If Information is Food, Ctd.

From the comments to the previous post, I feel there is a lot to unpack from that post so I decided to write a follow up. Some things I got wrong, some things I still feel are right, and a couple of things that have me scratching my head. I’m going to try to lay them out in some sort of logical order, but it might take some leaps around at times. So, bear with me.

In breaking down the “information is food” analogy from the previous post, one of the major problems is that it doesn’t translate consistently. While considering it through the non-fiction lens, it holds decently: there are sources that clearly show a better “nutritional” content than others by a demonstration of authority (for example, the New England Journal of Medicine versus Psychology Today). There is an established criteria that evaluates the information sources and determines that one source may be better, equal to, or inferior to another (otherwise known as authority). In other words, the product of scientific and/or research rigor is something that can be proven as a better resource than another piece of information that is the result of ‘junk science’. (Yes, I’m certain there are some exceptions to this notion, but that’s what they are: a tiny minority that is mathematically possible but unlikely.)

In attempting to apply the “information is food” analogy to work of fiction, this is where I made a mistake. The nutritional value of food is a quantifiable set of data; you analyze it for its molecular makeup, list its ingredients, and give a recount of a food’s vital statistics in terms of calories, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Works of fiction, on the other hand, do not lend themselves as neatly to any such metrics. While one could run different works through a computer and attempt to perform such measurements, it will still never be right because of the very subjective human element. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” would be the very succinct way of summarizing this human element and also very fitting in the scope of the “information is food” analogy. In light of that element, the analogy falls abysmally short.

Setting aside that for a moment, I think the best way to describe the lacuna that emerged between myself and the commenter is “literature is not flat, but personal preference literature is”. In other words, not all literature is the same in terms of quality of prose but personal preference does not take such a factor into account. From the existence of literary awards and the plethora of “best books” lists, I can easily infer that there is literature that is marked as ‘better’ than other works by experts in the field over a set time period that can be as short as a year and as long as a century (or beyond). Therefore, there is a literature hierarchy in which some books are better than others from the expert point of view. Under this rationale, does this make some books ‘gourmet’ and others ‘junk food’? Possibly, but it all depends on the person who is dining.

[As an aside, I believe there is some Darwinism to the survival of books over the years as “classics”. As it was pointed out in a comment in the previous post, there are books that got mediocre reviews when they were first release (Wuthering Heights being the example given). To me, this is a reasonable example about how the book that lasts in the culture longest is able to move on to be read by future generations. I’d reckon that some better regarded writers who were contemporaries of Emily Bronte are gone from our shelves because they did not have the cultural staying power to maintain their sway on the shelf. Thus, the best writers may not survive compared to those who can make themselves immune to the discarding hands of all people. -A]

In examining personal preference in library material, I’m going to chop this topic up into many pieces for the purposes of examining and providing nuance to some of the issue. When it comes to entertainment, I will agree with the commenters to their position of “what I want to read, see, or hear is my business”. What we find pleasurable in this world is quite subjective and I’ll go along with the ‘none of your damn business’ element. Fair enough.

When it comes to getting library material for the purposes of education or self-educations, I find myself with some specific concerns. As to what people want to learn or educate themselves, once more that is a personal choice and I should do my best to facilitate that. However, one of the previous commenters brought up a viewpoint that I felt was too absolute and can be paraphrased as “do not offer your judgment unless asked”. For myself, that’s far too unreasonable in principle and unfeasible in practice.

To provide a real life example, I was sitting at the reference desk one day and overheard a conversation that was happening in the next aisle over in front of our medicine collection in the non-fiction section. Two people were talking about trying to find a book about a certain ailment and in listening to their discussion I realized that they were factually incorrect. In considering the this situation, here are my possible multi-tiered options: I can go over and offer the correct information so that they get the correct book or I can wait and see if they ask for help. If I wait and they ask for help, then I can provide the correct information without interjecting into their conversation in the stacks. If they don’t ask for information and begin to leave with what they think is the right book, the absolute rule above would tell me that since I was not asked I should not offer to make a correction. Otherwise, if I did intercede uninvited, it would be an unwelcome intrusion even if I had the correct answer and material.

For the curious, what I did (and hopefully what the other 99% of you in reference would do) was get up off the desk, walk over, excused myself for interrupting, corrected them, and then got them headed in the right direction. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind would simply sit there and let this play out with the hopes that they’ll be asked to provide the correct answer. Some might consider that a librarian party foul, but the two people I was helping didn’t. An absolute such as the one given above would otherwise turn the reference desk into a waiting area, for being proactive and engaging members before they pose the request for assistance becomes taboo. I really can’t imagine anyone actually doing this, but I’m sure I’m going to still get some pushback regarding ‘interference’.

Overall, I think the concept of ‘interference’ in librarian is one of those shadowy creatures that will always be the constant source of debate. While there are extremes that everyone could agree to, it’s the large lump in the middle that will get people aggravated. In the example I gave above, was I interfering? I’m sure there are good arguments for either case. As I’m sure there is a good case for librarian interference by what we say or don’t say to someone with an inquiry on the basis of our own decision regarding its relevance. The list of possible examples, as you could imagine, is nigh infinite.

The thing that really got me wondering is that promotion of the idea of “I care about my library members, I just don’t care what they do or take home with them”. On its face, I don’t think it is irrational to have that kind of compartmentalization; I love my dad even though we do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics. That kind of relationship can exist and work. What bothers me is that there is a tinge of impersonal to that in which the librarian draws back from a potential personal area of the relationship. While some of our members might be happy for the space, I would suggest that there are others who want that kind of relationship. They would want the librarians to care about what they were reading or watching or doing; that to them it is an important basis of contact to have with the library. It is a deeper level of connection and makes the library experience more personal for that member. Why is there an inclination to be remote under all circumstances? I can understand the idea above as a professional principle, but there’s something impersonal about it in the practice that doesn’t sit well with me.

I’d go on about other aspects of librarianship that seem impersonal to me, but I’ve gone on too much for one post. I hope this clears some things up and leads to other discussion.

5 thoughts on “If Information is Food, Ctd.

  1. Thank you for amending your previous post. Like the good postmodernist I am, I recognize that all texts are valid, but I can’t help but think that some are more valid than others. And that goes for fiction as well. Take Twilight, which is both much loved (sales, awards) and maligned (feminist backlash, just plain haters). The very dialogue around that series I found very beneficial, both in and outside of library settings. I’m in favor of pretty much anything, save hate speech and death threats, that gets people reading. Maybe the Twilight series is the gateway to something else, maybe it’s an end in and of itself.

  2. I don’t know if these posts just happened to all come out at the same time or if you all are reflecting off each other’s writing, but I really liked the points that the Stacked blog post had on this topic:
    I particularly liked the “guilty pleasure” parts – that has a similar connotation with food. Unlike unhealthy food though, there is no evidence that reading Twilight is actually BAD for you, unlike eating a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s. It doesn’t cause cavities or clog your arteries. It doesn’t make you dumb.

  3. “only connect”
    Librarians share a connection to information, to share that is an essential role. Many of us are just magnets for random information that is frequently useful, not to mention being well-read, and we have a talent for finding information. It is neither good or bad, it is just information.

    Supplying it is a form of neutral non-judgment: No big deal, I hear this all the time, I can handle it. You have an information need, you have come to the right place. How may I be of assistance?

  4. I read your previous post to refer to fiction, or, more broadly, to reading for entertainment. I agree with you that it would be the rare librarian who would be able to restrain themselves from making sure their patron was leaving with accurate information. I know there is some apathy in the profession, but for most of us, that’s one of the hallowed tenets of librarianship. So, no argument on helping customers find the correct information–although I have had experiences that touch on a fine line. For example, the vaccine=autism connection has been thoroughly debunked, but I still have customers who want to read Jenny McCarthy or Mayim Baylik’s books that discourage childhood vaccination. How do I handle that? I want my customers to have the best information possible, but it seems condescending and downright rude to try to offer them something a bit more scientifically valid.
    As to your comment about being impersonal, I think some of us remain reserved because privacy is such a valued commodity in libraries. We don’t want people to think we are judging them based on the information they are seeking or the entertainment they want. Although we do want to give them the sense that we care about them, too. So, again, another fine line!

  5. Regarding this part: “They would want the librarians to care about what they were reading or watching or doing; that to them it is an important basis of contact to have with the library.” I would satrons want you to care about *helping them with* what they’re reading or watching or doing, by (1) listening to what they actually want, and (2) cheerfully providing it. The best responses I’ve gotten from patrons is when I come across as supportive of what they’re seeking, especially when their request is a little “low-brow” or unacademic. By supportive, I mean being non-judgmental and energetically throwing myself into the search, not actually saying that I support whatever they want. When they know you really care about getting them what they’re asking for, it doesn’t read as impersonal.

    Correcting factual errors in reference transactions is right and proper, but handing patrons Moby Dick or A Visit from the Goon Squad when they want paranormal romance is deliberately refusing to answer their request. You don’t need to be a librarian to do that, either–any high school kid with a list of Harvard classics and the recent awards shortlists can hand out all the pre-approved ‘good’ books. Where you earn your pay in readers’ advisory is by figuring out what the patron actually desires and what books fit the bill–not by ignoring their criteria completely and supplanting it with your own literary tastes.

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