Rick Anderson

Another person in focus, this time because I’m trying to get his telegenic mug out of my brain.

An hour or so ago I walked out of a TV presentation from the College of DuPage (in their “Soaring to Excellence” series) that our head of reference asked us to watch on the idea that it would be thought provoking. Certainly it is a thought-provoking presentation; I simply said that because of certain effects of the television medium I preferred to read something by him. (I wish that everyone would read Neil Postman. His observations about the effect of the television medium on the critical thought process are easy to test when you reflect on the experience of watching a TV-style broadcast of professional-development content like the stuff offered by DuPage.) The DuPage site provides the transcript of another Anderson videoconverence, titled, “The library is dead; long live the library: why everything is different now and what we can do about it.” I read it while my reference colleagues were watching him on TV. I found it clear enough, and in reading it I didn’t feel like a passive consumer.

Anderson’s DuPage presentation is titled, “Always a River, Sometimes a Library.” The link there is to the handouts that go with his presentation, which neatly summarize his point of view and are truer to Anderson’s preferred televised, bullet-point format.

Now, there is nothing wrong with responding to new conditions in innovative ways, and if our reference staff is energized to do this in our own fashion and according to our own goals, we will have gotten our money’s worth from DuPage and I think Anderson would be satisfied that he had done his work. However, what Anderson himself is advocating is not only a transformation of the way we provide service but also a transformation of our mission along corporate lines, so that in practical terms we end up having no mission but to be invisible facilitators of the flow of information in a capitalist society. (He literally, specifically, precisely and frankly advocates that libraries give up their educational mission.)

I will have more comments later on one provocative recommendation of Anderson’s, which is, “Don’t Teach a Man to Fish,” because I find something in it that I agree with, albeit differently than he intends.

In short, though, I am presenting the links to his stuff by way of suggesting that it is Anderson and people like him (Steve Coffman, Thomas Frey), and not politically conservative librarian activists like Jack Stephens and Greg McClay, who make up our significant opposition as progressive librarians.

12 comments on “Rick Anderson

  1. Hi, Rory —

    I’m fascinated by your expressed belief that “people like me” stand in opposition to progressive librarianship. Can you explain? I’m not an especially conservative person myself, and my opposition to progressive librarianship comes as a surprise to me…


  2. Progressive librarians – members of the Progressive Librarians Guild and contributors to the journal Progressive Librarian – have over the past fifteen years or so amassed a significant body of literature in opposition to certain trends that you are supporting. We view the adoption of the business model in libraries, and the attitudes and techniques that go along with it, as being destructive to the positive contributions libraries have to make to society. We see your project as ultimately about making libraries a seamless part of the market economy, and we think that means dumbing down libraries, librarians, and library users. We also think that it means making libraries irrelevant, because we see your vision of libraries as something that could be accomplished without the intellectual abilities or passionate concerns of librarians but by somebody like Barnes and Noble merged with Kinko’s/FedEx. We view libraries as institutions with a social character and a role in society that is contrary to the market economy. We see the educational role of libraries (and not merely the technical training role of libraries) as essential to libraries. We view librarianship as an intellectual profession contributing to the intellectual life of people in society (rather than discouraging intellectual life). We tend to assume other people understand this outlook to be implied in the word “progressive,” sometimes forgetting that lots of people don’t think of the word in its political context.

  3. Most of what you’ve said here is still so vague. In what way have I proposed adopting a business model for libraries? (Apart from recognizing that libraries deal in limited resources and have a responsibility to manage those resources rationally, that is.) It almost sounds as if your objection to what I’ve said isn’t really that what I’ve said is untrue, but rather that if it is true, then it would be politically inconvenient.

    As for the educational role of librarians: when you say that you “view librarianship as an intellectual profession contributing to the intellectual life of people in society (rather than discouraging intellectual life),” you’re using emotionally resonant rhetoric both to misrepresent my position and to avoid stating a specific one of your own. Of course I think libraries should contribute to the intellectual life of the people in society. Where you and I seem to disagree is on how libraries can do that best. I think the best way for libraries to achieve that goal is for them to eliminate, as much as possible, the barriers that currently exist between the people and the information they need. The answer is not to design services that require librarians as intermediaries. Furthermore, it’s not that librarians shouldn’t educate — it’s that we should do our best to build services that don’t require training.

  4. Understood — and I’m about to leave on a week’s vacation, so I may be slow to respond as well! Enjoy the nice weather…

  5. I get the feeling that you want to get into a debate of a rather narrowly construed version of your overall argument. I don’t really want to do that, because I am responding not just to a narrow version of your argument but to its broader implications as well as the attitudes about library discourse and library problems that you bring into your discussion. All of that taken together is something that I think really is what PLG has been opposing overall for the past fifteen years or so. If you want to discuss it further, I invite you to read a few articles from Progressive Librarian so that you can see I am talking about an actual countertrend that has a real theoretical background and is not the passive-aggressive Ludditism that you target in your talks. Here are three that I recommend:

    Information Technology, Power Structures, and the Fate of Librarianship,” by John Buschman, PL #6/7

    The End of Information and the Future of Libraries,” by Phil Agre, PL #12/13

    Garlic, Vodka, and the Politics of Gender: Anti-intellectualism in American Librarianship,” by Michael Winter, PL #14

    Give these a read. I think they should demonstrate to you at least the kind of thing that I am talking about, and how it is more or less opposed to your approach to library problems.

  6. Hang on a second here, Rory — it sounds like you’re trying to squirm out of accepting responsibility for your characterization of my stance as one that is anti-progressive. This isn’t some narrow or abstruse issue; in a public forum, you characterized me as part of the “significant opposition [to] progressive librarians.” I don’t see how you can say that, and I’d like you to either justify that statement in some substantive way or explicitly back away from it. Again: how exactly do my arguments undermine or oppose progressive principles? I think it’s a pretty reasonable question, and sending me off to read some articles isn’t an answer.

  7. No, I do think it is essential that you read some articles that come from our community of progressive librarians in order to understand why I think you are opposed to us. In fact, I think that if you read those articles we likely won’t be in disagreement about our opposition.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that you would agree with me about either the consequences and implications of your arguments or the trends with which I find them associated, and I think there would be nowhere for that discussion to go. I think we’ve spelled out our position well over the last ten years. I don’t think you can deny your opposition to us without knowing what we stand for or what we have been saying; so please do a little reading up on the countertrend that we represent. I have arleady read what I could find by you.

  8. After looking at those articles, I get the impression that where we disagree is on your definition of “progressive.”

  9. Wait, sorry, no — that’s not quite accurate. I suspect that if you and I were discussing politics, we’d substantively agree on what constitutes progressivism. Where I think we disagree is on how progressive principles can best be applied in a library setting. I’m frankly not completely clear on the relevance of these articles to the ideas I promoted in my presentation. As far as I’m concerned, the issue is not technology or “information professionalism” or “customer service” and a corporate mindset. The issue is this: how can we make it possible for people to get the information they need as quickly and easily as they can, so that they can spend more time expanding their minds and less time struggling with bad interfaces?

    Is there any notion more progressive than that of eliminating barriers between the people and the information they desire? Solutions that involve imposing a librarian-determined “right way” strike me as deeply conservative in nature. In fact, I would argue that librarianship is the only remaining profession in which the forces of reaction (those who can’t bear to see themselves displaced as an information priesthood, standing between information and the people who need it) are able to present themselves as progressives.

  10. I’ve done much in the way of research into the psychology of librarians, libraries, information literacy, their evangelism of their educational role, and their future.

    I like the idea that libraries and librarians need to be “invisible facilitators of the flow of information in a capitalist society”. It makes sense in our modern, Western, self-service culture. I know a few librarians, though, and I don’t think they want to give it up.

    Unless they wake up and smell the broadband I think both librarians and libraries as we know them are likely to become extinct.

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