What are we selling (and should we buy it)?

January 23, 2007

In a piece for The Washington Post, school librarian Thomas Washington talks about his concerns about librarianship, and his disillusionment at the devaluing of books as information resources. He initially assumed that other librarians shared a love of books, but he found that the library school he attended focused more on technology. In addition, Washington questions the emphasis of information literacy over the kind of literacy that he considers crucial (based on his background as an English teacher). Washington’s concerns encompass declining interest in literary reading, as well as the declining ability of students to focus on single activities for extended periods of time.

This opinion piece does not necessarily tag Washington a Luddite. As far as readers can determine, he might have more nuanced concerns that do not fit the parameters of the newspaper’s guidelines. Maybe he doesn’t necessarily disagree with libraries getting into the technology and information literacy “business” per se, but Washington certainly seems concerned about the emphasis on those at the expense of books, along with the ability to read and think well.

I can sympathize with his story, though I have a slightly different take on it. I got my undergraduate degree in History in the mid-1990s, which means that I went to college when most research remained confined to print materials. I used Dialog a few times, for which I received training (and free pizza) once a semester since I worked as a student assistant at the school’s physical sciences library. Few students actually asked to use Dialog, which could be accessed through a special computer that we kept locked away. As the Internet became more ubiquitous in the late 1990s, I worked as a circulation assistant at a public library in a rural town with 8,000 people. During my time there, the library moved away from the traditional card-based circulation system to one based on Dynix. (We did have electronic circulation at the library where I worked at college, so it was nothing new.) The library also got computers specially designated for Internet access: four near circulation, one near reference, and (I believe) two in the children’s section.

When I finally went to library school in 1999, the sudden shift from the comfort of a small town public library to discussion about the importance of technology and “information science” put me into a mild state of shock. Nonetheless, my diligent student instincts kicked in, and I have managed to internalize the broader perspectives offered by going to library school. I also work in a large academic library (or a branch thereof) in a major metropolitan area, which requires me to keep up with all kinds of changes.

Perhaps my attitude adjustment derives from a basic survival instinct, because things have changed so rapidly over the past decade in librarianship, technology, and higher learning. Although I understand these realities, and I can see why they are important, I do have some concerns that echo those of Washington. Are we actually losing our ability to concentrate due to the faster pace of life, the massive quantity of available “information,” and the conventional wisdom that multitasking makes people better workers? Some people, including David Levy, have pondered the implications of such trends.

In my own life, I have actively tried to resist the compulsion to be “on” all the time. I value having time to step aside to read and think about things, whether professional or not. Ironically, a lot of the resources I get are available online, so I don’t see technology as a bad thing. Neither does Dr. Levy, whose lecture I saw last summer at my graduate alma mater. Unfortunately, a variety of factors have gradually turned technology into masters of our lives, rather than the other way around.

We have seen this mastery by technology taken to extremes in popular culture, especially in science fiction ranging from Star Wars to the Terminator movies. Perhaps those films are trying to tell us something about what could happen if we let technology define our lives. My fellow Gen X’ers probably remember the climactic battle scene in the original Star Wars movie, when Obi Wan’s disembodied voice tells Luke to use The Force, rather than rely on the controls of his X-Wing fighter. This underscores the point that technology is just a tool, and that we can’t rely on it to solve all our problems. (Thanks, Bill and Joe!)

As for books, they have gotten lost in the shuffle of this discussion. Although I read more online stuff than print materials, I think it would be foolish for any serious researcher to ignore the additional wisdom found in the printed word. (But then, serious researchers know this already.) Electronic resources may be better for finding quick information, short writings, and multimedia files, but the time has not yet arrived for electronic counterparts to supplant longer tomes in print. That time may come for newer books (if the right technologies converge, taking user comfort into consideration), but it would cost too much time, money, and effort to place all print materials online.

Despite all the changes that have occurred in librarianship over the past decade or two, my love for print materials remains. In fact, I think of it as a new “love that dare not speak its name.” We are admonished for saying that we got into librarianship because we “love books.” However, if a lot of us are honest with ourselves, that love of books certainly triggered us to enter a profession that is a lot less placid than people imagine.

The only place you need to keep that love tucked away is during a job interview. Otherwise, you may profess it all you want. Just maintain a level-headed approach to considering the advantages of print resources and various technologies, and you should be fine.

And may The Force be with you.


5 Responses to “What are we selling (and should we buy it)?”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    and may The Force also be with you. As a HUGE Star Wars fan, I couldn’t resist.

    Interesting post – I really enjoyed it!!

  2. Jason Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I thought the Star Wars phrase was appropriate for this topic, because I’m concerned that an overemphasis on technology will overwhelm the societal role of libraries.

    I was thinking about the conversation journalist Bill Moyers had with the late Joseph Campbell, an expert in myths and religions from around the world. On page 144-45 from The Power of Myth, they discuss the significance of Star Wars in our present world. (Well, the interviews took place 20 years ago, but they remain relevant.) When I wrote this posting, I was probably thinking about something said by Campbell. Now that I’m home, I can quote from my copy of the book:

    Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes. How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it? It doesn’t help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done.

    (Of course, in the prequels, we saw how Anakin’s idealism got twisted, and how he gradually turned into Darth Vader.)

    Campbell even comments on the signifcance of that famous phrase. According to him, Obi Wan is “speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.” I just hope that we can keep that idealism and balance in mind as information professionals.

  3. Amber Lynn Says:

    Why can’t there be a balance between library science and information science? Both have value, and one informs the other. But librarians think information scientists are too trendy, and information scientists think librarians are stuck in 1956. I love books AND technology… does that make me a techno-Luddite? (hee, hee… sorry. It’s Friday afternoon.)

  4. Jason Says:

    Based on my own experiences, I have come to believe that Luddites can have grander visions for technology than those who advocate using what’s currently available or “just around the corner.” I think people become Luddites after having a sufficient number of negative encounters with technology. They think that a technology should work a certain way, but it does not. What makes it worse is when technophiles say that those same people “just don’t get it,” which only alienates them and turns them into Luddites who become avowed foes of technology. And no, I don’t see such a position as a redundancy. In my opinion, “Luddite” encompasses a broad range of position, which can range from those who merely question technophilia, to those who have an irrational hatred of technology. Unfortunately, the popular image of “Luddite” refers to the latter.

  5. […] What are we selling (and should we buy it?) (Thus Spoke Pragmatic Librarian) […]

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