Us and Them.

I just came back from Austin, TX, where I attended the Digital Library Federation Forum. It was my first time in Austin (breakfast tacos?!) and to this conference. It seemed to hit all the topics I’m invested in learning more about (data management, digital collections, assessment) and had a nice mix of workshops, presentations, and even its very own THATCamp.

Photo of tacos from Austin Texas

Not breakfast tacos, but they were damn tasty.

It did, however, collide with the tenth anniversary of the Open Education conference in Park City, Utah. This is a community I care deeply about and I’ve made some great friends over the last three years I attended OpenEd. While my current professional relationship to this community is ambiguous, I still try to stay in touch with my colleagues and informally work on them on stuff and things. This meant that I have been paying attention to the  and I’m trying to keep up with the keynotes.

I am an introvert (surprise!) and my position at the library has lead me to a lot of points of introspection about my role and agency in my own communities: work, professional, societal. I have lately been thinking a lot about authenticity in its myriad forms and uses. I’ve also been thinking a lot about rhetoric–in higher education and in libraries.

There were a few messages from these conferences that solidified and articulated some of my own thoughts (and, admittedly, frustrations) about What Is Going On In Libraries and Education. I will likely iterate on some of tehse opinions and thoughts in the future, but for now… here’s what’s in my head.

Keynotes from the two conferences converged on both of these issues, that especially of rhetoric. The doom and gloom rhetoric of the death of libraries and the death of institutions in particular. In a section of his DLF opening keynote R. David Lankes broke down the traditional mission of libraries. From my notes:

We buy the fact that somehow this is a good mission for us: “libraries collect organize and provide access to information” When you shift this perspective from the institution to the individual this breaks down. For whom do you provide access to this information? WHY DO WE DO THIS?

He breaks down this definition and replaces it with some words I rather like (conversations, knowledge, learning, communities):

The big thing is that ultimately what we need to look at is this last part of the mission statement: that the mission is to improve society.  Why are we doing this? We do it to make our communities better!

While some in the audience noted his keynote created bold new definitions without much context, I think the definitions were both inspirational and aspirational. Quips to librarians and their self-esteem aside, he replaces libraries with librarians and access with conversations. He situates us (note the use of “us” here) within an actively engaged space of community building. But this conference is (from what I understand) a conference about librarianship writ large, which includes all those people who do things in libraries but aren’t called librarians. Specifically to this conference: technologists. Lankes gave a nod to folks coming to librarianship through a degree, a job, or a passion. I like this idea but librarians especially still struggle to internalize and accept this notion that “librarian” is actually a fluid term. I struggled with this myself, especially in graduate school, calling myself an “information professional.” I’ve come to embrace the term but I don’t think it should be exclusionary. You’re out, I’m in because I have a degree which happens to be accredited by a professional organization. Never mind that pretty much everything I learned about libraries I learned while working in libraries.

This brings me to my thoughts on agency. While I attended this conference, I went to a session on gender and IT and a THATCamp conversation on Race in DH. I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable in both my profession and workplace writ large with conversations (and subsequent action) addressing problematic issues of race, identity, and ethics. We talk a lot but don’t necessarily do much to address institutional inequalities and behaviors. But I’ll probably talk more about that in another post.

My issue with agency in both the DLF Forum (and professional library associations world) and in much of higher education and some of the Open Education world is that we often put ourselves into a very passive space: allowing the rhetoric of “the library is dead” or “higher education is doomed to fail” to wash over us. Char Booth spoke eloquently of Information Privilege (and has almost convinced me that the “save our libraries” rhetoric is still valid and useful) and our need to replace negative stories about libraries with positive stories. She also puts librarians in a space of information privilege (I have to admit, this is one of the reasons I got into librarianship in the first place: access to and immersion in knowledge? Yes, please!) and challenges us to do something positive with this privilege (back to librarians saving the world).

A similar message was being presented at the OpenEd conference the very next day by Audrey Watters. You can watch the recorded video of her talk, but I recommend reading her notes. In this presentation, Audrey gives us a lesson in mythology, the narratives of apocalypse, and critically examines the education technologists who are taking the most active role in shaping the directions of our future.

She writes:

Disruptive innovation will be, as the acolytes among the technology press are happy to echo, the end of school as we know it.

Such is its inevitability, so the story goes, that new players can enter the education market and, even though their product is of lower quality and appeals to those who are not currently “customers,” oust the incumbent organizations. (Incumbents, in this case, are publicly funded, brick-and-mortar schools.) As Christensen and his co-authors argued in their book Disrupting Class in 2008, “disruption is a necessary and overdue chapter in our public schools.”

There was a lot more discussed in her talk and others at Open Ed that I agree with, but what I (and others) are seeing is this trend toward technological determinist view of passive acceptance by many who actually do have a say in the way we engage with technology, pedagogy, each other and our communities to support education, learning, and access and use of information. Often, we are all sitting back letting other people, many situated outside of education or libraries in the for-profit tech start up sector, tell us what to expect for the future of education and of libraries.

I’m done with the doom and gloom rhetoric. I’m done with the navel gazing. I’m done with fraught conversations about whether librarians are in the business of service or in the business of scholarship or the business of information/knowledge/access/babysitting. I’m glad to see some stories and rhetoric from the opposite side of this doom and gloom. I like Char Booth’s image of the soap box that lives between the clouds and the weeds. I like Audrey’s questions at the end of her keynote:

Where in the stories were telling about the future of education are we seeing salvation? Why would we locate that in technology and not in humans, for example? Why would we locate that in markets and not in communities?

Libraries are buildings. Technologies are tools. What matters are the people, communities, and actions behind these objects. We (monolithic, all encompassing: every “librarian”, every educator), the agents use them, to achieve goals. What’s happened? Too many times, we’ve attributed our own agency to these objects. We should start taking that agency back and using it to do the jobs we signed up to do.


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