Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Pirates and Librarians: Big Media, Technology, and the Role of Liberal Education

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Pirates and Librarians: Big Media, Technology, and the Role of Liberal Education

Article excerpt

Because the new processes of domination to which people react are embedded in information flows, the building of autonomy has to rely on reverse information flows.

--Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity


In recent decades, advances in information technology have vastly increased the channels by which librarians and educators can connect patrons or students with relevant resources. Certainly, it is difficult for librarians today--whether in reference or technical services--to imagine doing their jobs without access to online databases, internet resources, cataloging or circulation software, and the many other tools we now take for granted. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine contemporary patrons voluntarily relinquishing the ability to search OPACs, export bibliographic citations, retrieve full-text articles from thousands of journals, or contact a librarian at all hours via e-mail, chat, or text messaging. These new information-seeking habits of patrons drive libraries--and librarians--to keep up with new applications of technology, whether by using blogs and social networking sites to help promote the services we offer or by ensuring remote access to library resources on mobile devices.

Given this centrality of technology to the evolving practice of contemporary librarianship--especially academic librarianship--it is difficult to remember that not all librarians welcomed the appearance of computers in libraries during the transformative era of the 1990s. Yet if we agree with Ranganathan's most basic principles that "books are for use" and that librarians should "save the time of the reader," why would any librarian object to new tools that help connect more users with more resources, more quickly than ever (Ranganathan, 1963)? Some, perhaps, felt threatened by the new skill sets required or the uncertainty of a transitional period. However, this paper will argue that the deeper answer points to a fundamental question of how librarians view our profession, its mission, and its role in fostering the values essential to liberal education and democracy. The technology that has enabled libraries to expand their roles has also led them to depend increasingly upon powerful commercial publishers, even as governments surrender more and more oversight to these corporate interests. Increasing consolidation of major media channels--including sources of scholarly communication--has allowed a shrinking number of corporations to control distribution and access to the materials libraries offer, through licensing fees, copyright restrictions, and digital rights management. If left unchecked, this trend threatens to stifle access to the information students need to construct knowledge, thereby undermining information literacy, critical pedagogy, and the development of those critical thinking skills so crucial to the mission of liberal education.

I. Critical Pedagogy and the Threat to Liberal Education

In order to understand how libraries arrived at this crossroads, it is instructive to assess the traditionally agreed upon values of libraries and liberal education, and to examine why some librarians felt those values to be under attack when technology took a larger role in libraries. Within the larger world of higher education, advocates for liberal education in the humanities argue that the critical thinking skills engendered in these fields can fortify an open society against domination by corporate or political elites. In her recently released book Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that "[a]s the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced. In a society of unreflective, undiscerning yes-men and yes-women, politics becomes meaner and business can invite disasters such as the economic meltdown or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico" (Allemang, 2010, p. …

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