Philosophy Time

This past semester I read a seemingly-dull article titled “Transversality and the Role of the Library as Fair Witness” for my LIS 502 (Libraries, Information, & Society) class. However, I think a few of the ideas are very central to the struggle faced by many librarians today of justifying their importance and value in an age of digitized and born-digital information.

The author, Ross Atkinson, contends that the digital era is introducing new problems for keepers and readers of texts: “the inherent mutability of digital information is leading to a level of textual instability and uncertainty.” He argues that libraries are in an ideal position to fill the much-needed role of the mediator (or fair witness) between writers and readers in an age of increasingly digitized and digital information. He borrows the term “fair witness” from the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, in which technology has advanced so rapidly and can be manipulated so easily that trained observers called fair witnesses are the only unbiased, authoritative keepers of truth. Atkinson argues that libraries can justify the value of their institution by explaining their role and worth as fair witnesses for society, whose job it is to facilitate access to authentic information without objective or bias.

He also argues strongly that, due to their longstanding commitments to authenticity of information, access to information, and balanced collections, librarians are the best-suited institution or group for the role of fair witness in society. Atkinson cautions against letting commercial third parties take over the role: “While the library may not invariably function more efficiently, or even more competently, than other intermediaries, its integrity within an increasingly commercialized society remains—at least for the time being—relatively unquestionable.” He argues that the service philosophy and willingness to prioritize services/access over direct revenues is what makes libraries “obvious candidates for the role of trusted third party.”

This article brings up a lot of interesting questions for librarians-in-training: At a time when users have a variety of other sources and hubs of information, how do we advocate for the importance and value of libraries? Can/should we be using the fair witness concept to advocate for libraries and library-produced digital collections and tools? What are the dangers of letting for-profit entities take over the role of information mediator/fair witness? Are libraries really best suited for that role? And is it realistic/economically viable to advocate for libraries as suitable fair witnesses based primarily on their willingness to give services preference over revenues?

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