Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Abbot and ATLA

As someone who hopes to eventually find a home in an academic library, I was especially interested in Abbot’s section on that topic. In particular, I was drawn to Abbot’s discussion of the tension between the traditional refereed journal’s editor as selector, and the database that potentially emphasizes quantity over quality (p. 439). Until recently, it was the editor, presumably a scholar advanced in his or her field, who selected for his or her journal the most relevant, researched, and refereed work to be published. The corporation in control of an electronic database does not necessarily value the academically rigorous criteria of the editor, instead preferring a database that can generate more hits per search than its competitor’s (I’m reading some of this into Abbot’s piece). The academic librarian, as the mediator between user and database, is then forced to make value judgements on the scholarship available, a task heretofore reserved for the editor. The librarian, especially a veteran in his or her subject area, will no doubt have a certain grasp of the issues and scholarship currently dominating the academic field, but nowhere approaching that of someone actually a member of that discipline. The perfect candidate for subject librarian within an academic library now becomes someone already advanced in that academic field. Since such confluence is unlikely in most cases, the next best thing is for the academic librarian to stay afoot of  the current debates, reading thoroughly the latest scholarship, attending conferences in the academic field of specialization (in addition to conferences for library professionals!), and consulting as often as possible with the academic department(s) on campus related to his or her specialization. Suddenly, the job of the academic librarian becomes two jobs. Few people have the time or inclination to work two jobs while they get paid for only one, and the result is librarians ill-equipped to manage the immense amount of (dis)information available through electronic databases.
Clearly, I’ve painted an overly dire picture here. But the potential for bad information, and the consequent necessity for filtering it, puts more strain than ever on the librarian. It might be useful to create dual positions, where the subject librarian also holds a post within the relevant academic department. By working directly with and for the scholars in that department, the librarian would be in a better position to judge the quality of information available via electronic databases.
I chose to look at the code of ethics for the American Theological Library Association (ATLA, http://www.atla.com/about.html#mission_and_ends). Since I have in the past benefited from the robust and useful database provided by this organization, I was somewhat puzzled by the lack of any mention of technology in its code. There are certainly allusions to this, “Excellent research tools supporting the study of religion and theology are created...,” “Research and development initiatives successfully address needs for improved and new products and services.” Without a doubt, theological scholarship is more text-based than most. For some time now, however, I’ve strongly believed that this is one field especially that could reap huge rewards by integrating technology. For instance, there are a number of debates that hinge on the way one letter in one manuscript is read. Why, therefore, is more energy not being put into making these manuscripts available digitally, for scholars to access remotely? It is a cumbersome and outdated process that requires a researcher to fly to Berlin or London to work on a manuscript, especially when the technology is so readily available to democratize that manuscript electronically.
All in all, I found ATLA’s code a collection of meaningless piffle without substance or impact. For example, “Primary source material and scholarly resources for the study of religion and theology are organized, preserved and made accessible at a reasonable expenditure of funds, time, and resources.” Way to take a stand, ATLA!


  1. Alcibiades, your last paragraph sums up a potential source of criticism against these sorts of statements, whereas one of your classmates points out that the generalities suggest perhaps some more flux in dealing with individual situations (and not getting "boxed in," as they put it, by guidelines). Yet what happens when the guidelines or codes are so vague as to be of little use at all?

    Not much, and that may be the problem. Meanwhile, a student this summer who is an employee in a theological library reported to me that there were a great deal of political, ethical and theoretical battles going on at her previous workplace that governed the kind of collecting the institution in question was doing. She ultimately left and went to a different facility, citing a greater alignment with their positions. It's not like theology libraries, therefore, are immune from ethical dilemmas and professional challenges.

  2. I thought I'd posted a response here last week. But it's not here now, so here it goes again. Alcibiades, I don't think you've painted an overly dire picture here, but rather one the reflects the growing complexity in our universe of information. The ever accelerating pace of the news cycle and the echo chamber created by 24 hour news networks and the internet provide us an environment of over-abundant information. Clearly, bad information is a part of that picture and it often takes hold in our political, social and cultural beliefs.

    I thought this was why Abbot's citing of Borges' endless library was so apt. At first the thought of a limitless library seems like an Eden. Further reflection reveals a darker underbelly, one featuring false paths, dead ends and confusion. Borges' library mirrors the internet, a library literally without limit, as it has no walls, and growing at an exponential pace. The internet is defying many of our attempts to keep up with discovering, categorizing and processing the new information that is created everyday.

    You also mentioned the necessity of filtering the "bad" information and the additional pressure that this places on the librarian. I agree that there is a need to filter out "bad" information, especially in an academic library. Serious harm could come from an engineer basing their work on faulty equations. It gets hard to know where to draw the line though when talking about librarians as the guardians of "good" information and it can be all too easy to overstep ethical boundaries.

    There is value in "bad" information too. And even works that feature flawed science, erroneous claims or bad arguments should be collected so that serious scholars have the opportunity to study and refute them.