There is a phrase widely used in librarianship that has always bothered me – “recorded knowledge.” It bothers me for a couple reasons, not the least of which it is often invoked by folks who define librarianship as collections and stacks. However, it is much more problematic in the light of participatory librarianship.
At the core of participatory librarianship is conversation theory. It is there, because participatory librarianship envisions the main mission of the library as facilitating learning. Conversation theory states that knowledge, or more precisely, knowing, is achieved through conversation. I won’t bore you with more details (well, a few maybe), but suffice to say, knowledge is an active and dynamic thing. It rests in the heads of the learner, not the object that may prompt a conversation. So the idea that knowledge can be recorded, that is, encoded and transferred as some sort of external stuff, doesn’t work. “Recorded knowledge” is an oxymoron. It would be like saying a recorded person, or archived awareness, or intelligent rock.
To know is to experience and converse. One knows by engaging in a series of dialogs, both internal and external. When you read a book, knowledge is not somehow magically springing from the page and taking residence in your brain. You are in an active process of decoding, remembering, and fitting into what you already know. For example, I was sent an article written in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese. No matter how long I stared at the pages, I was not going to learn BECAUSE THE KNOWLEDGE WASN’T RESIDENT IN THE CHARACTERS.
“But Dave,” you say, “aren’t you attempting to transfer knowledge through a recorded medium right now? You encode what you know (or think), and I decode that at the other end, and knowledge is transferred, right?” Wrong.
Take an extreme example…let’s say that after you read this, you still don’t buy it. You are perfectly fine with recorded knowledge as a phrase and an idea…what exactly did I transfer to you? My words can at best prompt an internal dialog where you decode what I wrote (or more precisely what you read) and have a conversation with yourself, and/or your colleagues, and make your own determination, i.e., creating your own knowledge. That it was my words that started that process might mean that our two understandings will be similar. You may use the same words as I do, or even cite my article in your own encodings, but that’s as close as I will ever get to imparting knowledge.
Regardless of what your theoretical stance is on knowing, however, why limit the field of librarianship to simply organizing and pointing to artifacts? Why ever limit knowledge to what is recorded – ask indigenous people, or the under represented, or the fringe, or even the craftsman. The main goal of librarianship isn’t the orderly distribution and location of stuff. It’s to make our communities smarter, and to make the world a better place. By focusing on recorded knowledge, which I take to mean artifacts like books, DVD’s, web pages, papyrus scrolls, stone tablets, and tapestry (among others), we move our attention away from where it matters – our members/users/patrons.
Oh the wonders I have seen when the focus of compassionate information professionals rest squarely on people and not things. That is where I have seen the best of us. I have seen the homeless find work in our cafes. I have seen an autistic man graduate with a masters degree because his exquisite and complex mind was fed by this profession. I have seen strong women escape abusive relationships when librarians connected them to social services. I have seen the birth of entrepreneurs and the creation of wealth, the explosion of joy in teens who can find common worldviews in the stacks. I have seen medical miracles from library resources, and whole communities revived. The directions of nations have been influenced by the work of librarians. In these days of the possible and a seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness, I have looked under the cloak of innovation and seen librarians peering back.
And I am not alone. Those entrepreneurs, those policy makers, those women, children and communities, they have seen this too. And they don’t see it in stacks and paper, they see it in people and action.
Now we as a profession must recognize it too. We must line the cloak of innovation with a mirror, so that we can all see our own true potential. We must, as a profession, adopt an air of confidence. We, as a profession, must move ever forward, in some cases pulling with us our communities.
And those among us, those who can’t see their own self-worth – those who would define the value of libraries in things that can be recorded? We must first take care to hear them, and to show them the power and value within themselves. If they cannot, or will not see it? Then we must move on and leave them behind.
We forever stand at the breach, the frontline between ignorance and enlightenment. We are the kind hand that conveys our communities from the darkness of the uninformed into the light of knowledge. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our communities to hold back the tide of indifference and intolerance. Through active service, we must not only point the way to better days, but we must live the way.
If you see injustice you make it right – not classify it. If you see ignorance, you teach, not point to textbooks. If you see intolerance, you not only tolerate, you embrace the injured party. Knowledge is alive. It is what we do, and act, and say. Sometimes that means preserving the memory of an act, or encoding some feat, or, yes, providing better access to evidence and documentation. But it always means the value lies in people, not what they record.