the first plank in my philosophy of librarianship

‘Tis the season to write what-I-learned-in-2011 posts, and I’ve been turning that over in my head but making no progress, because I’m fundamentally more interested in how to change the world in 2012. But there is one thought that keeps bubbling to the surface, the first plank in my philosophy of librarianship. (Which I haven’t written yet. I always found it ludicrous when new librarians, or teachers, had to write those statements of philosophy — how can you have one before you have experienced practice? So here it is after time in the field: a first plank, emerging. Bear with me; it hasn’t yet had time to become concise.)

In 2010 we saw Wikileaks pose a fundamental challenge to government. In everyday life, here in the US, we live with the poles of government defined by two parties and pretend they etch the entire space. They, of course, do not. There are vast possibilities of government not encompassed there — not just other parties, the Greens or Libertarians or what-have-you, but fundamentally different ways to do government — parliamentary systems, dictatorships, anarchism, seasteading, et cetera — so far outside the everyday scope we treat them as if they do not exist. (Though they do.)

Wikileaks wasn’t just cowboy journalism and bomb-throwing, though it can be appreciated on that level. Assange has a philosophy (long; worth reading) here: a mental model of government as information flow. He theorizes that secrecy and authoritarianism are intertwined, and governments enable their authoritarian elements by metering information flow. Therefore, government’s authoritarian tendencies can be undermined by altering the network structure of government itself through forcing change in information flows. Prevent secrecy, and you prevent the structure which allows authoritarianism to emerge.

What got Assange pursued by international law enforcement, what got Wikileaks’ DNS and funding service cut off without due process or any particular outcry about due process, wasn’t bomb-throwing, or even the genuine charges outstanding against him for other reasons. It was the fact that he challenged something fundamental about how government worked.

We’re seeing this again in 2011 with the Occupy movement. I’ve never been clear on what they’re for but I’m clear on this: they too are posing, through action, questions about the nature of government. Both their use of public space and their consensus structure model alternatives to the status quo. And they, too, have been opposed by a government that’s gotten tired of countenancing that, and hasn’t reliably felt the need to engage in due process about that.

I found the unifying principle for these in Brooke Gladstone’s wonderful graphic novel on the nature of media, The Influencing Machine. In this she introduced me to the concept of Hallin’s Spheres. There are three: the spheres of consensus, legitimate contention, and deviance.

We don’t talk about things in the sphere of consensus because everyone is publicly presumed to agree. (If you don’t, you both know this acutely, and know that you can’t talk about it without facing social backlash.) Things in the sphere of legitimate contention are things that get discussed in the news and in the Senate. You may have strong feelings on abortion or health care or religion — you may think people with different views than your own are profoundly wrong — but you almost certainly recognize that these are topics where dissent exists and can be aired in public without violating social norms.

And then there is the sphere of deviance. Everyone is also presumed to agree on all of these topics, or perhaps presumed not to think about them at all. They’re settled. They’re not up for debate. And if you hold one of these views, you are, well, deviant. Again, you know that your view is in this sphere because you feel gnawing fear or anger whenever you contemplate discussing it in public, and the near-certainty that no one in your immediate environment will agree with you. You may have chosen where you live and who you term family today because they agree with you on crucial boundaries of this sphere, and the place you grew up did not.

Here’s a key thing about the spheres: they change. At various times in history, the sphere of consensus has contained “slavery is OK” and “women shouldn’t vote or sign contracts” (in fact, there are places in the world where these views still hold). The sphere of deviance has contained their negations and plenty of other things that are now consensus or at least legitimate controversy. A huge amount of the power of the It Gets Better project is its implicit statement that, if you’re a kid who lives in a place where being who you are puts you in the sphere of deviance, there’s a world waiting for you where you’re not.

The government quashes Wikileaks and Occupy, and debates SOPA with a straight face, because threats to its fundamental structure are — at least as far as the government’s concerned — within the sphere of deviance. Rights to due process and free speech can be suspended for actions within the sphere of deviance with little to none of the objection you would expect to find accompanying such suspensions. (At least, little to no objection on the part of the government, whose assessment of the sphere of deviance is not necessarily the same as the broader society’s; government has its own set of incentives to take into account.)

But I promised you a plank in the philosophy of librarianship. To wit:

Society needs safe spaces for views in the sphere of deviance to be floated, or the boundaries of those spheres can never change. We need to be able to raise questions like “is government an authoritarian conspiracy?” and “can we do things better by radical consensus?” We needed, in American history, to be able to raise questions like “is it really okay to own people as slaves and profit from their labor?” and “can women go to university without their migratory uteri unhinging them?” We need to be able to tell kids whose communities tell them they’re unholy that, yes, it gets better.

Libraries are one of the great safe spaces of history.

Libraries. Paper books, public domain and open-licensed electronic content (that is, free of both locking and tracking), and an open internet. Access to ideas beyond your doorstep, in a place where no one looks (even virtually) over your shoulder.

Many of the views within the sphere of deviance are there for good reason but here’s the nature of the thing: we, from our limited cultural perspective, can’t reliably tell which. Only by having unfettered access to information and safe, however quiet, spaces to pose provocative questions can we discover where, in a great and historic way, we have been wrong.

“Libraries: they facilitate deviance!” isn’t going to be on an ALA poster any time soon. But please believe me when I say there’s nothing flippant here: the right to interrogate that sphere is something I believe in fiercely, with a passion that lives in quiet spaces but is connected to all the warmth and hope I feel for humanity.

6 thoughts on “the first plank in my philosophy of librarianship

  1. This is a set of ideas I have been considering for a long time, but I’d never heard of the spheres model. It reminds me of some french social theory I’ve forgotten from my Anthropology degree.

    An interesting point is the ability of a small demand to become the heart of a much larger change. Take the ability to read a book in privacy. The implication of anonymity is huge, and seems to be entirely missing out of any library systems, as you have mentioned.

    To read a ebook privately would actually require legislation forcing ebook vendors to discard valuable marketing information. Government then would have to have the political will to not intrude into people’s reading. The history of censorship means that would probably be unlikely.

    The right to read a book privately challenges the entire status quo. Now, that’s something I can get behind.

    Apologies for the infelicity in my writing, but I’m doing it on my phone!



    1. Thanks for replying. You might be interested in Richard Stallman’s DRM dystopia, The Right To Read, if you haven’t already encountered it: A story that gets at the same questions of privacy, censorship, vendor interests, etc. that you discuss.

      Part of the reason I like my work at Gluejar is that we’re working on making more ebooks available that you CAN read privately/anonymously. After all, there’s nothing in the technology of an ebook that inherently privacy-destroying; it’s just connecting them to DRM and accounts and so forth that does that.


  2. In reading this I was reminded of my favorite characterization of the public library, which is by Irish writer/journalist Fintan O’Toole. I like the ‘agenda’ statement.

    “The library should not provide an argument for a particular case, but demonstrate that there is always another case to be made. The notion that the library is a place that has no agenda other than allowing people to invent their own agendas is what makes it an indispensable resource for a democracy.”

    This is in a lovely short article on libraries which unfortunately is not available on the web. I quote a chunk of it here …


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