Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Power of Literacy

I got to a bit of a late start on R. David Lankes's New Librarianship MOOC, so I missed participating in a lot of the initial conversation, such as the Twitter arguments on the validity of conversation theory. However, I haven't seen anyone on Twitter (I'm not even attempting the discussion posts) really dig into the parts about power, so I'd like to. Starting at about 5:30 in the Facilitation: Knowledge/Training video, as well as in the book starting p74, Lankes makes the claim that literacy is about power. We read not necessarily because it's fun, but because it gives us the power to do things and get what we want. New Librarianship, in its promotion of literacy  should be increasing the power members in our community, especially those without power. Now, Lankes also includes fiction reading as power enabling. His examples in the book, however, are a little weak, with talk of what characteristics books cultivate and how reading Danielle Steele teaches us about ourselves. In the video he talks about learning to question authority with fiction without really getting into it. It leaves him open to critiques like Lane Wilkinson's on the issue of fiction in New Librarianship. Wilkinson points out, almost assuredly correctly, that most people don't read fiction to gain knowledge. We do it for enjoyment, culture, aesthetics maybe, but rarely explicitly to learn. Wilkinson doesn't really get into it, but if Lankes's point about fiction reading being empowering is based on fiction reading as knowledge creation, and Wilkinson is right that usually fiction reading isn't about knowledge creation, then fiction reading doesn't fit into New Librarianship's focus on facilitating power.

However, just because Lankes doesn't do a great job on explaining how fiction, literacy, and power go together doesn't mean they don't. You could argue it multiple ways, but luckily on my part, I ran into this TED Talk1 today on the importance of stories and power that tackles it from one perspective:

Clearly you should watch the whole thing, but just in case you don't I want to try to summarize Adichie's basic point, which is about the danger of the single story and why having multiple stories is important. It's something she ran into as a child, where all of the books available to her for a long time were American and British, with white skinned children playing in the snow and talking about how nice it is when the sun comes out. As a result, when she as a child started writing, she thought all stories were about white skinned children playing in the snow and talking about how nice it is when the sun comes out, so that's what she wrote. Access to only a single story left her for a time without the power to tell her own, because she didn't see her story as the type of story that fiction tells. It comes up again and again, where only having access to a single perspective, through both fiction and non-fiction, convinces her roommate that no Africans could speak English or use a stove, convinces Adichie before a trip there that Mexico is a place where everyone is unhappy and destitute, convinces a student all Nigerian men were abusive because the only perspective she had was one of Adichie's novels where one of the men is abusive, and so on. Having access to only one story about a people flattens them into a stereotype and robs them of their power. In response to the student, Adichie drolly points out that reading American Psycho didn't convince her that all American men are serial killers, since she had access to many stories about American men. At 17:40, she really drives the importance of stories and power:2
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to disposes and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of people, but stories can also begin to heal that broken dignity. 
I think it also begins to address Wilkinson's critique. I think he's right that most of us do not read fiction first and foremost for creating knowledge. Yet, whether we want to or not, our fiction reading creates knowledge (or in some cases "knowledge") that we rely on. I don't disagree with him that I'd like to see "aesthetic enjoyment, cultural enrichment, or emotional connection" talked about. But what we read, or don't read, creates knowledge that we will either use to see people as the flattened stereotypes of a single story or humanize through many stories.Therefore, a librarian should be concerned with facilitating power through literacy by selecting diverse collections,3 providing safe spaces to discuss multiple perspectives, and creating a compelling case to read fiction that provides a fuller picture of people and cultures. Those that are not are instead help to teach people the knowledge of the single story, even though they are probably not doing this consciously. Either way, like it or not, fiction is part of the knowledge business. Which, to be fair to Lankes, he hints at in the video around 6:35 when talking about pushing "proper" books and removing the banned books, but that's not something we needed New Librarianship to push against. 

1) I know, I know, but this isn't the TED Talk stereotype.
2) By "stories" she means more than fiction, but, since fiction is unquestionably included and she repeatedly using it as an example, I think "fiction" can be safely subbed in.
3) Yes, access to outside things is deemphasized in New Librarianship, but I believe that, though we talk a great deal about it, libraries really aren't yet truly great at offering diverse collections.

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