Friday, June 06, 2008

A Fork in the Road

I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't a fundamental difference between scholars and practitioners that has always been there, and I have been denying.
When I started my post-high-school career as a "scholar" (I use the term loosely, since I was after all but a humble undergraduate), I put my professors up on a pedestal. That was wrong of me, of course, because scholars and professors are certainly respectable, but they are not Gods. They are just people who happen to do very well at analysis of different kinds of data, who also happen to be very good at writing papers and books. A small skill-set, to be sure. The other thing that characterizes these educated souls, is that they are, at core, not interested in practice.
That's a not a pejorative statement, by the way. Why? Because when you spin it the OTHER way, and say that most practicing librarians are not interested in creating theory, no one seems to mind.
Anyway, while I was in undergrad, I put these people up very high, and I put practitioners at some sort of "lower" rung. When I got to graduate school, I finally started seeing that it wasn't a hierarchy, but rather a difference of opinion about how it was best to spend one's time.
The longer I work with "academics", the more I see that this basic divide is a real problem for any kind of project between practicing professionals and the theoreticians. Why? Because the theoreticians say "we want X" and the professionals say "Oh. Well, X isn't actually possible." And the theoreticians say "but you asked us what we wanted!"
Now, I don't think that either side is "right" in this particular debate, because on the one hand, you can say that the theoreticians aren't grounded enough to see that what they desire and what they can have are different, but you could just as easily say that the practitioners aren't allowing themselves to dream enough in order to innovate.
So the two sides are constantly at loggerheads, and it takes some very adept people to keep them both happy and productive and working towards a common goal. And it's so, so easy to put these two groups against each other. "Their heads are in the clouds!" "They just don't want to change!" And neither of those mentalities are constructive, and neither of those mentalities are true.
I think we see this all the time. The Working Group for the Future of Bibliographic Control is a great example. Well, not them, per se, but the response to them. We have the very, very practical side saying that we need to scrap RDA and just focus on cataloging, and we have the extreme other side who are completely content to just "try it out" and let things run their course, because hey, why not?
There are more examples out there. They're always there.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.