Not because it is Simple, but because it is Complex

By Joshua Salmans

Here it is! Perhaps you haven’t been on the edge of seat waiting for it, but I myself have struggled to produce my first blog post after almost a year of pondering its possible existence. I am a 34-year-old graduate student at the University of South Carolina (USC) who has frequently struggled to find voice on this small blueberry we call home. My journey to find voice is probably the responsible agent for my curiosity and passion for information literacy in librarianship.

I shall avoid boring you with the ramblings about my adult journey other than to express how often I felt alone when seeking information about complex things this world throws at us. In my experience, librarians (I might add teachers here as well) were one of the few in a constant state of readiness on the front lines of information literacy.

Archibald MacLeish, the poet Librarian of Congress during World War II, once exhorted librarians to be more than “patented machines” for delivering books to the user—rather, they should be “champions of a cause.”[i] This cause, he speaks of, is not an easy task, but one to be reckoned with: creating an intellectual learning space for a democratic electorate to flourish as an informed citizenry.

Some 76 years later, David Lankes, the new and upcoming Director of the School of Information and Library Science (SLIS) at USC, reminds us of this powerful impetus in his vlog post, “Rocket Science is Easy.”[ii] He makes a case for librarianship maintaining relevancy by focusing efforts on solutions to its community’s complex issues.

Flashing a rather involved—and in my book intimidating—rocket equation from the NASA website, Lankes illustrates how the problem it solves is a rather simple one. The equation could have fooled me, however; it has something to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion, and there are letters on top of letters with superscripts and subscripts combined with Greek letters. It is definitely above my pay grade.

Don’t believe me? The existence of an equation is actually an indication that the problem has a simple solution as the process and the outcome is known. Plug in the numbers to the respective variables and—voilà—you have the recipe to make the rocket produce enough thrust and lift off the ground. At least that’s what I think it does. It is here that Lankes gives us a more distinctive delineation between solving simple, complicated, and complex problems.

Now let’s talk about getting that rocket to that silver neighbor of ours. Though he unfortunately never had the chance to witness the fruition of his vision, Kennedy in 1962 exhorted humanity to stretch itself and go to moon among other things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”[iii] His speech at Rice University in Houston implored the scientific community to solve some of the complicated problems that hindered the U.S. from taken its part in the space race with Soviet Russia. There can be no doubt that the problem of sending a rocket to the moon was extremely complicated; however, the intended outcome (to land on the moon) is expected even if the process is still in the discovery phase as it was for Kennedy.

As sophisticated as the process to make that journey to that silver neighbor of ours was, it paled in comparison to establishing a peace during a time when two superpowers (the U.S. & the Soviet Union) had ideologies that were in competition with each other. During the Cold War, global geopolitics took on unprecedented, complex spheres of influence fueled by suspicious fear and paranoia under a veiled veneer of truce. Kennedy remarked in a commencement speech for American University:

“Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process—a way of solving problems.”[iv]

This arena of complex issues is exactly where librarians belong. Its typography is difficult, puzzling, and anomalous as its outcomes are not necessarily known but emergent; its processes vary and are constantly changing. Too often, we have settled for simplistic approaches to advancing our collections: we send out our surveys and calculate averages on our spreadsheets to find out what to put on our shelves, as Lankes put it. Perhaps we even take on complicated scientific endeavors to provide programs that seem good to librarians, but are we merely “devoting massive sums of money to [collections and programs] that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease?”[v] I enjoyed Lankes’s use of hurricane forecast models to demonstrate how these complex constructs have so many variables that rarely does one model or survey accurately foretell the path of the hurricane. Careful scientific analyses combined with intuitive savvy are required to engage them.

Just as the globe experienced significant changes during Kennedy’s day, our communities today are increasingly becoming diverse, and their issues becoming more complex. Information technology and social media have produced more accessibility to various contexts with which to engage our communities. Our communities are embracing new questions of inclusivity and diversity—gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, and political preferences. These constructs are complex and not easily represented on surveys. Our research has to become more involved and substantial in our libraries. We need librarians who know how to conduct research both quantitatively and qualitatively—to produce in-depth analyses that reflect our communities’ actual needs, especially the marginalized and invisible communities. Are we ready to engage those contexts with dynamic approaches, or do we simply send out surveys that render superficial data about our communities?


[i] MacLeish, A. (1971). The librarian and the democratic process. In E.M. Goldschmidt (Ed.), Champion of a cause: Essays and addresses on librarianship by Archibald MacLeish (pp. 54-62). Chicago, IL: American Library Association. (Original work published 1940).

[ii] Lankes, R. D. (2016, May 9). Rocket science is easy [Web blog post]. Retrieved from http://davidlankes.org/?p=8889

[iii] Kennedy, J. F. (1962, September 12). [Rice University, 12 September 1962]. John F. Kennedy Historic Speeches, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (USG:15 reel 29). Retrieved from http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/MkATdOcdU06X5uNHbmqm1Q.aspx

[iv] Kennedy, J. F. (1963, June 10). [Excerpt from the Commencement Address at the American University]. John F. Kennedy Historic Speeches, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (TNC-319-EX). Retrieved from http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BWC7I4C9QUmLG9J6I8oy8w.aspx

[v] ibid.

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camelotsecho by Joshua Salmans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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