February 11, 2008

Dueling Paradigm Shifts

We’re presently awash in talk about a great paradigm shift that puts the user at the center of our planning for services. This is sometimes referred to simply as user-centered librarianship. It has been a hot idea for at least a decade, but has gained new power and momentum because of ideas about the interactivity inherent in in Web 2.0 as a new context for library service. A decade ago, as today, it was also part of the idea of calling our users customers rather than patrons and treating them accordingly, and letting the framework of customer demand and customer service provide the new user-centered model for library planning (referred to in the 80s as the “give them what they want” model of collection development). I like to think of this 1980s/2000s idea of user-centered librarianship as the “customer is always right” model of service planning.

Has anybody guessed what the dueling paradigm shifts are yet? Hint – they both put the user at the center, but have two very different sets of assumptions.

Last Friday afternoon I attended the latest College of DuPage telecast in their “Soaring to Excellence” series of professional development TV programming for library workers. It may not be TV technically speaking, but TV talk shows are the model for the production, in terms of the format, the sets, the style of the moderator, etc. (I talked about a previous telecast in the Soaring to Excellence series on March 15, 2006.) I would not normally watch one of their programs, because of my sense that they are generally about promoting trendy philosophies that disguise their top-down origins, and because I don’t like the effects of the TV medium on education. But this episode promised to be an exception, with Ann Bishop and Nancy Kranich as the guests, who would be discussing community needs assessment in a program called, “People Watching With a Purpose: Meeting Needs Before They Need It.” I know Nancy Kranich and have enjoyed her writings on how the library can combat social alienation and promote democracy by serving as a real public space. I was not familiar with Ann Bishop’s work but had heard enough to be curious. So this program had enough draw for me to watch it.

The moderator introduced the show’s topic by referring to the great paradigm shift toward user-centered planning that we are all familiar with, providing the frame for the guests’ presentations. She employed the usual exciting themes of newness and putting the users in charge, and then introduced the guests and asked Ann Bishop to speak about her work with the Community Informatics Institute at the GSLIS at UIUC.

Dr. Bishop gave an extremely interesting explanation of Community Informatics, which is an area of research and practice that I am happy to have learned about from her presentation. To paraphrase her explanation a bit (and probably poorly), community informatics is about helping communities (geographic communities) “create and mobilize knowledge” to solve solve problems and engage in the world transformatively. The emphasis is on collaborative activity between the researchers/service people and local community groups, helping communities find relevant applications for affordable technologies (broadly considered), and treating communities as the centers of knowledge rather than as users of knowledge centered in dominant-culture institutions. There is a strong emphasis on communities rather than individual users, an emphasis on social justice and social change, an awareness of issues in the sociology of knowledge that factor in culture and class (often using an analysis that has an anti-colonialist intellectual history), and a strong awareness of the political dimension of the effort to build capacity in communities based on their own knowledge and point of view. Bishop used a number of phrases that refer back to the work of Paolo Freire (though she didn’t use his name specifically) and related thinking: action research, participatory research, service learning, and social ecology.

So now you’ve got the dueling paradigm shifts.

Paolo Freire was the original user-centered paradigm shifter, only his assumptions were quite different from the “customer is always right” version. The “customer is always right” user-centered paradigm shift, if you don’t mind me reading into the idea a bit, is about taking the power away from out-of-touch institutions and arrogant, intellectual experts and giving that power back to “the people,” meaning, the individual customer at his computer. This paradigm assumes a number of things that ought to be questioned. First, it assumes a context of consumer capitalism; the relationship is between a customer and a market-based provider of service, as the user who is being put at the center is tested according to a market model. Second, in the Library 2.0 variation, the paradigm artificially defines a library’s user community according to the culture of heavy web users – predominantly younger, middle class, white, and affluent, and narrowly defined according to the specifics of web culture – hardly a democratic polity. Third, it fails to see through the ways in which “consumer preference” is conditioned by mass mediated experience, to the effect that prioritizing market-tested (marketing-created) “consumer demand” over analyzed community needs can be a way of sneaking the effects of heavy marketing into what is supposed to be a more objective, community based institution.

Freire’s paradigm shift was about taking the power of knowledge away from institutions, which he characterized not in terms of their control by a liberal intellectual elite (the contemporary corporate-sponsored populist vision), but in terms of their connection to state power, corporate power, and colonial power. His idea of giving the power of knowledge – knowledge creation more than knowledge access – to the people was about transforming society so that the people could overcome their exploitation by the ruling class. “Paradigm shift” in this vision is another word for revolution.

Freire’s paradigm shift was extremely influential in the 1970s among educators and educational theorists, and still gives meaning to many people’s work as educators as well as in other fields. So I think that to an extent it’s fair to say that the “customer is always right” model can be accused of co-opting that more radical notion of a paradigm shift for market-based purposes (in the same way that free market “reformers” coopted the whole notion and style of political revolution in the 90s, in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the dot com bust, as The Baffler magazine so beautifully chronicled).

So there are your dueling paradigm shifts. I hope you’ll think of Freire every time someone talks about the paradigm shift toward a more user-centered way of doing business.

(Incidentally, this is a topic that deserves a lot more than I have time or energy or the background to give it, and I hope someone else will take it up.)

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5 Comments »

  1. You make some thoughtful points here. I am naturally inclined to think that someone who says “I want our library to be user centered” really means “I want our library to be market oriented.” So, I usually think that the crusade to make libraries more “user centered” undermines their ability to serve as a counterpoint and an alternative to the dominant market-driven ethos of our culture.

    Yet, it is true that libraries can be used as a form of social control in which the state tries to limit access to knowledge and shape how it is perceived. Thus, a user-centered library could help to liberate people from social domination.

    I was sort of struggling with these issues in that paper on Game Theory and libraries that you saw. I agree that topic deserves someone’s time and energy …

    Comment by John — February 12, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  2. I watched this teleconference also. I’m a big fan of Nancy Kranich, too, but I think she really shied away from engaging in any really deep analysis beyond a superficial level, not venturing any explanation as to the root causes of alienation and social anomie. Not because she really doesn’t know, I suspect, but for the purpose of keeping the discussion cordial and strictly non-controversial, and, um, “neutral”.

    Still, I did like how this particular episode emphasized a bottom-up approach to Library services rather than a top-down, “this is for your own good” model.

    It also occurred to me while watching the first role playing example, that the lecture format as a mode of presentation only works with a captive, usually paying audience who expects a somewhat concrete benefit in return for subjecting themselves to it, i.e. like a college class for academic credit. Unless the topic itself is irresistibly intellectually stimulating in and of itself, most people won’t willingly subject themselves to a public lecture, even if they would ostensibly benefit from it.

    Paulo Freire was all about building bottom up, politically aware literacy, so you are right to reference him in your later remarks above. The first hypothetical library was trying to promote dry, merely functional literacy. The second hypothetical library (and the real life examples presented throughout the program) were acting on literacy from a different approach, informed by Paulo Freire’s theories, even if his name was not specifically mentioned.

    Comment by JJR — February 12, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  3. I also noticed Nancy shy away from explaining the causes of alienation in society, and I agree with your take on why she did.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — February 12, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  4. I think that the “user centered” model also contributes to the deprofessionalization of librarians. If the “customer” is right, what value does a librarians opinion have? (And it is nice to see a reference to the great Baffler)

    Comment by Erik Estep — February 16, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

  5. Thanks for covering this topic so well. I found your points very interesting especially in light of the efforts being made to make libraries more attractive to people in this new “infosphere.” There is a trend toward the “marketing” of libraries so that libraries and librarianship as a profession survives in this technological environment. However, the questions that have been raised about the assumptions made by the paradigm are valid. I believe the discussion about how to help the libraries restore their importance and stature in the society has a lot of fuzzy edges.

    Comment by Raisel — March 1, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

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