Technology and Humanism: Reflections on Austin

by Paul Gatz

Most readers of this blog are likely already aware that law librarians are awesome, but it’s nice to see some folks outside of the profession come to the same conclusion. The two examples I have in mind both came in the wake of this year’s AALL Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. Above the Law’s LawProfBlawg recognized AALL’s refusal to continue to host meetings in Texas in protest of the state’s recent legislative attempts to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And on LawSites Robert Ambrogi elevated AALL to his list of the best legal tech conferences to attend. Each of these examples reveals something deep and true about our profession, but it is in the combination of the two that the essence of law librarianship dwells.

The library itself is a technology, a tool for preserving and accessing knowledge. From the Alexandrian Pinakes of Callimachus to the automated storage and retrieval systems of a library like the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library, this technology has developed into a sophisticated system, which, like all technology, is determined by and constructed with the available technological tools and systems of the time. The durability of the library as a technology has been and will continue to be due to the continued openness of librarians to new technologies.

This openness does not always come naturally. Change is always difficult. It is easy to feel one’s livelihood is threatened by automation or algorithms – and this fear is not always unwarranted! But fear clouds the mind. The librarian’s interest in technology does not come from fear, but is instead based in curiosity and openness. We want to know how these things work, to understand how they can fit in to our libraries and organizations, and to use them to build a better library.

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Saddened to never have seen a bike chained here.

A technology always serves a purpose, although not always the purpose its inventor intended and not always the purpose its promoters proclaim. Technology is not neutral. The purpose of a given technology carries with it value-laden assumptions that provide the implicit justification for the existence of the technology and the way it is used. The library, as technology, is no different. As a tool for preserving and accessing knowledge, the library contains the idea that knowledge is a good thing and that it should be preserved and made accessible.

But what counts as knowledge? Which knowledge gets preserved? Who gets access to it? These things all depend on the way the technology is used. Is the library used to make a profit? Is it used to elevate certain voices and marginalize others? The answers to these questions do not follow straightforwardly from the beneficent ideal of the library. They depend on the values that librarians bring to their work.

As law librarians, I would hope that the values that inform our work would include compassion, toleration, a respect for human dignity, and the furtherance of justice and the rule of law. The Association’s decision to take a stand against LGBTQ discrimination indicates that my hope is not misplaced. It is hard to see these values at work in the everydayness of our lives and jobs, but the Association’s decision, along with Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address (about which I wish I could say more, but I am unequal to the task), reminded me that our humanity is central to our work – in the decisions we make, our interactions with others, and, ultimately, what we hope for our profession and for our world.

As librarians, our work is the library, whether it is conceived as a building, a collection, a service, a technology, or an idea. Always eager to learn and explore new possibilities, we use whatever tools or technologies available to improve the library. Key to our use and development of technology, key to the library, and key to librarianship, is the fact that the library must be used by human beings to address human problems. We must all be technologists. We must all be humanists.

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About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Issues in Librarianship (generally), Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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