Friday, June 12, 2009

"It's too hard", Pt. 2: Editorial Process

“Editorial process” is the selecting of authoritative sources. There’s that word again—“authoritative”. No one likes it, but it’s a bit like what your mother told you about eating your vegetables—it’s good for you, so swallow it. (And no comments from those of you who know I don’t eat vegetables...:)).

There are many discussions in library science about what makes a source “authoritative”. An article peer-reviewed in a respected journal has more credibility in a research paper than a blog posting written by a twenty-year-old. Non-fiction collection developers purchase books and other resources for libraries that have met some criteria for having authoritative merit. Reference librarians serve the same function—they are there to help you weed through all the crappy information you find to get the useful stuff, and also to teach you how to make those decisions yourself. At least that’s what happens in an ideal world.

However, what happens more often is that “research” papers from students are becoming cut-and-pastes from Wikipedia, or whatever they found first on Google. They don’t even ask librarians for help. Students act surprised when they get to university or college and get failed for handing in such papers. One might chalk it up to student laziness, but recently I came across a more disturbing example of not using editorial process.

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in recent months about Reiki therapy. I happen to be a Reiki Master, so I pay attention to these things. In short, the Bishops did not want Catholics to receive Reiki treatments because there was “no scientific evidence” that it works, and because it was outside the Catholic religion and potentially “dangerous” to a Catholic soul.

When I first read this, I thought it was a joke. These men had studied theology, they were leaders and scholars. There’s no scientific evidence that prayer, anointing of the sick, or most of their other practices work for anyone. And how does an energy therapy “endanger your soul”? How in the world did they come to this conclusion? Where did they get their information about Reiki? There are many nuns and communities of Sisters that offer Reiki therapy as part of their work. Did they ask any of them? How about the experts in the Reiki field? People like William Rand and Frank Arjava Petr?

William Rand himself looked into the statement, and followed up with his own statement. He looked over the resources consulted by the Church, and found that most of them were just random websites with misinformation. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation on the Web about Reiki.

I don’t know if the Church has acknowledged Rand’s statement, or if they’ve amended their declaration, but to me, it’s a lesson in not doing proper research. People who still care about what the Church says are going to avoid or view with suspicion a practice that may be beneficial to them or to others. While Reiki may heal some, no responsible practitioner makes any claim to heal anyone—it’s a relaxation technique. It is religion neutral, and often used in hospitals as an enhancement to traditional therapies. Rejecting Reiki makes the Church look stupid, and puts those Catholics who receive or engage in Reiki treatment in a tight spot for no reason. All because they never bothered to ask anyone who had done real research on Reiki’s origins and practices. It pays to select your sources carefully.

Public service librarians face another challenge. I can’t speak for international education, but in the United States, elementary school teachers are expected to push students to absorb as much material as they can in a short space of time. This doesn’t leave time for developing things that can only be learned with time and patience—such as language skills, writing skills, and research skills. The students are burned out by the time they’re twelve. When they grow up and go to college, they are unable to do any of these things well—they can’t spell, they don’t use proper grammar, they don’t have good oral communication skills, and they are clueless about research. They also no longer care—they don’t want to learn at this point, they just want to get the grade and get out. Why not? Because “it’s too hard.” This is the teacher’s excuse, and it’s the student’s excuse. It’s an uphill battle, and everyone is tired of fighting it.

So, what is the answer to “it’s too hard”? I haven’t a clue. It certainly won’t be a three-word solution. I do know this—if librarians and other library professionals don’t understand and stand by the basics of their profession, the answer may be that we don’t need libraries or librarians. I’m not suggesting for a minute that this is a correct answer, but it may be the conclusion that society comes to if we are no longer in the business of providing organized access and editorial process. After all, they can search Google and Wikipedia at home.

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