Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sometimes you feel like a flame...

Yesterday on a listserv devoted to LIS education, something notable happened. Now, it's not unusual for little flame wars to spring up on this discussion list, or for some of the same individuals to fan small blazes until they die away from lack of oxygen, witnessed by silent bystanders.

In this case, the incipient struggle may be over whether the discussion list is unfairly censored (though this was unclear, and remains so); a whole new list (it turns out) has been started as a direct reaction to the perception of censorship. It is ironic that the list is named after Stanley Kunitz, whose poetry is so transparent and responsive, so human:

It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
(from Touch Me)

I find irony in all the unsaid words, the near-palpable suppression among us that emerges in these sudden, single flames. Are others witnessing this discussion (and others), thinking whole libraries' worth of thoughts, but not saying them aloud (because, why bother - or, how would my response be perceived - a learned constraint?) In this instance, what really is happening?

I find irony in the situation due to my own circumstance, as well. Planning for my dissertation work, I have thought any number of times about how much I'd love to have a discussion with others in my profession about the issues involved. There are so many to be discussed, but in my case I think: how would it be perceived? I think: who will see this? I think: are people interested, even? - and so don't post about it. I find no real platform for this discussion, but perhaps my own perceptions are off-kilter. Still, my concern about perceptions is a functional constraint against action.

One of the discussions I'd really like to have concerns a link that was also posted on the list, to an opinion piece done by a professor who made a number of assumptions about practitioners and on-the-job training. I can only assume they were assumptions, because the piece was completely devoid of any form of proof that the claims had any validity. We are also not told whether the author has hands-on experience in the setting being discussed, or any direct connection. It's just an opinion - interesting, perhaps even instructive - but curiously empty, and it need not have been. Where the author (in the absence of any research from LIS) might have mentioned research done in other fields, there is no mention, just a blithe (implicit) assurance that the claims made are true... In a profession like ours, where the disparities between libraries of the same type are large enough that it's difficult to make broad claims, the author assumes a problem without proof, then prescribes a solution (also without justification); this is disseminated more broadly and without (public) comment.

I do not want to have this be a rant about one author, one listserv. In the case of the opinion piece, the publishers of the work are equally culpable, and in any case, this sort of thing is astonishingly prevalent, so much so that it's difficult to back up opinions with research -- because the research isn't there.

Even after 20 years in this profession, the whole situation is strange to me. Probably I'm just now noticing something that's been prevalent for a long time. As a member of several web forums unassociated with LIS, I have witnessed discussions about issues like politics or healthcare over a number of years. At some point, the discussion usually gets around to someone saying, 'what's your source?' - or, 'yes, but that source is obviously biased'. Eventually (at least on the one forum, anyway) people become accustomed to providing a link to their source, and exhibit an awareness of bias; it's become a cultural norm. This does not happen often on a listserv populated by highly educated LIS professionals, and I find that to be an ultimate irony.

Because of the lack of substantive discourse backed by evidence, small flames rise and quell themselves; those who speak up subside due to lack of rational discourse; silent witnesses wonder about the sub-rosa politics involved. Each of us, like Stanley K., with only one season to live, reifying a culture of silent witnessing and tacit, undiscussed decision making. Why? Does our fear and distaste of confrontation blind us to a middle ground, where respectful discourse can occur?

Note that there are no citations to validate this post, which is wholly speculative.

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