Author Archives: libraries as dialogue

About libraries as dialogue

My name is Martin. I'm one of the Public Services Librarians at Hillsdale College in Michigan. I didn't quite expect to become an academic librarian, but now that I am one, I love it. You know what else I love? Well, okay, lots of stuff so the list could get long. But I'll name a few anyway. How about Legos (notice the header), gardening, and cycling. Books too. And a certain girl named Julie. She’s a smart Canadian, and lots of other really wonderful things. My college edumacation happened at Concordia University River Forest. I couldn't ask for a better place, but I could ask for more school. So I went to Loyola University Chicago to get my MA in Public History. And just for good measure, I went to Dominican University for my MLIS. That turned out to be a good step, considering where I am now. Do you have any interest in what I am interested in? Even if you don’t, if you read my blog, you’ll find out. It’s hard to narrow down, because really, I am interested in learning almost anything I can. But I’ve found that the topics that became extra important, that I started to invest time in, were history of genocide and the epistemological aspects of philosophy. I still have lots to learn, and I’m actually hoping this blog will help me to do that. So share your ideas with me, just like I’ll share mine with you. And we’ll learn together. I won’t bore you with the details (rhymes with “mob jarket”), but I switched to Library and Information Science when I got my Master’s in Philosophy. The choice just made sense. As an adjunct philosophy instructor at Wayne State, Michigan-Dearborn, and other colleges, I really loved teaching Freshman-level classes, but I was increasingly frustrated by the terrible research skills I was encountering. I wanted to help these kids out. As a philosopher, I was keenly interested in the philosophy of information. Being a librarian seemed to allow me to address all of this and more. So, I suckered the school into giving me an MLIS in 2008. Anyway, now I’m living the dream in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve got a beautiful and wicked-smart lady by my side as we attempt to raise, quite possibly, the world’s strongest toddler. I love my job and I work with the most innovative and dedicated group of librarians this side of the Mississippi. This blog is just a place for the idle musings of a philosophically inclined reference librarian. I can’t guarantee that you’ll agree with everything I write on this blog, but that’s not the point of blogging anyway, now is it?

Individuals and Groups

Everywhere I turn lately, I run into problems with understanding the concept of dialogue, and that’s bound up in larger issues. One of these problems involves understanding who exactly is on either end of dialogue. In fact, this post relates to the question of dialogue between equals that I raised in the last post. This time, I want to focus on the spectrum of individual and society. I use the word spectrum deliberately because I find that it can be difficult to figure out where the individual ends and society begins, or vice versa. Of all things to cause consternation, this seems like one of the least likely. After all, the individual almost seems like a self-defining entity. An individual is an individual and society is a grouping of individuals. However, dig in a little bit and it’s more complicated.

Consider the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, someone in whom I am really interested and am working to understand better. One of his main ideas is that individual understanding of knowledge is based on context and history. That is, we don’t learn in a vacuum. What we know depends in large part on the people from whom we draw our knowledge. Or consider political ideas about the individual. In recent discussions with people I really respect, I’ve learned that these ideas differ not so much on the concept of freedom as they do on the understanding of the individual in relationship to society. To create a comparative image, it’s like the difference between a puzzle made out of pieces and a puddle made out of many drops of water. Both are coherent wholes, but the units out of which they are made and the ways in which those units interact to create the whole are very different.

What does this have to do with dialogue? If the boundaries between the individual and larger communities are hard to pin down, there are implications for dialogue between individuals, between groups, and between individuals and groups. At what point do individuals stand in for groups and vice versa? Once again, I do not have clear answers. But I am encouraged to keep identifying ways in which dialogue seems embedded in important societal constructs aside from face-to-face conversation.

Do any of you have ideas or answers to these questions?

Conversation Among Equals

At the end of my post on “Listening to Proposals”, I said that librarians are experts on libraries, and thus, might seem to know best how to “fix” libraries. I argued there that librarians should be willing to listen to other points of view, and this leads me to a question: Does dialogue work if the two conversants involved are not equals in knowledge of the topic?

Here is an everyday example: When two acquaintances discuss a basketball game, but one knows nothing about the game and the other coaches a basketball team, can they actually have a dialogue? Or might that turn into something more akin to a lecture?

Scholarly communication largely assumes dialogue between equals. Through peer review and within disciplines, authors and readers are on somewhat equal footing. However, what about communication involving a student and an expert? A common subject unites the student and the author in that reading, but does this commonality actually place them on equal footing? Presumably, that article was chosen because the author was more of an expert than the student. Does scholarly communication then not always function as dialogue?

Questions like this reveal power relationships in information that might not be immediately obvious. I pose the questions not because I have an answer, but because they complicate what I consider a foundational concept. Clarifying the answer could benefit librarianship in numerous ways.

So, does anybody have thoughts about this?

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.



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.


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.”