From Things to Conversations

Librarians and faculty in the disciplines tend to think differently about knowledge. 

November 26, 2013

I’m working on this thing (well, avoiding working on this thing may be more accurate) about how librarians and faculty in the disciplines think differently about knowledge.

One of the major differences is that librarians have a tendency to think of knowledge as made up of things and faculty in other disciplines think of people. This was brought home to me this fall in a political science methods course in which the guiding metaphor for understanding the literature of the field was “conversation.” The job of the students preparing to do research was to discover what conversations were going on, find one that was interesting, and discern places in the conversation where there were gaps. The whole point of research, they were realizing, wasn’t to find out what other people said; it was to find out what they had to say that would contribute something new to the conversation.

One small way in which the instructor emphasized the metaphor was to explain that students shouldn’t refer to articles by their title, but rather by their authors. He was introducing them to one of the discourse conventions of the field, but I was struck by the way that brings home something Doug Downs, a composition scholar, once said, a phrase I often use when talking with students: “sources are people talking to other people.”

Librarians tend to think of sources as things.

One of the reasons we think in terms of things is that we manage things. Once they were actual things, ones that took up physical space on physical shelves. Now most of what we have to wrangle is digital, but it still has the quality of thing-ness. “Do you have this?” is a fairly standard question. Well, let’s see . . . it was published in this form by this outfit, and it should be in this digital package if our link resolver is working properly and the vendor hasn’t left this particular thing out . . . Our systems are for handling and finding things, not seeing the connections among people.

We also think in terms of things because we haven’t been invited to the conversations that scholars are having and we don’t know who’s who and which things came out of the same conversation. It’s easier for us than for undergraduates trying to figure out what words are being used by a community to describe ideas, words and phrases that will work for searching a database. We know how to work the hook-and-eye connections between one published work and another by decoding footnotes and knowing where to plug that information into the library’s website to get to the cited work, which may be on a shelf or in a database or only available at another library. But, like callow undergrads, we often have to start looking for information without knowing who to ask.

This makes us useful “discourse mediators” (as Michelle Holschuh Simmons puts it). But sometimes we forget about the people who created the things we manage, and describe research as a process of finding things, gathering things, describing and synthesizing things rather than as a social, participatory, human process. We inadvertently suggest that research is finding and quoting, not making.

So I like the conversation metaphor, but there is a flaw in the metaphor. It assumes we are all invited to the conversation, that there is a place set for us at the table, that we merely have to take it. We forget, sometimes, how exclusive our conversations are, how inhospitable to outsiders. We forget that there are lots and lots of conversations out there, not just ones happening in scholarly disciplines. We need to equip students with the knack of discovering and joining conversations that may not be welcoming at all.

When students realize that research is creative, that they can come up with ideas nobody has had before, that they have agency in the world of ideas, it’s a huge revelation. It's often discovered in the context of a significant research project which has involved them in becoming so familiar with figures in the discipline that they are practically on a first-name basis. They have become fluent in disciplinary jargon, they see the contours of arguments and the ways schools of thought distinguish themselves. They’ve found their place.

I hope that experience will serve them well as they look for their place out there in the wider world of ideas and conflicts and decisions that need to be made, that they will have the skills and the courage to get involved whether or not they are invited. .  

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