Creatures of the Middle Ground: Libraries and Autonomy

In Parks Canada, The Commemoration of Canada, and Northern Aboriginal Oral History, Neufeld (2008) illustrates the challenges of developing a national narrative and identity in a society with diverse cultural communities. Parks Canada is a national agency responsible for maintaining socially and culturally significant sites that are symbolic of Canadian national history and identity. First Nations is a community of indigenous peoples located in Canada that possess their own cultural identity and history that contributes to the national identity and seeks to share a space in the national narrative. Neufeld (2008) poses the question, “How can a national agency contributing to an existing unified national identity effectively serve the interests of disparate cultural communities included in our national community?” (p. 10).

In Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians, Barbakoff (2010) discusses how libraries can be used to reject or reinforce specific social values and ideals. Barbakoff suggests that the social role of libraries and librarians serves to reinforce the moral value of autonomy and articulates specific ways the services offered by libraries and librarians contribute to autonomy building.

Applying Neufeld’s discussion of cultural communities to Barbakoff’s portrayal of libraries as social tools, how can the library as a national institution that contributes to a unified national identity effectively serve the interests of different cultural communities within the national community?

In order to answer this question it must first be established that the library as an institution contributes to a unified national identity and that it should be concerned with serving the interests of different cultural communities within the national community. As a symbol of democracy, freedom, and equality, the library undoubtedly conveys a national narrative and communicates a unified national identity. Another aspect of that national identity however, is cultural diversity. As a nation, we tend to pride ourselves on and define ourselves by our cultural diversity. As Neufeld (2008) suggests, “It’s important to recognize that other cultures have parallel ways of ascribing meaning and that a refusal or determined inability to acknowledge this fact weakens the social fabric that defines our country” (p. 25). Neufeld suggests the need for “a middle ground where these multiple meanings can be acknowledged and accommodated” (p. 23).

This suggestion is reminiscent of cultural border theory and articulates a need for libraries and similar institutions to be “the middle ground” in order to serve different cultural communities and maximize the benefit, impact, and ongoing necessity of their services. Cultural border theory examines how individuals, particularly marginalized individuals, who occupy multiple social or cultural spheres, are often discriminated against and denied full acceptance by either group because of their duality or multiplicity. They are “pushed to the margins” by members of the group and exist on the border between the conflicting parts of their identity. As part of multiple communities yet fully accepted by neither, these individuals are often denied a complete identity, voice, or place within society. In the context of the First Nations community as described by Neufeld for example, the First Nations individuals exist as part of an indigenous social and cultural community, as well as the Canadian social and cultural community. In attempting to claim both parts of their identity they are initially marginalized by the dominant social and cultural narrative and denied a full voice and place in society.

A similar example can be found in the New York Times article, For Many Latinos, Race is More Culture Than Color by Mireya Navarro (2012). In this article, Navarro discusses the United States census and the categories that are provided for race and ethnicity. Navarro observes that for the 2010 United States census, more than 18 million Latinos selected the “other” category (compared to 14.9 million in 2000) for the question concerning racial identity. Navarro asserts that for many Latinos, “the country’s race categories – indeed, the government’s very conception of identity – do not fit them.” Because the dominant society fails to acknowledge or accommodate the different ways various cultural groups construct identity, these individuals are forced to become “others” and denied the opportunity to assert their identity and place in society.

Many border theorists however, propose this borderland as a “space of change”. This indefinable middle ground, as part of both yet belonging to neither, presents an opportunity for marginalized groups or individuals to construct and claim an identity, voice, and place in society. It is within this middle ground, where different socially and culturally derived groups and perspectives converge, that social shaping can occur and result in a more dynamic and influential understanding of society, culture, and the individual.

In order to serve different cultural communities the library should function as this borderland or middle ground. As Barbakoff illustrates, libraries already somewhat function as a middle ground through the provision of opportunities for autonomy building. Barbakoff (2010) defines autonomy as “the moral capacity to make one’s own choices” and identifies it as “a primary moral value, essential to living a flourishing life.” Barbakoff illustrates the importance of autonomy in reference to individuals with disabilities and discusses how these minorities have been historically oppressed by socialization, which turns their differences into sources of discrimination and shame. Barbakoff suggests that systems that are biased towards the majority may reduce their autonomy “as they internalize the dominant message that they are less valuable.” Barbakoff asserts prioritization of autonomy as a means of consciously and publicly rejecting oppressive social norms. By emphasizing and valuing autonomy, libraries acknowledge and accommodate alternative perspectives and ways of ascribing meaning and thereby support the interests of different cultural communities within the national community.

In addition to functioning as the middle ground, librarians and the library itself should attempt to be “creatures of the middle ground” (Neufeld, 2008, p. 25). As a creature of the middle ground, libraries and librarians should consciously and emphatically acknowledge and accept their multiple roles and places within different social and cultural spheres. As Neufeld suggests, a creature of the middle ground, “must not only continuously reevaluate its objectives but craft new analytical tools in an ongoing way to meet the evolving understanding of what is taking place on the middle ground” (p. 25). As a creature of the middle ground the library should become an active part of the social shaping process it facilitates and change as the needs and perspectives of the society it serves changes.

Libraries must be wary of defining purposes and methods too rigidly to avoid limiting their ability to function as the middle ground or as part of the middle ground. In discussing autonomy, Barbakoff (2010) outlines “five competencies employed in the exercise of autonomy: access to information about many life possibilities, self-reflection, critical thinking, self-worth, and willingness/ability to act” and describes the different activities libraries engage in that support these skills. While these competencies and the activities that support them may be valid components of autonomy, libraries and national institutions that aim at supporting diverse cultural communities within a national community should be cautious in attempting to articulate or define how social values are specifically enacted. Barbakoff’s “willingness/ability to act” for example, would not only be difficult for a library to measure and evaluate for efficacy, but also inadvertently suggests a distinct way of enacting autonomy and negates alternative culturally based interpretations of this value.

The library as an institution undoubtedly conveys a distinct national narrative and contributes to a unified national identity. In order to support and strengthen our social fabric and effectively serve the different cultural communities that make up our national community, libraries and librarians should become “creatures of the middle ground” to help acknowledge and accommodate alternative perspectives and ways of ascribing meaning. By creating a space that acknowledges and accommodates multiple cultural perspectives, and constantly reevaluating its purposes and methods, libraries function as both a “middle ground” and “creatures of the middle ground” and are therefore effectively able to accommodate different cultural communities within the national community.

Works Cited

Barbakoff, Audrey. (2010). Libraries build autonomy: A philosophical perspective on the social role of libraries and librarians. Library Philosophy and Practice.

Navarro, Mireya. (2012). For many Latinos, racial identity is more culture than color. The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2012 from

Neufeld, David. (2008). Parks Canada, The Commemoration of Canada, and Northern Aboriginal Oral History. In P. Hamilton and L. Shopes (Eds.), Oral History and Public Memories (pp. 7-30). Temple University Press.

The Power of Collective Memory

The human act of remembrance can be powerful indeed. The Sherman article details the construction of French war memorials commemorating the First World War. His concentration is on those in France due to the singular attitude of the French people toward war and the deceased, and on commemoration of the First World War due to his desire to portray an important historical shift which differentiates between memorials of the past and those of more recent wars.

This change took place during the times of the Napoleonic Wars. In earlier wars, both in France and in the Roman Empire, it was very common for war memorials to feature illustrations of generals or high-ranking tacticians, those who actually “won” the war. The commoners and soldiers were mostly or wholly ignored. In more recent war memorials, however, one very often sees a depiction either of masses of soldiers or of architectural wonders with no people at all, showing the many who fought in the war rather than portraying a few individuals vital to the efforts. This new recognition is related to the way the general populace is viewed, and the changes in that situation with a transfer to more democratic and anarchist views.

The French community is a group greatly affected by World War I, and as a result by the memorials and ceremonies which remember the events of the war and the people affected by it. The people gather at ceremonies to show that the entire country gathers as one to remember the soldiers of the war, that such an important event has entered their collective memory.

Collective memory is a very powerful concept that changes forever the way people view an event. The way the French people view World War I now that they have created memorials will never be the same as the way they saw it before it was engraved into their official recollection. The very way in which people consider events is changed itself by their desire to consider it.

And this phenomenon can occur with collective memory of any venue. For example, one common venue of collective memory of another sort can be found in the workplace. The pair of articles by Orlikowski explains the process of this collective memory’s creation through the implementation of Lotus Notes in Alpha and Zeta Corporations.

In the first company, Alpha, Notes did not work well. Although it was intended to facilitate interpersonal opinion, many of the workers used the software to enhance their work in ways with which they were familiar. In the second company, Zeta, Notes was a much better fit. This was in part because Zeta implemented a pilot program, to begin to plant the seeds of a knowledge of the system. It was also, however, because the existing collective psyche and memory of Zeta was more closely aligned with Lotus Notes than was that of Alpha. Since the industry could not change themselves, they could not effect such a fundamental change as the use of new software with quite as much success as Zeta.

Once the system began at Zeta, primarily to assist the Customer Service aspect, it did, as intended, foster a large amount of interaction between the coworkers. In fact, it was at times difficult to distinguish one case as the work of one individual as opposed to that of another. In that case, the case best entered the company’s collective memory, as a part of the work that no one person could remember on his or her own, but rather something that the company as a whole could remember collaborating to complete.

The use of the new software allowed for more explicit documentation of calls. However, it also came with its share of disadvantages. For example, there was the issue of security. Some personnel had difficulties transferring their more sensitive files from the old system to the newer one. Also, along with the positive aspects of coworker interaction, such as the ability to share work, came the ability for one’s work to b seen by one’s boss. As a result of that, there was a large amount of fear of surveillance by managers and by security systems. This fear stifled work at times, while the interactions with others had the opposite effect. Once the employees changed within their minds, however, it was easier to change other aspects.

The use of collective memory in a national setting, and also in the medium of the workplace, shows that the human psyche is a powerful instrument in whatever setting it is used. It may cause an idea to succeed beyond the greatest hopes for it, or it nay cause it to fail in such a way that it will soon be forgotten.

Through discussion, one idea that featured prominently in discussion was the concept of online memorials as opposed to physical structures. There are many online remembrances of the September 11 tragedy, and these online services may change the entire structure of collective memory, since they may change over time while a physical and permanent memorial may not. The psyche behind an online memorial, though, differs from that surrounding a physical, unchanging landmark. For this reason, different remembrances seem more fitting, are acknowledged, and become a part of the collective memory, of different groups of people.

One other topic that we mentioned is the way companies at times may seek to change their collective memories even before the implementation of the new software, by hiring new staff. Collective memory changes the most effectively at times if the people, not the item being remembered, changes, since human minds often resist fundamental shifts. If personnel selection is done carefully, however, and the software to be used is chosen carefully as well, changes may be easier than previously imagined.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly discusses an evolution in collective memory with respect to war remembrance in the United States. It portrays the way collective memory is changed as it shifts to a new generation, as it has with the Civil War and will with the events of September 11. This change in collective memory is what the French attempt to accomplish with their several war memorials and ceremonies. It is what the Alpha and Zeta Corporations seek to achieve as the employees adjust to new software and to interacting in new ways. It also occurs when companies or nations have new people to remember, rather than the same ones who remember life before the change.

Whenever any change is made, one generation will always be the first to live through that shift in patterns. And the new system will never be exactly the same as it is once it has settled into a remembrance of things past.

Works Cited

Levin, Kevin M. “What the Civil War Can Teach Us About 9/11 Remembrance.” The Atlantic Monthly. 17 March 2012.
Orlikowski, Wanda J. “Learning from Notes: Organizational Issues in Groupware Implementation.” Proceedings of the 1992 ACM Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work. 1992.
Orlikowski, Wanda J. “Evolving with Notes: Organizational Change Around Groupware Technology.” 1995.
Sherman, Daniel J. “Art, Commerce, and the Production of Memory in France After World War I.” Commemorations: the Politics of National Identity, p. 186-211. 1994.

Information Cocoons and Blogging Ethics

The rise of the world wide web brought with it optimism regarding the dissemination of information: with this tool, we would be able to access a wide range of viewpoints from diverse backgrounds, belief systems, and geographic locations.  However, it seems that the Internet has had just the opposite effect.  Instead of taking advantage of the diverse viewpoints offered to us, we seek out only that which conforms to our own belief systems, creating an ‘information cocoon,’ in which we become further and further ensconced in our own prejudices (Sunstein 2006).

It is within our nature as human beings to form relationships with those who are similar to us (McPherson 2001).  Our tendency toward homophily exists on several dimensions such as age, race, sex, religion, education, behavior, and beliefs. In this paper, I will examine the dangerous effects that our homophilous relationships can wreak.  By seeking out opinions and ideas from people who are similar to us, we significantly limit the information that we receive, and in turn increase our propensity toward bias and error.

In his article, The Daily Me, New York Times Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof states,

We generally don’t truly want good information – but rather information that             confirms our prejudices.  We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions,  but in practice we like to embed ourselves in a reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

By accessing only information that conforms to our pre-existing beliefs, we cut ourselves off from new ideas, while becoming more and more entrenched in our previously-held notions.

Kristof (2009) offers several examples of this phenomenon.  In one study, Republicans and Democrats were offered various political mailings from a neutral source.  Researchers found that both groups strongly preferred to read information that validated their pre-existing beliefs.  When either group expressed interest in reading opposing arguments, it was only for those which seemed obviously silly or untrue.  It seems we are only interested in hearing ideas from the opposition when it is easy to caricature them as idiots.  We are not interested in receiving good arguments that may convince us to reevaluate our ideas.

Another study comparing 12 nations found that Americans are least likely to discuss politics with people who hold different views (Kristof 2009).  Remarkably, this tendency toward homophily worsens with increased education.  In fact, high school dropouts seemed to have the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates maintained the most homophilous discussion groups.  This tendency toward homophilous relationships creates a dangerous feedback loop: the more we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, the more entrenched in our beliefs we become.  The more entrenched we become, the less likely we are to seek out or accept differing opinions.

By insulating ourselves within homophilous groups, not only do we miss out on important counter information, but we often become more extreme in our biases.  Sunstein (2009) found that when groups of liberals debated on a topic, liberals who entered the group holding fairly moderate, or even conservative, beliefs on a specific topic, left the deliberation much more liberal.  Discussing an issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes can have a significant effect on polarization and bias.

Blogs are not immune to the influences of homophily and information cocoons.  In fact, tools such as Google Reader allow us to select the blogs we choose (most often blogs that conform to our ideas and values), and read only those sources.  Blogs tend to post stories from contributors who share similar attitudes, link to blogs that espouse similar views, receive comments from similar users, and even post advertisements from similar organizations.  A study done on 1400 blogs found that 91% of the links on each blog were to like-minded sites (Adamic 2004).

One possible solution to this problem is to hold blog writers accountable for the preponderance of information cocoons.  Kuhn’s blogging ethics (2007) aims to account for a wide range of blogs and includes four main goals: to promote interactivity, to promote free expression, to strive for factual truth, and to be as transparent as possible.  In order to account for information cocoons, this code of ethics could include requirements that blogs feature contributors with diverse believes, that blog writers disclose their biases, and that bloggers include links to alternative viewpoints.

It is worth questioning whether the responsibility to avoid information cocoons should rest with the blog writers. Perhaps by hoisting these requirements onto blog authors, we will dilute their perspectives, censor their ideas, and in turn create less diversity of information.  Perhaps, then, the responsibility should fall on the blog reader to be aware of the danger of information cocoons and to seek out diverse viewpoints. In fact, this is precisely how Kristof concludes his article.  He says,

So what’s the solution?  Tax breaks for liberals who watch Bill O’Reilly or                  conservatives who watch Keith Olbermann?  No, until President Obama brings us             universal health care, we can’t risk the surge in heart attacks.

So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work             out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore.

By being more conscious of the information we take in, we will be able to access a diverse set of viewpoints, enriching our understanding of the world.  Perhaps core curriculum in higher education or even primary or secondary school can focus on the notion of the information cocoon, striving to create information-literate citizens who are capable of seeking out and evaluating a diverse set of ideas and beliefs.  Perhaps there is a need for a secondary, neutral resource which links to reputable sources of divergent opinions,

One conclusion is clear though: awareness of the danger of information cocoons will do much good in enhancing the way we access information.  The danger of the information cocoon creates a wide array of challenges within the information profession: from the engineers creating search algorithms at Google to the editors and readers of political blogs to educators and curriculum reformers.  By being aware of these dangers, we can strive to create and consume balanced and diverse ideas.


Adamic L & Glance N. (2005). The political blogosphere and the 2004 election: Divided             they blogAccessed March 7, 2012 from   

Kristof, N. (2009, March 18). The daily me. The New York Times. Retrieved March 7,             2012 from

Kuhn, M. (2007). Interactivity and prioritizing the human: A code of blogging ethics.             Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 22(1), 18-36.

McPherson, Miller, Smith-Lovin and Cook (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social             networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 415-444

Sunstein, C. (2006). Infotopia: How many minds produce knowledge. New York: Oxford             University Press.



Can your past prevent a future?

With the continued spread of social networks, blogs, and other personalized media, individuals have provide for mass consumption an unparalleled amount of personal information. After the data reaches the internet, companies such as Acxiom begin collecting the information to store in massive databases. Through these public databases, along with the social networks and the careful use of search engines (i.e. Google), companies evaluate prospective employees to determine whether they are viable candidates for a position. The question I pose: Can your past prevent a future? Before answering this question, we must first create a better understanding what happens during the hiring process and how your internet persona can affect those decisions.

Privacy is an issue that has been contested for over 400 years in the US, beginning with mail, continuing through telegraphs, party-lines, telephones, and now the World Wide Web (See American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right for more information on the subject). With the advent of the internet, however, privacy has been brought to the forefront as more individuals readily post personal information to the web. Unlike past generation where an individual could pick up and move when something went wrong, the opportunity to delete oneself has disappeared. With no way to remove data after it has reached the internet, individuals are losing their ability to start over when unwanted information comes to light.

Due to the prevalent amount of information available on the internet, companies have begun utilizing the web as a vital source for their pre-employment screening process and background checks. It is my opinion that though this resource is invaluable to employers when reviewing applications, it is unethical to do so without prior knowledge given to the prospective employees. Should information be found, the prospective employee should be given the opportunity to clarify the misunderstanding. When companies begin using social networks to obtain data, they are placing themselves at risk of being sued by individuals who do not gain employment. This can happen because when the employer sees a person’s social information, they gain access to federally protected data (i.e. race, gender, disabilities, et cetera)(Johnson). This is made worse because the legality of pre-employment screening using social networks has yet to be established in court (Johnson).

Background checks, or pre-employment screenings, involve reviewing past employment verifications, credit scores, and criminal histories in order to evaluate a prospective employee. Companies preform background checks as a benefit for themselves to: prevent wasting time, money, and resources on a potential employee, prevent lawsuits for negligent hiring, and provide access to vast databases of personal data. When they add a pre-employment screening as well, the companies peruse social networks, search engines, and public databases. The Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, Pam Dixon feels that when a company snoops on social networks, “It’s like saying, ‘Can I read your personal diary?’”, which she believes will prevent anyone from using social networks (Johnson).

Unfortunately, many issues can occur when a company begins searching through the internet to attempt learning more about a potential employee. Issues can include misinterpretation of data, irrelevant information to the job, past mistakes, and incorrect person being investigated. With each issue, if the employer found a problem, the job seeker would not be given a chance to contest the collected data. This can be problematic for individuals with common name, or that do not follow society norms.

According to law professor Cass Sustein, norms are “social attitudes of approval and disapproval” or “what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done” (Solove). When an individual does not follow society’s norms, such as having visible tattoos and piercings, they can be viewed poorly by potential employers. This perception can be made more difficult by the internet due to each person having the ability to present their persona without limits. By providing information, photos, videos, and opinions, individuals place themselves on display for the world at large.

In the article Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City  1908-1936, Haraway discusses the idea of perfection. When Mr. Akeley begins planning his display, it clear that he is seeking perfect specimen to shot, stuff, and present. Akeley even tells an anecdote about his hunt for elephants. During the hunt he comes across an unbelievable specimen that would be perfect, except for a glaring issue of asymmetrical tusks (Haraway 41-42). Akeley sought his idea of perfection in the animals in an attempt to present a grand exhibit. However; by seeking perfection, Akeley lost the opportunity to provide a more realistic display.

This expectation of perfection plays a key role in the hiring process of companies. With the current widespread unemployment, and the plethora of potential employees, the ability for companies to pluck individuals who fit their cookie-cutter mold is on the rise. With the internet, individuals have placed themselves on global display allowing companies to select their perfect image. It is for this reason that society must work to create better safe-guards against the negative spread of information, as well as make hiring practices more transparent so that each party may fully hold themselves accountable.



Garton, Ash Timothy. The File: A Personal History. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Solove, Daniel J. The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Haraway, D. (1984) “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City  1908-1936.” Social Text, 20-64

Jones, M, Schuckman, A., and Watson, K. (2004) The Ethics of Pre-Employment Screening Through the Use of the Internet.

“Background Check.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <>.

“Fact Sheet 16: Employment Background Checks: A Jobseeker’s Guide.” Employment Background Checks: A Jobseeker’s Guide. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. <>.

Lane, Frederick S. American Privacy: The 400-year History of Our Most Contested Right. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2009. Print.

Johnson, Steve. “Facebook Posts May Cost You a Job.” The Post and Courier. 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.