Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Concordia St. Paul librarian responds to Princeton librarian’s "Libraries and the Enlightenment"

That Concordia St. Paul librarian would be me, Nathan Rinne, the author of this blog post (as they say, “shameless self-promotion”). 

Recently, I read this book written by the Princeton librarian, blogger (“The Academic Librarian”), and Library Journal contributor Wayne Bivens-Tatum. 

I had wanted to read this book when it was published a couple years ago, but I became particularly interested in it when Bivens-Tatum published an article on Library Journal’s website provocatively titled “Librarians as Indoctrination Mills” (read it here) 

That web article drew a response from me at the time, and after reading “Libraries and the Enlightenment”, I felt compelled to respond again in the form of a short article.  I called the article “Should libraries ever be ‘neutral’?  Can any library? One Christian’s perspective” , and sent it to Bivens-Tatum himself. 

His response?  “We seem to be the perfect foils for each other.”  Although I would have rather persuaded Wayne, I take that to be about the best complement I could have received from him!  (also, please note that Bivens-Tatum, like myself, does not believe that there is any true neutrality).

In any case, the article strikes me as a bit long and heady in its present form, and so here I am going to provide a brief summary of its contents.  For those who are interested in reading the more dense and developed argument, you can read parts I, II, and III at my well-intentioned but perpetually neglected philosophical-theological blog.  Please note that all of the points I make do not necessarily respond to points that Bivens-Tatum made in his book or article.

In part I I note that although libraries are defined by their missions or the missions of the institutions they are a part of, Bivens-Tatum is right to highlight the appeal of a “universal library” where any learned and reasoned opinion has a place in the “conversation”.  This is a dream I think Christians can certainly share, and even as some kinds of materials are always unconsciously or consciously passed over (and even deliberately “censored”), Bivens-Tatum notes that the desire for such an extensive and all-encompassing collection has actually been reached in part through the miracle of interlibrary loan.  That said, what does “any learned and reasoned opinion” really mean anyways?  Citing the influence of the Enlightenment in libraries, Bivens-Tatum notes in his web article that academic libraries in particular indoctrinate students “into methods for how they should form beliefs about the world”.  For him, this means that views formed by religious beliefs are inevitably marginalized due to a lack of grounding in evidence and reason.  On the contrary, I contend with the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantiga that belief in God is a “basic belief” – meaning that it is a belief one argues from and not one we argue to.

In part II I further explore this issues of religious faith, knowledge, and “neutrality”.  As 20th century thinkers like Michael Polanyi, E.F. Schumacher, and Charles Taylor have demonstrated in spades, much of our real knowledge is “personal” and so “subjective” in this sense.   Therefore, it cannot always be demonstrated, articulated, made explicit, etc… contrary to the hopes of many Enlightenment thinkers.  In any case, if we think we may indeed gain at the very least some interesting knowledge from feminist or Marxist perspectives, for example, we certainly can say the same for religious views (if one objects here, note the Christian librarian Gabriel Naude, 1600 – 1653, said: “God permits us to profit from our enemies”).  All this said, concerns for the “objectivity” of knowledge – and the efforts to suppress our personal biases that go with this concern – are certainly justified.  Interestingly, when Bivens-Tatum claims “the burden of proof is on the person without [the publicly available] evidence, not the skeptic”,  the Christian in particular can respond by saying that the Biblical writings not only presume that just such evidence exists, but that Christian claims are largely based on such evidences.  For example, when the Apostle Paul writes of the crown of God’s interventions in history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – he speaks of it in a way that completely undercuts modern secular understandings of what “religion” is all about (see Acts 17 and 26 in particular).  

In part III, the idea of neutrality in libraries is explored in more depth.  I maintain that “neutrality” is both desirable and impossible.  It is desirable in that “neutrality” can simply mean giving a voice to persons who attempt, by their learning and reasoning, to persuade others regarding issues that are very important to them and others.  On the other hand, the reality that evidence which is public, relevant and convincing is (evidently) important to many of us cannot change the other reality that we are all either hard or soft idealogues – for there are always some things unique to this person or that group which are not readily doubted.  This means neutrality in this sense is impossible.  Again, the current reality of interlibrary loan helps address both of these issues.  Of course, given the fact that some knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands and some knowledge is simply dangerous, all will desire in certain circumstances to place at least some limits on any desired library neutrality.  From the Christian perspective, we can add three more points:  1) while persons pursue knowledge for reasons of power and curiosity, the greatest reason is to better love one’s neighbor with knowledge ; 2) those influenced by more secular views may “dislike or even fear freedom and autonomy” as much as religious persons ; and 3) saying persons should be convinced something is true and “beating [persons] over the head with [one’s] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness” (p. 79, Christenson, Tom, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, Augsburg Fortress, 2004) are two very different things! 

The final conclusion: libraries – and perhaps “Enlightenment libraries” most of all – are a wonderful gift of God.