Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

The Virtue of Reference

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

The Virtue of Reference

Article excerpt

Let us consider the question, what makes a good reference librarian? Can we best answer that question by developing an articulated standard of a good or bad reference librarian, perhaps a list of rules that are either followed or not, with the good reference librarian being the one who follows the most rules? Or perhaps we should evaluate reference librarians purely on results, on the consequences of their actions? Perhaps on the number of correctly answered ready reference questions? More importantly, when we think of what good reference librarians are like, and when we want to tell neophyte reference librarians what good reference is like, would we ever want to conceive of reference work by these standards? Following the rules will make you good. Answer all your questions correctly will make you good.

I think not. We best conceive of reference librarians if we follow an Aristotelian or "virtue ethics" model and think about what kind of person a reference librarian should be. What virtues do reference librarians require to be good reference librarians? Obviously there are many, and I could just list them, but I want to focus on the intellectual virtue I consider most valuable for reference librarians. Reference work is neither an art nor a science. Its motivating virtue is indeed an intellectual virtue, but the one most difficult to teach: what Aristotle called phronesis, which is usually translated as prudence or practical wisdom. Reference is a phronetic activity.

Aristotle on the Virtues

To develop my argument I must give some background on "virtue ethics" and in particular on Aristotle's Nicomachaen Ethics. Ethical philosophers have paid an increasing amount of attention to Aristotle's ethics over the past few decades as "virtue ethics" has become prominent along with deontological and consequentialist ethics. While deontological ethics judges ethical actions by a particular standard of rightness or wrongness it is our duty to obey (e.g., the Ten Commandments or Kant's categorical imperative) and consequentialist ethics judges ethical actions by their consequences (e.g., utilitarianism's "greatest happiness for the greatest number"), virtue ethics follows Aristotle in focusing not on rules of conduct but on the character of the moral actor. What sort of person acts ethically? How do we raise and educate such people? What virtues (or excellences) does a person require to be an ethical human being? Those are some of the sorts of questions virtue ethicists might ask (1).

Aristotle viewed the world from a teleological perspective. The telos is the end toward which things aim, and to evaluate an action teleologically is to evaluate it by considering its final goal. "Every art and every inquiry," Aristotle says, "and similarly, every action and every intention is though to aim at some good; hence men have expressed themselves well in declaring the good to be that at which all things aim" (1094a1) (2). Thus if we consider the quality or worth of reference work we would consider the good toward which it aims. For the purpose of my argument here we do not have to consider the final goal of reference work in any detail. I will accept for the sake of argument that reference work has a final and worthwhile goal, and that this goal is possibly something like "helping patrons find the information they need" or "training people to do research" or related goals.

Regarding ethics, Aristotle argued that the end or telos of human being was eudaimonia, usually translated as "happiness," but meaning more broadly well-being, or perhaps even the well-lived life. Humans reach this end by developing good characters and living virtuously, a virtue (arete) being an excellence of any kind. The same can be said of particular categories of human beings classified by activity. Any activity has its standard of excellence, and performing that activity well involves various virtues. Aristotle divides the virtues into ethical and intellectual. …

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