An anonymous and undiscriminating library

We all, I’m sure, have occasions when an idea stays in our heads for ages, perhaps appearing from different angles, but we never quite get around to clarifying for ourselves exactly what it’s about. How nice when a proper philospher does it for us, without being asked.

“The ideal of thinking for oneself is in fact a little difficult to describe. It would perhaps best be achieved by the student or enquirer being let loose in an ideally anonymous and undiscriminating library. This would be an unusual library which collects every book, each of which is then edited to eliminate as far as possible the mere effects of prestige. The author’s name and qualifications and place of employment would be carefully removed from every volume, together with the usual list of eminent names from the acknowledgements page. There would be no information about the press which published the item in question. Any phrases of puffery from the covers of the volume would be carefully blanked out. In the ideal case, the text would all be translated into a standardised English, and every humanising digression would be deleted. Articles would all appear as if they had been published in a single journal, The Pure Reason Review, and each would be accompanied by a Government Diversity Warning, in bold at the top of the page: ‘Caution: What follows might be an article by a well-known Harvard philosopher, but is equally likely to be a student essay. You must judge the content for yourself’. Now I am not saying that there might not be certain advantages for those who are already philosophically educated having on occasion to read anonymised materials. I once read the first few pages of a print-out which I took to be from a student essay. It turned out to be by a well-known Harvard philosopher. This is an instructive experience we all need from time to time. But needless to say, as a way of finding one’s way in this subject of ours, confinement to the anonymised library from the outset would, I believe, be quite hopeless.”

[Chris Coope, The doctor of philosophy will see you now, in Conceptions of Philosophy: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 65, edited by Anthony O’Hear, Cambridge University Press, 2009, This passage is on pages 183-184.]

Chris Coope encapsulates exactly some the thoughts, and misgivings, about anonymised information which I have been incubating of a long while, and in several respects.

As a journal editor, I observe the convention of ‘double blind’ peer review. The referees do not know who the article of the author is, and the author does not know who the referees are. Obviously, I accept the need for this, if only for mutual confidence. And yet, I note that such limited research as has been done shows that anonymity or otherwise makes no difference to the outcomes. And I note that many referees like to guess the identity of the authors, and very often succeed.

As someone who has run training courses on use of the internet for library/information purposes since the earliest days of the web, one of the points I have always tried to get across is the homogenising effect which results from information of varying kinds coming through a web browser. The visual and tactile clues of varying kinds of physical document – a newspaper, a printed book, a handwritten note, a reprint of an academic journal article, etc. – are largely lost in the web environment, forcing the information to be much more active in assessing what it is they are looking at. It is interesting to see the various ways in which indicators of authenticity and authority have emerged in the web environment.

As someone interested in new forms of information resource, I have watched with interest the emergence of the Wikipedia model of crowdsourced anonymised information products. Not, on the whole, believing that crowds have much wisdom, I have been a little surprised how much I like Wikipedia, though I am often frustrated by its lack of consistency and would – needless to say – never rely on it for anything important. It is interesting to note that it has had to tighten up its editorial procedures, with the apparent aim of being more like a ‘proper’ encyclopaedia, though its choice of anonymous Wikipedians to do so does not appeal to me at all. I would much rather have signed articles, and clearly stated disagreements, rather than anonymous tidying up.

So, thank you Chris Coope for articulating in a properly philosophical manner my concerns about anonymised information, at least of the academic and professional variety. May libraries always discriminate, and never anonymise.

1 thought on “An anonymous and undiscriminating library”

  1. In my university a student submitted an essay plagiarised from a professional academic. The plagiarism was discovered by the second marker, but not before the first marker had failed it!

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