Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Even More Thoughts on New Librarianship, Weeks 2-3: Structure, Agency, Ontology

Earlier I discussed how R. David Lankes choice of conversation theory within a constructivist worldview lead to unexamined political biases, which, in turn, lead to a discussion on twitter. Conversation theory also has some empirical baggage that goes unexamined within the course.
Here be dragons!
Truth by consensus implies that truth is created, rather than discovered. It would be more correct to say that instead of truth, Lankes is talking about some sort of intersubjective agreement, or solution, or belief: a consensus-based outcome of conversation. This agreement may be taken as true, but it is taken as true only by a certain group of people having a certain conversation at a certain time. In short, any agreement created is not truth, it is not gravity, for example, contingent upon a host of situational factors. Different people at a different time may come to a different agreement. The same people at a different time may come to yet another agreement.

Constructivist theories of learning are not the same as worldviews. How, what, why, and where we learn are often socially constructed, but facts are not.

When Alfred Wenger proposed his theory of plate tectonics in 1915, he was met with skepticism. Sixty years later, it was widely-accepted. We now know that this theory is fact. It is true. No consensus can validate or invalidate it. It simply is, because truth exists, and is discovered or uncovered. Conversation may aid, or be the sole source of, discovery, but bidden or not, truth is present.

End point.

One of the slides that Lankes put up in week three of the course looked familiar.

In particular:
Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0268401213000509 
Anthony Giddens' argues that structure and agency mutually constitute each other; like yin and yang, or love and marriage, you cannot have one with out the other. Margaret Archer's concept of morphogenesis attempts to unpack this relationship. The end result is something like a dialectic, or a conversation, if you prefer, between structures and agents, over time.

Libraries are structures. Librarians are agents, except when they're not. Communities are similarly both structures and agents. It's messy, like reality. 

What might New Librarianship look like using this approach? In week four Lankes leads a discussion on criticisms, critiques, and alternatives to New Librarianship. Maybe we'll find out. 
If you're interested:

Archer, M. (1988) Culture and agency: The place of culture in social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Archer, M. (1995) Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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? 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thoughts on New Librarianship, Week One

Many moons ago, when I was in a political science PhD program, a group of us critiqued each other's prospecti. A colleague proposed a study of presidential nominations for positions to be approved ("advise and consent") by the Senate, which would confirm. I argued that presidential nominations already took into account the likelihood of a successful confirmation, so the real story was in the why and the how of whom the president chose in the first place, not in the actual nomination. Granted, a president could nominate someone with no chance of confirmation and then propose a second solution, not unlike a child asking for a pony and "settling" for a video game system, but I find that unlikely given the political capital one would put at risk. The initial choice is what matters, and here it was going unexamined.

R. David Lankes' Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) on "new librarianship" suffers from a similar problem. First, I am asked to assume Conversation Theory, a worldview that supposes that knowledge comes from conversations and dialogues, be they internal or external. This, too, goes unexamined. Why chose this worldview, what are its strengths, its weaknesses? What is being revealed, and what is being obscured by using this worldview? Who benefits from it?
The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion. 
- E.E. Schattschneider
Lankes want to have this conversation. In doing so, he's attempting to determine the scope of the debate, via their audience (of which I am a part).*
In this MOOC, I am already forced to agree with things that I don't, or things that I may not, but haven't had the time to properly examine. Take, for example, Lankes' mission statement for librarians, which doubles as the answer to a multiple choice question in a testing module.
"The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities."
- R. David Lankes
In a testing module, participants are asked what the mission of librarians is. The answer you are supposed to give, whether you agree with it or not, is above. I find this problematic.

Second, in this course, Lankes takes for granted that there's some intersubjective, agreed-upon "improvement" for a given society, and in doing so, reifies the community itself, ignoring the very real battles that take place therein.

Discussions over the values and philosophy of librarianship won't take place via just this course. Rather, a larger discussion of a philosophy of librarianship will take place in a world in which not every, and indeed not most, librarians are in it, or participating in the #newlib twitter back channel. We have societies, communities, to answer to, and to discuss with. There are many roads to Damascus. Librarianship is multifinal, from a path, from a philosophy, there are many potential outcomes, some of which I may like, others I may not. Alternatively, assuming a worldview may limit these options and may impose path dependence rather than healthy experimentation, and may create a situation in which some strategies and tactics are more equal than others.** Having talked to Lankes, I know that alternative theories and worldviews will be discussed later.

Conversation and dialogue are not the only sources of knowledge. I say this as someone with only a tenuous connection to positivism and objectivity. Yes, there is an objective reality full of true facts out there, but for the most part I think that reality is mediated by ideational, ideological, historical, and social constructs. This explains why we fear the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea's nuclear stockpile, but not that of Great Britain. "Ideas, most of the way down," if you prefer.

For me, the real success of week one of the course is the excitement with which I see people approaching librarianship, and discussing their worldviews. That is, to me, a worthy goal in and of itself. Let's see where this excitement takes us.

* If the off-set quotes and subsequent line looks familiar, it's because of this.
** In which I rework what I wrote in the above link, beginning at "Discussion."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Glass Houses, Pots and Kettles...

Source for all the above images is Wikipedia, because who needs libraries when everything is online.
"Cengage Learning has filed for Chapter 11 to substantially reduce debt in a restructuring that will enable us to be a financially strong company." (Source PDF)
 So, old media. Tell me more about what libraries need to do to stay relevant.