictate what the future of the library should be? What the hell is going on in California, and why isn’t somebody doing something to protect the school librarians from hostile lawyers? Have we all collectively lost our professional minds?

-In the Library with the Lead Pipe

It’s time for us to stand up.  It’s time for us to take a stand!  If you are in leadership and you are not willing to be human enough to stand up, then now is the time for you to stand down.  There are so many voices in our profession that are worried about their “image” or “brand” that they are not willing to do anything but complain in private and off the record.  It is to you that I say that going silent, turning a blind eye or deaf ear is condoning the behavior.  It is your story that will be lost in history.  To those willing to stand; to those who have been standing for a long time, let us fill the world with our voice; let our story be heard.

-The Information Activist Librarian

In the end, I felt like the whole Library 2.0 thing was a distraction. So many libraries jumped on the bandwagon, creating “2.0 services” that were not carefully planned for, staffed or assessed. Now we see a vast 2.0 graveyard of abandoned blogs, wikis, Facebook pages and more. And, in the end, there was never really any agreement on what it all meant. I can’t really see anything good that came from that term or discussions about it. Now, instead of tons of articles, presentations and books about Library 2.0, we will see tons of articles, presentations and books about transliteracy. What real impact will it have on our patrons? How will it change the way we serve them? I feel like a cynical jerk sometimes, but I want to see results. I have no problems with theories as long as they can be applied to our work in some way. My own teaching has been influenced heavily by constructivist learning theory, but I’m not sure what transliterate library services or transliterate instruction looks like. And until someone can show me, I guess I’m going to be as cynical about that as I was about Library 2.0.

-Information Wants To Be Free

Purely as a persuasive advertisement for online degree programs, this stylized graphic supports for-profit LIS degree programs using misleading information to market potentially empty degrees to an already-flooded market. And that’s a problem. Clever word choice also skirts the issue of the greying profession. The ad states that “a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade.” The operative word here is decade. Ten years is a long time. Historically, it also takes a nation a long time to recover from prolonged recessions. So unless our government gets us out of the financial sewer we’re currently in, that large number of librarians may not be enjoying retirement until the second half of that decade.

-The Go Librarians

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.