A note on library “traditionalism”

First of all, this post is inspired by a new Facebook group called “Zero Based Library School,” which derives from an analogy to Zero Based Budgeting, where nothing is carried over from the past, and everything needs to be justified in terms of present needs and conditions. In librarianship, it means that nothing should be done because “it’s always been done that way,” and all planning should be based on rational thinking about what the needs of the library’s users are and how to serve those needs. I think it’s a small Facebook group, but I’m really not sure, as the last time I checked it was closed off in order to create a community that can work together based on some common agreement, rather than debating the premise. (I think that’s often a good approach to online groups.) I mention this Facebook group only as one small but clear example of the present trend in librarianship of approaching questions freshly and trying to escape tradition in favor of a rational approach. I have something I want to point out about this trend and some of the thinking in this direction.

I think it should be noted that “traditionalism” in this context is at the same time something real that frustrates many librarians who want to experiment with new ideas in their libraries and an accusation leveled against writers that isn’t recognized as such. It is often seen as a simple description rather than the accusation that it is. Michael Gorman, for example, is seen as the ultimate traditionalist by many in these circles. Thomas Mann of the Library of Congress is another writer who is commonly called a “traditionalist.” Some of the writers who have written articles for Progressive Librarian that address libraries’ at times unthinking and uncritical adoption of new methods are also called “traditionalist.” I want to point out that these writers would not necessarily accept this designation. A traditionalist is someone who does something without a reason beyond the fact that “things have always been done this way.” Therefore the word denotes a pre-modern and irrational approach, in contrast to the scientific, modern approach of the person using the word. Many people can call Gorman, Mann, or others “traditionalists” without realizing that the term carries an accusation of irrationality and that it signals a disregard for their actual arguments, which there is no reason to call irrational. These “traditionalists” do have real arguments against many of the trends presently affecting librarianship, and have pointed out that in many cases it is in fact not a rational approach that has led to them so much as a failure to direct the profession from within and instead to be governed by external factors (mostly having to do with money or ideology).

If groups begin planning services on zero-based premises in a way that excludes people who don’t share their views, the essential thing that I would ask them to keep constantly in mind is the connection between the “how” and the “why” of what we do. There is a set of values that defines librarianship, and some of our methods can be seen partially to follow from it. The concept of a library can begin to dissolve when every aspect of it is subject to redefinition. In my own thinking I’ve found that at the core of a library are certain values rather than practices – and I think this is something with which the zero-based group can agree. For one, a library is based on a pooling of resources that are shared by the community being served by the institution. For another, it is based on the idea of information resources being available for reuse rather than consumed. Also at the core of libraries are Enlightenment values having to do with freedom of the press and the freedom to read, values which also assume the value of privacy for individual readers. Also at the core of libraries, though in a way that is presently contested in all types of library institutions, is that libraries serve an educational role in communities, or to put it another way, that they exist in part to help users become better people, rather than merely providing for their entertainment or convenience in solving small problems. (This is equally true as well as contested in public libraries and university libraries.)

There are external forces, political and economic, that weigh heavily against our existence as a carrier of these values. It is not always easy to see how some trends in libraries are connected to the erosion of these values due to external pressures, rather than simply being the result of clear thinking in response to social and technological changes. I want to urge “anti-traditionalists” to keep in mind the “why” of your planning, as well as to have a more open mind to the critical writings of some so-called “traditionalists.” If the question naturally arises in your thinking, “Why should it even be a library?,” then I suggest that perhaps what you are planning may in fact not be a library, and perhaps is something you should work on in another context. If it’s really about libraries, then I think you should start by agreeing on a set of “givens,” premises about what a library is and what it is for that it is simply unproductive to question. And go from there, keeping in mind that a way of doing things is more than a technical solution but also an embodied philosophy.

10 comments on “A note on library “traditionalism”

  1. Pingback: The Fifth Law
  2. “A traditionalist is someone who does something without a reason beyond the fact that ‘things have always been done this way.'”

    I have not looked up the dictionary definition, but to me a traditonalist is not someone who is so irrationally attached to the past as you suggest, but rather someone who would like to preserve what is valuable from the past.

  3. to me a traditonalist is not someone who is so irrationally attached to the past as you suggest,…

    Rory’s not saying that traditionalists have these qualities, Stephen. I think he was paraphrasing the accusations that many people hurl toward the Gormans and the Manns of the library world as “traditionalists.” I think he’d agree with your definition.

  4. Actually, I do disagree with Steven’s definition. Wanting to preserve things of value doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with traditions. I think traditionalists value traditions just because they are traditions. There are such people. People who rely on the Bible as the ultimate source of knowledge fall into this category; they don’t deny it. But someone who wants to preserve something of value because they find that it’s of value apart from its being a tradition is not a traditionalist in my book, just as someone who agrees with something in the Bible can have other reasons for it than the fact that the Bible says it. This may seem like an odd definition to some people, but really, when I like something from the past I don’t want the word “tradition” attached to my support for it. Tradition has nothing to do with it.

  5. Actually, I do disagree with Steven’s definition.

    Whoops! Sorry I spoke for you, Rory. I agree with you that the word “tradition” carries negative connotations and has baggage, the same as terms like “values” and “morals” and “patriotism” that have also begun to have different meanings.

    Or have they always had these negative connotations, and I’m only just now beginning to realize it?

  6. Actually I like the terms “values” and “morals.” Nothing in those that I dislike – just conservatives’ interest in owning them and the idea that there is just one way to think about them.

  7. Totally agree. They’ve attempted to usurp these words and change the definition in order to use them against those whose ideologies are different from theirs. And to an extent it’s worked.

    But this is way off of your topic, about which I have nothing intelligent to say.

  8. I think that the point you make here is a really important one to take note of: that irrational disregard of tradition is just as dangerous as irrational adherence to tradition. It’s neither tradition nor progress that’s the problem, it’s irrationality.

    Your reminder of the fact that libraries actually stand for something, and your caution against forgetting what that is, helps put in perspective some of the incoherence of “debates” between those traditionalists and anti-traditionalists. Why is it that the same writers who clamor so loudly for change are horrified at experiments like those of the Maricopa County Public Library, which recently opened one of its branches with a non-traditional library organizational scheme? Mabye because they’ve forgotten about that “embodied philosophy.”

    Thanks for this very rational post.

  9. “People who rely on the Bible as the ultimate source of knowledge fall into this category; they don’t deny it.”

    I associate that position with fundamentalist Christianity, not traditionalism.

    Perhaps state decisis, the “doctrine that a trial court is bound by appellate court decisions (precedents) on a legal question,” would be considered a legal form of traditionalism.

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