Narrative Identity and Flourishing within the Information Professions

By Burgess, John T. F. | Journal of Information Ethics, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Narrative Identity and Flourishing within the Information Professions


Burgess, John T. F., Journal of Information Ethics


One of the longest persisting lines of inquiry in classical ethical thought is what kind of life should a person live? Of the fundamental questions in philosophy, it seems to be among the most intimate and the most essentially human, expressing the fundamental uncertainty of existence and the desire to gain control over an uncertain future. How one answers the question what is the good life demonstrates not only what one finds important, but also who one aspires to be. In analyzing the good life question, we can see that it is possible to break it into three basic propositions: The first is the ontological proposition, which asserts one way of life is better than other ways; the second is the epistemological proposition, which asserts that it is possible to rationally justify claims about how best to live; lastly, there is the technical proposition, which asserts that humans are clever enough to communicate the idea of the good life with sufficient fidelity such that lives may be made better by it. Supporting these three assertions was a daunting task, even with ancient Grecian metaphysics, but operating under contemporary standards for evidential proof the task becomes even more challenging. Yet, finding a way to express these ideas in a way that is faithful to their original function, while still being persuasive under contemporary standards of proof, is the task of this article. Complicating things further, this inquiry is not just into what constitutes the good life for personal agents but for groups of agents, in particular one group of agents: members of the information professions. Here the term information professions refers to the many professions which traditionally have fallen under the library and information science umbrella and whose members are educated at programs following the American Library Association (ALA) requirements for accreditation. This limitation narrows the implications of this work to only the information professionals in North America. This does not ignore the value and leadership of other information professional organizations, but is instead a recognition that programs operating outside of ALA standards will have developed a different narrative identity and, as such, are outside the scope of this study. Expanding the geographic coverage for this topic is one avenue of possible future research.

There is a practical reason for seeking a standard for what constitutes the good, for the information professions, where the good is defined as that way of being which brings action closest in line with sense of purpose. Philosopher of librarianship John M. Budd (2008) makes the case that the information professions are in the process of reinventing themselves to accommodate technological, economic, and political realities and that this makes them particularly vulnerable to external visions of purpose. Correspondingly, he argues that the professions are in need of an internal vision of the good to balance out this external pressure (2008). Finding an answer to the question of how to unite action and purpose is important for the information professions because doing so would protect the integrity and autonomy of the professions, minimizing disciplinary uncertainty, and facilitating sound decision-making. So even though the task is challenging, the potential benefits justify the inherent difficulty. In the remainder of this article, I will describe a method of how to determine the good of the information professions. The paper begins with a discussion of the relevant properties of the concept of the good, the justification for using a virtue ethics framework for the good, and concludes with a discussion of how hermeneutical phenomenology may be used to uncover a narrative identity for the information professions. Uncovering this narrative identity is the essential first step in determining the good for the information professions.

Characteristics of the Good

Excluding some common but unsuitable formulations of the good life will make room for greater clarity about the good in this context. …

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