Idealism Versus Pragmatism

In researching for our IST 511 assignment on gendered pay inequity, I came across an interesting set of articles that spoke to my concerns of finding a job.  While as a white, male, aspiring librarian/archivist, the gendered dimension does not apply to me in the same way as the implied subject of the assignment, the outlook for the profession as a whole definitely does.

I never used to be very career-minded.  I chose history as a profession because I felt I would like any job that I could get with that degree.  I gave little-to-no consideration for the number of jobs available or the amount of money I could make.  As idealistic as this outlook was, and as much as I still want to believe in its sentiment, it no longer holds water in the current job market.  One cannot simply be anything that they want to when they grow up; there have to be jobs available in your dream career for you to be able to make a living doing what you want.  Sure, you can go into business for yourself, or work to create a position that didn’t previously exist, but the same market limitations apply.*  I came back to school to get a master’s degree in an applied field (as opposed to academic discipline) that I hope will make it possible for me to find a job that I will enjoy.  I’m pursuing a middle ground between unrealistic idealism and cold practicality.

There are librarian jobs out there, as evidenced by the constant stream of postings in our iSchool LIS listserv.  But a more limited quantity apply to my locale (I plan to stay in the greater Syracuse area since my wife has a good job here that she enjoys) and my projected skill set upon graduating from this program (which I plan to augment wherever possible).  One of the first articles I read, from Beerbrarian, had “be prepared to move” as the first takeaway from all of the statistical evidence.  Since I plan to disregard this advice, how can I hope to be successful?

Rather than feel defeated before I even start looking for jobs, I’m going to treat this like a challenge.  Unlike my last go-around, I’m going to be proactive and work to build networks and potential avenues from the start rather than waiting until I’m done with my schoolwork to scramble something together.  I already feel much better equipped to enter the professional marketplace and if I take the right steps going forward I can demonstrate my abilities to the right people.  I haven’t lost my idealism, I will just need to be more deliberate in its application.

*My old self would have scoffed at any mention of “market limitations”—what is this capitalist force limiting our creativity and alienating our true passions?

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Information Age?

I have a confession.  Unlike your stereotypical MLIS student, I don’t get especially excited about the prospect of visiting a library.  I appreciate the value of having a library, but I wouldn’t go and hang out in a library for kicks.  I’m also not naturally inclined to read books for leisure–in fact I had to make a conscious effort to “learn to read again” after constant schoolwork had drained both my desire and my ability to read a book sequentially (as opposed to digesting it whole for class).

Granted, I spent a large portion of my time studying history in libraries or using library resources for research.  I had a pile of books checked out at any given point and I could process them at my leisure since I could renew them indefinitely semester by semester.  In tracking down elusive scholarly articles I would turn to the university’s online databases.  On occasion I would even venture into Monroe County Libraries to grab a book I had to read for class.  But these were all functions of necessity, not stemming from a love of libraries in-and-of-themselves.

Libraries, for me, have been containers and conduits for information.  That’s what excites me.  I’m fascinated by our society’s relationship with information: how we use it, how we store it, how we access it–what it means.  For me, libraries serve as a nexus of information trade, a symbol of our deeper valuation of knowledge and learning.  I recently wrote an article for Information Space that explores my views on the continual evolution of libraries.

We supposedly live in “The Information Age,” whatever that means.  Sure the appearance of information has changed recently, but our relationship with data has changed much more slowly.  We still do research and find reputable sources to build foundations for our arguments.  We still have containers for information: we even refer to digital “files” to fulfill our need for an analog visualization.  We still read “books” and “articles,” even if they’re digital equivalents.  How is today more of an information age than hundreds of years ago?  Just because we have more of it in our pockets than on our shelves?  That seems trivial.  Our society has an enduring fascination with information.  And I want to be a part of it.

Library Granted Degrees?

As difficult as it would be to imagine a successful library without librarians, it should be even more challenging to imagine a successful college education without professors.  Stimulating professors that remain lifelong inquirers not only inspire their students to greatness, they also serve as pathfinders through vast fields of knowledge that would be difficult to successfully navigate without any guidance.  And yet, David Lankes offers library-granted college degrees as a possible solution in his center of learning module for this week’s material.

I support Lankes desire to strengthen libraries’ function as centers of learning, but to compare their contributions to a college education serves only to further dilute the power and meaning of a college degree and to ask libraries to stretch well beyond their means.  As Lankes acknowledges, there are many indirect benefits to a college education that happen outside of the classroom, including event/performance/leadership experience, social maturity, independent living, etcetera.  Short of developing library campuses and student associations (an intriguing concept, albeit financially unfeasible), libraries would have a difficult time replicating these benefits.

Sure, you could read all about librarianship in a book and receiving a badge for completing the book, but how would that show employers you absorbed any of the relevant knowledge or developed any of the necessary skills?  I’m sure that there are community members that would be willing and interested in training their fellow in a subject, but who’s to say that they’re knowledgeable enough to do so?  If a library granted degree were to mean anything more than a gold star, it would need to guarantee a certain level of rigor and impactfulness.  Sure, these fancy expensive college degrees that are all the rage with employers are nothing more than pricey pieces of paper with a few signatures, but there is a common understanding of what an individual had to go through to obtain that BA/BS/MA/MS/MBA/JD/PhD.  There are intangible factors linked to that symbolic parchment that, whether or not it ends up being a worthy investment, carries some weight somewhere.  Much like those little sheets of green paper we attach so much value to, there is a socially constructed implied value.  (While they’re at it, libraries could just start printing money!  This would certainly help with budget constraints.)

This model would change libraries from passive learning centers to active facilitators of knowledge at the expense of academia.  While academia could certainly use some reform and financial restructuring, I’m not sure that libraries should be their saviors.  Libraries can and should function as facilitators of knowledge creation, but they shouldn’t get into the business of granting degrees.  A bachelors degree has been watered down enough by floods of undergraduates (many of whom go into careers where a bachelors degree is unnecessary), without library grated degrees making it worse.  Even though stories like Good Will Hunting and the blue collar savant are intoxicating, it should be evident that a college education contains more than a list of facts and figures–it’s an immersive experience.

Success

Success is being in the right place at the right time.  Sure, there’s effort, hard work, and perseverance–but ultimately, it can all be in vain if planets don’t align.  You have to be in sync with the zeitgeist to make it happen.  That’s not to say that it’s impossible to be proactive in seeking success–you just need to steer in the right direction, take stock of the lay of the land, and work to create the world where success will find you.

In 1985, the hardcore punk music scene surrounding Dischord Records in Washington, D.C. had hit a brick wall.  The original core of musicians who had worked hard to build the scene had grown frustrated with what it had become.  During what they dubbed “Revolution Summer,” the musicians sidestepped the old scene and created another.  As opposed to the hyper-aggressive music scene they left, the new one focused on an (almost spiritual) emotional release.  The new scene became successful because it both tapped into and helped to create a desire for emotional nakedness–so much so that the music they produced became known as “emo.”  The bands that grew out of the Revolution Summer experienced the success of self-affirmation, if not financial success–that would come later to the bands that followed in their footsteps.  Neither set of bands would have been successful had they not carpe’d the right diem.

It became abundantly clear through reading David Lankes’s final thread on “Librarians” in his Atlas of New Librarianship that he leans heavily on descriptions of how things should be, more than on how things are.  He passionately believes in shaping the future for librarianship into a future that we can be proud of.  As a first year MLIS student entering the profession, however, I’m still taking stock of the lay of the land.  In order to be successful in launching into a career path, I will need to find the intersection between how things are and how things should be where I can make the most effective impact.  It’s not enough to have the right intentions, one must also focus on the right application of that intent.

Context and Activism

Throughout high school I was a self-formed and -proclaimed Political Radical.  I read Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Michael Albert and envisioned a better world built on social justice.  I had all of the passion and none of the tools.  In attending the University of Rochester and pursuing a degree in Political Science, I acquired the tools of positive political theory and pragmatic strategy—and promptly lost my passion for politics.  In understanding the rules of the game, I lost hope in my efficacy as an activist.  I traded in my radical passion and have lived apolitically ever since; my politics became less global and more personal.

Beyond my crisis of apoliticalness, my studies in intellectual and cultural history brought me face to face with multiplicity.  In grappling with the plurality of truth and morality—that there is not one right way to live—I’ve come full circle back to the desire to build of a better world.  However, my scope has changed and I no longer seek out universal solutions to problems.  My better world does not necessarily align with your better world.  Part of living in a society involves reconciling our worldviews so that we can coexist and understand one another despite our differences.

In reading the “Improving Society” thread of David Lankes’s The Atlas of New Librarianship, I couldn’t help but relate my own arc of activism to his model.  The section on “Intellectually Honest Not Unbiased” resonated with my passion for academic research in a multiplicitous world.  It also dovetails with an article that I read for another class (Introduction to Cultural Heritage Preservation) on “Colophones and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid.”  Written by Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, the article argues that archivists and collection managers should document their approach to the collection (as opposed to implying an unbiased approach).  In making their authorship and impact explicit, collections managers allow users to understand their decisions in context.  An active voice in academic discourse supports multiple perspectives and contexts.  As Howard Zinn titled his autobiography, “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.”

Interview with Jenny Doctor – Director of Belfer Sound Archive

In career paths, as with life in general, happenstance and serendipity can often be the driving factors leading to unexpected waypoints.  This became abundantly clear as I interviewed Professor Jenny Doctor, who serves in her capacity as a professor in the Newhouse School and the director of the Belfer Sound Archive at Syracuse University.  Doctor’s career path meandered from her time as a performing musician; receiving a masters and PhD in Musicology from Northwestern University; through a Fulbright at Kings College and editing for New Grove (publishers of music reference books); a stint as the director of the Britten-Pears Library; eventually she was lured back to the United States by SU’s offer of a dual appointment as a professor and director of an important sound archive.  Such a career trajectory harmonized with the muse of Doctor’s evolving interests and abilities—demonstrating how prospective archivists need not follow a prescribed path.

As with libraries, sound archives perch on the edge of exciting developments and challenges.  Doctor enthusiastically described their standards for the digitization of recorded media—source recordings are played at half-speed to increase fidelity and photographs document everything from album labels to etchings, in an effort to secure as complete a digital representation as possible.  On the acquisitions side, she explained how their standard for uniqueness has been expanded so that multiple recording takes are retained for a given item.  This touched a chord, since we have been discussing uniqueness in my Introduction to Cultural Heritage course.  As products of mass production, the same recorded materials (at least commercially produced recordings) can be collected by multiple sound archives across the country.  With limited space and resources, Doctor emphasized the benefits of peer sound archives working together to preserve diverse collections while limiting overlap.

Collaboration between sound archives has been encouraged and influenced by the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox project, which offers digital recordings from various institutions available online.  Doctor has high hopes for the project, as it will help in codifying cataloging practices and hopefully address some of the challenges facing all sound archives.  Copyright law, as Doctor explained, remains woefully behind the times when it comes to sound recordings.  The public domain for sound recordings is severely constrained and varies from state to state, which disallows archives from making commercial recordings widely accessible.  Increasing recording companies’ awareness of their deep historical catalogues will therefore be an important goal of archives outreach.  

Jenny Doctor closed our discussion with a question: “what is [should be] the new model?”  After interviewing Doctor, I am convinced that the way forward for sound archives lies in their ability to bring the sounds of the past into the public consciousness.  With the fiftieth anniversary of the Belfer Sound Archive fast approaching, the archive should leverage its collection back onto the (digital) airwaves and give us an opportunity to hear what the past sounded like.

Opposing Forces

Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion is often paraphrased as “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”  While it can be dangerous to apply laws of natural sciences to social interactions (see: Social Darwinism), I believe this approach may shine some additional light on David Lankes’s concept of “Pressure for Participation.”  In pursuing this thought-process, I came up with a number of concepts that could function as the opposing force to participation: “alienation,” “autonomy,” “narcissism,” “inefficacy,” and “self-actualization” were all front-runners.  The oppositional force resides somewhere in that constellation.

Lankes points to Pressure for Participation as the basis for shaping librarians’ services in the “Communities” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship.  He defines “Pressure for Participation” as the innate desire of humans to become involved, converse, and to shape their surroundings.  While this is certainly a hopeful picture of human nature, the practical truth remains that librarians need to actively engage communities that are prone to inactivity and insularity.  In the absence of an environment that inspires participation, members of a community do not necessarily go elsewhere.  If they lack feelings of efficacy and empowerment, communities will not actively seek out resources.  They will just give up and dissolve.  If librarians are tasked with “empowering” their members, as Lankes argues, then they should actively seek out and assist groups and individuals without relying on their innate pressure to participate.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have been unable to see the value in Twitter as a social platform; you could say that I lack the pressure to participate in the community.  Twitter must offer its 200 million active users good reasons to remain engaged.  However, most of the remaining 6.9 billion people who are not active Twitter users are not  frantically seeking an alternative to 140 character missives.  My reasons for not wanting to participate in Twitter boil down to my not needing a social context for engaging with online resources.  I will take my autonomous RSS feed any day.  Pressure for self-actualization has overwhelmed my desire to participate.

If librarians are to become the facilitators of knowledge creation in their communities, they will need to understand the challenges involved in getting people to the table.  We need to consider the limitations in members’ self-motivation and try our best to develop environments where patrons have the efficacy to succeed.

If you would like to try to change my mind about Twitter, you can lead me @unwordedly.

Salons

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my undergraduate education developed far from a classroom, in the dingy space the dormitories referred to as a “lounge.”  I would sit with friends and discuss matters of all importance and triviality away from the stuffy academic discourse.  We would discuss politics and society over beers and exhaustion until late in the night–in fact we came to refer to these discussions as “4am conversations.”  On many occasions I learned more about the human condition at 4am than I did at 4pm.

The types of conversations and discourse that David Lankes describes in the “Facilitating” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship resonates with the spirit of those 4am conversations.  While I won’t deny that libraries would be more interesting places if they sold beer and were open until well into the morning hours, that model would be a tough sell for most libraries on tight budgets and cautious demeanors.  However, if libraries were to incorporate more free spaces for conversation and dialogue, the public would be all the better for it.

In seventeenth-century France, salons provided a space for intelligent conversation on a wide variety of topics.  Modern-day librarians could borrow from this model in the service of facilitating knowledge creation and connecting people in the community.  Rather than arenas for the elite and educated, salons–if presented in the right manner–could offer a space for anyone of any level of education to enter into a conversation freely for the sake of interest alone.  Salons could be organized around specific topics or allowed to adapt organically to fit the scope of their members’ interests.  Instead of directing or controlling the conversation, librarians could bring in new resources as the conversation adapts and new questions arise.  This model could easily be ported online into chat rooms and other digital spaces, dovetailing with Lankes’s concept of Scapes and collaborative learning and allowing the librarian to reach outside of the library walls.

If the library lacks the extra funding to support a salon, administrators could always open a bar or coffee house to bring in revenue and get the creative intellectual juices flowing.  But then again, do we even need libraries when we already have plenty of bars and coffee houses–which have historically been America’s most popular meeting places?  Maybe the librarian just needs to go get a drink and stir up some conversation into the late hours of the night.

Mapping Knowledge

Conversations are certainly an important aspect of what makes us human.  We grow and transfer knowledge through our interactions to a certain extent, but it seems like there are other factors at play that cannot be reduced to dialogue.

In the depths of my frustration in attempting to write my Master’s thesis on authenticity and American folk music, I tried any number of strategies for organizing my thoughts, notes, and gut feelings into a digestible form that could be formed into a written document.  Anything was better than wasting another week staring at an empty Word document.  I dug up a mind mapping web app called Mind Meister and stared at that for while–still unsure how to proceed.  I realized pretty quickly that mind maps weren’t the solution I was looking for.  The interrelated web of ideas and connections that I had in my head couldn’t be easily reduced to linear connections on a flat surface.  The lines connecting the concepts would be ballooned with more text than the concept bubbles and even then I would be missing key components.  Despite being a visual learner, my brain is just not wired to organize thoughts in that manner.

In completing my thesis, ideas came to me in odd intervals and I had fleeting visions where I could see all the information laid out in front of me–if only until I put finger to key and attempted to put my ideas down on screen.  I suppose I was having a conversation of sorts with myself, but knowledge creation seemed to be less clear-cut than Conversation Theory would suggest.  Often times, the lack of self-conversing would yield the greater insights and an unencumbered mind would be struck with unexplained inspiration.  This would suggest a subconscious component to knowledge creation beyond my conscious train of thought and outside the realm of Conversation Theory.

In the “Knowledge Creation” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes proposes a detailed, web app-based way forward for Librarians in a Web 2.0 world.  His “Scapes” app would allow students/researchers to create participatory mind maps where questions and collaboration leads to knowledge creation.  His proposal would go beyond isolated mind maps and allow users to bring other people, including librarians, into the process for answering questions and generating knowledge.  I certainly could have used additional sounding boards for concepts in my thesis.  Scapes very well could have made mind maps into a more effective tool for my research, had I been able to get my thoughts into that format in the first place.

Beginnings

I created this blog just about two years ago with the intention of using it as a space to discuss music and other topics.  My masters thesis was behind me and it was around the time that I would have been starting a new semester of college, as I had for the past seven consecutive years.  Having mostly recovered from the hustle and stress of writing papers and theses, I had resolved to make a return to writing for self-motivated pleasure.  Writing a music blog would keep me fresh and keep my mind from going to seed, right?  Except I never wrote a single post.  So this blog isn’t re-purposed as much as just purposed.

A quick note on the name I gave my empty blog two years ago: I have a passing fascination with the organic and dynamic nature of evolution in language–specifically how it can change both intentionally and through mistakes.  “Irregardless,” for example, is not a word in the proper sense because the “ir-” prefix is completely unnecessary and adds nothing to its meaning.  In my admittedly unproductive sense of humor, I started using “irregardlessly” in conversation as much as possible, just to over-emphasize the absurdity of the word by making it even more incorrect.  Hence, “unworded,” which is a drastically underutilized (albeit properly situated) word, became “unwordedly” to continue my senseless trend of adverbizing words and stretching this strange language of ours in new and absurd directions.

Now that I’ve covered my bases by way of introduction to this blog, I will proceed to the task at hand: diving into the content of IST 511: Introduction to the Library and Information Profession, a course offered by Professor R. David Lankes at the iSchool of Syracuse University.

Part of my excitement in beginning my Masters in Library and Information Science at SU stemmed from my impression that the school is interested in pushing the boundaries and precepts of the profession into new territories.  I am not particularly interested in the “Old Librarianship” of dusty books, dusty voices, and dusty technology–I’m interested in the future of research in an information age and in dynamic solutions to new problems.  My impression of Professor Lankes’ organizational framework for this class validates my decision to come to the iSchool.

I appreciate the use of mind-maps and the non-traditional structure of The Atlas of New Librarianship, as well as the flow of the online lectures.  It’s refreshing to encounter fresh approaches.  However, my one complaint would be that there are not any page numbers listed in the Threads to point readers to the relevant Agreement Supplements (I found myself constantly flipping back to the Table of Contents).  If these page numbers had been included throughout the text, it would have felt more like navigating a wiki with hyperlinks to dive deeper into specific subjects as needed.  Irregardlessly, it trumped having footnotes as the solitary tool for deeper discussions.*

Coming from a background in cultural and intellectual history, all this talk of a theoretical substructure to “New Librarianship” appealed to my interest in the background mechanics of learning and the production of knowledge.  It would have been nice to go further in depth into conversation theory, motivation theories, etcetera–but I understand the limitations on space and that (most) other students are not as interested in theory.  While theories can often bog down practical creativity, they also offer a much-needed backbone to give structure and introspection to our everyday lives and careers.  This presents an important question for any profession: to what extent should theory inform our daily routine?  For that matter, to what extent should history?  If we spend too much time considering theories and history, we lose sight of the pragmatic concerns of the present.  But if we abandon introspection and retrospection we suffer from a crisis of worldview–we lose our purpose and the context for our actions.  Like most issues, what we’re left with is a balancing act.

Moving forward in the Library profession, we will need to be both philosophical and pragmatic; consider both history and the future.  And we might even need to invent a few new words to describe our world.

*Incidentally, I do appreciate footnotes as well.  This required reading from my MA in History at University of Rochester is an essential resource for scholars of the footnote.