Libraries at War; and, More on Socrates

This past week we had no class; it was “Winter Break” (Michigan’s version of “Spring Break,” just with more seasonally appropriate language. The week before that, we spent the majority of our class time discussing and demonstrating the kinds of questioning techniques that help to build a foundation for a successful Book Club or Socratic Seminar. Before we had that discussion, we looked at some “librarians in the news” pieces, and got a demonstration of how to use the service Poll Everywhere (

One of the “librarians in the news” pieces was about Mick Jacobsen’s post at on the “war” librarians are “fighting.” The responses to this post were interesting, for me. A lot more folks than I expected regarded the choice to use the word “war” as a bit overly violent. This was reaction was interesting to me, because I’m often a person to look at word choices like that when they come up in different discussions, but I didn’t think twice about Jacobsen’s word choice here. In fact, I thought his use of the word “war” was important in this context. Often, I feel like talk of “being at war” gets used in situations where it is inappropriate, only for the purpose of firing people up – an attempt to get people’s blood lust flowing. However, in the context of libraries “fighting” for their users, I think this use can be seen as necessary. Often, I feel like people who work in the public service sector often get either (a) overwhelmed or (b) complacent and forget that they are sometimes the only ones fighting the good fight. In libraries, if this means thinking of ourselves “at war” with forces that oppose our users’ needs and rights, then that might be what it takes. I think the most important thing, in this case (as in any war), is remembering who we’re fighting for.

As I said before, we also discussed/demonstrated the effective use of the Socratic Seminar model. While my group and I are not pursuing this method for our Book Club assignment, I’m still very interested in this model and how it could be effectively used in academic library settings. I think as library work becomes more and more strongly focused on instruction and teaching our users skills they need to navigate their information environments, models like the Socratic Seminar will become increasingly important.

One point that was brought up in the class discussion was the “role of the leader” in a Socratic Seminar. The leader’s job is to serve only as a guide for the participants. The leader should not offer any personal thoughts or opinions about a piece, but only help to steer the participants towards a richer understanding of the piece, and, hopefully, something greater than the piece. This got me thinking about Socrates (as presented in Plato’s writings) again. There has long been a debate in the philosophy community surround Plato’s portrayal of Socrates: is his “ignorance” and refusal to state his own view point merely an ironic tactic on the part of Socrates, or is this a genuine openness to viewpoints that brings Socrates to this state of ignorance? When I studied Plato’s works, I found myself often siding with the commentators who think that Socrates is truly ignorant and open, and not merely being ironic. Many of Plato’s earlier dialogues finding Socrates and his interlocutor ending their discussion still in a state of ignorance (the aporetic dialogues) – this is an example of a discussion that, while it didn’t technically “lead” anywhere, still brought the participants to a state of increased understanding. Maybe they still had no idea what the “answer” might be, but they were much better at figuring out the questions.


About rclement643

I am currently a graduate student at University of Michigan's School of Information. This blog is being kept as a place for reflections on the readings for the class
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3 Responses to Libraries at War; and, More on Socrates

  1. Kristin says:

    We have an update about Mick and his post … stay tuned for the beginning of class!

  2. Kelly says:

    The discussion of the term “war” in this context is interesting to me, too. I thought about it in terms of other ways that the word “war” is used in other ambiguous contexts: “the war on drugs,” “the war on terrorism,” etc. In some ways, this usage seems related to an attempt to bring together a variety of complex factors under one umbrella in order to provide a point of focus or a rallying cry. In terms of libraries’ plight, I think it just depends on how any efforts related to this “war” are implemented — though I certainly agree with you that libraries need to look out for social forces affecting their patrons, and make decisions accordingly.

    • rclement643 says:

      Kelly – I was thinking about that too, after I wrote this post. It’s a sticky issue. On one hand, I hate (and point this out) when people use the word “war” just to mean a “debate” – i.e. the war on drugs, terrorism, poverty. At the same time, though, I’m all for a little sensationalism when necessary – sometimes you just need to hit people over the head to get them talking. I just wish there was another word that accomplished many of these same things without being “war” – it’s a very imperfect metaphor. I mean, yeah, war is what happens when two groups with two different ways of looking at the world want to utilize the same resources (WAY OVER SIMPLIFIED), but war is also costly (in human and material and emotional and spiritual terms), and war often leaves both groups slightly worse off in some ways than before they started, and war just leads to more war, and etc. I’ll be trying to think of a new metaphor just as soon as I’m done thinking about maps today (midterm!).

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