Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Piercing the Veil

My son Sam is studying philosophy at Concordia and I am thrilled! But not just because this means I get to visit Montreal. I was a philosophy major too, and I have so enjoyed a few skypefests with Sam on the Big Ideas of thinkers like Plato, Descartes, Locke, Mill and Bentham. Higher education is a beautiful thing!

But my recent thinking about the radical changes we're all experiencing in the new reality (i.e. pervasive technology, ubiquitous information, and the wounded economy) has brought me back to another philosopher, John Rawls, and his ideas about the original position. In his Theory of Justice Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves as unfettered by any biases, prejudices or preconceived notions of ourselves or the world we inhabit. From behind this veil of ignorance Rawls would have us construct the ideal society. How would you order the world if you didn't know your place within it? Rawls contends that only in this way can we create a truly just society.

So how does this relate to libraries, or legal information or consortia? Well, we're all struggling to figure out how to move forward in this new era. Business models are like shifting sand. Where there once were seemingly bottomless acquisition budgets, libraries are now just treading water to keep access to what they already have. New acquisitions are luxury items to many. Adding new staff positions is rare, and some vacancies go unfilled in an effort to save. Yet, information providers continue to develop new and important content that will serve library users and advance knowledge. And vendors continue to bring new technologies to market that we want to implement, either to serve our users or to enhance our work flows. How can we continue to serve researchers well, aquire new content and implement new technologies in the current economy? We have to change our business models and our expectations. We have to think in new ways and look for answers in other sectors.

To facilitate this inquiry, I'm inviting us all to step behind the veil of ignorance every time we're trying to puzzle out our business relationships in the new era. Instead of starting the re-imagining process from where we are (a librarian trying to acquire new content or renegotiate a contract, or a publisher trying to develop a new product or expand her existing market), what if we all started from the same place, behind the veil. From that original position there can be no them or us. What kinds of new models might we construct if we're oblivious of our own self-interests? Perhaps it could ignite brilliant collaborations. Just a thought. . .

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