RE: How We Know

Posting to NGC4LIB

Laval Hunsucker wrote:


Library selection does not attempt to be neutral since, as you point out and, it is very well known besides, this is impossible. Librarians have just as many opinions as anyone else, and they hold their opinions just as strongly as anyone out there. Librarians are not neutral. Neutrality is passive, and selection is very active. It actively attempts to include all types of different opinions and attitudes that the selector *probably* disagrees with, even violently. I have certainly added such materials to the collection for which I am responsible; materials that I very actively dislike and completely disagree with. But I am aware that the library’s collection should not be a mirror of my own opinions. While I could do that, it would be an irresponsible use of what has been entrusted to me, and I will even say, a misuse of my own power. And it is power; let us not minimize that.

My personal library collection at home is an entirely different matter since I refuse to pay out of my own pocket for–what I believe to be–garbage, but the collection that I am responsible for professionally is another matter entirely.

Now, what is “The Best”? (You notice that I always put that in quotation marks) Will there be–and in fact, could there ever be–any kind of agreement on such a question? Of course not. Such a question is, and I hope will always be–highly controversial. But, decisions *must be made*. Period. There is no choice. There is only so much money and so much space. That means choices must be made and that is what library selectors are paid to do, and we cannot renounce that responsibility, because otherwise someone else will make the decisions. At least librarians are guided by their code of ethics. This has been going on in libraries from time immemorial and is certainly nothing new.

When I say that somebody *must* make the decision, it is similar to a judge who must make a decision about far more difficult matters, for example, when a person has died or been seriously injured through the fault of someone else, it eventually comes down to how much money to award the person, or their family, whose lives have been destroyed. In the broader scheme of things, we all know that no amount of money could ever be enough, but a decision must be made. That is the very purpose for the existence of the judge. And the judge cannot simply walk away and say that a decision cannot be made, because even if the judge did walk away, we would have to find somebody else to make the decision since a decision must be made.

But then Carol goes on to ask, “what is garbage”? Of course, that depends on the collection. A pile of comic books may be useless in one collection but the main part of another. This is the way it has always been, and as I wrote before, it would be very nice to think that the need for the library task of selection has been eliminated with the appearance of so many free materials on the web since with those, the problems of budget and space are gone. But it is more complicated than that. Remember that story about the teacher who had pictures on her MySpace page of herself drunk as a student and got fired from her job? I’m sure this woman thinks those pictures are garbage and wishes they had been thrown away! There are lots of other people who have been hurt by the existence of materials that are not thrown away.

So, we are seeing a problem, since now people are always complaining that they are finding too much, as the NY Review article discussed very clearly and why I started this thread (the URL again is In the past, this has not really been a problem for libraries, who have pretty much striven to add as much as they can, depending on space and budget.

Based on that article, I suggested that people still want selection, and in fact they are getting it now, but it is being done by others and not by librarians who have their ethics. When somebody gets 8 million hits on Google, the “relevance” ranking is a type of selection made by a computer. We should not pretend that this relevance ranking is either “objective” or “neutral”. It is programmed by human beings working for a modern corporation, using methods that are secret and that can be manipulated by others around the world for whatever personal reasons they may have. I am not finding fault, just trying to point out the reality of the situation as I see it.

As a librarian, I happen to know that there is a lot of very good information that is not coming up in the top one or two screens in Google; there are open archives along with all kinds of other sites that people may find very useful, but Google either does not have it at all (i.e. it’s in the “hidden web”) or there is too much “static” or “garbage” that gets in the way.

Sure, we can all just say there is no problem with selection now because the old constraints no longer apply, and that, after all, selection is akin to censorship, but this ignores the fact that people feel overwhelmed by the amount of “information” they receive and that selection takes place now automatically, but the automatic selection has all kinds of serious problems. It is obvious that traditional library selection must change tremendously (at least it is obvious to me), probably as much as traditional library cataloging. I am sure these changes will eventually happen sooner or later since they are needed so badly and I can only hope that traditional library ethics will be a major part of it.