October 30, 2011
I was just reading a bit of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and came across a section that I think applies to the bibliometric obsessions with impact factors, h- and g-indexes, and other quantitative measures of the value of a scholar’s work. The following is from pages 119 and 120 of the translation by Swenson and Lowrie (1968 edition):
…Ethics and the ethical have to raise against this entire order of things. For in our age it is not merely an individual scholar or thinker here or there who concerns himself with universal history; the whole age loudly demands it. Nevertheless, Ethics and the ethical, as constituting the essential anchorage for all individual existence, have an indefeasible claim upon every existing individual; so indefeasible a claim, that whatever a man may accomplish in the world, even to the most astonishing of achievements, it is nonetheless quite dubious in significance, unless the individual has been ethically clear when he made his choice, has ethically clarified his choice to himself. The ethical quality is jealous for its own integrity, and is quite unimpressed by the most astounding quantity.
It is for this reason that Ethics looks upon all world-historical knowledge with a degree of suspicion, because it may so easily become a snare, a demoralizing aesthetic diversion for the knowing subject, in so far as the distinction between what does or does not have historical significance obeys a quantitative dialectic. As a consequence of this fact, the absolute ethical distinction between good and evil tends for the historical survey to be neutralized in the aesthetic-metaphysical determination of the great and significant, to which category the bad has equal admittance with the good. In the case of what has world-historic significance, another set of factors plays an essential role, factors which do not obey an ethical dialectic: accidents, circumstances, the play of forces entering into the historic totality that modifyingly incorporates the deed of the individual so as to transform it into something that does not directly belong to him. Neither by willing the good with all his strength, nor by satanic obduracy in willing what is evil, can a human being be assured of historical significance. Even in the case of misfortune the misfortune may obtain world-historical significance. How then does an individual acquire historical significance? By means of what from the ethical point of view is accidental. But Ethics regards as unethical the transition by which an individual renounces the ethical quality in order to try his fortune, longingly, wishingly, and so forth, in the quantitative and non ethical…
December 1, 2010
From Philippe Breton’s The Culture of the Internet and the Internet as Cult: Social Fears and Religious Fantasies, forthcoming from Litwin Books:
One may distinguish three positions grosso modo: first the “Internet-for-everything” militants, proselytes (sometimes unknowingly) of a new cult. Then there are the technophobes, hostile to all technology. Finally, there are those who think that a rational use of technology may under certain conditions be a factor of progress. Those who take the first attitude appear to be the majority, and their point of view tends to become the “dominant ideology” in this area, the only possible and legitimate manner of regarding the question, to the point that they often cannot even imagine that there could be any other. Those with the second attitude are more numerous than they appear. Through philosophy, ignorance or simply irritation, with a sort of passive resistance, underground but effective, they oppose the diffusion of the new information technologies. The third position, held by those who tend to take a measured view of technology, is still largely undeveloped. Such a position is often formed of multiple experiences that are difficult to unify. It rests on humanist values that are difficult to affirm, and of which some are today in crisis.
September 6, 2009
Two recent articles in the mainstream press are telling us that paper books and physical libraries are dead (Boston Globe and CNN.com). One of the easiest things to forget about the death of the book is for how many years it has been declared. A few quotations from past decades, from authors who were responding to the idea of the death of the book, the first from a 1955 article by Lester Asheim:
Each paper [in a conference on the future of the book at the Graduate Library School] attempts … to look with equal objectivity at the book and the nonbook against the kind of society which, in the immediate future, will form the audience for communication of all kinds. The strong and weak points of the several devices, books included, are evaluated, and there is no underlying assumption that the book has less to offer than the other devices or that it is too inflexible to meet the emerging challenge and is therefore foredoomed. The death of the book is more likely to be hastened by those who adamantly insist on retaining, for twentieth-century purposes, the nineteen-century form of the book than it is by those who are willing to examine that form for inadequacies that can be corrected.
– Lester Asheim, “Introduction: New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book.” Library Quarterly 25 no. 4 (Oct., 1955), pp. 281-292.
That October, 1955 issue of Library Quarterly (which I would love to publish as a monograph) was a collection of conference papers on the future of the book (also called the death of the book). The idea of the death of the book was an immediately understood implication of automation, cybernetics, information science, computing – that new area of technology that burst forth after World War II. The “communications revolution” is something that has been in progress longer than most of us have been alive.
A decade later, America was dealing with Sputnik. We made big investments in the educational sphere, especially the sciences but also the humanities, and ideas about technology in education were hotly circulated. Look at this excerpt from an article in a 1966 issue of College English:
Now, after making this plea for the gadgetry of teaching, let me turn about and say that if we allow this revolution in education to give us nothing more for the teaching of literature than an arsenal of machinery and curricular gimmicks, then we will have merited the scorn of our day and succeeding days. I understand that teachers have a long way to go in combing the gimmickry out of the new math and the new sciences.
There is one teaching aid, a visual aid, which I want to single out from the others and recommend – not one of the newest, it’s true, but one that has proved helpful for some time. I mean the book. Prompted by the Congressional hearings on the new copyright law being drafted over the last two years, textbook publishers have sent out letters declaring their doubts about the future of the book. And while lamenting the impending death of the book, they seem to conclude that it is the teacher who will be guilty of librocide. They seem to fear that books are going out of use – that the literary works in our courses will reach the students by means of photocopy or film projection or recorded voices, or perhaps by a type of osmosis or – who knows? – by the electronic transfer of literary essences to the reader, the patient, without the use of language.
Fascinating as some of these possibilities are, I still have faith in books, and I intend to keep using them in my teaching…
-Arlin Turner, “Literature and the Student in the Space Age.” College English, Vol. 27, No. 7 (Apr., 1966), pp. 519-522
These are pre-internet writings, of course. The technology revolution of today is not the technology revolution of yesterday. But without looking at the way these discourses got going it’s easy to miss how much of what is said now is a repetition of things that were said 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.
For example, have a close read of this abstract to an article from the October, 1971 issue of Library Quarterly, “Books and Marshall McLuhan,” by Sam Neill:
Marshall McLuhan, who has gained a reputation as an enemy of books because he has called them obsolete while concentrating his analysis of communication media of the electric variety, is, in fact, a man of the book as much as any librarian; although librarians have tended to ignore him, considering him to have no relevance for their “science.” This is to their detriment. Not only is the format of his books of interest, as a mirror of his message, but there is also evidence that his purpose is and has been from the beginning to find the peculiar qualities of print and books which make them necessary to man. He finds these qualities not in the content but in the form; qualities which provide a sensory balance of objectivity and perspective as opposed to the field perceptivity of television. In tracing the evidence of McLuhan’s concern for the future of the book, we can see him as one who has, perhaps, a greater perception of the value of books and libraries, for civilization, than many librarians.
- Sam Neill, “Books and Marshall McLuhan.” The Library Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1971), pp. 311-319.
If you know me, you know I think that the ideas discussed in that article are still very relevant. However, coming up with that view is easy, because someone with an interest in media would have trouble avoiding those ideas. It’s tougher to see what needs to be said in 2009 that has not been said yet.
The authors of those articles in the Boston Globe and CNN.com seem rather typical of writers in the popular press who have been talking about the death of books and libraries for decades, in that they don’t seem particularly oriented to either to begin with. Unfortunately, I think this would be an accurate description of many of the people who hold the purse strings of libraries, the administrators at the city, county, and university level. They represent a type that has always been with us. Their confidence may serve as a bellweather, but I wouldn’t look to them for new insights.
I would say, let library users and book readers tell us when libraries and books are dead. If their numbers are diminishing, this is a problem, but does not imply an immediate need to broaden our scope to encompass more and more sensory-stimulating crap that people prefer over books. The result of that strategy would only be that the library would cease to represent reason, thought, and genuine learning for empowerment and development. The more people in general turn away from books, the more important it becomes for us to preserve culture and to maintain a space that facilitates real learning, for if we don’t preserve that possibility for society, it is set to disappear.
August 28, 2009
Yes, I know I’m supposed to be user-centered and all that, but I think the great wave of populism we’re seeing now is going to lead to bad things. Some friends say it’s a time of opportunity, that maybe the blind rage of the common man can be directed toward support of progressive policies. Perhaps, but with everyone’s attention spans diminishing and few people actually looking into details or questioning assumptions (progress to some of you out there), I tend to think that things are unraveling. And “the people” are only going to get angrier when the middle class tax increases come in a couple of years (as though there was an alternative to transferring debt to the public sector to bail out the global economy).
So as an antidote to the present populist fervor, three quotations that I hope mean something….
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).
- Mark Twain, Notebook, 1904
Most people are not liars. They can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance. I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists. You can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.
- Noam Chomsky, in an interview with James Peck, found in the Chomsky Reader
History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.
- E. L. Doctorow, in an interview in Writers at Work (1988)
July 23, 2009
The following is the list of authors in the Author Index to Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book. (Note that some authors listed, like me, are there because they show up in the notes.)
American Library Association
Barnett, Lincoln Kinnear
Beach, Frederick Converse
Berkeley, Sir William
Berman, Sanford (Sandy)
Blinn, Marjeanne Jensen
Borges, Jorge Luis
Bowen, Catherine Drinker
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buttigieg, Joseph A.
Campbell, Leslie M.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor
Council of Books in Wartime, The
Danton, J. Periam
Dick, Archie L.
Dogwood, Silence. See Franklin, Benjamin
Eigen, Lewis D.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Finocchiaro, Maurice A.
von Foerster, Heinz
de la Fontaine, Henri
Freedman, Maurice J. (Mitch)
y Gasset, José Ortega
Gates Jr., Henry Louis
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang
Herman, Edward S.
Humphrey, Hubert H.
Hutchins, Robert Maynard
Jast, Louis Stanley
Johnston, Richard J.H.
Kennedy, John F.
Kenyon, John Philipps
King, Martin Luther
Lancaster, Frederick W.
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph
Madras Library Association
McCook, Kathleen de la Peña
Mill, John Stuart
Moore, Lara Jennifer
Noam, Eli M.
Norman, Melora Ranney
Oliver, Richard W.
Osler, Sir William
Paine, Albert Bigelow
Peter, Laurence J.
Plummer, Mary Wright
Price, Derek de Solla
Ranganathan, S. R.
Reynolds, Sir Joshua
Rines, George Edwin
Robbins, Louise S.
Sayers, Frances Clarke
Schuman, Patricia Glass
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus
de Sevigne, Marie
Siegel, Jonathan P.
Stern, Joseph Peter
Stimpson, Catharine R.
Talbot, Stephen L.
Thoreau, Henry David
Udall, Morris (Mo)
U.S. Supreme Court
Van Impe, Jack
Wallace, David Foster
Wilson, Peter Lamborn
June 7, 2009
Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book
Foreword by Michael Gorman
Books of quotations serve many functions. They can entertain, enrich, inform, infuriate, define (by inclusion and exclusion), and/or provide one end of a strand of knowledge to be pursued elsewhere by the enquiring mind. Some quotations are comical, some profound, but a true quotation book is neither a collection of jokes or one-liners on the one hand nor an assemblage of profundities and pomposities on the other. Essentially, every quotation book is an argument in favor of a field of study or one that attempts to influence that field of study. Even the venerable general compendia, such as The Oxford book of quotations, are arguments, rooted in their times, for a particular way of looking at the canon of literature and thought. The Oxford book of quotations (second edition, revised, 1953) argues that certain authors and certain books belong to the canon to the exclusion of other authors and books and, thus, defines what literature consisted of to its editors. It assigns ten pages to hundreds of quotations from Rudyard Kipling and four lines to two quotations from Robert Frost, thus, placing those authors on a scale of importance in that canon. In much the same way, this book of quotations is an argument for a particular way of looking at libraries, library work, and the great causes of the library profession—intellectual freedom, literacy, social responsibility, etc. Library juice was, inarguably, a progressive publication and the progressive view of libraries and librarianship could be seen in the selection of quotations that began each issue. That shaping of the field could have been seen even if this were simply a reprinting of those quotations in chronological order, but emerges even more strongly in the selection from, and grouping of, those quotations that you will find here. What is librarianship about? The compiler and editor of this book will give you an answer, one that I find compelling, an answer that can be found, at one level, in the contents list and, at another level, in the selections themselves. Fortunately for the reader, the compiler and editor take a broad as well as a progressive view and a stroll through these quotations is one undertaken with an eclectic bunch of companions. It is hard indeed to resist a selection with an index that yields the successive entries “Goering, Hermann,” “Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von,” and “Goldman, Emma.” So, relax, read, enjoy, and prepare to have your view of our profession reinforced, challenged, and/or broadened.
May 14, 2009
Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book
Compiler: Rory Litwin
Editor: Martin Wallace
Foreword: Michael Gorman
5.06″ by 7.81″
Published: May 2009
Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book is a compilation of quotations originally collected for the “Quotes of the Week” section of Library Juice, an e-zine published by Rory Litwin between 1998 and 2005 that dealt with philosophical and political dimensions of librarianship.
Persons quoted include famous, not-so-famous, and infamous figures from classical to contemporary periods. Librarians are quoted, as well as intellectuals, politicians, novelists, scientists, celebrities, and other commentators. Some quotes are about libraries and librarians, others are about intellectual freedom, and others are about the information society from a philosophical perspective. A central thread tying these quotations together is the idea of the library as servant and protector of the public sphere. A rich collection easily dipped in and out of…
November 29, 2008
ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy had its annual retreat this month. Barbara Fister, frequent poster to the ACRL blog and a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, presented a talk there called “Open Access and Books in a Digital World – What Role Should Libraries Play?” Her talk is an interesting exploration of the Google settlement in economic and ethical terms and its meaning for libraries.
I was tickled to see two paragraphs of my Dec. 2004 article on the Google Print project quoted in the conclusion. (I made some predictions and turned out to be right.)
A quotation I especially liked, however, was one I hadn’t seen before. Barbara began her talk with this statement from Thomas Jefferson:
“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”
It seems that Jefferson would be in agreement with those who say that the founders wanted only limited property rights to inhere in intellectual property. This statement supports their reading of Article I of the Constitution.
April 5, 2008
From Lara Moore’s Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870 (pages 208-209):
It … appears that the late Empire had strong political misgivings about the extension of libraries to the “popular” classes. In April 1864, Interior Minister Paul Boudet dispatched a circular marked “confidential” to department prefects. The circular recalled that in the last two years, private associations like the Société Franklin had “instituted in various places in the Empire popular libraries, whose object is to promote the reading of books particularly destined for the working class.” Boudet then added:
The government’s intention is not to thwart the development of an undertaking that seems to have an honorable goal, but its duty is to see to it that as they multiply, popular libraries do not encourage abuses which would change the primary purpose of these establishments and transform them into hotbeds of propaganda and political intrigue.
In order to prevent popular libraries from becoming “revolutionary schools” or “so many centers of propaganda,” prefects were to maintain careful surveillance of these new collections, particularly monitoring their catalogues for books containing “dangerous or subversive theories.” Such language suggests that while Napoléon III’s ministers were willing to take the limited step of establishing school libraries, they worried about the political consequences of developing large-scale collections for “popular” audiences. If opened to the grand public, public libraries might promote “revolutionary”" thinking, and while the late Empire was ready to make certain overtures to the political opposition, it was not willing to risk another French revolution.
February 12, 2008
The current issue of LRC: Literary Review of Canada has a light essay by an acquaintance of Marshall McLuhan, discussing what the man was like and assessing his influence: In the Garden with the Guru. If you’re only vaguely familiar with Marshall McLuhan I definitely recommend it for a little taste of he was like as an intellectual phenomenon in the 60s. I think Bob Rodgers is right to say that McLuhan was generally misunderstood and was not the fan of the post-print, television age that many took him to be.
April 12, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut died last night, at the age of 84.
At one point he wrote,
“Life happens too fast for you ever to think about it. If you could just persuade people of this, but they insist on amassing information.”
January 27, 2007
Here is an excerpt from Jesse Shera’s 1936 article in The Bulletin of the American Library Association, “The College Library and its Future.” (Vol. 30, pp. 495-501.)
A PROFESSIONAL CREDO
Having seen that technologically librarianship has made significant progress, and that investigatory activities have already achieved impressive beginnings, we now turn our attention to a field of which the past can ill be proud. As Pierce Butler has shown, librarians have been singularly uninterested in the theoretical aspects of their profession. (Pierce Butler, An Introduction to Library Science. University of Chicago Press, 1933.) Satisfied with simple pragmatism, they are content with a rationalization of each immediate technical process, without any intellectual interest in attempting to generalize these rationalizations into a professional philosophy. From this indictment of the library profession as a whole the college librarian is not exempt. He has been as indifferent as the rest toward the development of any professional credo which might guide and direct his several processes, and give meaning to their results. J. Periam Danton has cut squarely to the heart of the matter when he asserts that:
When the library profession becomes thoroughly conscious of precisely what it is trying to do and why it is doing it, we may hope to see a very significant change affectingn only only libraries and librarians but also the society in which they serve. The bewildered groping which characterizes so much of our activity is largely the result of lack of a definite conception of our purposes. (J. Periam Danton, “A Plea for a Philosophy of Librarianship.” Library Quarterly 4:545, October 1934.)
[...] Lacking this guiding power of a valid philosophy, how, may it be asked, are the college librarians prepared to answer the host of questions that beset the academic world today? We boast of tolerance, but can we afford to be tolerant of intolerance? With academic freedom threatened on every hand, dares the profession to maintain a detached point of view? “There are times when silence is not neutrality but assent.” In a day when a drugstore demagogue can command a legislative investitation into alleged “subversive activities” in one of our great institutions of learning, it is not absurd to fear that some power crazed dictator of the future could repeat the holocaust of Alexandria.
Assuredly, there has been much glib talk among librarians concerning the ideals of the profession, its tolerance, its detachment, its objective point of view with regard to the problems that beset mankind – ideals which have seen their fullest realization in the building up of the respective book collections. College librarians cannot justly be accused of deficient idealism; in many ways they have exemplified the scholastic virtues of tolerance, objectivity, and breadth even more fully than their colleagues in the classroom. Their fault lies in their failure to organize for the defense of these ideals in some future crucial hour. They would do well to remember William James’ pragmatic judgment:
The more ideals a man has, the more contemptible, on the whole, do you continue to deem him, if the matter ends there for him, and if none of the laboring man’s virtues are called into action on his part – no courage shown, no privations undergone, no dirt or scars contracted in the attempt to get them realized. It is quite obvious that something more than the mere possession of ideals is required to make a life significant in any sense that claims the spectator’s admiration.
January 12, 2007
Library Juice Concentrate
Edited by Rory Litwin
Preface by Kathleen de la Peña McCook
6″ by 9″
Published: December 2006
Library Juice Concentrate is a compilation of the best of Library Juice, an e-zine published by Rory Litwin between 1998 and 2005 that dealt with foundational questions of librarianship during a period of rapid change. Library Juice served as the record for the “library left” during this period, including its veterans and newcomers, while at the same time offering original reflections on traditional questions. The book includes essays and other artifacts that investigate professional neutrality, intellectual freedom, alternative literature, the social effects of technological change, the cultural identity of the librarian, “anarchist librarianship,” the Cuba debate, Google’s scanning project, subject heading reform, and other issues. The aim of the essays in Library Juice Concentrate is to provoke original thought and to encourage newcomers in the field to participate in professional discourse with confidence and with attention to the intellectual and political struggles of the past.
Here’s what Dr. Toni Samek of the library school at the University of Alberta says about this book:
Library Juice Concentrate is a genuine stimulant and a punchy counter to the techno-managerial library literature of the day. In this slim but supple volume, Rory Litwin recaptures humanistic thought pieces, meditations, interviews, deliberations, critiques, quotes, recommended readings, manifestos, deep analysis, and uncomfortable questions from select salt of the earth contributors to the 1998-2005 run of his groundbreaking alternative library webzine Library Juice. This powerful early 21st offline offering is a must read for any authentic study of library philosophy. The book?s index, covering Asociac?É¬?on Cubana de Biliotecaras to Muckracking to Zionism, is itself a remarkable guide to late 20th century critical library thought. Library Juice first documented some of the best writings in the field. Library Juice Concentrate now gives us the unique opportunity (not to mention responsibility) to continue to gain power from those challenging expressions. This labor of librarianship is destined to evoke thought, tears, laughter, and a desire for social action. Let?s all hope for more!
Kathleen de la Peña McCook’s preface to Library Juice Concentrate is online:
Library Juice Concentrate is available through major books jobbers as well as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.
Library Juice Press was founded in 2006 as an outgrowth of Library Juice, the webzine and blog in publication since 1998. Library Juice Press publishes books on topics that have been covered in Library Juice over the years, including library philosophy, information policy, activism, library history, media studies, and in general anything that can be covered under the rubric of “critical studies in librarianship.” Library Juice Press presently has four titles in print and a handful in progress.
May 15, 2006
“Critical thinkers can be parodied either as disgruntled and bitter subversives, or as elitist mockers of others’ well-meant efforts. The pejorative associations surrounding the word critical have meant that advocating critical thinking is a form of social and educational bad taste.”
- STEPHEN D. BROOKFIELD; Developing Critical Thinkers, 1987. Quotation from International Education Quotations Encyclopaedia, by Keith Allan Noble (Open University Press, 1995).