Hackers And Librarians

Grad school has been keeping me pretty busy which means I haven’t had as much time for free writing as I’d like. I don’t want to let my blog go neglected, however, so I thought rather than have several days of silence, I’d post the essay that I’m working on for my information technology course. I’m not certain this thing will be interesting to anybody who isn’t a librarian, but then, I’m not certain that most of what I talk about is going to be interesting to anybody other than me.

Anyway, my short essay was about about the similarities and differences between hackers and librarians. For reference, I’ll first post the ethical outlines I was working off of; you may or may not agree with the points made in those statements, which is fair. Afterwards, I’ll post what I wrote for my essay. I do apologize for the writing style; I tend to get a bit more stilted when doing academic writing due to perceptions that too much casual language creates a feeling of informality and sloppiness. Nevertheless, feel free to discuss, critique, or whatever. Here’s the essay:

The Hacker Ethic, as described by Steven Levy:

  • Access to computers and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust Authority Promote Decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.
  • Like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your bidding.’

The Library Bill of Rights, as described by the American Library Association:

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
  5. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  6. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

When looking at the Hacker’s Ethic and the Library Bill of Rights, we can quickly see that these are two credos that embrace the same core ideal but advocate the attainment of that ideal through almost diametrically opposed methodology. For the purpose of discussion, I will refer to these respective principles through their beholders: Hackers and Librarians. I make this distinction while noting that I am speaking of both groups in a somewhat broad and generalized fashion while also noting that there is always the potential for overlap: some hackers may also be librarians. Nevertheless, this will be the structure for my discussion.

Both the Hacker and the Librarian value information as an ideal. This distinction is necessary, because it creates a different standard than one might find among the general public. Clearly, information is valuable; there is no one who can rationally argue against that fact, but for the average user, information is only measured by its value. Its relative worth is purely practical.

For both the Hacker and the Librarian, information, and more importantly, information access has a value that extends beyond its practical application. Hackers and Librarians maintain that access to information is a basic human right and that denial of access constitutes a breach of ethical responsibility. Censorship is anathema for both, whether that censorship comes through the suppression of materials or restricting access to computers. In either instance, information should be freely open and available to all. Neither the Hacker nor the Librarian makes a judgment upon the value of the information itself. A user who desires information on a new video game is equally as important as one who needs information about Federal Income Tax codes. Hackers and Librarians are united in a sense of egalitarianism, although Librarians tend to operate in a true egalitarian fashion while Hackers are generally more of a meritocracy. In either group, however, one’s race, sex, income, or other factors are inconsequential when it comes to the execution of the ideal of information access.

Where Hackers and Librarians diverge, however, is in their execution of serving this ideal. For the Hacker, authority is a form of restriction. Centralization of information is merely another form of restriction. In this way, Hackers are very comparable to anarchists in that they promote open access for all. Any control is to be rejected. Any restriction is to be opposed. The only consideration that truly matters is the access. Everything else is secondary. Authority in any form should be disregarded due to the fact that authority means rules and rules by their very nature restrict access in one form or another.

Librarians, on the other hand, promote both authority and centralization. They do so in the belief that centralization of information actually promotes access rather than restricts it. Information that is not readily and easily accessible to the user often cannot be located when it is needed and is thus subject to what is called “soft censorship.” Thus, by organizing and collating information and bringing it to a central point of reference, Librarians ensure access.

Librarians, while opponents of censorship, also recognize that certain filters need to be in place due to needing to be open and accessible to patrons of all ages and temperaments. The anarchist mentality of the Hacker cannot serve the needs of the public librarian who needs to be concerned with children accessing adult images; in such an instance, a measure of control must be maintained. Librarians must balance the needs of informing and enlightening their patrons while also realizing that not all information is created equally and some information can be very hurtful, deleterious, or even dangerous. The act of maintaining such a distinction while not sliding into censorship due to doctrinal or partisan consideration is a very delicate balancing act. This balancing act serves as another contrast to the Hacker, who is unburdened by such considerations.

In conclusion, the Hacker and the Librarian approach the same ideal of information access through very different means. The Hacker is more chaotic, more libertarian, believing that authority of any sort is a negative presence and that individuals will be responsible for the content they experience. The Librarian, on the other hand, must balance information access with the other considerations necessary to properly serve her community. A book that is banned due to political pressure is just as much a moral loss as is a parent who does not bring his child to the library because the library does not take appropriate steps to keep adult materials out of the hands of children, for example. In both cases, censorship occurs, albeit in different forms.

7 thoughts on “Hackers And Librarians”

    1. I’m sure this won’t be the end of this topic. I had a hard limit of eight paragraphs for the assignment, which is why I was so brief. I found I have a lot to say on the subject. If I don’t work on it more for a paper, I’ll probably revisit it on the blog at some point.

  1. That’s a really interesting comparison. Although as a matter of nitpicking, I don’t think you can categorically say that librarians “recognize that certain filters need to be in place due to needing to be open and accessible…” – all of the libraries I’ve worked at were unfiltered. Different types of libraries take a different stand on filtering, and of course there’s always the individual ones that stand out anyway. 🙂 -EJ-

    1. A very good point, EJ. One of the toughest things I’ve found about writing anything about librarians and libraries is they are a diverse and varied bunch. There really is no “typical” library or “archetypal” librarian: a public librarian, a college librarian, and a corporate librarian are all going to approach something like this very differently. My background is in public libraries, which means kids (and adults, honestly) trying to get away with watching porn on the computers, so filters are a factor for me.

      But I agree that there will be different scenarios and so filtering isn’t quite the norm I made it out to be. If I do revisit this topic, either in a full paper or another post, I’ll be sure to address that.

  2. Quite right – there’s no such thing as typical librarian. (One of the joys of the job, I think.) And you’re right that kids + possibility of porn = filtering, these days. My last job was at a (private) school library, which to my surprise wasn’t filtered. -EJ-

    1. I wonder if the closed-system social nature of a school acts as an inhibitor to that behavior and removes the need for a filter.

      Thinking back to my school days, the potential threat of being caught and outed as a “porn watcher” would have been sufficiently terrifying to deter even the thought of looking for inappropriate materials. That sort of thing could only ever be done in the dark of night when nobody else was home. On the other hand, I did go to a Catholic school, so guilt was certainly a factor there that might not exist for others.

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