Thursday, July 25, 2013

More Thoughts on New Librarianship, Weeks 2-3: Bias in Librarianship

In weeks two and three of R. David Lankes' MOOC on new librarianship, the course shifts from theory to practice, though the former informs the latter in at least two ways.

First, librarians as facilitators, and second, libraries as platforms.

We are given conversation theory, and as such, it is the job of librarians to facilitate and participate in conversations among and between communities. I have never thought of myself as a facilitator, and it will be interesting to see if this changes as a result of the course. Facilitation is, to me, but one form, albeit and important one, of the services that librarians provide communities, and there was a rather intense debate between Lankes and Steve Matthews concerning the roles of power and activism that inevitably come from starting or hosting a conversation. I suspect that we, as a profession, are often more like Matthews' analogy of the DMV clerk than Lankes lets on, yet we are not just agents directed by principals.

The issues of power and activism beg questions in both the traditional and modern senses of the term: Does librarianship have a left-wing bias? Can you be a librarian and not be political?

Here's what Lankes says:

Now, one can be a radical change agent without being liberal, but I am hard-pressed to find an example of a conservative change agent librarian in this course or The Atlas of New Librarianship. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which conversation theory would lead to any other outcome except the one above. In short, Lankes' choice of conversation theory, a critical theory with a constructivist worldview, ensures that this is the outcome. Why are librarians "radical positive change agents?" Because Lankes chose critical theory. Or, conversation theory dictates that librarians facilitate conversations. Ergo, thanks to conversation theory, librarians are radical positive change agents. If X, then X.

So, to the self-identified conservative and/or Republican librarians I know, and yes, they exist, congrats. You are sticking it to The Man while you are at work. How do I know this? Because like conversation theory

Via The Colbert Report and Memegenerator
That the liberal bias of conversation theory, not the liberal bias of reality, goes unexamined, so far, in the course is a major flaw, as it has implications for library and information science curricula; the self-selecting pool of people who chose to become librarians; and interactions, or conversations, if you prefer, with communities. At the very least, if this is Lankes' version of librarianship, it needs to be examined and discussed.

UPDATE: Thanks to the always-excellent Lane Wilkenson and a spirited discussion on twitter, I amend my comments. While librarianship, as Lankes envisions it, has a left-wing bias, I cannot in good faith attribute this to conversation theory. As you were.

Like Centre Pompidou, the pipes of librarianship need to be on the outside.
To be a librarian is to be unable to escape from politics, according to Lankes. And his use of conversation theory limits the terms of those politics. In the interests of disclosure, they are politics that I subscribe to.
"Information, and access to it, is a powerful leveling tool. By teaching patrons to access information, librarians and other library staff make it possible for patrons from traditionally underserved backgrounds to have the same access to information as more advantaged groups. This equality of opportunity also plays an important role in civil society and democracy." If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here. (source)
Libraries as platforms, then, are cradles of democracy, and stewards of cultural heritage, which are explicitly political activities. The grand challenge comes across as less so, with the politics implicit instead.

"The politics of culture never announce themselves as political."
- Stephen Duncombe

Are you ready to be mobilized, fellow left-wing librarians? Are you up for the grand challenge? 


  1. This is really thought-provoking.

    In a sense, I think libraries and their values have a little something for everyone. They are conservative (they conserve, they may try to be diverse but they do so on the basis of Western empiricist foundation) but they are also open to a variety of perspectives, which is to say anti-canonical and non-classist in a rather melting-potish let's-all-be-citizens-together way, and they think commonly held goods are of greater value to society than a purely "you're on your own" market brutalism, which these days can be considered radical but fit nicely with mainstream 19th century trends. We're a kind of Middle Earth, comfortable in our unacknowledged value judgments.

    How we structure knowledge is, of course, a matter of choices that are political, but I think what we do is negotiated and transparent, which also makes us slow and encumbered with much baggage. The fact that we do not develop our structures as a trade secret and we do not structure what you see around what information we have gathered about you - that's incredibly political. I plan to use this distinction a lot in the coming academic year as I explain why results in a library database are not like the ones in Google, and why privacy actually can be valuable for researchers.

    As for being ready for the big challenge - we may not be, but if we had to invent libraries today, it would be impossible. In our not-very-deeply-thoughtful way, everything about what librarians do is wildly activist and radical. We can afford to do a lot more, but fact that we have libraries still is partly based on a lot of quiet work done without much visible passion or attention-seeking behavior year after year after year. (Huh, maybe that's how we've survived - by seeming innocuous.)

  2. Lane here:

    I think you're right that New Librarianship is pushing a left-wing agenda though, in the spirit of openness, I'm an old-school liberal so I'm perfectly fine with that. (I say "old-school liberal" to distance myself from neo-liberalism; I align with Keynes, Sen, etc.)

    However, I disagree that Conversation Theory has a liberal bias. CT appeals to coherentism about both truth and justification, which entails that any given belief we come to about the world (any "agreement") is both true and justified to the extent that it is consistent with some local set of propositional attitudes (an "entailment mesh"). So, the normative proposition "the State should provide high-quality, free, public education" is true and warranted only to the extent that it is consistent with (or, on a stronger reading, entailed by) our "entailment mesh".

    What this implies is that political positions are to be adopted only insofar as they are consistent with the agreements we've come to in our communities. So, according to CT, a right-wing librarian is perfectly justified in believing whatever is consistent with right-wing agreements, i.e., that the State has no obligation to provide public education. Basically, CT leads to a situation where liberals accept as true and warranted one set of agreements, conservatives accept a different set of agreements, and there is nothing outside of those agreements to which anyone can argue to say that one side holds a superior position. We wind up with a society where conservatives want to defund public education and liberals want to strengthen it...which is pretty much the current reality. The catch is that CT precludes liberals from criticizing those conservative beliefs (and vice-versa) because there is no external means of adjudicating who is correct. Things like objectivity, scientific progress, and moral realism become entailment meshes themselves and conservatives are free to reject what doesn't fit the pre-existing worldview created in their conversations. It's like conservatives can agree that reality has a well-known liberal bias...but who cares because reality is just a social construct!

    Interestingly, this sort of social constructionist thinking has become a rallying point for conservatives. An aide to Karl Rove famously argued that Bush's critics were irrationally living in a "reality-based community". Anti-evolution groups routinely use social constructionism to justify the legitimacy of intelligent design (cf. Steve Fuller). Opponents of LGBT rights have used social constructionism to legitimize their beliefs (i.e., no objective truth means that all views on homosexuality are equally valid). Randroids argue that altruism is a social construct. And so on and so on.

    If anything, I don't reject Conversation Theory in spite of my liberalism...I reject it *because* I'm a liberal.

  3. Michael Oakeshott wrote compellingly of knowledge as "the conversation of mankind" and was a conservative. Whatever that means. (He was as far from being a neo-conservative as Lane is from neo-liberal.)