More Provocative (if less provoking) Statements

Not long ago Steven B asked us to take a look at the Taiga Provocative Statements for 2009. We went, we read, we were provoked.

I have to admit I’m much more intrigued – and, frankly, charmed – by the Darien Statements which aren’t meant to be provocative in the same way the Taiga Statements are, but rather “meant to be grand, optimistic, obvious, and thankful to and for our users, communities, and the tireless librarians who work the front lines every day, upholding the purpose of the Library.” Maybe there’s a bit of mom and apple pie here, the odd gamboling unicorn under a pastel rainbow, but this document too could be the bases of interesting discussions. Are these the things we value? If so, how do we express those values in what we do? And what adjustments will we have to make to live up to them?

For instance, here are some that seem to me excellent fodder for academic librarians to discuss:

The library encourages the love of learning. How can we do that? Can things we do change the experience of students who are stressed, resentful, and likely to find the “most efficient” (least engaging) route to completing a task they don’t want to do in the first place – because lecturing them they should try harder to find more appropriate scholarly sources isn’t likely to do the trick. Are there ways we can work with faculty to make “encouraging the love of learning” a reality? Too often research assignments are a form of hazing – or are based on naive assumptions such as “students will naturally start their research weeks before the paper is due; they’ll be so eager to get going” and “by writing this paper students will get to explore a topic that interests them. It’s the best kind of active learning.” Maybe – but all evidence suggests otherwise. Students won’t love learning by writing papers if you don’t build the right scaffolding and give them a sense that it matters to them personally – that it’s much more than an annoying and difficult task they have to complete to get a grade.

Librarians connect people with accurate information. Okay – but much of the time we emphasize connecting with masses of information and pay scant lip service to evaluating sources (often by distributing a checklist of surface features in the last five minutes of a library workshop). Many librarians feel uncomfortable even suggesting that some information is better than other information. It’s not our place or it’s even some kind of censorship or a demonstration of prejudice which is not allowed. Certainly in an academic setting there’s a temptation to “leave it to the experts” because expertise is highly valued in academia. But sometimes you have to make up your own mind about things you don’t know much about – a bill before Congress, your opinion about immigration issues that’s being hotly discussed in your community, what the best form of education might be for your child who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Do the things we teach in our information literacy efforts help our students prepare to address questions that aren’t an academic assignment? Or are we just interested in helping them succeed as students, no mean feat in itself? That innocuous statement that looked like it might be suitable for embroidery on a pillow turns out to be pretty provocative after all!

Librarians should adopt technology that keeps data open and free [and] abandon technology that does not.
We talk a lot about the virtues of access. We talk a lot about the vexing economics of publishing and the tilting of copyright toward owners and away from the public. But do we put our own efforts into solving any of these problems in our libraries? The library director at Harvard says inspiring and wise things about the Google settlement – but my library has to pay a lot to request an interlibrary loan from Harvard. Huh? How can we reconcile our so-called values and our day-to-day practices?

So I’m charmed and inspired by the Darien Statement – but find those feel-good statements still a good springboard for the kinds of discussions that I suspect the Taiga statements were intended to provoke.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “More Provocative (if less provoking) Statements

  1. Yes, the trouble with provocation is that it usually inspires conflict of some sort (if not outright drama!). Unicorns and rainbows notwithstanding (and yes, there were one or two lines that seemed to beg for stirring music!), I much prefer the elegant simplicity of the Darien Statement, which includes:

    “Why we do things will not change, but how we do them will.”

    That sums it up for me!

  2. I like your point that, in spite of the “rainbows and unicorns,” the Darien Statements are as provocative in their own way as the Taiga Statements. Your post insightfully identifies some of the interesting and, well, “provocative” issues just beneath the surface of the optimistic language of the Darien Statements, and to very good effect.

    In that same vein, the Darien Statement that librarians “are stewards of the Library” provides rich fodder for discussion as well: should librarians primarily serve “the Library,” as it is idealized in the Darien statements, or do we serve the public or our community of patrons above everything else?

    Having worked on the front lines in both public and academic libraries, I have noticed a distinct and generally positive trend away from the conception of librarians as the “guardians of the books” who shush their patrons and keep them from reading “smut,” toward librarians as public servants or guides who assist information-seekers without concerning themselves about what information is being sought.

    However, the concept of librarian-as-public-servant breaks down when the community we purportedly serve calls for books to be banned, censored, or simply kept away from people who might be “harmed” or offended by literature they don’t like. At that point, the role of public servant comes into conflict with the role of “guardian of the books,” and even with Blyberg’s more current “steward of the Library” concept.

    I think the Darien Statements generally strike a careful balance between these two sometimes conflicting roles, but I also think it does deserve more careful and thoughtful criticism, along the lines of what you’ve written here.

    Thanks for an insightful consideration of an intriguing set of statements, and I appreciate the way you’ve highlighted the important distinction between “provoking” and truly provocative writing.

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