A Frank Discussion About Narrow Scholarship

Library Babel Fish (Barbara Fister) on InsideHigherEd wrote a thoughtful piece about librarian agendas. It's interesting and something that all librarians should consider.

There were viewpoints discussed in the piece that got me thinking about a discussion that I once had with my mentor librarian. He was in the midst of in-depth faculty research, and the particular faculty preferred to churn out scholarship generally citing sources that already agreed with his own narrow viewpoint. My mentor and I would discuss this in terms of academic incest -- the same few scholars with the same viewpoints using each other's scholarship for support. We were concerned with the type of knowledge that was being added to the discussion. We both thought that it was important for scholars to look to other viewpoints to make their case stronger and offer other interpretations so that readers could make up their own minds about the issue.

As Library Babel Fish pointed out, "[l]ibrarians often believe they and the libraries they work for adopt, like Wikipedia, a 'neutral point of view.' Librarians provide access to all kinds of information on all sides of issues. That even-handedness is sometimes extrapolated into suspending all judgment in the pursuit of neutrality, witholding judgment equally when assisting a student who is writing a paper on some aspect of the Holocaust and one who is determined to prove the Holocaust a hoax and wants help finding 'facts' to make that case."

She went on to add, "I’ve heard some librarians say we can’t express any reservations about patrons' goals, that we must assist them without voicing any opinion of our own, including any suggestion that cherry-picking material that fits a belief is dishonest. I disagree. We are somewhat in the position of journalists, trying to represent diverse perspectives – but we’d be wrong to suggest all viewpoints are equally valid in order to avoid charges of bias."

This is exactly what concerned my mentor. The cherry-picking of material that supports a particular (maybe wrong) belief without looking to other, more diverse perspectives. To that end, my mentor would subtly offer other scholarship to the faculty that offered opposing viewpoints.

It might have been wise for my mentor to have a frank discussion with his faculty member about the value of well-rounded scholarship. The conversation could have gone something like this: "We value certain ways of seeking and using evidence. It’s important to evaluate your sources and approach a research question with an open mind. It’s not right to seek out only information that supports your viewpoint. It’s wrong to appropriate other people’s ideas and represent them as your own - and so forth."

However, as Barbara Fister notes, "[t]hese are not somehow universal foundational truths. They are beliefs that are rooted historically in a particular way of knowing. We may value them deeply, but they are not the natural order of things, free of context and controversy. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we think through what it means, why we promote what we promote, and what really matters to us."

This means that librarians should not be afraid to voice their concern about narrow scholarship. It may be that scholars have never considered things in this way. It would a chance to have a meaningful discussion and help advance broad knowledge for all. 


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