Summer Re-Run: “Librarianship, A Philosophical Investigation”

Since it’s summer I thought it might be worth re-posting a casual little thought piece I published elsewhere a while back- at Ethos Review – called “Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation,” since it seems like we may have a lot of new readers since that’s been published, and the topic’s been on my mind again lately. It draws quite a bit from some of my scholarly work and is intended for a general audience but at the time it seemed of interest to librarians as well.

So here you go, one of my previous self’s opinion’s on what exactly it is we’re doing here:

One of the first things you learn as a professional librarian is that very few people have any idea what you do. In fact, enough people who actually want to become librarians are sufficiently in the dark about the nature of the profession that many Information and Library Science graduate programs explicitly require their prospective applicants to state in their applications what interests them about the field other than loving books.

arcimboldoIn fairness, the whole “librarians love books” thing isn’t entirely misguided. The very etymology of the word ties librarians to books, and, when Emerson famously announced the need for a “professor of books,” it was a role librarians consciously sought to fill. Nevertheless, I am a librarian and not only have I never read a novel during work, I’ve never shelved a book in any professional capacity either. In fact, my experience of the librarian-esque is really rather limited. I’ve never had the chance to use one of those little stamp things telling you when your book is due, because I’ve never actually checked out a book to someone. Only if forced to at gunpoint could I find a book using a card catalog (probably, if you gave me a minute); and my most frequent exposure to a rare book is the copy of former Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas’s autobiography sitting on my home bookshelf—a piece of childhood esoterica I’ve kept all these years merely to preserve proof of its existence. Recently, a girl I did not recognize came up to me at Starbucks and said, “Aren’t you a librarian?” When I said “Yes,” she said, “That’s so cool, it must be nice to have a job that isn’t very stressful.” I smiled and nodded, thinking it not worth the effort to explain that the whole reason I was at Starbucks was that I was so stressed out about something at work I was pretty sure my life was over.

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Brene Brown

via Scott Barry Kaufmann.

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Taxonomies of Denial: Ways We Subtly Reject Evidence-Based Practice (Pt. 2: Individual Denials)

Following up on yesterday’s post on denial:

The next couple deniers tend to be more personal in nature. This is maybe more the kind of thing you may see on the ground.

For example, you may run into:

The Know it All: The know it all just KNOWS something won’t work, whether there’s compelling evidence for this or not.

For example:

“This won’t work. I tried something not really similar to this at all under a completely dissimilar set of circumstances in 2004; therefore, this thing you’re doing now won’t work.”

You may also have occasion to someday encounter

The Mind-Reader: Similar to the know-it-all, the mind-reader already knows something, but it’s about what other people think.

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Taxonomies of Denial: Ways We Subtly Reject Evidence-Based Practice (Pt. 1: Epistemological Denials)

On a recent post I wrote about my time at UNC-Chapel Hill and its role in shaping my beliefs about the importance of using evidence in our decision making as library practitioners, Candice Benjes-Small commented, wondering what the actual objections I’d faced regarding evidence-based practice actually were.

This is a really good question, and one I’ve sort of explicitly avoided in the interest of being professional. It’s rare, of course, to see objections to evidence-based decision making in print and, as such, detailed descriptions of these objections could require me to relay more personal anecdotes, in effect calling out other members of the profession. I think it’s tacky to do that to people who don’t willingly put their names out there.

Nevertheless, I thought about what Candice said for a long time, because I think that denials of evidence based practice, since they would seem so strange on the surface (What on earth can you explicitly say to someone rejecting the idea that we should make informed decisions?!), often work really subtly, in ways that we might not actually be aware of in our day-to-day practice. It is, therefore, important to be aware of them: both in terms of what to look out for in other people and also – I think perhaps most importantly –  in ourselves. For this is ultimately the point: while EBT is not controversial intellectually, it can become controversial interpersonally and also internally: EBP requires us to go beyond ourselves. It requires us to be selfless. It requires us to go where the evidence leads, not necessarily where I want. This, of course, can be hard, and, consequently, the varieties of bad faith we use to resist it seem to know no end.

At any rate. What I’ve decided to do is give you a brief taxonomy of denial: ways I’ve experienced evidence denial (i.e., people behaving as if though something is “wrong” with EBP). It goes without saying that these are anecdotal, so I suggest them as food for thought rather than overwhelming evidence for anything).

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What North Carolina Did to Me: Some Thoughts on Evidence-Based Library Practice


This topic – the role of evidence in guiding our beliefs and behaviors about library practice – is something I’ve touched on here many times, but it comes up so much and in so many different ways that I thought I’d say a little about what I’ve come to think of as my “evolution” as an academic: from a very theoretically minded philosophy student/lecturer to an empirically-based library practitioner/scholar (i.e., someone someone who works in a library and is also required to publish stuff to obtain tenure).

Many librarians have a humanities background and I think this has an impact on the nature of our thinking. It did, at least, for mine. By the time I got to library school, I had spent my entire adult life studying philosophy, a discipline based mostly on a priori argumentation and speculation about how things might (or ought) to be,  and very little on empirical data.  I remember sitting in classes in library school and thinking teachers were nuts for doing studies. Surely it must be the case that x! I remember thinking to myself all the time. That seems totally wrong! But surely and that seems are not very convincing in the social sciences, which is what information and library science, in fact, is.

Even by the time I got around to working on my master’s paper – a requirement for all UNC SILS master’s students – I was still being cautioned by my adviser that I was thinking too broadly, too philosophically/humanistically, and not social-scientificey enough. I wanted to argue that something was the end all be all solution to a particular problem, instead of being careful, and showing that my study seemed to demonstrate, at least in this particular case at this particular university, that my hypothesis seemed to be confirmed.  I had a tendency to want to say more than the evidence allowed, a tendency that I think, in retrospect, was sort of based on a classical education in the humanities, instead of one in the sciences or social-sciences.

But something in me has changed: I’m now pretty hardcore about evidence based practice.   I don’t want to hear about “theories” of learning, I want to see evidence that your preferred method actually does improve student learning. I don’t want to hear your opinions about why the reference desk is so unbelievably charming and wonderful; I want to see evidence that it gets used a lot and that the questions are robust. I don’t want to hear about how important it is to have this book in the collection; I want to see evidence that it gets checked out and used (Ranganathan and all that, remember?).

Now, look, sometimes theory and philosophies inform practice. Of course they do: I’d think you were weird and not a reflective practitioner if they didn’t. I’ve just got no patience as a practitioner for abstract philosophizing or anything that falls much under the heading of “theory,” when that theory is not also borne out by the facts of empirical study (even though some of my own published scholarly work seems philosophical or theoretical, it is not: every attempt is made to ground it in the relevant evidence and data).  I’ve become sort of a pragmatist about things: I wanna know what works and what doesn’t, and I wanna get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work in favor of what does. And the way we can figure out what works and what doesn’t isn’t by sitting in our offices and (just) thinking about it, or by defending something because it’s what we’ve always done: it’s going to be by doing it and collecting data and testing whether or not it actually works in practice.

Now, as I say, I wasn’t born thinking like this; quite the opposite. So what happened? Well, I was thinking about this last night, and it occurred to me that the answer could be summed up in two words: North Carolina. That’s what happened to me. I went to library school at North Carolina.

Let me explain.

I think I got to thinkin’ about this recently when someone I was talking to said something vague like “Well, most library degrees are done online now,” lamenting the fact that people weren’t really getting the proper training.  I didn’t really say anything to the contrary (I was, you know, trying to be polite (fun fact about your boy KMK: he’s like, shockingly, exceedingly polite). But I did get to thinking: what did I learn at North Carolina that I might not have gotten if I’d just done my degree online, or if I’d never gone there at all?

I should say, before I get into the actual answer, a million things: I’ll be a champion of The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill until they bury me. I just can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone there. It was that important. But anyway. I think one of the most transformative things for me from having attending UNC’s SILS, in person, was the emphasis in my classes and program that professional library practitioners – the one’s with MLS’s – were in a sense defined by the fact that they were evidence based practitioners – reflective practitioners who methodologically test their assumptions about their practice by conducting research in their local environments and always seeking improvements based on these results. My SILS classmate and now collaborator Alex Carroll defined evidence-based instructional practice in a very similar way in our recent LOEX presentation.  That what North Carolina did to change my thinking: it instilled in me the belief that professional practice = evidence based practice.

This (as Alex and I tried to argue in our talk), is par for the course in other professional programs and professions, such as nursing, social work, and medicine (and, thankfully, it’s increasingly the case in education). And, of course, it’s central to the very nature of librarianship itself: librarians are in the business of evidence – we provide people with evidence so that their beliefs are based on the best available evidence within a particular domain. That’s just what we do. It’s just what we’ve always done.

So here’s why I’m still writing about this: it sometimes still amazes me how controversial the central lesson I learned at North Carolina is. Because it is. It’s controversial. Rock stars – library instruction rock stars – approached us after our talk to tell us that they thought this was the wrong approach. (I guess when you’re a rock star, you can just say things and people just believe them and then it’s annoying when people come along and want reasons to believe what you say …I don’t know?)  And it’s not just the rock stars (who, let’s face it, as a punk rock kid from way back, I’ve never cared much for rock stars, anyway): we see it in our practice, day in, and day out, locally and profession-wide. People defending stuff not based on evidence. It’s ubiquitous.

So you have to ask yourself: what gives? What on earth makes what I learned at North Carolina so controversial on the ground?

The best answer I can come up with is: resistance to change.

We don’t like to change.

And we don’t like to be wrong.

For individuals who struggle with having a growth mindset, one’s ego is often tied up with ones beliefs. “If my beliefs are wrong it means I”m wrong.”

So we resist change.

Let’s also not discount laziness here: when you’ve been doing something one way for a long time it’s often a pain in the ass to change.

So here’s the thing North Carolina didn’t quite teach me: even though this idea of evidence based practice is what it means to be a professional librarian, on the ground, this will often be the exception and not the rule. Following the evidence – pursuing the truth – will more often than not be met with resistance.

But you can’t let that stop you. You plow ahead and pursue your work and do what you know is right.

You believe in evidence over opinion, yourself over the expectations of others.

You do what North Carolina taught you.


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Growth Mindset, Van Gough Edition

He turned himself into an artist by acting like an artist and going through the motions by turning out mostly bad innumerable rough sketches, day and night.

In Van Gogh’s own words “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, “You can’t do a thing.” The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all by getting to work and painting.”

It was very difficult at times, but he believed nobody can do as he wishes in the beginning when you start but everything will be all right in the end. Each day he made every effort to improve because he knew making beautiful paintings meant painstaking work, disappointment and perseverance. In the end, Van Gogh produced 2000 works of art between 1880 and 1890 (1100 paintings and 900 sketches). That’s 4 works of art a week for a decade, and he didn’t start making art until his mid twenties.

More here. And here.

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Take a Course with Rule Number One! (Redux)

Good news, folks: The Rule Number One team – none other than the esteemed Dani Brecher Cook, and the begrudgingly tolerated Kevin Michael Klipfel – are going to the line for an ‘and one.’

That’s right! – starting August 10th we’ll once again be leading  “Learner-Centered Reference and Instruction: Science, Psychology, and Inclusive Pedagogy,” an online course we created and are offering in collaboration with ALA/RUSA Online Learning.

Here is some basic info about the course:

This course will introduce library practitioners to empirically sound approaches to learner-centered teaching that can be applied to creating effective reference and instruction services that maximally facilitate student learning. The first part of the course will be devoted to understanding the current science of how students learn from the perspective of cognitive and educational psychology, and concrete ways that library practitioners can apply this learning to the library context. The second part of course will deal with motivational aspects of learning: What does the psychological research say about what makes students want to learn, and how can we use this research to motivate information literacy learning? The final part of the course will cover issues of diversity and inclusive pedagogy from within the framework of culturally responsive pedagogy: In a diverse educational landscape, how can we construct our teaching so that it includes, rather than alienates, as many students as possible?

The aim of this course is to give librarians the tools to feel more confident in their instructional strategies and ability to support student-centered learning. Not only will the course introduce participants to scientifically grounded pedagogies, but will lead them through exercises to concretely apply these theories to their own library contexts. This course will be of interest to any librarian who engages in reference or teaching, and is unique in providing a current overview of the current educational literature alongside practical strategies.

We had a really awesome experience teaching this course last month, learned an enormous amount, and were pleased to learn that many people found the course not entirely unpleasant as well. If you, too, are looking for a not entirely unpleasant experience, where you’ll learn about scientifically sound instructional pedagogies; how we might apply them to academic libraries; interact with your peers interested in these issues; and receive state of the art personalized feedback from your very own Rule Number One blogger, you can register for the course here.

And don’t hesitate to get in touch with us (if you have questions about the course) or ALA folks (if you have questions about registration).

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