Downsides to Context?

Last summer, Brian Matthews wrote a post concerning context, especially about attitudes toward technology. If you would happen to look at my previous posts, you might notice that the word context shows up a lot. The idea of context goes hand in hand with my thoughts about dialogue. This post described an apparent downside to context.

Some of Brian’s sentences really stick out: “Context is an interesting phenomenon. When conversations or attitudes from one space merge or are invaded from the outside, there is a good chance for misunderstanding to occur.” And “this person had no context for the conversation.” And “Our personal and emotional investment is very different, perhaps, making it impossible for us to understand each other?”

I have a series of immediate reactions to this. The second quote makes it sound like Brian’s problem actually wasn’t with context, but rather with a lack of context. The third quote makes me want to point out that, if two people don’t understand each other, trying to understand the context would be the best remedy. I think both of these things are true.

But let’s deal with that first quote, because I think that’s a good point. When encountering new ideas or beliefs, it can be difficult to actually understand what it is that you are encountering. History is littered with examples of this. Sometimes, those misunderstandings have had catastrophic results. We could reduce the examples just to language barriers, and the list of misunderstanding would still be miles long. Does that mean that context actually has a dangerous side?

Context by itself is neutral territory. How we experience context depends much on our travel companions. If entered alone, it can be a strange and frightening journey. However, if entered with a friend (even if they don’t agree with you), the opposite will likely be true. I experience this when I travel, as does everyone. We rely on guides of all sorts ranging from books to relatives who live in the area to which we traveled.

I would argue that, within his description of the situation, Brian does not take the necessary second step of dialogue. The difference between the two experiences centers on what he points to as misunderstanding. With dialogue, the likelihood of misunderstanding diminishes. This is hard to develop many times. That is the true root of the problem, rather than context, and this is what Brian experienced. But when he wrote about his experience, he actually took the second step, likely helping someone to better understand his views because he gave them a guided tour of his context.




I often wonder if one of the overlooked aims of libraries is to promote empathy, and if this goes hand-in-hand with the knowledge side of things. A recent blog post at Agnostic Maybe discussed how people may be looking for empathy, kindness, and acceptance when they come to the library. So I’m not the only one thinking about these things. That post grew out of a specific encounter with a patron. I would like to think about this generally in relationship to knowledge. I’ve maintained before that  good dialogue discovers knowledge. That is mostly because the back and forth of conversation (whether with a person or with their expressed ideas in some other format), forces us to move outside of our usual, comfortable contexts and experience other contexts that will help us grow.

When we read, or watch a movie, or listen to a Podcast, or observe some kind of live performance, or view art, really whenever we encounter some new expressed idea, that expansion of our horizons does more than expose us to new ideas, it also helps us to understand the people who had those ideas. At those moments, the new ideas, obviously, are new, but the people become “old” in the sense that they become familiar. Those are moments of shared humanity and in the working out of life, those moments will often serve us in very practical and important ways, especially when combined with knowledge.

Sometimes, I think about empathy as a kind of lubricant. It is what eases our social interactions by breaking down the boundaries between us without forcing us to lose our identity. That is the practical nature of empathy. I have studied genocide for a few years now, and though I think this is the first time it has come up in this blog, it will likely show up again. I bring it up because genocide involves an obvious example of lack of empathy. I am curious about the impact of libraries in genocide zones. Do more libraries, better funded libraries, or libraries with high levels of participation exist in those zones? If so, what impact did they have? I have many, many more thoughts about that, thoughts that will appear in time. We could look at issues closer to home, such as the much-lamented political partisanship in the United States. No matter how you look at it, a common problem seems to be that people have trouble relating to others who do not share their perceived identity.

Earlier, I connected empathy to knowledge. It is in that connection that I think libraries have a big role to play. Empathy works by attaching to knowledge. The more we know about someone, the better able we are to empathize with them. This means more than learning a person’s name or occupation. It really means engaging with the ideas they hold to be true. With that kind of understanding comes the ability to see a person as a fellow human and not as a caricature, and then to be in a community with them. Libraries are the perfect environment to foster this: a blend of self-directed learning with a wide range of sources and programs in a democratic, communal space. Really, the final step is for librarians to be aware that empathy is another possible product of the library and to find ways to nurture it.

So, what is dialogue?

What do I mean when I talk about dialogue in libraries? It’s about time I start to flesh out the idea. But that fleshing out is going to be a long process over the life of this blog. As I wrote in an earlier post, I hope this blog can be a place for these ideas to develop through dialogue. I want to put some thoughts out there, and then based on my experience, on things I read, and on conversations, I want those thoughts to grow and mature.

So then, let’s start with the word dialogue. If you were to look it up in a dictionary, you might assume I am simply talking about conversation between two people, and in some ways that is spot on. (It’s also the technical term, for the written lines of two people conversing in a play). However, I’ve started to think about dialogue as dialectic. That is more of a philosophical approach to dialogue. If you are someone who has taken an Intro to Philosophy class, you probably encountered this when you studied Socrates and Plato. If you keep moving through the history of philosophy, you find the term employed in Hegelian and Marxist thought. Dialectic basically takes conversation, or at least the interaction between different ideas, and gives it purpose, a way to seek truth. Or another way to think about it is to say dialectic meshes conversation with reasoning and logic, again, as a way to seek truth. I have been exploring some other modern philosophers, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, who talk about dialogue and dialectic in their work.

After that paragraph, dialogue sounds pretty straightforward, as long as you have a basic philosophy background. If you know anything about Socrates and Plato, you probably don’t have any problem with thinking about dialogue as a process of question and answer. As for Hegel and Marx, dialectic as a historical process also is relatively easy to understand. However, I have found that dialogue can be an elusive idea. I come up against tough questions like these: In what ways do people communicate? (I for one think it is OK to say that dialogue happens between an author and a reader through written work). Is it OK to talk about truth as the end goal of dialogue when much current thought revolves around relativism? Does dialogue only happen between people? Does dialectic have to be reduced to logic?

That last question is especially important for how I view dialogue in relationship to libraries. I personally think about dialogue more in association with the relationships it fosters than in the technical workings out of a formal argument. Both can have the end goal of truth. And this leads to another question related to libraries: Is truth our goal in libraries? New Librarianship, promoted especially in The Atlas of New Librarianship, emphasizes knowledge creation. That sounds awfully close to truth, but still so far away.

These are the seeds of discussions that I want to keep exploring in future blog posts. I think it’s OK to have more questions than answers at this point. I hope others will provide their own thoughts for this blog to build on.

Are libraries clubs?

The blogs I follow often go dormant for a period of time, and then awaken with a post about how that blogger’s life intervened in some way, preventing them from writing. Well, that happened to me as well, so I understand the situation.

However, I’ve been itching to continue exploring my thoughts about librarianship in this forum. And hence, my first post in quite a while.

Sometime in the last month or so, I came across the idea of promoting the library as a club that anyone can join. Apparently, this is not a new idea. But it is new to me, and intriguing enough that I jotted it down as something to think about. After said thinking, my conclusion is that despite sounding like the kind of thing I could get behind, there actually isn’t much reason to do so.

Now, I took a while to come to this conclusion. Throughout my life, I’ve been a member of a large variety of “clubs.” Some were sports teams; many were other kinds of academic extracurricular groups. Yet others were imagined childhood clubs. I loved being part of these groups, sometimes because they were close-knit and often because the shared goal was commendable. So I understand the impulse to equate club with good and then just open it up to everyone so they can all experience that good. Not only does it sound nice, but librarians know that we have something good that we want everyone to experience. So where is the problem?

Perhaps I am just nitpicky, but my problem really comes down to the correct use of a term. In this case, “club.” The definitions and popular understanding of words cannot be ignored. Clubs are thought of as exclusive, or at least limited to a common interest or goal. If a club were to be open to everyone, would it remain a club? As I said above, we already know the benefits of libraries for everyone. So why appropriate a term that in common usage has connotations of limited membership? I can almost see this as an issue of good editing. Why say “library as a club that anyone can join” when I can just say “anyone can join the library”? Or better yet, “the library is for everyone.”

Dialogue and Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about community. It’s another concept that frequently shows up in library discussions. Libraries exist to serve their communities, and in turn, communities support their libraries. This seems pretty simple. Every community is different, so every library engages with its community in its own way. I work in an academic library. Our FTE, the fact that our professors focus more on teaching than research, the unique proclivities of our student body, our policy for non-college users, and many other factors determine how we go about our work.

Yet, I can’t help thinking about the other communities I work in. Every librarian is a member of a professional community with its own practices, expectations, and ethics. Academic librarians also live in academia, another kind of community that extends beyond the local characteristics of their particular institution. Each of these communities can challenge the others, sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes in subtle ways.

Lots of examples of these challenges come to mind. Should an academic library use natural language on its website or in its signage? In a public library, that might be a no-brainer. It’s not quite as straightforward here. What is the right balance between the professional ethics of intellectual freedom in collection development with the research strengths and political inclinations of the institution one works at? The obvious answer is that intellectual freedom overrides everything, but we all know that we have to make choices due to requests, budget, space, and time. Here’s another one: if one college brings in therapy dogs for stress relief during finals week, should we too? The benefits are apparent, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for us.

The examples could go on and on. Many of the difficulties libraries of all kinds face coalesce in the fact that they actually serve multiple layers of communities. (Sometimes there is fragmentation even within one of those communities). How do we deal with that?

As in so many other instances, dialogue is key. Within each of those layers, librarians should be in dialogue with the community. The back and forth is essential, because each side gains understanding that way. Speaking with people is important, but a significant component is placing competing ideas in a conversation of sorts. Ideas in relation to other ideas gain context. That context is what will help us make decisions. Once again, I have a specific example. At my library, we started a focus group made up of student workers. They do a variety of things, but the most important is serving as a sounding board for many of the things the librarians want to do. The librarians, with their ideas gathered from the profession or academia, can gain the necessary context from another of our communities this way. And it has been immensely helpful as we have looked at our website, policies, programs, and signage. Things that look one way from a professional point of view look another way from a student user’s point of view. But that’s not all. We have that back and forth at work. The students also learn about the librarians’ perspectives. They learn why some ideas are not feasible or desirable. And all because we were able to talk with each other.

Negative Capability

I came across the term “negative capability” not that long ago. It intrigued me, and so I looked into it a bit. The Romantic poet John Keats was the first to use it as he described the capability of humans to think about the world without focusing on the contradictions or trying to make those things fit into a system. Keats’ model is Shakespeare, whom he described in a letter to his brothers:

“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” (taken from CUNY Brooklyn’s Excerpts from Keat’s Letters).

For a long time, I have loved the idea of embracing and being comfortable with paradox. That’s part of what negative capability seems to embody. But it also embodies a point very relevant to libraries, if I’m not mistaken. The contradictions that exist in our world often are a matter of context. Our perspective is always limited (something I will explore more in the future). We don’t know everything, and when we encounter something that exists beyond the framework in which we operate, it often causes us problems. Keats would say such encounters shouldn’t cause us those problems. Instead we should embrace that collision, that bit of weirdness.

Libraries are good places to encounter the unfamiliar. The Library Bill of Rights clearly lays out some of the reasons this is true. Foremost among them is the fact that in the library, we should encounter many other viewpoints, and we are free to easily meet very different people. Sometimes, we might be that “different” person, or the source of those other viewpoints. That’s one of the reasons I’m open to the idea of the library community being an integral part of the library’s resources.

However, there are plenty of people who lack negative capability (I’d venture to say we all lack it some of the time). Entering a library that works to dramatically expand contexts then can be alarming. What does one do when two books side by side on the same subject don’t have the same conclusion? Where does the library’s responsibility lie at the edges of negative capability? Keats was right about the importance of possessing this quality, but it can’t be the only quality we possess. Some of the biggest universal questions demand an acceptance of paradox, but most other questions have definite answers. And the library has a role there too, and should be a space for all approaches to knowledge.

If I start to think about all the library functions, it’s hard not to find one where this demand is applicable. Going through each one wouldn’t work here. But I’m going to go back to my main theme on this blog and say that in everything, a focus on dialogue is helpful. Placing people and their ideas in a conversation is the next step past negative capability. To some extent this means that some element of dialogue should be present in how we develop our collections (have authors that comment on each other, for instance), in how we catalog (making sure that subject headings demonstrate the right relationship between titles, for example), how we help people with research (sometimes leading them to a source that provides another perspective), and so on.

Negative capability and the pursuit of the right answer, the correct ironing out of contextual boundaries, should both be active, and celebrated, in libraries.

Admitting My Biases

In my first post, I mentioned the role my worldview plays in developing a philosophy of librarianship. So I thought to myself, I should actually talk a bit about my worldview. And I’m going to. I am essentially going to lay out some of my biases for you. Admission of bias might make some librarians nervous, and this is something that I’m sure I will address at some point in the future. Suffice it to say, I don’t feel that way. I have two people and their books to thank for that, Thomas S. Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and George M. Marsden and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Kuhn reinforced the idea that bias is inescapable, while Marsden identified the benefits of bias for scholarship.

With that background established, you’re about to learn a bit more about me. My worldview at its base is Christian and Lutheran more specifically. More than being an American, more than dating a Canadian, more than my rather unique political views, more than pretty much anything I can think of right now, this is the foundation of the way I think about everything. And I think admitting that has helped me a lot. It established facts for me that other people really struggle with, facts that play an important role in librarianship. Let’s look at just a couple: God is all about relationships. If I had to boil theology down to one short sentence, that would be it. Hence, it is pretty easy for me to see relationships as key to librarianship too, because God isn’t in one silo while librarianship is in another (unlike so many resources). Here’s another: absolute truth exists. If you’ve followed discussions surrounding R. D. Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship (see Lane Wilkinson’s blog, Sense and Reference, for some of my favorite stuff), you’ll know why this is significant.

OK, I said just a couple, but here’s one more. And it’s going to show my historical training. Historians think about change over time, and they usually look at that trajectory through a lens. Either things get worse over time, they get better, or things stay the same. That’s putting it simply, but you get the idea. My Lutheran background has actually led me to the latter conclusion. Things stay the same. Do you see what this could mean for librarianship?

There is obviously a lot to unpack here, but that’s the beauty of a blog, right? I’ll get around to it in the future.