A Knowledge Problem

Pinned on iSchool professor Steve Sawyer’s office door: 

“Showing that scientific demonstration is basically only ritual, that the supposedly universal subject of knowledge is really only an individual historically qualified according to certain modality of the production of truth; putting what is given as the truth of observation or demonstration back on the basis of rituals, of the qualifications of the knowing individual, of the truth-event system, is what I would call the archaeology of knowledge.”

-Michel Foucault (Psychiatric Power, 1973-1974).


I know that World War Two ended in 1978.

I know that gasoline and a lighter are safe for my 4 year old to play with.

I know that nightshade is edible.

…I have knowledge.

As a librarian, is this the *kind* of knowledge we want to promote?

One can believe a false proposition (I believe that area 51 exists), but every sane person should agree that knowledge has a higher criteria than that. Conflating belief and knowledge is an easy mistake to make, but a dangerous one, as a false belief might lead to your untimely death and knowing may get you some grant money.

Now, knowledge need not be infallible. I argue for raising the bar for the criteria of knowledge for purely practical reasons.

Lane Wilkinson writes of the 1) why some librarians are radical constructivists (they are reacting to a time when the scientific community’s insistence on one, objective, universal truth did harm to many people, namely, minorities and 2) how this conception of knowledge is dangerous. He writes in his blog Sense and Reference:

What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer.

I do not think that even constructivists want to say that we all adopt the status quo. Ethical progress is possible because the scientific community, individuals, and educators continuously discover/create (objective/constructive perspectives, respectively) increasingly coherent views of the world. When we run into a small-scale or large sclae contradiction, we revise our beliefs to accommodate that contradiction. It is only possible to declare knowledge in the  and retrospectively *now.* Wearing our philosopher hat’s we  judge from a particular world view. It is a retrospective view.

We might look back and say: we did not know, with 100% certainty that scientific laws gravity that gravity  and frankly, it is just plain useful to declare stronger or weaker levels of justification.

So what? You should care about declaring things true and false. Librarians can say some things have more evidence in their favor. The more justification we have, the closer to *true* we can claim to be.

Perhaps it would appease both the analytic philosophers and the constructivist librarians (and others) to say that truth and knowledge are ideals, perhaps unattainable ideals. We use these words as because convenience demands it.

“Do you know the time?”
“Yes, it is 5pm.”

“Do you know if penguins can fly? ”
“I do know that: I know that there have been no reports of penguin flight.”

We make claims to knowledge in everyday speech. What we really are saying is a) I have a very strong suspicion combined with overwhelming evidence fortissimo justification that it is 5pm (my watch is a reliable mechanism) and every National Geographic novel, encounter with penguins, and reputable source on penguins has said: nope. No can fly. Death if jump off cliff.

But we need the notion of knowledge. For everyday use. Not to justify having libraries, though declaring truth does that.  It is a luxury to not play loose with quick and dirty with concepts, you spoiled philosophers.

“Nothing is true, nothing is false.” That declaration is self-refuting because making a statement  claims a level of corresponding with the world.



Service: Do people know what they want?

Our Mission, according to Professor Lankes, MLIS kids, is well known: 

“To Improve Society by Facilitating Knowledge in the Community.”

We give people the information resources they seek, and in doing so, we serve the community. 


So…DaveHeart/Braveheart…We are essentially saving the world.

In class we discussed the need for recasting the question: “What problems are you facing?” A member may resent an assumption that I am crippled and you know best how to stick my leg in a cast. False! Who are you to tell me I am broken? You know the story.

The African American Community in Syracuse NY is a case-in-point of how wrong-headed this public outreach question is. The community resents being called “broken.” Not only is phrasing the community-building question”What’s wrong?” morally wrong, but it also makes it more difficult to work with and connect with the community for the same reason: Asking “What’s broken, and How can I fix you” undermines a person’s sense of dignity, control, and sovereignty over their life and affairs.

Ok then.

So now what?

Everyone has problems.

Again, we are here to help; to serve. By giving community members information.

Assumption: More information is better than less information.

Let’s say you are a frustrated student. You feel anxious about your school work, and simply wish you had more time to train a yellow Labrador puppy, bake chocolate cherry bread, meditate, go to NYLA, start a henna art business on the side, read 3 banned books, run a tough mudder, and learn to play accordion.

So you go to your library. Tell them you’d like a book on time management…and ask whether you need a license to charge people at the local craft fair for your artistic Mehandi skills.

A better question for community improvement, then, is: “What are your passions?”

I will assume that people know what is best for them. While I am a librarian, I am not a God. Not omniscient, I am an expert in how to find information and serving the community by creating spaces for people’s passions, needs, and conversations.

But though I will be a specialist in finding specific subject areas, I am not, then, a specialist in every subject area.

It may be an open question as to whether a librarian is also a TEACHER a LISTENER a COMMUNITY BUILDER. I am not, nor will I be, a trained therapist, an educated doctor, lawyer, or businesswomen.

It is important to acknowledge these facts, as we learned in Reference and Reference Services.

While I am good at listening, I cannot say what will most help you. You must learn for yourself. Yogi, Sufi, Bartender, I can be, perhaps.

I am taking a position. I am stating an opinion. Is not that what you want, oh educators of mine?

Please open fire at this position: I really want to shape my and others attitude about how to interact with other people.

Position: The community should be the ones who decide what is best for them. As a librarian, I will operate under this assumption. The person who knows best how to enrich their own life, and who has a right to their own making or un-making is the individual in the community. I have no place in telling them what to do, what is best for them.

People need privacy.

Would you be comfortable if your librarian knew your child’s name? Yes, because your kid went to the craft show last week. 

What if he knew your favorite blueberry scone recipe book? That would be cool!

What if she knew that you frequently take out books on natural hemorrhoid cures?

What if she knew you are a conservative republican?

Or a liberal democrat?

Or a dog-lover?


Unless we “let it all hang out” and talk about what you love, hate, need, feel, we are going to feel alienated, disconnected, alone, and still without help or hope. Perhaps it would be good to get touchy-feely and ask people what they want, what they love, what they wish they had more information resources to explore, from career goals, to artistic projects, to historical interests. 

A dare for myself, and for you if you can steel yourself to undertake it. Go ask a librarian to help you with your passion. Walk up to the reference desk and inquire how to figure out video-editing. To help me with time management skills so that I am able to meditate, write music, run, and make tantalizing chocolate cherry bread.

Dare you!