Listening to Proposals

I just read the NYRB article reviewing a book about the economist Albert Hirschman. Though I have never heard of Hirschman before this, his study of reactions to proposals for reform seems useful. Because of the society-wide perception of a library “crisis,” experts and lay people alike offer many proposals for reform. How do librarians respond? Sometimes, we may agree that the proposals are sound and do our best to implement changes. However, librarians may reject many other proposals.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman offers three categories of objections: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. As described in the NYRB article, these three categories seem to cover all typical objections. Either librarians think changes will make things worse, will change nothing, or will lead to back-sliding on previous gains. However, Hirschman has a big problem with such reactions, because they are based on intransigence. This is where his ideas become relevant to the concept listening in dialogue.

Hirschman argues that strong opinions are an “obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving.” Those who react to proposals based only on entrenched opinions miss the opportunity, linked to a spirit of humility, to listen to one another. Though the article does not greatly expand on this idea, the basic idea is clear. Intransigence refuses to change its mind. Any everyday conversation with someone of the opposite opinion who refuses to listen to your point of view is frustrating. However, when someone does listen, the opportunity for a good conversation arises, and both individuals benefit.

What does this mean for librarians as we encounter proposals intended to help? Primarily that we should be aware of our biases and not dismiss proposals before we even hear them. This is not easy to do. Librarians are the experts on libraries, and thus, it might seem as if we, and not someone else, knows best how to solve the library crisis. Yet, we also are immersed in our librarian community and good ideas might exist outside of those boundaries.


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