Friday, April 18, 2008

Building a Democratic Community...One Book at a Time!

Librarians in both public and academic spheres provide better service if they respect Experts and have expertise themselves. But Experts should not have the final word on which books are destined for your library shelves. End-users should be consulted all along the way. There are compelling reasons why this is so that go to the heart of democratic communities.

Why look beyond the Experts?

It is easy to understand why Experts have clout. Materials selection is a communal effort and it is difficult to get pesky, opinionated librarians to agree on quality unless some recognized authority issues a pronouncement: This is a must-buy! Reviews and ratings carry weight based on the author’s presumed authority in a subject area or within the publishing field.

Richard Rubin offers a word of caution, challenging librarians to look beyond fixed authorities in their efforts to establish balanced collections. He counsels them to promote the broadest as well as "latest" knowledge.

"We believe those sources we think are cognitive authorities—others we reject. What sources have the greatest cognitive authority for librarians? Are they those prepared by famous publishers like Harvard University Press or the New England Journal of Medicine?.... Are librarians in danger of censoring materials because they regard some authors or publishers as low in cognitive authority (although other groups may not regard them as such)? Although librarians often characterize themselves as objective information providers, their attitudes toward what constitutes knowledge have profound effect on their ability to serve the entire citizenry. (Rubin, 42-43).

Experts appeal to librarians because of the authority and power ascribed to them. Well-meaning librarians reason that end-users should welcome information because experts recommend it.

This type of librarian sets the tone for the profession. The advertisement-laden pages of Library Journal and other trade journals meet their collection needs. Professional organizations spring up to serve these property managers, as marketers and image consultants queue up to make the "library package" attractive.

Beyond "User Preferences"

Mutual respect was the foundation of the very “equal access” policies adopted by A.L.A. and promulgated to libraries around the country from whence such policies came! Experts were only one part of the equation.

The scale has been tipped. Legitimate authorities (domain experts) have been cozened and beguiled by corporate interests that only let certain information flow forth. End-users become zombie consumers or information addicts hooked into a particular subset of data that has been marketed to them ludicrously as their "User Preferences."

In this scenario, Librarians collect and disseminate the works of "Experts" merely as intellectual property managers, guiding people through complex systems where the censorship has already taken place. New strategic plans force this change upon the profession and ask for "cooperation." Or they are invited to hear guest speakers say unimaginable changes wrought by technology will sweep your jobs away. So “get over it.”(Wagner, 2007). Such speakers imply, “Do not object to the marketing model coming your way.”

Don't Rush Me!

Are these “new” librarians the free-thinkers they used to be—helping others to weigh authorities and think for themselves? If the profession is "too rushed" to stop and question or defy the accepted authorities (including management gurus,) one must ask, "Who is doing the rushing and why are they doing it?

Library staff who have been serving their particular communities assiduously for over two centuries (public collections are part of most American towns,) are told they need a face-lift. These same folks have been improving service in response to community need as communities changed, yet they are harangued by these consultants to “Get over” old ways of doing things. (Wagner, 2007). "Old models of service don't work." Libraries are warned to celebrate consumerism or fade into obscurity and disrepair. Information Consumption is in, Learning is out.

It's all about Greed. End-users are overwhelmed into accepting changes in their Public Institutions that are the creations of publicists and marketers--not public-spirited panels of the patrons, themselves. How did these people wrest the project of Public Libraries from the People they serve. Why do Management Gurus advise us to transform libraries to serve sleek "Information Seekers" with a high-tech warehouse, trimming collections according to the latest trends--diminishing democracy in the process?

Easy to Ignore

Despite their egalitarian shtick, many librarians behave as if they distrust the selection criteria or intelligence-level of the public they serve. They fear that too much “democratization” or public input will dumb down or halt the selection process. It is too much bother to create vendor agreements with small, independent presses or offer something unproven, perhaps controversial, to users. Some librarians don’t want the “wrong kind of people” to have free access or the “wrong kind of experts” to appear on their shelves.

Distrust is easy to institutionalize because end-users (and small publishers) lack authority. In an environment of distrust, customers attempt to gain power through challenges and complaints. End-users pit themselves against the Library establishment and isolation and egos grow large on both sides. "Experts" are called in to mediate the struggle. Over time, an imbalance of power between End-users and Experts causes erosion of public support and sabotage of funding proposals. The money that was always there for public libraries magically disappears.

Geez, Experts are People, too!

Are we too hard on the Experts. Aren't they people, too? Experts are People with fat paychecks, whose every word is tweaked by their Publishers. The Publishers rule out anyone or any idea that will harm their profits or divert their agenda.

As the economic divide grows between End-user and Expert, we seem to hear more and more about the personal lives of these "Experts." After we learn their tales of personal hardship, we can't help buying their books or accepting the publisher's agenda. This personalization is just a rhetorical ploy to solicit agreement from an audience. Rhetoric teaches us that each audience must trust its source, and the propaganda value of this cozy relationship between expert and publishers is all too clear.

Most Experts have access to publishers and media outlets and many librarians confuse this access with authority, itself. “If experts are cited in such and such a journal, or publish with some recognized university press, we should own them.” If writers snuggle up on Oprah's couch, there must be merit in their writing." Many selectors never look beyond the barrage of credentials; nor do they concern themselves with future trends or past concerns of the subject, itself. Their own philosophers try to stifle our questions with insulting books like Bloom's, "The Closing of the American Mind," showing how Americans were casualties of "Openness."

This is not dumbing down from the Masses but dumbing down from the Elite! This philosophy rose to keep us down, to render End-Users powerless before the Elite Masters who sense a loss of ideological control. Philosopher, Leo Strauss, is often cited as an Expert by neo-conservative writers and politicians. He favored using religion--not out of belief in its principles--but for its salutory controlling influence on a population. Give me a platonic break. Socrates didn't suck hemlock so that such prevarication should masquerade as "public-mindedness!"

Passive librarians are the perfect agents of this pseudo-intellectual Big Brother. Central ideological planning is not needed in a society whose librarians purchase only what the public is meant to hear and read. Superficial diversity—many languages, many ethnicities—can mask an underlying sameness in the point of view. There may be lip service to egalitarian values but no true democratic equality.


The unresolved problem is that end-users, library patrons, were once respected by librarians as individuals on a quest to educate themselves. The atmosphere and collection of libraries fostered this respect for the "common person." Democratic decision-making weighed "authorities" and chose between them for the benefit of the end-user or citizen.

John Buschman is a strong advocate for a process that hands power and authority to the library user, because he believes libraries “embody an essential element of democracy. He sees them as

"a place where the ideal of unfettered communication and investigation exists in rudimentary form, allowing for critical and rational discussion of the issues of the day. Further, our various collections—at least in the ideal we’re assigned to ethically strive for—represent the variety of arguments over the public’s issues and democratic culture over time, implicitly refuting notions of once-and-for-all solutions. In other words, libraries embody the turbulent discourse of a democracy and its culture. (Buschman, 2005)."

The author goes on to show how library managers and public officials who “recast the purpose” of public institutions in “economic terms” have undermined the democratic functions that libraries, schools and museums once served.

"Like education, our field has been called upon to play a ‘crucial’ role in bringing the information society and the new economy about, but without the public funding support for that expanded (and essentially economic) mission….[W]e have carefully imitated the business management fashions, fads, and tactics appropriate to adapting to information capitalism. In the process, we have rhetorically transformed library users into ‘customers’ and then adopted the corollary business practices of marketing and public relations, adopted the market model of ‘competition’ with each other and our bookstore imitators….” (Buschman, 8)"

Buschman casts a critical eye on those things that have been deemed “necessary to keep libraries alive for that “diverse audience” craving the underlying sameness. He cites “(purely popular collections, coffee bars, no retrospective collections, an emphasis on the economically-useful electronic resources)….” (Buschman, 10)

The author does not single out these changes because he resents libraries that cater to public demand. He questions what forces have prompted the change. He wisely warns that such “obeisance” to a marketing philosophy cannot sustain the long-term deliberative process of self-education which creates an informed citizenry. He may have taken Rubin’s warning to heart. He laments the loss of the responsive, responsible citizen and he challenges librarians to select materials and create spaces that will bring the public spirit back to life.

Experts and authorities have always been consulted in the selection process. They will continue to be consulted as librarians shape collections and select information for end-users. But excellent service and high circulation might depend on critical thinking skills as much as on business savvy. End users have meaningful contributions to make in this process. Librarians must include their input in creative ways and strategize on their behalf.

Retrieved from Document: Who's Boss: Experts or End-users? (Academic Paper. Hess, 2007.)