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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.








Introducing Myself

Not too long ago, over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Emily Ford talked about the need for a philosophy of librarianship. As she acknowledged, pursuing this foundation for the profession is an old endeavor, and plenty of people are actively trying to answer the questions involved right now. For a while, I’ve been developing my own take on a philosophy of librarianship, but doing so purely as a natural outgrowth of trying to understand my own role and how it fits with my worldview. I have a long ways to go before I can confidently say that I hold in my hands THE philosophy of librarianship. Honestly, I doubt I’ll ever be able to say that. But if I ever can, dialogue will be the catalyst.

I chose the title of this blog because it is a very good shorthand for what I think the foundation of librarianship is, as well as the reason I can be a librarian and have it fit so well with my worldview. As I write here in the future, I’ll try to explain what I mean by that shorthand. But the main point right now, the reason why it makes sense to start a blog, is the dialogue. My ideas will develop best as I engage with other people. Blogs are good discussion starters. At least that’s what I see in the other blogs I follow.

I’ll leave you with that for now. I have plenty of notions to explore with you, but this is the kind of broad topic that can overwhelm. So I’m hoping to explore it in small chunks.