Traditionalists, Progressives and the Gone-Away World

by Frank Winter, Librarian Emeritus
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

The question of what the role and mission of academic libraries and librarians should be has occupied my attention for a long time. My answers have evolved over time as circumstances have evolved. Underlying my answers, however, is my belief that every important factor in the evolving mission and role of university libraries is exogenous. We have no meaningful control or influence over the ecosystem of scholarly communication where Elsevier and its ilk and Google are the dominant players. In the Canadian context, the librarians responsible for data services, GIS services, and government documents saw their respective areas of responsibility restructure almost unrecognizably in real time over 3 years because of the exogenous forces of Open government information, Open data and Open GIS. Government goals for universities and university mission statements are developed without input from libraries. We react and try to shape these factors as best we can to meet our own values and goals based on the mission of the Library within the University.

Successfully engaging with these factors requires a clear understanding of how we interpret them and act on those interpretations. In this context, the rise to prominence of the work of cognitive scientists with respect to decision-making is important. In his Presidential Address at the 2013 annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association (published as “Policy, politics and political science,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 46(4), 751-772. doi: Dr. Michael Atkinson identified numerous decision-making pitfalls including framing, prospect theory, status quo bias, loss aversion, overconfidence bias, confirmation bias, my-side bias and recency bias. These pitfalls ought, in his opinion, to be much more formally incorporated into the theoretical underpinning of policy studies and political science. Atkinson notes, “In addition, we draw conclusions based on personally evocative but statistically dubious evidence.” As in policy studies, so in librarianship, I suggest. I would like to focus on another of these pitfalls – mindsets, the mental models of how the world ought to run – that each of us carries in our head.

At the present time, my thinking has focused on two different mindsets: the Traditionalist and the Progressive. Traditionalists are those librarians who believe that the overarching importance of the Library in the University is its local collection (consisting predominantly of published, almost exclusively English-language, secondary academic monographic literature, balanced and representative, and assembled for current and future scholars) and the services that support that local collection.

Progressives are those librarians who view “the Library” and its contributions to the host institution as a bundle of services of which the local collection (a subset of the collective collection) is one of the services.

When discussions arise that challenge a Traditionalist’s mindset, my experience is that evidence-based conclusions and proposals arising from those conclusions are often met with a combination of normative responses (“well, even if that is accurate it shouldn’t be given any weight given on this, that, or the other principle”) and heuristic, anecdotal empiricism (“I know my faculty members”) which are challenging to engage with.

As always, however, things are not black and white. It is quite possible, for example, that life science liaison librarians, for example, are Progressives by this definition and meet the needs for their users very well while humanities liaison librarians are predominantly Traditionalists because the relevant faculty members and graduate student users are traditionalists themselves. There is nothing wrong with that and this arguably is the correct approach to take. So perhaps, at a minimum, more precision and segmentation is needed when discussing options, not just referring to an undifferentiated lump called “the Library.”

But the heading that I now use when thinking about Traditionalist and Progessive mindsets is “the Gone-Away World.” This phrase is taken from the title of a very funny/ sad 2008 science fiction novel by Nick Harkaway. You can read the book yourself but in essence the title refers to a fearsome weapon (called the Go-Away weapon) developed to bring an end to an endless, ugly war between evenly-matched opponents. The weapon – some sort of entropy device – would cause the enemy to just “go away” by, as far as I could understand this narrative MacGuffin, causing information to decohere in the objects it is aimed at. Well, unintended consequences and all that (I think the author intended to show how the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the law of conservation of matter interacted in unexpected ways) but half the book deals with the results of deploying this weapon – the Gone-Away World.

I think, getting to the point, is that our Traditionalists are living (mostly) in a Gone-Away World. The traditional rationale for and way of delivering local collection-based services, traditional reference, traditional information literacy and so on has, for the most part, gone away but they act as if it were still in existence or perhaps are expecting a cyclical return to the status quo ante. Meanwhile, the Canadian tri-council granting agencies, planning processes from the university-wide to the local unit level, and professional bodies such as CARL, OCLC, and Ithaka S+R, among many others, have tried to explain why that world is no more and what roles libraries and librarians might play in the evolving world.

Re-reading these paragraphs I realize that I sound rather preachy. I have no reason to expect that I am any more insightful than any other person. There are lots of other opinions out there from some very informed, very engaged librarians and others who are engaged with issues of the library in the communities that they serve who see the world differently. But you can see some of this impact of these changes in many support staff positions lost over the past few years at MPOW. Many were dealing with physical stuff – stuff that has just Gone-Away. If the local collection of printed scholarly books by-and-large just Goes-Away as a useful and important service, what choice will we have as university libraries and university librarians but to adapt? Evidence-based solutions will be increasingly necessary for good decisions in this environment.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.