On Librarianship and Aesthetics

In my zest to explicate Rancière on the ills of explication, I glossed over many parts of his argument begging for more complex treatment. But maybe “beg” overstates the case, and in any case, I must apply to the reader’s patience with these the lucubrations of a librarian who knows better than to relinquish his day job. With that disclaimer — and apart from the admitted, though ill-advised, pleasure of regarding oneself as a voice in the wilderness — my motive for writing here is partly experimental. How does one write — in an essentially didactic genre like the blog — while calling one’s expertise, or one’s right to explicate, into question? Not wanting to fall into the trap of Jacotot’s imitators and epigoni, who, according to Rancière, tried to reduce to reproducible method the former’s inspired madness, or his inspired refusal of the clean break between madness and sense, pedagogical flair and professional suicide, I am interested in a practice of writing that does without with the pundit’s or the pedagogue’s arsenal of bullet points. But perhaps in truth what I am asking is a perfectly ordinary question: how does one continue to write (or really, continue to do anything of value) under the pressure of feeling that one’s capacity to do so is never quite up to snuff? In that spirit, here are some inconclusive, haphazard, and highly speculative failures to answer that question.

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A Critique of Professional Reason

I want to inaugurate these pings on the void by reflecting on something that has preoccupied me for a while. In spite of the documented change in hiring practices, the profession remains discursively attached to an identity policed by traditional credentialing bodies, and associated, at least in principle, with the possession of an ALA-accredited degree. (I say “possession of a degree” because I do not think the identity of the profession, much less the character of the labor of those who call themselves librarians, hangs much upon the curriculum of library schools — but that’s for another post.) At the same time, the profession seems caught in a perpetual crisis — a crisis of relevance, a crisis that reveals the limits of what credentials are supposed to guarantee: the librarian’s expertise. How many are the webinars, conference programs, institutes, books and articles, special reports, and so on, promising to tell us how to become (better) online educators, data stewards, agents of scholarly communication, collaborators in the research process, and so forth? These trends repeat, as it seems to me, patterns of discourse I found ten years ago when I entered, already jaded about the degree but optimistic about the job, library school. Indeed, mine was a program then recently rechristened a “school of information,” presumably on the premise that library science, traditionally conceived, no longer met the needs of the library’s publics in the soi disant Information Age.

Yes, Virginia, but of course: the stampede into our daily lives of electronic communication,  digital text, and computing power has changed the dynamic, as they say, between librarians and their patrons. (I stick to the case of academic librarianship, being fairly ignorant — in the non-polemical sense — about the contours of the profession in public and corporate libraries.) Whether these changes, and those even greater changes chomping at the bit of progress, which it is said we must saddle up and ride, or else fall behind, choking on the dust — whether those changes, admittedly profound, are driven primarily by technological advances, or whether they do not bespeak equally the spur of administrative developments, and in particular the readiness of the boss-class to change what counts as a “professional” service, is matter for another time. Right now, with a broader brush, I want to pursue the crisis to its logical conclusion: Why do we need to be experts at all?

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