Informational Holism: Humanities librarianship, liberal arts, and the limitations of quantitative metrics

Benjamin Dueck is a General Librarian in the Arts & Humanities Division at The University of Manitoba Libraries. They are the liaison librarian for Religion, English, Catholic Studies, Theatre & Drama, and Peace & Conflict Studies. Their role includes collection development, teaching information literacy, and providing reference services for faculty, students, and staff.

I am writing this article in the midst of a major life transition. Earlier this month, I began working as a full-time Humanities Liaison Librarian at the University of Manitoba. This is both my first academic job and the only time in recent memory that I haven’t been a student. I am feeling proud and excited to be embarking on this new journey! Still, despite the stability that this position provides, I remain plagued with feelings of uncertainty. As someone who falls somewhere in between the proverbial “millennial” and “zoomer” generations, I’ve become accustomed to a certain sense of precariousness. As a child who grew up on the internet, I struggle to remember a time where there wasn’t a global crisis happening around me—be it the 2008 economic crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the omnipresent threat of climate change. Be that as it may, I remain resolutely optimistic about the role that academic librarians have to play in the future of teaching and learning. More specifically, I believe that the qualitative research methods supported by humanities librarians like myself will become vitally important in decades to come.

Historically, the capacities I am referring to have been transmitted to learners through the artes liberales (or liberal arts), a Greco-Roman ideal based on the assumption that a flourishing and cooperative society requires a population that is systematically trained in critical, interdisciplinary thinking. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my experiences as a humanities librarian and explore how the philosophies that inform my work contradict many of the demands being placed on universities by neoliberal governments. I hope that those working in similar positions will be able to relate to the ideas explored here and come away from this article feeling empowered and reinvigorated.

Informational holism

As a subject librarian serving the English and Religion programs on my campus, my day-to-day work involves thinking about domains of experience that elude empirical measurement: ethics, theology, and the great wisdom traditions of the world. In order to support the information needs in my subject areas, I take an integral approach to my reference work and in-class instruction. I strive to teach my community to master a form of inquiry that I call informational holism, the ability to intuit across disciplinary boundaries, think in gestalts, and cognize around clusters of datapoints (figure 1). Informational holism can be contrasted with linear-procedural thinking which emphasizes step-by-step instruction and a hierarchical connection between concepts (figure 2). It is also different from decentralized or “non-hierarchical” network thinking which maps the connections between concepts but lacks the dimensionality needed to render relationships of transcendence (figure 3). While the latter two styles do a good job of modeling workflows and making them more efficient, they tend to flatten out the qualitative depth of the objects they represent. If this all seems overtly abstract, worry not! In the sections that follow, I will ground these concepts with some more concrete examples.

Figure 1: Informational holism. Figure 2: Linear-procedural thinking. Figure 3: Network thinking.

Quantification & the neoliberal university

One of the things I love most about working as an academic librarian is the open-ended nature of my job. Aside from daily duties of reference service, teaching, collection development, and committee work, I have the privilege to choose the kinds of projects that I work on. While I remain grateful to have this liberty, the freedom to choose arrives bundled with the gift and the curse of unstructured time. Lindsay O’Neil gives some much needed strategies for managing this freedom in her articles on time management and academic culture shock.  Still, I frequently feel torn between two competing inner voices—a wise and encouraging voice that advises me to slow down and reflect and the voice of a factory foreman chastising me for not using this time to the best of my ability.

I’ve come to realize that this pressure to maximize my work output is only one ripple in a broader current. I am employed after all in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a place where a neoliberal conservative government is making moves to restructure public education as part of a larger effort to stimulate private sector growth. In this landscape, publicly funded universities like mine are being pressured to align themselves with the economic goals of the state by demonstrating their value and accountability. One of the ways that this manifests in the lives of academic workers like myself is through the use of quantitative metrics designed to save time and money. Generally speaking, these metrics leverage networked technology as a means of meeting the goals delineated by linear-procedural strategic plans. In my own institution, I have seen them implemented in various ways: key performance indicators (KPIs) that track the form and frequency of library reference appointments, usage statistics used to determine the value of library subscriptions, and alumni employment surveys that inform how funding is to be allocated to specific academic programs. Quantitative metrics have their place and are undoubtedly useful from an organizational perspective. In my library, the teams that are implementing these metrics are doing so in good faith, working as best they can within a strategic plan that has been set by the university. Nevertheless, if these measures are used at the institutional level to support a program of economic austerity, they can become harmful to the academic community as a whole.

The limitations of scholarly metrics

To understand how the biases of linear-procedural logic become materialized through networked technology, I want to talk about scholarly metrics. As an academic librarian, this topic comes up quite often in my reference appointments, particularly with graduate students who are preparing to enter the academic job market. Broadly speaking, scholarly metrics refer to technologies and programs that are used to measure the “impact” of digital objects (journals, papers, researcher profiles etc.). The most common are the citation tracking features available through platforms like Google Scholar, PLoS, BioMed Central and ResearchGate. Within these systems, impact is measured quantitatively. The greater the total citation count of a digital object, the greater the impact and influence it can be said to have. The problem is not that these tools are inaccurate, it is that they do not tell the whole story.

To understand why this is, I pose to you a hypothetical question. Which is more impactful, a research paper that is cited 100 times or a book chapter that while only being cited once, plays a central role in an emerging scholar’s PhD dissertation? If this were my own work being referenced, I’d tend towards the latter. I’d much rather my work be engaged with in a thoughtful and rigorous way than referenced many times in passing. You may have a different opinion and I respect that. Your answer will depend on your own definition of what is valuable and your own tendencies as a thinker. Nevertheless, the question sheds light on the way scholarly metrics are biased towards a particular definition of what constitutes valuable knowledge. More perniciously, when quantitative metrics become central to the budgetary decisions made by universities, academics feel the need to choose research topics that yield the highest possible impact. If left to continue, I can see this trend posing a threat to academic freedom, particularly if research tied to industry is prioritized over work that contributes to human knowledge in the long term.

The future of humanities librarianship

In their book The Evolution of Liberal Arts in the Global Age (2017), editors Peter Marber and Daniel Araya show how the liberal arts model has survived centuries of economic and technological upheaval. This is because it teaches timeless skills that help learners to navigate periods of social and economic change. In order for subject librarians working in the humanities to best serve our communities, we need to become vocal advocates for the artes liberales as both a guide to action and as a philosophical ideal. On a practical level, this means fighting back against metrics that impose a reductive quantitative logic onto our work and proposing sustainable alternatives that leave room for informational holism.

Valuable guidance on this front can be found in Kevin Adams writing about integrating Critical Information Literacy (CIL) into library instructional design. Pedagogies of this kind will be crucial in the coming decades. Still if these initiatives are to have an ongoing structural impact, they must be paired with a commitment to the liberal arts at the institutional level and a broader societal shift away from neoliberal economics. I am aware that I have only diagnosed the most general contours of this phenomenon here. To use a scholarly cliché, a richer engagement with this subject goes beyond the scope of a single blog post! Nevertheless, this is a topic that I plan to expand on in future research projects. I encourage anyone who shares similar interests to get in touch with me or to leave a comment below.