The mistake of Progressivism

I was thinking this morning about conflicts between ethical values and how they are resolved within librarianship.  Preer emphatically states that, A, service IS access, and B, the profession completed this profound shift in values around the 1975 Statement on Ethics.  My only problem with Preer’s narrative is the Determinism that underlies it.  After we reach this new understanding, all that left is Preer’s account is minor tweaking to ethical values–the era of upheavals is over.   This is akin to some misguiding readings of evolution that it as progressive, with every change leading from “primitive” life to “more evolved” life, culminating is the Ultimate lifeform, Man (never Woman, mind you, but that’s a whole other can of worms).  Richard Dawkins, for one, has vehemently fought this anthropocentric narrative.  Anyway, back to libraries–is see the same problem in Preer, in the inherent assumption that librarianship has naturally evolved to its current state *and that the current state of our ethics has reached its permanent plateau*.  Preer never comes out and says any such thing, of course, but examine the last chapter on “The Future”–it’s concerning with how to adapt *today’s ethics* to the technological change of the recent past and near future.  Its not about how library ethical values themselves will once again have to change in reaction to a changing environment, which I believe is the more pertinent question.

* * *

Let us consider Library 2.0.  Library 2.0 has become something of an unfortunate term, amorphous, overwrought, and colored with all manner of preconceptions.  Web 2.0, the term that “fathered”‘ Library 2.0, itself already seems musty and uncool, though it’s of relatively recent vintage (such is the half life of the internet).  For both Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 people tend to focus on the flash–interactive websites!, crowdsourcing!–and overlook a key concept that, though radical at the time, is now expected without thought.  The concept is “perpetual beta,” the state where an application or website is always in production and thus never complete.  It represents a break with how businesses previously (and often still) offer software in distinct versions, with years between releases.  Web 2.0 apps are fluid, subject to constant change as dictated by their use.

This concept has been extended beyond software to the workings of institutions.  Web 2.0 companies strive to constantly adapt to the demands of their users.  At its simplest, Library 2.0 seeks to do the same.

I think we are living in an era of radical change.  Preer wants to call the transformation to a “modern” ethics of access as complete, but I think she’s jumping the gun. I don’t take issue with access being the primary value at the moment.  But I think future MLIS students are going to be reading about the current era as a transitional phase.  It takes a while for big institutions, like libraries, to adapt to disruptive changes.  After the introduction of the printing press, it took centuries for the profession to adapt, with social and circulating libraries giving way to modern public, academic, and special libraries.  I don’t claim to know what the upheaval caused by the internet will mean for future libraries, but I think its critical to keep perspective–we’re not at the end of the line but stuck in the knotted middle.

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