Saturday, July 20, 2013

30th Year Reflections/51: Old School?

“If to the Old you the New Schools prefer, And to the fam'd Copernicus adhere; If you esteem that Supposition best, Which moves the Earth, and leaves the Sun at Rest.” — Sir Richard Blackmore, Creation (1712)

I may be experiencing a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I have an appreciation of the old, tried, and true. History and tradition inform who I am, what I believe, my praxis. On the other hand, I am open to new ideas, embrace innovative technologies, am not afraid to tinker or experiment (within reason). I can accept and work with change, if I see and understand the underlying logic or rationale behind that change. I am not a fan of change for change’s sake. There has to be a reason behind the change.

What sparked this dissonance? Let me count the ways. All the following headlines/titles were found in recent periodical articles from the American Library Association: makerspace movement, libraries “cache” in on geocaching treasure hunts, Bigfoot hunting, ghost hunters in the library, teaching with zombies, incorporating cartoons in an academic library…. There’s even a website (at least one) for librarians and makerspaces: The Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces.

On the flip side, while going through some old e-mail I found a recommendation from a late, lamented friend urging a reading of T. Scott Plutchak’s 2011 Janet Doe Lecture on the history or philosophy of medical librarianship, presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association in Minneapolis. Plutchak’s lecture, “Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians,” is what I classify as “a keeper,” i.e. a lecture I’ve saved and plan to refer to again and again. Add to this Meredith Farkas’s offering in the May issue of American Libraries, “Spare Me the Hype Cycle,” and I think you get a good sense of what triggered the dissonance.

In the Sherlockian world (where I’m more than a casual visitor) a similar dissonance has erupted between “elite devotees” and “fandom” or between those with an interest in protecting intellectual property rights and the “Free Sherlock” movement, for whom Holmes belongs, unencumbered, to the world. I like to think of myself as a “big tent” kind of guy, able to appreciate various arguments pro and con. My job—at least on the Sherlockian front—is to stay above the fray, document and preserve as much of the discussion (however contentious) as possible, and make it available for future study and reference. This is the territory I’ve staked out for myself and my institution. We, as a library (and special collection), are neutral territory, the Switzerland among warring factions. It is the best way for us to deal with the Sherlockian dissonance swirling around us. It is the proper way for us to operate.

Plutchak’s lecture provides me with another metaphor or model for dealing with this professional or Sherlockian dissonance, i.e. conversation theory. Plutchak writes:

First elucidated by Gordon Pask in the mid-1970s, conversation theory maintains that the fundamental building block of new knowledge is conversation. This conversation may occur among individuals, but it may also be the conversation that occurs within oneself. Information is what fuels those conversations. The core function of librarians, according to Lankes, is to facilitate conversations for the purpose of advancing knowledge.

I’m all for conversation, be it about (or by) makerspaces, zombies, devotees, or fans. I’ll provide a table large enough for all to gather, from east, west, north, or south. Together, around the table, and with civil tongues we’ll talk about issues that trouble or interest us. I’ll be there to facilitate the conversation, hoping to advance not only knowledge, but understanding and wisdom. If such praxis is “old school” then count me in. We’re at the dawning of a great age.

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