Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots: What the Past Tells Us About the Present; Reflections on the Twentieth-Century History of American Librarianship

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Wiegand, W. A. (1999). Tunnel vision and blind spots: What the past tells us about the present; reflections on the Twentieth-Century history of American librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 69(1), 1–32.

Wiegand chronicles the state of librarianship from the late nineteenth-century through the end of the twentieth-century, revealing the profession’s lack of comprehensive self-study and concern with its personal status and power over the outcomes of its position and practice. Due to this dearth in the LIS literature, Wiegand concludes that LIS lacks an understanding of its role and function in society, leaving it exposed to perpetuating past mistakes through its present actions and future plans. Wiegand calls on the profession to undertake comprehensive critical analyses of its past so it may overcome its historically weak and unjust practices, further understand the profession, the social environment in which it functions, assess the social outcomes it purportedly seeks to support, and move beyond the externally- and self-imposed limits on its practices.


 

Wiegand’s question “How can the school and academic library communities possibly articulate policy and plan for their future without knowing what they have done well and poorly in the past?” reminded me of a brief exchange I had with someone over the summer (p. 23). I had scoffed at the generally outdated knowledge that is communicated in a particular environment that I share with this person, an environment that focuses its study on outdated technologies, systems, and practices, an environment where thoughts of what the future may hold and how we, as new professionals, can help shape that future are only considered if validated by the expert opinions of perceived professional authorities. In turn, I was cautioned that one requires a firm understanding of our past in order to assess the current state of our profession and build a new future that may succeed. While I agree with that perspective, I find that our study of librarianship reinforces the blind spots and tunnel vision that Wiegand discusses. We privilege reproduction and adoption over creation and adaptation.

Although impassioned, Wiegand’s clarion call to the profession shows as level of desperation and defeatism. He acknowledges the impossibility of forming a prescribed set of practices that can be applied universally (both in location and time) to those elements of librarianship that are and should be locally determined by one’s particular organizational and social contexts, while also acknowledging the need for a comprehensive analysis of the role and impact of libraries in society. Yet this broad-based analysis has the potential to further tether us to the past and its “best practices,” thus continuing the cultural reproduction and assimilation to hegemonic forces that Wiegand finds so troubling. Critique is needed, yes, but with a profession seemly so reluctant to do so, this approach could do more harm than good.

Even when reviewing what broadly binds our profession together, our values, codes, credentials, and standards, remnants of the “gendered, class, age, occupational, ethnic, and homophobic blind spots marking so much of our past” still exist (p. 26). With so much of our profession static , its continued acquiescence to power and focus on “character, expertise, institution, and authority” being two prime examples, it’s no wonder that Wiegand seems pessimistic in our collective ability to overcome our past. It is an immense, but not insurmountable, task, one that can be accomplished through adaptation, not to the corporate and government interests that we have often aimed to appease, but by learning from our past successes and mistakes. As Wiegand concludes, there’s a need to resist this inculcation and socialization into a professional culture and practice that we, not just our profession but society itself, have such a limited understanding of.

Question for future exploration:

  • How does our status as professionals perpetuate power imbalances between librarians and the communities they work with? Are these isolationist tendencies primarily a result of our professional status, a desire to emulate hegemonic forces, or homogeneity in the profession?
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