Notes from the Director of the Palmer School
February 20, 2018
“Information” is a collective noun. At least in English. French uses a plural (informations) and so does German (Informationen). Italian tends to prefer the plural informazioni but can refer to one piece of information as un’informazione. But we use it as a quantity of something like air. I bring this up because I was recently thinking about how information professionals have regarded the term over time. “Information,” like water, is something that we freely share – actually some of us see it as a necessary life-sustaining essence that we have a calling to share. And we have historically tried to give it to those who are the most thirsty. Aside from the specialized transactional settings in which people or companies pay for data or contextualized business or military intelligence, most information settings we associate with libraries involve individual information transactions that have no immediately-visible monetary value placed on them: bibliographic questions in academic libraries, requests for help with resume-preparation software in a job center, a readers advisory about what author to try next, or how to find information about APA Style. In other words, in many settings we see information as a public good that all people have a right to – like food and shelter. This attitude contributes to a sense that one’s choice of LIS as a career elevates it from a mere choice of a an occupation that helps one pay the bills to a calling. It can be a way to contribute to an improving state of social justice.
The conception of information as a quantity that can be – or must be – shared freely (at least within one’s own community) can be traced to the Library of Alexandra, where it served in the production of religious and other scholarly texts, through the Buddhist collections in China and other parts of Asia, to monastic and academic collections of Europe, with connections to religion, academic disciplines, and government, and to the education and training of children and adults. The figure of my dissertation, Adalbert Blumenschein, was an Austrian librarian who traveled around central Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, visiting almost 400 libraries. From the clues he left in his 1600-page, four-volume manuscript, the libraries (of all types) were designed for specific communities and served them freely, some being more open to the general public. He did not record any instances of paying for information – and I am not aware of fee-based information sharing from before the nineteenth century, except to the extent that people and institutions paid for or traded books and periodicals.
I bring all of this up because of some sessions I attended at this year’s Midwinter ALA conference in Denver about the role of libraries in social justice. The progressive mission of libraries to provide information at no transactional cost to users never disappeared, but it is routinely revisited as applications change and as the profession continually welcomes new members. Some of the conference themes included access to information about medical issues and insurance, to resources for different flavors of activism, and to information for immigrants, as well as topics related to the changing landscapes of political, #MeToo, and gender identity/sexual orientation.
Progressivism in our field has also come up twice in two days in the form of announcements about opportunities for students and others in the profession that I have received by e-mail:
- The Braverman Prize is given annually by the Progressive Librarians Guild for the best graduate student essay about some aspect of the social responsibilities of librarians, libraries, or librarianship. This year’s prise includes a $500 stipend for travel to the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans and the publication of the sinning essay in the Summer 2018 issue of Progressive Librarian. The formal announcement can be seen here: http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/content/award.shtml Please contact Madeline Veitch (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Julene Jones (Jones@uky.edu) for more information.
- Additionally, there is the Alexandre Vattemare Award for Creativity in Librarianship ($1000) given by Library Juice Press. Named for Vattemare, a surgeon who earned a fortune as a ventriloquist and spent about 25 retirement years in the middle of the nineteenth century promoting the free exchange of information in libraries and museums (for more on this fascinating figure: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandre_Vattemare ). The Vattemare Award recognizes creative approaches to libraries and library workers and is open to members of the profession at any level or community members. If you know of someone to nominate, the deadline is May 1, 2018 (send nominations or inquiries to email@example.com ).
The LIS field has evolved to include commoditized information, too, but the progressive ideals sometimes find their ways even into corporate settings in which information specialists share resources and industry information freely with others, including other librarians from competing companies. The mission is that pervasive. Please take some dedicated time and consider the ways in which our field serves society and how it regards information as a collective noun for a shared entity like air and water and let that guide you in your educational and professional quests. And enjoy the semester!
Tom Walker, Director, Palmer School