Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Case for Theoretical Eclecticism


I'm disgustingly well-rounded and balanced in my talents and in my interests. Back when the SATs were comprised of two tests, verbal and math, I got the exact same score on both halves. The reasons I got a tattoo of a blue morpho were as much about the science of tropical butterflies as about the symbolism and beauty of that species. This kind of balance plays itself out all through my life. In fact, one of my favorite things about being a librarian is that I am a professional generalist. The fact that I've always worked at small, liberal arts colleges - where I have to be at least somewhat well versed in a broad range of topics to do my liaison/outreach duties - has always suited me well.

This tendency also shows itself in the theories I turn into praxis. I hinted at this eclectic approach in a post I wrote last summer, down in the section where I list books I've already read that inform my librarianship. There are books by a Buddhist nun, a community organizer, a behavioral economist, a (misogynistic) philosopher, businessmen, and a folklorist. In the last year, I added one more book to the list of things that influence my day-to-day both in and out of the library: The Upside of Stress, by Stanford University psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Trying to make friends with stress has changed how I perceive my life as a librarian and as an administrator. And finally, there's a book I should have included in my original list: Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services by Carol Kuhlthau.

If anything about that list stands out to you, it should be the fact that there's no overlap in the professions or the perspectives of the authors. Sure, there is more than one academic on the list, but even they come from a broad range of disciplines. There are books written for popular audiences, for academic audiences, and for niche audiences. Admittedly, I am prone to being idiosyncratically eclectic or even iconoclastic. Maybe someday I'll write a Just for Fun post about how I consciously eschewed all the "popular" things in high school and in college. Even if it makes me weird outside of my career, when it comes to librarianship I know this is an approach that has benefited me and my communities. I also know that this approach would benefit anyone who adopts it.

Here are a few specific benefits of this approach:
  • I've got a lot of different lenses through which to examine situations and opportunities to figure out the best way forward.
  • I'm not stumped when the first thing I tried doesn't work. 
  • Valuing this multiplicity of views in my theory translates over to valuing different perspectives in other people. 

One of my favorite parables is "The Blind Men and the Elephant." Using only one theoretical perspective is like being one of those titular blind men who only felt the leg or the ear or the tail of the elephant. I'm not going to pretend that I never get stuck; I'm as prone to falling victim to confirmation bias as the next person. But at least with my multiple ways of approaching a situation, I'm more likely to see the whole. What do you all think?

(I wrote the bones of this post a while ago, but I know there have been some scuffles on social media the last week about critical theories. This isn't a response or comment on that, but I will say this again: a multiplicity of views only adds to the conversation.)


  1. This is why I'm reading my way through Dewey. It's not specifically about libraries, but it gives me many different insights and ways to look at life as I proceed through at the pace of a couple of books each month.

  2. I just realized I forgot one of the most important books that has influenced my professional life: the one from which this blog gets its name! Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke! http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/295956

  3. I think a variety of views is necessary if you're seeking knowledge. And isn't that the journey we should all be on?
    Coincidentally, that's why I read The London Review of Books and came across your review in the 27 August 2015 publication. Yes, I'm embarrassed at how backed up I am but the pile of unread ones gives me a guarantee of discovery, which tends to be rare these days. Sort of a mental insurance policy.

    1. Glad you like this post. However, the LRB Jessica Olin is a different person.