“improve society” a.k.a. Spock knows best!

I have to say I, like a certain Utah librarian and critic of David Lankes, was at first skeptical about the ability of librarians to “improve society.”  Not because I didn’t believe that librarians have the wherewithal to effect meaningful social change in their communities; rather, my skepticism was due to a long-held suspicion of any individual or even group of individuals who purport to know what is “best” for society.  As a ‘certain-Utah-librarian-and-critic-of-David-Lankes’ put it, “who the hell are [librarians] to know what is good for society” (Lankes class lecture, July 23rd, 2012).

In the end however, Lankes (2012) won me over by emphasizing the process by which librarians determine what is best for society.  It’s not about an individual or group of individuals replacing the community’s values with their own; rather it’s about the ability (and duty) of a librarian to engage the community in a meaningful dialogue.  A dialogue whose very meaning is derived from the values, societal norms, and principles, by which a community (which includes the librarian) determines its own destiny.

Subsequently, I began to try to think of ways to defend Lankes against the argument that it is hubris for librarians to think they can know what will improve for society.  The counter intuitive but perhaps practical way to go would be to say that they (librarians) don’t know what is best for society.  That’s why librarians need to try new things and experiment to see what works in their communities and what doesn’t.  Susan Considine, executive director of the very successful Fayetteville Free Library certainly takes this approach and, considering that the Fayetteville Free Library went from an operating budget of 300k to 1.6 million under the leadership of Considine, I think it’s safe to say that in this case at least, the trial and error model proved to be an effective method by which librarians can improve society.  (Lankes class lecture, July 23rd, 2012).  Even if you don’t accept the correlation between a higher operating budge and an improved society, it is hard to deny the fact that if Considine’s methods hadn’t worked for her community, it is unlikely the community would have voted to increase her budget time after time with a margin of approval for the increase never lower than 71% (id.)

Practical argument aside, there is a more philosophically driven argument to make on Lankes’ behalf.  Essential to this argument is the comparison between librarians and judges.  High level judges, like librarians, are not elected officials.  No one votes them into office and yet their decisions usually incorporate an interpretation of policy – which necessarily includes a determination of what is best for society.  For political theories like Dworkin, this is a problem that needs solving.  Political philosophers, like Dworkin therefore seek to explain this seeming affront to liberal representative democracy.  Dworkin in particular argued that:

“The sharp distinction between background and institutional morality will fade, not because institutional morality is displaced by personal convictions, but because personal convictions have become the most reliable guide he has to institutional morality” (1978, p. 128).

In other words, for Dworkin, a judge’s background morality does not replace or trump institutional morality (the community’s morality, values, etc.).  Instead what is happening is more interesting – the judge’s background morality (i.e. his own personal conviction) is informed in such a way by institutional morality that his background morality then becomes the judge’s best guide to institutional morality. The judge therefore, like the librarian, uses his or her own experience within the community in order to determine community values and community mores.

Of course one could argue that the judge’s role as society’s “interpreter,”unlike the librarian’s is written into the Constitution, except well…  it’s not!  The  precedent for judicial review actually originates in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), a case in which Supreme Court Justice Marshall literally carves out judicial review for the court (much to the dismay of many a founding father!).  The argument I am making here therefore is, philosophy aside, also a practical argument.  Human society is not like bee society.  Each individual is not instinctively aware of what is the best course of action for the collective.  We, as a society, in particular a liberal democratic society, necessarily must have among us those whose responsibility it is, is to interpret what is best for society and what will make it better. While I certainly admit my own bias might be at play here, I think there is a strong argument to be made that a) the role of society’s “interpreter” should not solely be the purview of judges and politicians and b) librarians, being an integral part of the community, are ideally situated to be one of many social actors to fulfill that vital role.  As (I think) science officer Spock would say, “It’s only logical.”


Dworkin, Ronald (1978). Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lankes, R. David (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lankes, R. David. “Introduction to IST 511.” Syracuse University, summer session. Syracuse, NY.   24 July 2012.


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