Two minor correctives and one broadside on Library 2.0 madness

First, two new ethnographic studies of undergraduate research habits, each offering a corrective to assumptions at the foundation of Library 2.0 thinking:

Anthropologist Nancy Foster led a study at the University of Rochester, and presented her findings at the ACRL conference this year. The study will be part of a book published by ACRL soon. The Chronicle of Higher Education talked about the study in an article yesterday (apologies to those who can’t access it through institutional subscriptions) and pointed out an interesting finding: the assumption that all the Millennial kids are wired is far from true. In fact, they are divided (just like other groups) between those who are comfortable and highly skilled in the new technologies with which they are associated and those who are not. According to Foster’s study, there are a significant number of undergraduates who are technologically inept (at least at the University of Rochester; she is careful to point out that her results are not generalizable, and institutions should conduct their own ethnographic research).

Alison Head has a study of undergraduate research published in the new First Monday that has comparable implications for how we think of our students. In “Beyond Google: How Students Conduct Academic Research” she has found that undergraduates doing research papers don’t use the public web, especially Google and Wikipedia, as much as we think they do, and are more comfortable than we have thought with the traditional research tools that librarians promote as academically appropriate, and actually do turn to them first most of the time.

While these studies don’t have huge implications for Library 2.0 thinking, I think they go to the heart of some of the assumptions behind the Library 2.0 craze.

But here is something more pointed: Mark Rosenzweig’s response to an article in the new American Libraries on the ALA Council listserv:

The document, “A Librarian’s 2.0 Manifesto” by Laura B. Cohen — touted in all seriousness in the table of contents of the Aug 07 issue of American Libraries as “A Manifesto for our times”– is, first of all, not so much a manifesto as an unconsciously parodic cross between a “12 Step Program,” the Catholic “Credo” and the Old Testament decalogue, written however naively in the current demotic style — which has become the inflated currency of our devalued culture — of wide-eyed religious fervor for being born-again in the ethers of the internet by letting the Savior of the WWW into our hearts, and aimed at promoting abandonment of any and all resistance, collective or personal, to the New Dispensation of “Web 2.0.”

A collection of self-described “affirmations”, it is , in its entirely “inspirational” intent, completely lacking in (and, moreover, hostile to) any analytical, never mind critical, content.

Critique, analysis, and, heaven forbid, doubt, are the enemies. Even practical calculation is thrown to the winds. This is a call, above all, to forsake all reasoning, questioning, measuring, and all that it entails. “Ours is not to reason why,” apparently.

This piece is an illustration par excellence of a toxic fusion of technology enthusiasm and inspirational/religious literature It is trying to induce a “mindset” — to use its own word — conducive to the seamless integration of librarians. libraries and librarianship into the irresistably evolving technostructure, no matter what form that evolution takes.

It’s tone is that of countless ludicrous and meretricious credos associated with media-hyped self-improvement movements rather than anything associated with the historical notion of a real manifesto, the use of the term “manifesto” only meant, editorially, to somehow elevate the painful banality of this exercise in the “power of positive thinking” above the narcissistic chattering level of the blog world whence it arises.

It is not “for our times,” but “of our times”: a symptom, alas, of the reign of hype, branding, logos, psychobabble, and marketing jargon.

Full of intended-to-be-stirring pronouncements of faith like “I will not fear Google or related services,” besides sounding laughable to any reasonable librarian, the main message ts point is, apparently, to warn against the evils of critically examining the sacraments which have been bestowed upon us, or the limits of the thing, or the motives or schemes of the bestowers, lest the illusion of cosmic harmony and technologically-assured progress be perturbed.

The admonition: “I will enjoy the excitement and fun of positive change and will convey this to colleagues and users” is something the tenor of which is right out of the Moonies or some other weird cult. Scary! We have to be told, it seems, what is “exciting” and “fun,” as if, in any case excitement and fun clinch any argument.

The faith that whatever “evolves” through this (definitionally) “positive change” is a priori good and the imperative that it should necessarily be celebrated is not only naive but pernicious. I hope I am not alone is seeing this baneful document as a broadside against reason and our professional values.

Mark C. Rosenzweig
ALA Councilor at large

Mark is not entirely alone here. While I have to admit that I agree with most of what is in Cohen’s piece if examined on its own terms, the background to it, and the sense of it being needed and a “manifesto for our times” is something I don’t like. I personally do find Web 2.0 stuff fun and exciting, but I am worried at the way the library profession seems to have forgotten reason in our approach to it.

Generally speaking, we have no trouble dealing with sales reps who visit us from book and technology vendors in our libraries, and try to sell us their products at conferences. We’re clear about what our needs our and clear on the need for diligence in order to avoid getting ripped off or otherwise wasting money or compromising our independence. For the most part, we have a good understanding that our relationships with vendors are a kind of adversarial partnership. I think we really need to realize that the Web 2.0 sites we’re talking about using in a library context, even if they don’t send us invoices (yet), are businesses whose services we pay for in one way or another. If we decide we need what they offer, we need to treat them as vendors, not as the Messiah. We need to chill out and be colder in our our thinking about Library 2.0, and less drunk on the excitement of the internet’s ability to create new possibilities. The present craze for Library 2.0, not to discount the fact that it offers a lot of interesting possibilities for future library service, really IS scary, because it has all the dangers that groupthink always has – fundamentally that it puts tremendous pressure on people to conform to its message, rendering a questioning attitude incorrect at a spiritual level. (“You aren’t against change, are you?”) If there is one thing about libraries that needs to be protected, it is, to paraphrase Michael Gorman, our service to society as a protector of rational thought….

7 comments on “Two minor correctives and one broadside on Library 2.0 madness

  1. Rory,

    Where was Rosenzweig’s response published besides here?

    I appreciate your posting this and adding your comments. It’s too bad Rosenzweig’s fervor and rhetoric comes across as equally laughable as Cohen’s.

    We have to recognize that our “professional values” are constantly changing. From what, to what, is a healthy debate.

    Kudos to AL for putting an article about the history of public libraries right next to this one.

  2. Hi… Mark Rosenzweig originally sent these comments to the ALA Council listserv. I’ve updated the post to state that.

    When a new vision of the profession appears on the landscape, one of the questions I ask about it is, “Would there be much of a point to librarianship if that’s what it was?” I am motivated in my life as a librarian by the ends toward which the profession is directed. I wouldn’t see much point to librarianship if lost its higher aims and became akin to retail sales. I think that would be a great loss in an objective sense, and I think it would be willful ignorance to believe that that’s simply a matter of one’s worldview. The real debate, I think, is not what the profession’s values ought to be but how they are or are not changed by other developments and choices.

  3. The moment I hear “Library 2.0” I start running.

    Some of the claims are borderline meaningless and don’t have much to do with technology.

    When I hear statements like, “L2 finally puts customers at the center of our activities”, I want to ask, when since Caveman Times, didn’t librarians claim this?

    Technology is good. I love the things you can do with Web 2.0.

    I’m just not sure this attempt at reinterpretation has been all that successful.

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