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initial thoughts on the good in libraries


In sketching out a position for understanding libraries as an oppressive institution within a larger context of social, political, and economic inequality, we can also spend a moment understand some of the ways that libraries do good, despite this context.

Perhaps the most general way that libraries do good is by providing access to information. Now, obviously we can (and have) talk about how the access libraries provide is neither universal nor free. Or we can talk about how the information available is biased and narrow. But we can also talk about how information and providing access to it has unintentional, subversive consequences.

I remember in one of my early library school classes we were taught/shown a model of information that noted that information is something derived from data (like, interpreted data or something) and that knowledge is obtained via synthesizing/understanding/whatever information. In a hierarchy like this, one might posit that data is neutral, perhaps information too, thus so is knowledge. And certainly, this is a tale that most people are willing to buy into.

Except… the neutrality of information is far from an obvious or obviously true thing. To the extent that we conceptualize data as merely being the basic, matter-of-fact truths about the world (again, this is far from being uncontested), there is literally nothing about interpreting data (ie, creating information) that guarantees that this neutrality carries forward (ie, that neutrality is a transitive property). There are also no guarantees that, in this model, truth is also a transitive property. Nor is it even always possible to understand or assert that there is a strong distinction between data and information.

This means that, taking another step past information into knowledge, that knowledge has even less of a claim to inherent neutrality or truth1. If information can be false (which it most certainly can), then knowledge obtained via false information is unlikely to be true (insofar as ‘false knowledge’ can exist – but this isn’t critical to my point).

This system does, in fact, make somewhat more sense than a classical white formulation of epistemology when it comes to bits of information within libraries whose primary purpose isn’t necessarily to convey truth. By this I mean the piles of fiction stocked on the shelves. I mean… I doubt there are many people who’d be willing to claim that the latest Nora Roberts novel’s main purpose is to convey true information2. And this applies to all fiction, which, by its very defintion, is about made up people, made up stories, and so on. Even the most realist of realist novels is still, in the end, something made up.