Keeping up, why is it always forward-thinking?

Chris Zammarelli, at Libraryola, has a post about keeping up which I found via the LIS Students Ning.

I left a lengthy comment, which I’d like to expand here hopefully. My comment:


I’m not sure I have a feel for what you are looking to keep up with, although I do see that your thesis is on e-government and your blog is about “trends in librarianship.” Since my comment is more about the concept of keeping up versus how to I guess that doesn’t matter.

I think you’ve done a good job here talking about the idea of keeping up and have a compiled a good list, for certain sectors of librarianship.

But my point lies elsewhere and I’m not exactly sure why your post is the one to finally trigger the thought … but why does keeping up always mean looking forward?

Sure. I can parse out the terms, the metaphor, whatever. I even agree that is what it’s supposed to be. But what is it when you’re looking back at the literature? Is that research, and only research? I think it is only research in certain situations, and that keeping up should not be restricted to the current or future.

I read an awful lot of library literature and a great deal of it is from the past. Often very past. Only sometimes is it research, I would say. When I am working on a specific project and track down sources for that specific topic/need then it is research. Is it research all of the time, even if it is for pleasure reading, if it material is from the past?

Anyway, depending on your interests, I would say that looking back into our literature is an amazing way to learn about trends in libraries/librarianship (among other things). Might even help you put the current trends into context.

Anyway, just a suggestion prefaced by a question. Good luck with the thesis.

For some reason, Chris’ post made me realize that every post I’ve seen on keeping up never talks about what can be learned from the past and how that can be of assistance in keeping up today (and in the future).

Is it because of the metaphor of keeping up itself? Does the phrase preclude thinking of the past?

Or, is it because everything looking backward is research? I can’t see why it should be. For starters, much research is very forward looking.

The OED Online gives me the following senses of research (there are others but they are irrelevant here):

Noun 1

  1. The act of searching (closely or carefully) for or after a specified thing or person.
  2. a. A search or investigation directed to the discovery of some fact by careful consideration or study of a subject; a course of critical or scientific inquiry. (Usu. in pl.)
  3. Investigation or pursuit of a subject. rare.

Verb 1

  1. a. trans. To search into (a matter or subject); to investigate or study closely. Also, to engage in research upon (a subject, a person, etc.).
  2. To seek (a woman) in love or marriage. Obs. [OK, this is irrelevant, too, but I found it humorous.]

Noun 2 and verb 2 both had to do with re-search; that is, repeated search.

Clearly, there is no temporal stress on past, present or future. Noun 1, sense 3 could be used to describe my endeavors to consume so much of our past literature, but it is rare. The verb sense (1st sentence) could be used to describe my reading as research. It could also very well describe much of what passes for keeping up, as could sense 3 of the noun, and perhaps even noun sense 1. Noun sense 2 fails for my pleasure reading because it is not directed to the discovery of some fact. It could be claimed to be directed, but only to getting a good general overview. And I find it highly doubtful that anyone could parse out general overview into fact.

I am not trying to argue that my reading habits do not constitute research in the more relaxed meanings of noun sense 3 or verb sense 1. It is more that it is not research in the stricter sense(s). Kind of like LIS (LS/IS) is science and, yet, not science either.

My argument is more along the lines of learning from the past is one way of keeping up. For a large percentage of librarians our schooling lasts one to two years, at most. Even counting assignments, much less what else you did between them, how much of the literature did you actually read? How much of it was historical (however you want to parse that out. Well, other than last month’s issue.)?

I sure wish I was more eloquent on these sorts of things, because I truly think that this view is a large part of the problem in our profession right now. And yes, I do realize that many other professions/disciplines are the same. I could care less about that!

So much is being rejected by people who have no idea what they are rejecting or why. Or they think they know why, but their stated reasons are based on unexamined assumptions and outright bigotry.

“My God, it must go! It’s based on the card catalog.”

Well, perhaps it is based on the card catalog (or some other unhip thing), but do you know what problem it solved at the time and, even more importantly, do you know what problem(s) it might be solving right now? Meanwhile, other things are being embraced that were previously rejected with no idea that they were tried and why they did not work out and still won’t, or that perhaps with x being different now they will. But you best know about x and make sure it is different.

Our field is full of trends that come and go. And then they come back! Do some of you who are new or relatively new to the profession wonder why so many veterans are so worn out? Amongst many other things, it is because they have seen the same things over and over and every new “generation” wants to try it again.

Trying again, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But trying something again with no idea of how or why it failed, or that it was even tried, is extremely disheartening to many veterans. Perhaps some of our library veterans would be more willing to watch and perhaps even assist in trying “new” things if the new folks made it clear that, miracle of miracles, they were actually aware of the past and why things were different now and how that difference makes a difference.

Or, perhaps they are tired of banging their heads against the wall for 30 or 40 years because a real solution was not tried due to a lack of will, money, commitment, or what have you. Perhaps the technology was lacking then. Many of the things that were shown as distinct possibilities from the 1940s-70s are now distinctly doable. But most in our field have no idea what these even are and then they perhaps complain that the CS (and related) folks are reinventing everything we already know. But what is it you know?

I do realize that the amounts of data we have, new encoding and storage formats, and cheaper more powerful technologies have a profound impact on what is doable and what makes a good solution. Clearly, not everything from the past that was unable to get a fair shake needs to be resurrected. But how is one to rule out the possibilities, or borrow a great idea that if twisted just a little is a direct answer to one of today’s problems, if they do not know what went before?

Perhaps you think I’m just rambling or making up stuff here. I’ll leave it to you to decide; you will anyway. But I know professionals who fit both of these descriptions. It has absolutely nothing to do with not wanting to try or do new things! These folks have done more new and innovative things than you are probably going to get a chance to do [assuming demographic trends about career changes]. They are simply tired of banging their heads against the wall and having what they know completely ignored by someone who has no idea what it is that they know, or how that may (or may not) be useful.

Maybe it’s trite. Maybe it’s a truism. And perhaps I’m just plain wrong. But you know what they say about those who refuse to learn from the past.

Rant over. But I honestly do consider much of the reading of the past that I do to be keeping up. Perhaps catching up would be even better. But there’s no way I could sell that to the new “generations.”


I do well know that there are some old curmudgeons out there that would best serve the profession by moving on to something else.

I also see a lot of talk from the younger generations about respect and their work life balance, and so on. You do know that goes both ways, don’t you? [Says the older guy who is looking for some work life balance as he undertakes his new career. Or, in other words, not all new librarians are young!]

Youth, energy, and idealism are valuable assets. But so is knowledge and experience. And all who are chronologically older do not lack youth, energy or idealism.

The rant portion of this post has absolutely nothing to do with Chris Zammarelli! His post only got me thinking about keeping up as forward looking. Once I turned to the past the rest just came along for the ride. I am not saying, much less alluding, that he thinks in the way I am complaining about.

Certainly, my points about the past could use some nuance and some caveats. They are not meant to be conclusive, or overly general. But it is the case that these situations arise. What the percentage is I have no idea. Nor am I really interested in knowing it [pretty much impossible to determine, anyway].

Anyone have any thoughts on why keeping up seems to be only forward looking?

17 thoughts on “Keeping up, why is it always forward-thinking?

  1. Hi Mark
    I love this blog!

    Your post put me in mind of a comment at the end of HDF Kitto’s book The Greeks, where he says one of the differences between the ancient Greek culture and ours was that they saw themselves as facing backwards looking toward the past as the moved into the future.

    And as far as reading the classics of librarianship goes, I’ve only this last year actually read some of Ranganathan’s work as opposed to reading about it. The difference is startling. I always imagined, for example, the Five Laws were a bit of a throwaway line in one of his works. I now know they take up a complete book. And R. comes across as warm and funny (if quirky) guy — quite different from how I imagined him. The rewards of reading the classics go way beyond picking up their major ideas as processed by the secondary lit.

  2. This reminds me of a complaint from my husband–“Why do you always associate progress with change?” Or maybe he said “change with progress.” He’s not a big fan of change.

    I think saying that “keeping up” is “forward looking” is a bit of an oxymoron. Keeping up implies you are pacing the current trends; you are not ahead of the pack nor are you behind it; you are merely holding steady with the crowd. Maybe you have some ideas, but they aren’t innovative enough to send people off to new frontiers.

    To be “forward looking” you need to be with that crowd of young millionaires. You know–the ones who developed YouTube and Firefox and Facebook. They’re the forward thinkers. If they were merely keeping up, they’d still be sitting in their dorm rooms or their parents’ homes, trying to find an interface as good as Yahoo!, but not better than.

    (Hmm. I should drink wine more often. That was surprisingly coherent.)

  3. Hi, Irvin. Welcome and thanks for the comment and especially for the compliment!

    I appreciate that immensely. I’ve really been struggling lately in lots of ways and today was really crappy from a failed alarm clock to nearing bedtime as I continue to be failing at making my Topic Map work. Your compliment is definitely the highlight of my day!

    Ranganathan is someone that I need to read more of myself. The bits and pieces I’ve gotten from here and there are generally incoherent to me. I get the overall gist of facet analysis and have even done some, but not with his system. I’d really like to understand that better, along with more of his general thoughts on librarianship, too.

    Any recommendations for what might be the best place to start with Ranganathan? On either or both of those heads?

  4. Jenn, “they” say wine is good for you (well, some wine) but I don’t know how that parses out for folks with migraines. So be careful, but go for it.

    Maybe you’re right; maybe it really is focused more on the present. That just strengthens my argument/complaint then as *I think* it should be focused on whatever temporal frame helps one to keep up. And for me, as you might guess, that should include past, present and future.

    Now the percentages of focus where and when will differ for each individual depending on several factors, but keeping up should include some component of each temporal frame.

    That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it! At least, until someone else wise (or drunk) comes along and convinces me to change it. 😉

  5. By the way, Irvin, while not exactly Ranganathan, guess what little beauty I brought home from the library today?

    Tillett, Barabara Ann Barnett. Bibliographic Relationships: Towards a Conceptual Structure of Bibliographic Information used in Cataloging. Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1987.

    Unfortunately, we only have the microfiche but I got to check it out because all the readers are in another library now. I sure wish it was a printed copy! Kind of hard to curl up on my own time with the fiche, and I’d read a lot more of it of it were, too. Oh well, if you’re serious then you use the resources you have.

  6. Ranganathan:

    Full texts available here:,_S._R..html

    and some others here:

    I think the Prolegomena is considered his magnum opus, but I’ve been reading recently some of the shorter works on that second site.

    R. is in many ways completely out of step with the current ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ thinking. He obsesses on the ‘correct’ order of facets for example, where to me it seems simpler just to present them all and let the user come to the order that suits them best. He also has a wide general education to draw on, even including mystical and religious elements, which gives his work added interest.

    The thing I probably appreciate most is the seriousness and enthusiasm he brings to librarianship. And reading The Five Laws makes you appreciate the important role librarians can have in society.

  7. Thanks for the links and info, Irvin.

    I was aware of the online availability and even have them bookmarked somewhere but then always forget about them.

  8. Irvin – that is, in my humble opinion, the best use of the Internet “Im in ur x…” phenomenon.

    Mark – White wine gives me headaches (except for a light, crisp one called Manzanilla, which Hemingway wrote about in several of his stories). Red wine doesn’t usually give me headaches, but I make the mistake of drinking wine when I already have one, I’m in trouble.

    Also, I’m all for looking at the past to illuminate the present. What is most annoying about many present papers and research is exactly what you pointed out–it has been done before, but no one bothered to look it up! Very trying indeed. No one in the “hard” sciences would ever, for instance, say, “Hey! We need a vaccine for polio! That’s what I’m going to dedicate my career to!” In other words, LIS people are irresponsible if they don’t plumb the depths of existing literature before jumping into a project. LIS will not be taken seriously if people persist along such a path.

  9. Well damn. Now I have to read your post carefully before I prepare my post/essay/rant on why I think liblogs are so much a part of today’s essential library literature. Thanks.

    Actually, thanks is what I’m trying to say. Another view to consider.

  10. Hi, Walt. I hope you know that I also believe that (some) “liblogs are so much a part of today’s essential library literature.”

    I just would like to see some due respect for the past. And some day in the not so distant future that will even include “old” liblog posts, assuming they are preserved as well as our print literature.

  11. Irvin, yes I’d seen that and it is pretty hilarious. I’ll have a photo up on Flickr shortly that I find hilarious, too. And, Jenn, you should get a kick out of it.

    I have not met Barbara Tillett but I have heard her speak a few times.

  12. Jenn, yes, it is red wine that is supposedly good for you.

    You know what, I had a wonderful new idea, I think I’ll invent this new scheme and call it “indexing.” It’ll save the world, I tell you!

  13. Ranganathan’s Prolegomena is great, and if you like classification, definitely read it. The Five Laws of Library Science is probably the best one to start with, though. Powerful stuff from a great man.

  14. Pingback: In an IDEALS world we can keep up with the past

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