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On taking things personally 2008-08-18

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.

Over the past few months, I have gone from being an occasional listener to the library podcast Uncontrolled Vocabulary to becoming a regular listener — even a fan.  The show is recorded live and captures real discussion of current events in librarianship, by a diverse group of librarians.  So, unsurprisingly for a group of librarians, the conversations tend to be informal, informed and passionate, frequently showing flashes of the truly better angels of our professional nature.  Or occasionally… not so much.

I just got done listening to last week’s episode, which included a discussion of Dave Pollard’s blog post “12 Tools that will soon go the way of fax and CDs,” and I came away pretty disappointed.  Despite the guest host’s setup, which introduced Pollard as “an environmental philosophy… I guess he’s a professor someplace, Stanford, possibly?” — Dave is, in fact, somebody who knows libraries and information services very well, and is exactly the kind of challenging, insightful voice that our profession needs to be listening to and hearing better (and some segments of our profession already are).  Dave was with Ernst & Young LLP for 27 years, first as a practice leader and advisor, then in the final ten years as Chief Knowledge Officer and Global Knowledge Innovation Director (he was, I believe, Canada’s first CKO).  He worked for some time as a consultant for the Ontario Ministry of Health, focusing on KM applications for emergency preparedness and early detection of disease outbreaks.  He is now the Vice President of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (the Canadian counterpart of the AICPA) and is still heavily involved in the knowledge management and business information fields; you can find the slideshows from his excellent presentations to the SLA 2007 and SLA 2008 conferences, as well as KMWorld & Intranets 2005, 2006, and 2007 at his SlideShare page (I would particularly recommend the SLA 2007 presentation, “Librarians as Knowledge Managers: The View from the Executive Suite“).

As any regular reader of Dave’s blog will tell you, it is always provocative and radical, but it is also deeply passionate, thoroughly rational, and insightfully visionary — a combination that is not only particularly “librarianly,” but also that one simply doesn’t find very often except from individuals of great experience who keep their eyes and mind open every moment.  And thus it was with this post, which prods us to consider whether some of the fixtures we currently take for granted (as we once did fax and CD) could be swept away by one or more upcoming technological or informational sea-changes.  Dave’s posts are worthwhile starting points for good reasoned arguments around both sides of an issue, and I would have liked to see my fellow librarians take a hard look at Dave’s thought process and deconstruct his logic.

But they missed their chance — largely because they couldn’t get past item #7: “Corporate Libraries and Purchased Content”:

The only people who really care about taxonomy and boolean search are librarians, and unfortunately they usually don’t know enough about their employer’s business to know what to do with the esoterica that requires such tools anyway. With luck, they’ll learn the employer’s business and morph into subject matter specialists, producing real research and analysis and adding meaning and value to information. But they won’t need a proprietary library for that. Nor will they have to pay for the content they add value to much longer. “Information is always trying to be free”, as Marshall McLuhan said a half-century ago. And they won’t sell their research and analysis either: They’ll give it to colleagues to use first, and later they’ll give it away to clients to show how smart they (and their employers) are.

This was the post’s only specific mention of librarians (and the only part actually read aloud — in a rather bemused/mocking tone — by the guest host), and it was immediately received with a stream of ridicule, instead of analysis.  First one participant accused Pollard of both misquoting and misattributing Stuart Brand’s quote “Information wants to be free…” as well as removing it from Brand’s (originally economic) context — and goes on to say that as a result, “right off the top, I’m kinda discounting a lot of what this guy says.”  Then others take issue with the notion that librarians “usually don’t know enough about their employer’s business to know what to do with the esoterica that requires such tools anyway;” they immediately conclude that someone who could make such statements obviously knows very little about the reality of corporate libraries — and spend so much time ridiculing Pollard that they never get around to considering the actual scenario that Pollard presents: that those of us who resist or miss out on the shift from “corporate librarian as information gatekeeper” to “business expert as specialty researcher/analyst/strategist” do so at our own peril.

Not only does Dave Pollard know plenty enough amount about corporate libraries and information services to qualify him to make that kind of statement, but I’m quite confident he knows the difference between (fellow Canadian) Marshall McLuhan’s notions of the evolution of media toward free flow of information, and Stuart Brand’s notions of the economic value of information; it’s possible that Dave was paraphrasing to try to capture one of McLuhan’s Big Ideas instead of attempting a quote.  Later in the conversation, the participants briefly discuss Pollard’s item #3, “Best Practices” (which Pollard puts between quote marks). The participants insist that the sharing of best practices is certainly something worthwhile in our profession — look, it’s what we do at conferences, workshops, etc.  In doing so, they seem to be unaware that they are actually making Pollard’s point about the need to move from the “Best Practices” as a static corporate document or institution toward communication of best practices (lowercase) as a collaborative process that involves storytelling and interaction.  But by that point, Pollard’s post had been called a “pile of crap” several times, so perhaps it didn’t matter much.

Surely this can’t be about a misquote or misattribution — does that really matter enough for us to utterly discount the rest of what the man has to say?  If so, I would invite us to consider another quote that is most certainly McLuhan:  “The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.”

Instead, I suspect it’s something else.  As a profession, we are sometimes not so good at handling criticism in a constructive fashion.  We first focus on whether the criticism is coming from within our circles or from without; we can occasionally have useful and collegial conversations among ourselves, but if the criticism comes from “outside” we tend to “circle the wagons” against it.  Then we start picking out the trees around which we ultimately lose the forest.  We saw plenty of this in the aftermath of Andrei Codrescu’s keynote at ALA Midwinter 2006.

We tend to fail at the kind of empathic listening and critical thinking that require us to step outside ourselves and look at the world from the position of others to better form/inform our own defensible position — whether those “others” are executives, law enforcement officials, taxpayers, government officials, or opinion leaders.

The same pattern reappeared recently when librarians took notice that Google had not updated its Librarian Central Blog in nearly a year, and that when they did update it, it was to officially end it in favor of a periodic newsletter.  We saw lots of terms like being thrown about the biblioblogosphere (and elsewhere) that librarians had been “used” and “discarded” like “chumps” — but I failed to see any librarians actively discussing how libraries and librarians could better position themselves as potential strategic partners for Google on an ongoing basis.  It’s as though we just expected Google to somehow, intuitively, understand the inherent value that an ongoing relationship with our profession would represent for them strategically — even though we seemed unable (or at least uninterested) to articulate that strategic value ourselves!  Google, after an extended courtship, obviously perceived a distinction between cultivating relationships with certain specific libraries and cultivating a relationship with the profession in general — and they saw clear long-term value in the former, but not in the latter.  But instead of trying to counteract that impression, we spent our vitriol on accusing them of being just another self-interested company — and then walked away in a collective pout.

This is not engagement, this is hubris — it is homophily.  No profession is an island.  We need to be trying to touch more, see farther, and listen more carefully.  The good thing is that we have, as a tribe, always been generalists by nature, constantly seeking to connect and relate all of human knowledge instead of just our own province.  Now more than ever, that nature — and the skills and worldview that go with it — will save us if we dig deep and rediscover its core.



1. Greg Schwartz - 2008-08-20

Hi Luke,

Wanted to say thanks for being a listener and for the thoughtful comments. I plan on speaking to them on the show tonight, but let me offer a few off-the-cuff thoughts and responses here.

It’s pretty safe to assume (as I would have) that Mr. Pollard’s article was submitted specifically for the purpose of talking about the corporate library section. So to say that they “couldn’t get past” it seems unfair to me. We wouldn’t have been talking about the article otherwise. Could we have discussed the other items? Sure, but we’re on the clock and almost never get through our whole agenda anyway.

As to not being familiar with Mr. Pollard, his site does little to help the one-time reader figure out who he is. It took me three perusals of the site just to find the About the Author link buried in the Bio section. We just don’t have time (especially a guest host) to go researching authors, if it’s not laid out in front of us. It’s just not going to happen. This is extracurricular activity for everyone, after all.

But mostly, I think you expect too much by way of cogent analysis. Unvocab is a glorified coffee klatsch. A casual conversation amongst librarians about things that are going on in the world. I don’t think any of us really have the spare mental energy (or perhaps even inclination) to deconstruct logic. We just want to talk shop. I’m lucky if participants have actually read the articles, much less thought about them. I know that results in us glossing over things, missing points and otherwise being shallow. It’s the nature of the beast.

It would be a very different (and I’d argue less entertaining) show if we were to really examine a single piece at the depth that you are suggesting. That would require a different kind of participation that I don’t think it’s realistic to expect volunteers to make time/mental space for.

That said, I think it’s healthy to be called out on it occasionally, so thank you for that. I also hope you’ll consider joining the conversation and perhaps, in so doing, pull it a few degrees in the desired direction. The conversation is only as good as the people participating in it (which is not meant to be a slight to all of the previous participants, for whom I have nothing but love and admiration).

Again, thank you so much for listening and for putting your thoughts in writing.


2. Uncontrolled Vocabulary #54 - It’s not what we do | Uncontrolled Vocabulary - 2008-08-21

[…] on How to call in for free (for now)lukethelibrarian on Unvocab #53 (The abbreviated post)On taking things personally « Any Hexagon on Unvocab #53 (The abbreviated post)Episode 53 tonight | Uncontrolled Vocabulary on How to call in […]

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