Thursday, May 2, 2013

30th Year Reflections/42: History

“To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” — Cicero

A sinking feeling grows daily in my mind: my profession is becoming historically illiterate about itself. I am not speaking of general historical illiteracy (although that, too, is a problem), but of a lack of historically informed discourse that helps guide our profession into new arenas of theory and practice. One of the most recent and stronger manifestations of this sensibility came as I reviewed the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) preliminary program included with my January issue of College & Research Libraries News. The conference theme was “Imagine, Innovate, Inspire.” Alas, I was not inspired to attend the gathering in Indianapolis, so what follows is based on an examination of the preliminary printed program and the post-conference online version.

I’ll acknowledge up front that my critique is biased and may be unfair. I would be happy to hear from conference attendees to the contrary. But here is my initial “take” on what I saw proposed for a conference of “more than 300 carefully curated, thought-provoking sessions” (to quote from the program) that would help me “explore innovative methods for driving the transformation of libraries, learning, and research.” Of greatest interest to me are the keynote addresses (3), invited papers (4), and contributed papers (80). Unfortunately, ACRL does not provide a full-text version of the program that could be text-mined for keywords in session descriptions such as “history” or “historical.” (They do provide a pull-down menu for “Primary Program Tag,” but the tags are not useful to me for this kind of analysis.) Individual papers are now available on the conference proceedings web site. The complete proceedings are available from Amazon (for a not insignificant price). The three keynote addresses are not provided as part of the proceedings, nor are they available in any form on the ACRL site. The descriptions provided for the four invited papers give at least a small hint of historical awareness. Alison Head’s presentation on Project Information Literacy indicates that the project dates back to 2008 and is ongoing. Here my questions would be how this five-year-old study was informed, if at all, by earlier studies on college students’ information seeking behaviors. David Green’s presentation on the ERIAL Project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries), a two-year effort by librarians and anthropologists, raises similar historical/contextual questions. Jamie Merisotis’s presentation, “The Attainment Goal and the Changing Higher Education Landscape” give a sense of some historical analysis (if one is looking at a changing landscape). No text is available from the ACRL site, but speculating that at least a few of these folks are good self-promoters, I found Jamie’s talk on the Lumina Foundation web site. I discovered Brian Mathews talk by following a few clicks from his blog to a depository at Virginia Tech.

I still need to wade through the eighty or so contributed papers. There may be a gem or two (or three) there. A quick scan through the online program gives me little hope for historical perspective. One session on copyright provided at least a ten-year perspective: “Over the past decade, the American library community has been confronted by a copyright axis of evil….” Another session on information as a weapon even used the word “historical” in its description: “This session will look at current and historical examples of information as weapon, and examine the role of libraries in developing good consumers of information.” A session on ethnic and racial diversity analyzed “diversity statistics from Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in order to provide a longitudinal view of demographic patterns in ARL academic libraries.” But I also found “beer cans in the stacks” and "mutant superheroes" among the contributed paper titles. Maybe I’ll spend my lunch hours sorting the wheat from the chaff. Kudos, at least, to ACRL for making materials available, especially to those of us who could not attend in person.

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