Three articles for thinking about tech

In some back-and-forth with Rick Anderson in the comments on my posting about him from March 14th, I recommended three articles from Progressive Librarian that I think illustrate how the Progressive Librarians Guild represents a counter-trend in opposition to what he has been up to. It occurs to me that those three articles also relate to the recent discussion of “Geeks versus Nerds” and the “techie mission” of library bloggers. I don’t want people to miss my point in these discussions. Regarding the geeks and nerds thing, some people have taken the specifics a little more seriously than I intended, questioning the details of the schema and questioning whether it’s appropriate to compare it to a military battle. My intention is just so try to show that there are competing approaches to librarianship presently operating. So I’d like to recommend the same three articles that I recommended to Rick Anderson to those who are interested in the whole “techie mission”/”geeks versus nerds” thing:

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

These are some of my favorite articles from the library literature. I invite your comments.

5 comments on “Three articles for thinking about tech

  1. It seems to me that the arguments for nerds versus geeks and technology advocate librarians versus subject expert librarians are somewhat overblown. Of course, it is always those on the fringes that yell the loudest, but I think most librarians fall somewhere in the middle. This doesn’t discount the possibility that those on the loud edges could gradually move the fulcrum of the argument to one side or the other. However, it doesn’t seem terribly likely to me. The “anti-intellectual” technologists don’t discount the ideas that subject classification in catalogs and subject expertise in librarians are valuable, they just think there are technological advantages to automated classification and technological delivery of information. On the other hand, the librarians that do specific research and get to know a subject and its tools extremely well seldom turn up their noses at improved technological methods of information delivery or improved search interfaces. The basic argument seems to be that you can’t be both an intellectual and a technologist, but I don’t see an inherent conflict between the two.

  2. When I look at the professional discourse and the types of professional development activities librarians are involved in, I do see a real conflict, which is a conflict having to do with how librarians engage in continuing education. It is not that tech tools aren’t useful; the problem is the degree of pressure to “keep up” with tech tools and the absence of pressure to “keep up” with the intellectual fields we are supposed to be supporting. It seems to me that things are not in anything resembling a balanced situation and that we are swiftly becoming an unintellectual profession. The problem I see with this is that the result is deprofessionalization, since the techie skills aren’t things that we can do better than other people but things that programmers and web designers are already doing better. This is in contrast to the way that we assist users using our bibliographic knowledge; nobody does this better and there is no substitute for it.

  3. Also, Alex, are you responding to those three articles or the previous discussion?  I don’t see any particular reference to the ideas in the articles.

  4. The post probably fits better under the previous topic, but I did get to pull out the “anti-intellectual” terminology from the Winter article. You can feel free to move it if you like.

    Also, I’m fairly new to the profession, but I haven’t seen much evidence that librarians have ever been highly regarded as “intellectuals.” I definitely see that there are those subject specialists that develop extraordinary expertise in a particular field, but those folks seem to be in the minority. There are always those librarians who are the go to guys in a particular subject, but outside of special collections those librarians just crop up due to their own interest and past work. It’s not a bad idea to cultivate these interest areas, but I don’t think that it’s an interest in recent technologies that dampens their other studies. Some people have simply decided that technology studies are their main hobby and this hobby is just a lot more visible than stamp collecting or model building. Does everyone need this knowledge? No. Is it useful in a lot of library situations? Sure it is. I don’t know how many times my background as an HP tech support guy helped me figure out annoying software and hardware problems that would have taken weeks to figure out otherwise.

    So I guess I agree that every librarian doesn’t need to be a techie, but let’s not pretend that all the non-tech librarians are dutifully studying the craft of librarianship or the subject areas to which they happen to be assigned.

  5. Alex wrote:
    “So I guess I agree that every librarian doesn’t need to be a techie, but let’s not pretend that all the non-tech librarians are dutifully studying the craft of librarianship or the subject areas to which they happen to be assigned.”

    True enough, as it goes. To some people it’s “just a job”. I once met a teacher of Spanish at the University of Houston who openly said she didn’t like, nor did she read, literature. I was slightly horrified by this.

    I agree with Rory that the pressure is intense to “tech up” yourself to make yourself stand out from all the other broadly well read humanists out there. It’s also harder to quantify to a potential employer, hard to talk about in a way that is convincing and doesn’t sound trite, while a tech-head can just rattle off names of programming languages and applications they know well, and different tech things they’ve done on the job or played around with. Obviously we need our systems people, and I think it’s great when you have an actual Systems Librarian around in a library…somebody who knows the computer stuff cold, but you know also has in common with you the MLS and (ostensibly) a shared sense of library ethics, etc.

    I’m trying to “teach myself tech”, as I’m able. I’m not computer illiterate, but I have a LOT to learn. As for my intellectual life, my reading life–well, I maintain that simply because I love it, I could not imagine doing otherwise. If I get to use it in my library work, perfect, but it’s something I’d do whether working in a library or pushing papers as an insurance company customer service flunky (which I have been before and will be again come Monday).

    Money permitting, I will always go out of my way to see a foreign movie, study foreign languages, visit art museums, read clever articles, be an alternative news junkie, read deep books on philosophy, etc, all of which I can potentially bring to bear on my library work, but again, since it is a personal passion rather than professional duty, I will find time to do it no matter what and I get very upset if I’m kept from following my intellectual pursuits by more mundane distractions; I realize this comes at a cost, often very high in terms of personal relationships–I got divorced for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because I jealously guarded my personal “me” time for reading and personal growth.

    Of course, there’s only 24 hours in a day, so I have to be very choosy how much time I’m willing to devote to intellectual growth via humanistic book-learning, and how much to mastering technology. I feel like I don’t consistently do enough of either, but that I really should try harder with playing around with the tech stuff, with the LIS job market as tight as it is, again, because it’s a concrete, demonstrable skill that a potential employer can understand. I doubt the capacity of many library administrators to really be able to judge or value the more subjective, humanistic culture work that I do in my spare time. I feel it does enhance my overall Librarianship, but again, much more difficult to quantify, and our contemporary age has a distinct disdain for the “unquantifiable” and the “qualitative”. Not a happy state of affairs, but I’m not sure what to do about it, either.

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