Last Night, Part 1

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 on the Syllabus

On my final night of teaching, in a course titled Seminar on Information and Culture, I wrote this for my students, and delivered it as I would a public lecture.  It’s not my typical style in the classroom, but the occasion seemed to suggest it, and my students seemed to forgive me.

Here, revised and partitioned, it begins a series of public essays named Invisible Actions.  Over the next few weeks there will be more on teaching here, and then other thoughts about libraries, museums, knowledge and the invisible actions surrounding them.

Thank you for being my reader.

The syllabus entry for tonight asks the question, “What do you want to have happen?  Your work, your unknowns, your designs, your knowledge.”

That big question and those big themes are similar to the ones I have tried to bring to my students on the final night of classes for about sixty or seventy semesters — probably eighty, counting summer school. At the end of a term, of course, there is nothing to look at except the future and what you will create in it.  Everything we have said to each other and done together in the classroom is finished, and we are grateful. Tonight, it is over for each of us and over for the temporary gathering that is a class.

At the beginning of the term, I suggested that we would address some things that are even larger and more important than your future.  The syllabus says,

This course offers you an opportunity for thought, inquiry and reflection about the institutions and constructions that surround knowledge.  It is a course about gathering and collecting knowledge, the purposes and effects of organizing knowledge, and the condition and presentation of knowledge for its possible users.  Necessarily, this course is also about fear and ignorance, the absence of knowledge.

The course is based on these assumptions:

  • While libraries and other cultural situations are important to understand, knowledge is our true workplace.

  • Knowledge grows. It deepens, extends, and connects. When we find and use it, and when we reflect on it, we make knowledge new.
  • Knowledge rarely grows simpler; it almost invariably becomes more complex.

  • Therefore it increases human complexity, culturally and individually. Knowledge also increases tension and responsibility.

  • Knowledge is useful and encouraging; it generates courage and undoes fear. Ignorance is not useful and it is discouraging.  It generates fear and undoes courage.  It creates conditions for chaos.
  • We keep libraries and other institutions to meet, negotiate, and undertake the generative tasks of our culture, guided by questions and the promise of knowledge.

I also promised you some things about our work at the start of the course in September.

We will describe more statements of assumption as we work through the term.  With attention and energy, we will think about the grounding of our professional lives.  As librarians – or even as educators, curators, journalists, communicators – we work in an institutional place configured by knowledge and driven by questions. Our task is to create these places by what we do; without our devoted attention to the knowledge they contain, they fail.

“What we do” and “our devoted attention to the knowledge they contain” are ways of saying “practice.”  So thinking about libraries – just thinking and talking about what they are and what they do — at least in this course, is an essential part of our practice.

Now, at the end of the experience, it is reasonable to assume that you will differ with me about whether these things have in fact happened, or whether my assumptions are true, or whether I was able to keep my promises during the term.  Even I don’t even have many confident responses to these evaluative criteria.

It is clear to every one of you by now that I do not like to explicate or explain readings, but rather I want them to speak to you and stimulate the thinking a class requires.  They were chosen to make your thinking happen, not in a particular way, but in whatever way you happen to be a thoughtful person.  The format of our class sought to sustain my belief in the reading group. A class is a way for people to do something together that matters consequentially to their attention.  I wanted you to remember why you felt a calling to library service.  Like any teacher, my job has been to help you to find your own form of magic – always an invisible action — and then to interpret it, and illuminate your next steps toward more of it.

It is probable that the questions I have asked in nearly all my classes have not changed over the decades.  The ones I asked you to accept as our guiding questions in September are variations of questions I asked thirty years ago in my doctoral dissertation and even in the teaching and service I did before then.

  • What can we say about knowledge?  How might we describe it?  In what ways is it created?

  • How do we create a critical definition of the institutions that collect, organize, and present knowledge? What can we say about them?  What do they have to do?  What are their strengths, failures, tensions?

  • How do we think and speak about the relationship between cultures and cultural institutions?

Standing in back of these questions we will find more questions for librarians. What is service?  What are our tasks as professional agents and advocates for learners and their cultural institutions?  How do we expand or explore our professional values as we serve?  What does it mean when we build a library in a community?  What are the possibilities for changing a library?  What are the possibilities for the library as an agency of change in a community? How does knowledge change things?

Perhaps it is arrogant to assume that knowledge changes things.  Perhaps I have found so much arrogance in academic life that even a devotion to knowledge can take on sinister intentions. No one gets a grant for their devotion, or for their service to an idea. Knowledge suffers; knowledge is sacrificed. When we look at the political and social worlds outside of the university, it’s difficult to believe that knowledge has a place in national life. The university, as I have known it, does not seem to care about changing that loss. As I now write a book about knowledge and democracy from my small corner view, this worries me, but it also invites me to work more, speak more, and assert more about what knowing does to us and what not knowing also does to us.  I am not yet done.

The foundation of the library and its guiding value is probably simple:  We are responsible for rescuing each other from not knowing.

Knowledge offers power and grace when gathered, rescued, stored and curated.  When saved and given, its power and grace are enhanced by the transfer.  To think about the gathering and holding of knowledge and experience – just to contain and keep these traces of human life – is a responsibility we still do not fully understand, even though it is our daily work.  Holding knowledge is never a passive act; building collections and organizing them are bold and revolutionary things to do.  We are challenged every day to live up to this responsibility.  It is too easy to miss, and easier still to have others cause us to forget it.  Our practice is what we do with the tools and devices we have created to increase knowledge. Our practice  requires a form of integrity and heroism — our devoted attention to knowledge — few professions can claim.

A second part of this talk will appear soon.


3 Responses to “Last Night, Part 1”

  1. Anthony Vaver Says:

    I was a student of David Carr’s when we were both at Rutgers many years ago. Recently, the school at Rutgers changed its name from SCILS (School of Communication, Information, and Library Service) to simply SC&I (School of Communication and Information). Not surprisingly, this change did not sit well with students and alumni from the M.L.S. program. Many saw the move as disenfranchising those people in the program who were devoted to libraries. Those behind the change seemed to think that “communication” and “information”–both, admittedly, important facets of libraries–were sufficient umbrella terms to describe librarianship and the other fields of study taught in the school.

    In reading David Carr’s post above, I now realize why the change bothered me so much, beyond the elimination of the word that is printed on my diploma. The very concept of libraries connects us to the deep traditions of knowledge that are held and preserved in them. When we equate “information” and “communication” with knowledge and focus our attention on how we can create better keyword searches without human intervention, we treat knowledge as one large bucket that simply requires a better ladle to help us produce more knowledge.

    But libraries are more than this. The attention given to the information collected in libraries specifically says that this information is different. In fact, this information is so different that it constitutes knowledge and deserves to be treated in a special way, so that people can get to it not only easier, but in complex ways.

    I may be able to do a lot of my writing and research with a computer at home, but when I do so, I still rely on libraries via the databases they collect and offer online. The kind of knowledge I need is not simply available on the Web, and if the databases I use disappear–or if the databases stopped organizing the knowledge contained in them in a way that makes it easier to tap into it (unfortunately, some are certainly better than others in this regard)–my role as a public intellectual will either slow to a crawl or come to a complete halt.

    The keyword approach needed to organize “information” or advance “communication” might be best for the Web or for the masses, but we can hardly categorize a lot of what is out on the Internet as knowledge. The masses (and I include myself here) need help in identifying knowledge more than ever, and institutions and people who work in them precisely exist for this reason. Knowledge requires a special kind of handling. Once this specialness is lost or neglected, it becomes nothing more than “information” or “communication.”

  2. Celia Rabinowitz Says:

    Thank you, David, for this. As a member of that academic culture, I also yearn for the kind of curiosity and passion that I connect to my own learning.

    What I see is that we have made ‘knowledge’ and ‘answers’ into interchangeable terms. I don’t think they are. So students look for answers, or sources. Faculty test for answers. But we don’t ask ourselves what we have learned, or what we think we know that we did not at the beginning of a semester or year. Or what we want to know next. Or how that process has changed us as individuals and as members of various communities.

    Our most popular politicians seem to be people who belittle the role of knowledge (and expertise) in decision-making, as if it is the purview of some elite. And I see myself in the “business” of providing every student, faculty, and staff member with the opportunity to learn and to know.

    I think about how diminished my life would be if I stopped asking questions. Lately (chalk this one up to my being an administrator most of the time) I look at spreadsheets and usually end up asking dozens of questions about what the data might mean if sorted differently. Each way of looking might lead to different knowlege, or new questions. Sometimes I am not even sure what the answers are.

    I am grateful for this opportunity read and think about David’s ideas.

  3. Kathie Says:

    Welcome to the world of blogging. I am so happy to have found your site & look forward to continuing as your reader. Thank you for the thoughts sparked from your first entry (and the second if sleeping children allow). I loved your thought about finding magic. It is a wonderful way to think about the guidance I offer to my children as they grow & explore the world.

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