2010 Oslo (anniversary)

The invitation

This week the library education department in Oslo celebrates its 70th anniversary.

On Friday December 10 there will be three parallell seminars for library school teachers. I will attend the group called ’Management and the development of services’. Here we will study libraries and other information service organizations as societal institutions.

This can be done from several perspectives and angles, such as

  • issues of leadership and management;
  • knowledge management;
  • development of services;
  • outcomes and values of library and information services to individuals, mother organizations and society in general;
  • the role and impact of libraries and information service institutions including social, political, economic, cultural and historical aspects; etc.

It would be interesting to get an overview of and discuss:

  • How do we teach these subjects in our different institutions?
  • How is the balance between issues of general leadership & management and leadership & management linked directly to LIS institutions?
  • How is the balance between leadership & management issues and issues related to the institutions social and political role?
  • How do we deal with and incorporate consequences of the digital and multicultural societal development in our teaching on this group of subjects?

A personal response

My personal answer to the last question would be:

When we speak of societal development, I am interested in three main topics – as they apply to libraries and library education:

  • The global transition from industrial to digitalforms of knowledge production
    • My general perspective is socio-material, practice- and action-oriented
    • Some relevant names: Tavistock, Bourdieu, Foucault, Schön, Drefus, Flyvbjerg
    • Today, socio-material largely means socio-digital: social media, e-learning, CSCW, e-government
  • The growing importance of evidence-based practice. This implies an increasing emphasis
    • on documentation
    • on quantitative reasoning (statistics)
  • The triangular strugglebetween different forms of organization, power and discourse:
    • practice-oriented professional
    • research-oriented academic
    • and control-oriented bureaucratic

As a statistician, with some background in sociology and philosophy, I now concentrate on the quantitative or numerical aspect of these major changes. My hope is to contribute to a more extensive and better grounded debate about libraries through a focus on statistical arguments. To incorporate means to practice.

Personal practices

Specifically, this work includes the following practices:

  • participating in IFLA’s Statistics and Evaluation Section (SES)
    • this includes coordinating the development of a full day course in Statistics for Advocacy – to be included in the IFLA’s BSLA programme
  • participating – as their statistical consultant – in a Norwegian network (Samstat), which unites library organizations with an interest in statistics as users and contributors
  • writing research papers on library statistics
  • giving lectures on statistics at conferences
  • supervising students who work with statistics-oriented projects
  • developing and running workshops on library statistics in Norway and abroad
  • writing and editing two dedicated blogs on statistics – one in English for SES (GLOSSA) and one in Norwegian (Samstat)
  • writing and commenting on statistical issues in the library press and on my other blogs (Plinius in Norwegian and in English)
  • publishing processed statistical data from Norway and other countries as spreadsheets on Google Docs for consultation and reuse (Plinius Data)

On the digital side, all papers, lecture notes, blog posts and presentations are put on the web, under a CC licence. I also try to put the statistical data I work with on the open web in formats that are useful for others. This aspect of the work could be called data curation.

Multicultural practices

I try to address the multicultural aspect in several different ways:

  • by planning parallell language versions of the Statistics for Advocacy course (English/Spanish/Mandarin) from the moment we started
  • by defining the GLOSSA blog as bilingual in English and Spanish
  • by blogging about statistics in English as well as in Norwegian
  • by introducing and labelling most of the Norwegian tables in Plinius Data in English (or both languages)
  • by teaching at the LATINA summer courses in Oslo and abroad (Finland, Uganda, Palestine (?))

From my producer’s point of view, this range of activities takes rather more time than concentrating on academic publications that generate official publication points througfh Frida or Cristin. But I hope it is useful for the concumer of the knowledge we (hopefully) produce.  It contributes, at least, to a more varied form of life.

Professional practitioners

Like everybody else, I am a practitioner. I practice a variety of more or less professional activities, such as

  • teaching
  • library research
  • statistical analysis
  • and blogging

but also undertake such mundane tasks as

  • walking – since 1942
  • driving – since 1967
  • and snow removal – yesterday

These practices constitute my daily life. They define my life-world.

First choice

Like all people with a theoretical bent I also reflect, speak and write about some of these practices. The moment I bring theory into the picture, I have to make a choice. When I theorize, should I include my own practices as a topic? Or should I withdraw from the game, taking the position of a judge or an observer?

The observer reflects, speaks and writes about the practices of other people. The judge of tennis, perched high, watches the drama on the court.

I am not saying that one choice is better than the other. I cannot start judging choices before I know my own role in the game: participant or observer?

In a wider sense, both observer and judge participate, of course. The game of tennis requires an umpire. The game of science requires a gang of scientists. The people who theorize about social beings remain social beings.

We can no more step outside Society than we can step outside Time and Space.  But we can choose how we write and speak about social matters. Do I include or exclude myself when I theorize? Do I treat an understanding of my own practices as relevant? Or do I choose the high chair?

As regular readers of Plinius will know, my personal choice is clear. I choose In rather than Out. I want to be a reflective practitioner – in the spirit of Schön and Bourdieu.

Second choice

Walking may well be solitary. Ridding the verandah of snow was definitely a lonely task. But teaching, research, analysis and blogging involve other people.

When I speak and write, I have to speak and write to somebody. I do not address people in general. Mexican peasants and Japanese noodle vendors live in other social worlds.

The people I address are defined by the professional role I have chosen for myself. I work as a library teacher, researcher and – hopefully – innovator. Therefore I address people who are interested in libraries or in education – and who know English or Norwegian – depending on the language I choose.

I think of my possible audience as two sets of concentric circles. One starts with my library teaching colleagues, a group of dedicated people who want to prepare young librarians for the 21st century.  I work in Norway, but we have close contacts with other Nordic and Baltic countries. So this community is transnational.

The other starts with the digital teaching community, regardless of subject. Since the whole teaching community is vast compared to the library community, my “inner circle” of teachers is basically Norwegian.

There are many potential readers and discussion partners beyond the inner circles. They are welcome to join the party. But it is these two communities that I aim to reach: library teachers in Northern Europe and digital teachers in my own country.

Third choice

Given my first choice, the term audience is actually misleading. I am not addressing an audience of library – or digital – teachers through a megaphone or from a speakers’ chair. I am participating in a conversation – or rather an overlapping series of parallell conversations – about a variety of professional issues. I experience and interpret these conversations as interlinked because they are engaged in and sustained by roughly the same set of people.  Library teachers and digital teachers form communities. The issues change over time. I can try to influence, but I can certainly not control the agenda.

These communities consist of people who relate – and see themselves as related – to each other through their professional activities. The people involved often disagree. But they do not leave the arena. They stay linked to each other through shared concerns and practices. The similarity of their activities and experiences give them something to talk about. Library teachers, on the one hand – and digital teachers, on the other  – constitute communities of practice.

My third choice is to concentrate my interpretations – the reflections, the speaking and the writing – on the areas in which I have the richest personal experience. That means to study my personal neighbourhood – as a professional – rather than libraries and teachers and communities far from my home turf. The anthropologist goes abroad to find the truth. The reflective practitioner stays at home.

The difference between the first and the third choice is the difference between an individual and a collective approach. I could of course spend many delightful hours investigating my unique and personal approach to libraries and learning. But I am actually more interested in how professional communities are created and developed, threatened and defended, broken and reborn. I want more than a group of reflective practitioners. I want a community of practitioners that reflects on its collective as well as its individual practices. That means Schön and Bourdieu rather than Schön alone.

Librarians as experts

Librarians sometimes describe themselves as potatoes. They are jack-of-all-trades: useful for many different purposes. They take pride in the variety of tasks they can handle. In the past, this self-image fitted positions in most public libraries rather well. In large parts of Norway it may still work rather well. But as a strategy for professional survival it points one way: down and out. The knowledge economy rewards people who are specialists and experts in their fields. Knowing a bit of this and a bit of that is useful in many situations. But I do not recommend dispersion as as a career move for individuals or as a long-term strategy for the library profession.

The real world

The knowledge economy is characterised by equal access to knowledge as such. The web basically makes facts, information, data sets, news and publications available to everybody with a computer or smart phone at hand. Sources of status, rank and distinction now lie elsewhere:

  • in the practitioner’s ability to integrate and apply relevant knowledge in complex real-world situations (deep training, long practice)
  • in the manager’s or leader’s power to define what the real-world situation is considered to be (my map or yours?)

When the two types of ranking conflict, we get the classical tension between professional experts and bureaucratic hierarchies (Mintzberg).

New pressures

I am not Cassandra, but the news are worrying (to say the least) – from Norway and abroad. Managers are starting to push libraries aside: amputating whole departments (ABM-utvikling in Norway, MLA in UK), downgrading their organizational status (Texas), cutting budgets (20 percent or more in the UK), reclaiming space released by disappearing books and paper journals. Both libraries and librarians must redesign their roles. In other words: start fighting for relevant positions in a web-focused world.

Experts wanted

Static defenses are not enough. The field needs to develop professionals who can demonstrate their value outside librarianship. Potatoes are not the answer – they simply withdraw from conflict. Experts are practitioners who master coherent domains of skill and knowledge. That takes time, will and persistense. In addition, experts must be recognized as such by others. Your own effort is not enough. To count as an expert in your field, you must be recognized as outstanding by your peers.

Your peers are not enough, either. To count as an expert in the world, the field itself must be recognized as valuable by the world. The ability to run backwards (like Modesty Blaise) or to hold your breath under water for eleven minutes does not count.

Read all about experts in the excellent article The making of an expert – and follow up with Wikipedia (Expert).

Heidegger on practice

At Oslo University College, I participate in a post-master qualification program for librarians (1bib-programmet). The work involves supervision of individual projects as well as a series of joint workshops. We are – as a group – editing a multimedial collection of digital documents aimed at teaching, training and project documentation.

The collection is not exactly a textbook, since the components are more loosely joined than is usual in the pedagogical sphere. But it will not be a simple compendium, either. Though the contributors may use threads of different colors and even diffent materials, we weave our texts on a common loom. One of our tasks is to locate, read and pick powerful passages from relevant texts.  The quotations below deal with Heidegger and his understanding of practice.

Average, everyday practice

Heidegger does not ground his thinking in average, everyday concepts, but in average, everyday practice: in what people do, not in what they say they do.

This leads him to abandon our pervasive Cartesian way of thinking of human beings as subjects who represent objects to themselves. Rather than thinking of action as based on beliefs and desires, Heidegger describes what actually goes on in our everyday skillful coping with things and people and how we are socialized into a shared world. …

(L)ike Ludwig Wittgenstein, Heidegger finds that the only ground for the intelligibility of thought and action that we have or need is in the everyday practices themselves.

Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 2

A huge and growing wasteland

Heidegger’s interpretation of practice has had a profound impact on many of the most important thinkers of the late twentieth century, especially outside of academic philosophy and even outside of academia altogether. On the other hand, the secondary literature on Heidegger that tries to capture Heidegger’s powerful new insights by looking solely within his texts has been largely a huge and growing wasteland

Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 4

The quest for certainty

Plato and Aristotle built what Dewey called “the quest for certainty” into our sense of what thinking is for. They taught us that unless we can make the object of our inquiry evident – get it clear and distinct, directly present tro the eye of the mind, and get agreement about it from all those qualified to discuss it – we are falling short of our goal. …

As Heidegger says All metaphysics, including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato.

Each stage in the history of metaphysics / and in particular the Cartesian turn toward subjectivity, from exterior to interior objects of inquiry, has been an attempt to redescribe things so that this certainty might become possible. But, after many fits and starts, it has turned out that the only ting we can be certain of is what we want.

The only things that are really evident to us are our own desires.

Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 210

A sense of contingency

Heidegger would like to recapture a sense of what time was like before it fell under the spell of eternity, what we were like before we became obsessed by the need for an overarching context which would subsume and explain us / before we came to think of our relation to Being in terms of power. …

He would like to recapture a sense of contingency, of the fragility and riskiness of any human project / a sense which the ontotheological tradition has made it hard to attain. For that tradition tends to identify the contingent with the merely apparent.

Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 214

The force of words

The tradition has suggested that the patrticular words we use are unimportant. Ever since philosophy won its quarrel with poetry, it has been the thought that counts / the proposition, something which many sentences in many languages speak equally well.

Words are mere vehicles for something less fragile and transitory thanm marks and noises. Philosophers know that what matters is literal truth, not a choice of phonemes and certainly not metaphors. The literal lasts and empowers. The metaphorical / that which you can neither argue about nor justify, that for which you can find no uncontroversial paraphrase / is impotent.

In the end, the business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.

Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 214


  • Hubert Dreyfus and Harrison Hall. Heidegger: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. – 303 pp.
  • Hubert Dreyfus and Harrison Hall. Introduction. In Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 1-25
  • Richard Rorty. Heidegger, Contingency, and Pragmatism.  In Dreyfus and Hall (1992), p. 209-230

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