Critical thinking matters: “both sides” are not equal


There is a deep, very troubling and dangerous flaw in putting “both sides” of the Charlottesville protests on the same plane. Doing so commits the logical fallacy known as “tu quoque” (Latin for “you also”), conventionally called “whataboutism”. This is a common, simple error that can lead to wrong conclusions. An error that quickly became the center of a national debate after the Charlottesville protests, about the moral equivalency of the far right protesters and the opposition counter protesters.

The fact that so many are making this error — apparently including the U.S. president, though I find his statements sufficiently incoherent and self-contradictory that I really can’t tell what he believes — goes to the heart of why it is so important for educated citizens to learn the skill of critical thinking, which is the foundation of the liberal arts university education that was invented in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. [1]

First, let me say that I abhor violence, and that I am not going to claim that violence by one set of protesters was more justified than by the other set.  For the purpose of this piece, let’s just set aside the violence — either agreeing that anyone who engaged in violence during the lawful, civil protest that day is wrong and should be punished, or if you don’t agree with that, then simply leaving the discussion of violence for another day.  Those who perpetrated violence were in the minority, in any case, so we can focus on everyone else present.

What concerns me is that so many are arguing that the purpose and legitimacy and moral standing of the two groups of protesters is somehow equivalent.  This is a serious error, the type that critical thinking helps us avoid.

Yes: the far right protesters have the same right to free speech as do any others, and their march and the non-violent part of their protest, in a public place, was lawful.  Absolutely.  Part of our very special democracy is that, as our Supreme Court stated in Matal v. Tam just this past June, “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”  And the counterprotesters have the same right to express (in speech — not violence) their hatred of that speech.

But the fact that “both sides” had the right to speak does not make them morally equivalent on that day — or any day. The far right protesters organized and gathered to advocate for things that are morally repugnant, and unconstitutional.  They called on well-known symbols of the Nazi party to attract participants, such as posters that mimicked Nazi propaganda posters.  (Here’s an article posted by Fox News — generally viewed as conservative — making this point:  At the protest, many wore Nazi paraphernalia, carried flags with swastikas, and wore shirts quoting Adolf Hitler — and all were marching alongside Nazi flags. One of the oft-repeated chants during the march was “Jews will not replace us.”  Another was the core slogan of the German Nazi party, “Blood and Soil!”.  They were advocating for white supremacy, racism and anti-semitism: hatred of human beings because of their skin color or their religious beliefs.  One of their leaders present, Richard Spencer, has called for ethnic cleansing in America They want to oppress other humans, and deny them the rights they are guaranteed by our constitution.

The counterprotesters had a very different purpose: to oppose racist and anti-semitic views, to oppose oppression.  They are working against bigotry and denial of basic, constitutional human and civil rights.

“Both sides” are not morally equivalent.  One advocates hate-mongering, oppression, denial of constitutional rights and ethnic cleansing.  The other opposes these goals.

What does this have to do with critical thinking and education?  Those claiming moral equivalence between the racist neo-Nazis and the protestors against bigotry are using whataboutism, one of the Soviet Union’s (and now Russia’s) favorite propaganda techniques: picking out some aspect of the behavior that is similar across the two groups, and claiming that makes them morally equivalent. [2]  But that’s silly, uneducated and dangerous.  You need to compare them on all the criteria that matter.

For example, the defenders of the far right protesters say “both sides” were there to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views.  Yes, and they have the right to express those views.  But exercising your rights does not make you a fine person.  Legally expressing racist, anti-semitic, oppressive views in our society — founded on the principle that all persons are created equal — does not make you morally equivalent to someone who opposes such views.

One of the great contributions of university education to a civil society is its commitment to developing critical thinking skills in our students.  We need citizens who consider all sides to an argument, rely on verifiable facts, and use sound logic. Whataboutism fails this test.

University libraries are playing an increasingly important role in information literacy education: helping our students learn now to find relevant information, critically evaluate its reliability and quality, and use it to reason soundly.  I’m proud to be part of a centuries old institution that is dedicated to thinking carefully about the hard questions facing us, so that we avoid the superficial but very dangerous errors that can lead people to think that hate-mongering racists and anti-semites are no worse than those who protest their hate.

(Thanks to Tiffany Grandstaff for her editorial wisdom.)


[1] There are two words in that sentence — critical, and liberal — which in common usage have different meanings that when they are used in the phrases “critical thinking” and “liberal education”. Let me be very clear so that — hopefully — the use of these concepts does not generate unwarranted political opprobrium. “Critical thinking” does not mean “negatively critiquing” or being opposed to the views of another. Critical thinking is the disciplined process of actively analyzing and evaluating information to determine its reliability and meaning, then reasoning soundly to reach a conclusion. It might as well be called “good thinking”: considering all sides to an argument, relying on verifiable facts, and using sound logic. “Liberal education” is not a political term: it doesn’t have anything to do with the liberal-conservative spectrum in politics. Rather, using the definition of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, it is “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.” Source:

[2] That there are human rights abuses in the U.S., does not absolve a regime that built the gulags — forced labor concentration camps for millions of its citizens.

Berkeley’s budget woes and the Library


Though the economy is strong again, many public universities continue to see declining support, or at least not see growth commensurate with an economic boom. UC Berkeley is facing a sixth year of frozen tuition (which was already low compared to peers), hard limits on out-state enrollment, no state financing for capital projects, and new responsibility for pension costs. Here is a message I shared with our staff and external advisory boards:

“By now you most likely have heard about Chancellor Dirks’s announcement that Berkeley has a serious annual, unsustainable budget deficit. If you haven’t, here is a link to his public statement: The basic fact is simple: revenues are about $150 million a year less than expenses. That’s a big gap. To address this, our Chancellor has launched the campus on a major and necessary strategic re-alignment process. He has assured us, everything is “on the table”, with a simple guiding rule: we will make choices to uphold Berkeley’s world-leading commitment to excellence and access.

What do the long-term budget shortfall and accompanying strategic re-alignment of Berkeley mean for the Library?

The first and most immediate consequence is that for the second year in a row, we have been instructed to reduce our activity by about 4%. We also had a 4% cut last year. Over the next few months we need to find quick ways to reduce activity without seriously damaging our most important contributions to Berkeley’s excellence and access (in our case, access to information).

We have a smart and resilient staff, and together we’ll manage this immediate challenge. What about the future? Because of the size of the campus annual deficit, we must anticipate further cuts in our campus funds in coming years, as well.

As I wrote to you when I started this job — just a bit over five months ago — we have tremendous opportunities in front of us. There is no better time in history to be an information professional. But the public is providing less and less support to public higher education. The implication is straightforward: we need to prioritize, aggressively.

So we are launching a strategic planning process. Our challenge in a time of opportunity is not to work our staff to exhaustion and bitterness, to try to do more with less. Rather, we have to choose the very most important things, and do those excellently well. We will engage our staff, the faculty, the students, alumni and donors to discuss what those most important things are, and then we will prioritize.

We are not starting from scratch. The Library has been facing resource challenges for over a decade, and there has been a lot of strategic thinking already. Some directions are too obvious to ignore. We may not be able to prioritize them all, but we have to discuss them.

For example, we have one of the best collections of information resources of any research library in the U.S. Books, photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, videos, audio recordings, maps, journals, pamphlets, on and on. Those resources are held in trust for the benefit of the public. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to set those treasures free? To support Berkeley’s commitment to access by providing as much universal access to our treasures as is possible? Today we can do so in a way not possible until just a few years ago. We can create high-fidelity digital representations, and once created, there is essentially zero technical cost to sharing our treasures with everyone on the planet, through free and open networks. (The only limit is time, for those resources that remain under copyright for a while still.) We have started this project, but progress has been modest. Should we commit to this moonshot, to set our treasures free?

Another example: Berkeley provides the best public college and graduate education in the world. But 21st century leaders need more than we are providing today. Whatever path through life they will follow as artist or engineer, doctor or novelist, they need to be information professionals. They were not born into the agricultural age, nor the industrial age. They were born into the information age. The big information problem facing each Berkeley student today is not the scarcity of information, but the information flood. And so every well-educated citizen needs to be their own librarian, because the quality of their life — social, cultural, economic, political — will depend on being able to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Shouldn’t we, the information professionals on campus, the librarians, be greatly increasing our efforts to educate so that every Berkeley graduate is 21st century information literate?

We know about another major opportunity: the Library provides not only information resources, and information literacy education, but very special spaces for our students and faculty to learn and engage in scholarship. In fact, we are the primary provider of public, open, shared learning space on campus. And our space is needed more than ever by our students: with soaring Berkeley rents, they are living further away, and crowding more and more people into tiny apartments. They need space on campus to study and learn. And to be the best they need modern space that support collaboration, innovation and connection: connection to information resources around the world and right on our campus, connections to other learners around the world and right on our campus. The Library’s spaces should be our campus’s best designed and best equipped hubs for connected learning.

These are big opportunities, and there are others. We will prioritize so that we can take on ambitious challenges. We have to: Berkeley’s excellence depends on the Library, and we can’t let Berkeley down. Just as Chancellor Dirks promises for campus, we, the Library promise: we will come through this strategic re-alignment stronger and better, focused more than ever on Berkeley’s commitment to excellence and access.”

We believe in free and open information, right?


Well… I hope so.

I feel like I’ve finished the test flight on this blog — a few articles up, no major crises, a few interesting emails from readers.

Time to turn on commenting.  You can now comment on articles, and comment on comments.  Please do.  Constructively.  And yes, you need to submit comments with name and email — there are other places for public, anonymous rants, and other ways to send me private, anonymous slams.  Please express your thoughts here, honestly, AND constructively.

Picture of people throwing tomatoes at each other
“Throwing tomatoes” Photo Credit: (c) Aaron Corey, CC NC-ND 2.0

Do libraries need more shelving? Isn’t everything digital?


The University of California system, like many research libraries, relies heavily on high-density off-site shelving.  We own and operate two facilities, one each in the north and the south of the state, which combined hold almost half of the combined physical collections of the library systems of all 10 UC campuses.

And both facilities are almost full.  We estimate that we will run out of shelving for regular volumes (we reserve some shelving for unusual sizes and types of materials, and some of that will fill a bit later) in two, perhaps three years.  This has us quite worried: an expansion will cost about $25 million (our design is modular: that’s for a one module expansion, for about 2.5-3 million volumes), and will take some time to design and build: we’re are getting close to the fail point.  Given declining state funding (including a complete cut-off of all capital funding), we are not sure where we’ll get the money or how soon.

A big part of the problem is convincing people that more shelving for print collections is a vital university need in a time of declining budgets.  After all, everything is digital now, right?


One huge misconception we face is that digitizing our collections means we don’t need the print anymore.  For example, we are participants in the Google Books / HathiTrust project, and most of our 11 million regular volumes have been digitized.  Why not burn our print copies?

  1. For starters, about half of the collection is still in copyright.  The HathiTrust collection can be searched, full-text, to find the existence of books, but we are not allowed to let people use the digital copy (with limited exceptions, e.g., for the blind, who can listen to a text-to-voice conversion).  Decades before this need for our print copies goes away.
  2. Second, we are here not to build collections for their own sake, but to serve our faculty and students.  And many of them vastly prefer doing their work from print copies.  Those who read long monographs find it easier and their comprehension higher.  Those who need to study large images or maps, in high resolution, or who want to see side-by-side page comparisons, need the print.  And for many rare and historical documents, the materiality of the original document itself is of enormous importance for scholarship, from the marginal annotations to the construction of the volume.
  3. Next, we can have little or no confidence that we can guarantee long-term digital preservation.  Digital storage has been around a relatively short time.  In that time, formats change frequently.  Hardware and software to render digital formats changes.  Bits on storage media rot.  Keeping bits and being able to find and access them in the future requires large annual expenditures, and those expenditures are getting larger as the amount of content we want to preserve grows enormously fast.  Further, much of scholarly content currently is held on servers of for-profit companies, and we have no guarantee those companies will survive, or that they will take care to ensure that their archives of scholarly publications survive.
  4. The Google project has been very good, but it is not complete.  It does not scan fold-out pages, for example, which are in many scholarly books (maps, charts, tables).  We have discovered that sometimes they miss pages, or the quality is not readable.

So, for now, there is pretty much consensus among research scholars and librarians that we must keep print copies for preservation in all cases, and for continuing use in many cases.

We are able to moderate shelving needs somewhat by reducing the number of print copies that are stored, and we are actively engaged in de-duplication and shared print projects.  But too few copies provides a great risk of irretrievable loss or damage, so this can only (prudently) go so far.

OK, so we can’t eliminate the need for shelving.  But do we need to expand remote shelving?


There are two very simple and compelling reasons. First, many campuses (including several of the UC campuses, like Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, etc.) were located in areas that have become extraordinarily successful — and thus expensive.  Real estate prices in Berkeley are twice that in Boston for example, and six times higher than in Champaign, IL (I compared residential real estate prices, but the differences are primarily due to underlying land prices, and campuses are located near prime residential real estate in any case). As our campuses need space for new educational and research facilities, they are — quite reasonably — requiring that more of our book shelving go off-site, to cheaper locations: the cost of fast paging and delivery is far less than the real estate savings.  Half of Berkeley’s collection is already stored off-site.  At least one of our campus library spaces is closing in the next couple of years (quite possibly more), and two of our campus libraries were recently transformed into learning spaces without standalone book collections, requiring even more moves to off-site shelving.

The second reason we need more shelving (wherever it is located) is also simple: we need to expand our print collections.  Despite our savings through de-duplication and shared print consortia, an enormous amount of new scholarly research is only published in print, still (this is especially true for foreign language publications, which account for nearly half of our new acquisitions).  And, of course, those students and scholars who demand print copies for their use, demand that of newly published materials too, even if they are available digitally.

I’m a digital guy.  My paper files are almost non-existent.  I almost always read scholarly journal articles on my screen, and for about half the books I read I use my Kindle or MacBook.  But I’m here to witness to a very serious fact facing the 21st century research library: we need more print shelving space, especially off-site shelving.


Building the future of scholarly resources


We at Berkeley Library have just posted a position for an Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources, an evolution of our current AUL Collections position. I’d like to offer some thoughts about what we think leadership in scholarly resources means for a research library.

Our mission, as I see it, is to help people find, evaluate and use information resources to build a better world. We seek an AUL for Scholarly Resources to lead our efforts in three key areas that advance this mission

  1. development and management of access to scholarly resources
  2. improving practices in scholarly communication
  3. systematically assessing resources and services

Access to scholarly resources

For more than 4000 years one of the most important functions to serve our mission was to create collections. Hence, our profession is known as librarianship: we are the people who create and maintain libraries.  Building collections was critical because information was expensive to publish and distribute, and thus information resources were scarce.  We couldn’t help people find, evaluate and use information without making a collection of these scarce resources available to them.

However, the economics of information production, discovery and access have changed radically in the past 20-30 years as a consequence of the digital revolution. Now the cost to reproduce and distribute most information is vanishingly close to zero, so we are faced not with scarcity, but abundance of information resources. (NB: the cost is about zero, but that doesn’t mean the price is always close to zero: more on this below.)  Our mission really has not changed in the past 4000 years, but the role of collecting to serve this mission has greatly changed.

To keep the focus on our mission to serve people’s information needs, it is more useful for us to say that, rather than a primary focus on building collections, the critical role is providing access to resources.  We pursue a mixture of strategies to make information resources available.  For example, we establish portals and way-finding assistance to help people locate useful resources wherever they might reside.  We license access to many resources (most notably, at present, scholarly journals), without ever owning or “collecting” them.  (Indeed, in our library, about 60% of our current resources budget is spent on licenses for access to digital resources.)

This does not mean that we are no longer in the business of collecting!  Some important information resources still are scarce and expensive, and so we still need libraries to collect these.  This is especially true for resources that are still primarily produced in print format (which currently includes most scholarly monographs, particularly those published outside North America and Europe).  And, of course, rare historical resources that are in print (or other analog) formats (our “special collections”) need to be collected by institutions if they are to be available to the public in the future.  Also, for some types of learning and scholarship, print format is sufficiently more useful than digital that we need to bear the higher cost of collecting print, rather than (solely) providing digital access.  After all, our mission is to serve our users who want to use the information, not to minimize cost (though we can’t ignore the trade-offs that the higher cost of print impose on us).

Another reason we still need to collect and maintain many print resources is that the information they contain is artificially scarce and expensive because it is under copyright, so we can’t (yet) digitally reproduce and distribute it at a price that approaches the near zero cost of doing so.  For example, Berkeley is a member of the HathiTrust consortium, which has an archive containing full-text searchable digital files of nearly 14 million volumes scanned from research libraries…but less than 40% of that is in the public domain; the other 60%+ cannot be read online (by most users).

So, yes, it is still vital that we continue to collect, but that is only one role — and frankly, a decreasing one in the broader function of providing access to scholarly resources.

Thus, we need an AUL for Scholarly Resources who is ready for and enthusiastic about dealing with the vast array of resources now relevant to students and scholars, in many different analog and digital formats.

It is important to realize that the revolution is not over.  Though the fundamental science of the digital revolution is mature, the physical and social engineering of the digital world is still immature and far from complete. Formats and affordances for use are evolving.  Business models and market structures are changing.  And user adaptations and uses are changing.  Thus, we need an AUL-SR who is a lifelong learner, who is adaptable and indeed embraces change.

Transforming scholarly communications

Let me turn to the second area in which we need scholarly resource leadership: scholarly communications.  Because the economics and technology of information production and distribution are radically changing, the ecosystem in which scholars communicate their results is also radically changing.

For example, much work is widely distributed in self-published form before it is peer-reviewed and “published” by an arm’s length organization. And even for formally published communications, because the cost of reproduction and distribution is zero, the socially optimal business model is to make access universal and free to all (open access).  Of course, there are still substantial “first copy” costs, even aside from the cost of keeping the author in food and clothing (costs, for scholarly resources, that are typically paid by university or laboratory salary budgets).  First copy costs include editorial selection, peer review, copy and style editing, and providing professional publication quality.  But when costs of reproduction and distribution are zero, the socially efficient way to provide for first-copy costs is through lump-sum up-front (pre-publication) payments, not through ex post per copy pricing.  Commercial business models are adapting to these social efficiency imperatives — but painfully slowly, and until we successfully navigate this transition to open access publishing, society is paying too much, and receiving too little access to the discoveries and insights of our scientists, scholars, artists and inventors.

In addition to necessary changes in the business of scholarly communications, we need to advance changes in the formats and media through which scholars communicate.  With the collapsing costs of digital media production, scholars are no longer constrained to publish solely in traditional formats such as the monograph.  Shorter — and longer — forms are feasible. Multimedia and interactive formats are feasible.  Living documents and contemporaneous, community-annotated editions are feasible.  The effectiveness of scholarly communications will be increased as we learn to use richer and more varied forms of communication, just as our communications are improved when we improve our writing skills.

However, our social and commercial institutions — including the behaviors of change-averse (that is, human) scholars — are slow to adapt. To benefit from the potential for reduced cost and improved access and distribution, we need to push hard on changing the scholarly communications culture.

So, we seek an AUL-SR who is knowledgeable and passionate about helping Berkeley play a leadership role in transforming the scholarly communication ecosystem.


Finally, there is something else we need. With a mission to help people find, evaluate and use resources to build a better world, we can only succeed if we are a user-centric library.  We must discover and learning about the needs of our users (and non-users, since we’d like to start serving them too).  And we need to evaluate how well we serve those needs.

This point should be obvious for a leader overseeing the expensive business of providing access to scholarly resources: we can’t buy or license or provide expert finding assistance for everything, so we need to assess user priorities and ensure we are serving those priorities well.

But assessment is more important than ever in the current era of vanishing public support for public higher education.  Leading public university systems now survive with only about 14% of their operating costs provided by public support.  If we want to continue to deliver excellent information resource support to public higher education, we have no choice but to do more with less.  This may sound like an argument for the dreaded “corporatization” of higher education, but after we step away from political sloganeering, I think it’s clear that being more efficient in how we fulfill our mission is crucial for our service to the public.  And crucial to increasing our efficiency is to do a better job of assessing our users’ needs, and evaluating ourselves on how well we are serving those needs, so we can engage in continuous improvement in our provision of service to our students, scholars and the public.

Looking forward

There has never been a greater time to be an information professional.  We in university libraries are in the business of helping students and scholars find, evaluate and use information in their quest to build a better world.  And we live in a time when we can provide vastly more access, ever better tools for evaluating information quality, and explosively improving ways of using these information riches.

An AUL for Scholarly Resources at a leading university will be able to lead our top professional teams who are helping advance how scholars communicate, and how they find, use and evaluate information.

Looking Forward


People walking through wooden maze indoors

[I sent this message to all library staff today, my first on the job as University Librarian at UC Berkeley (slightly edited to remove some local info).]

Our campus is one of the top research universities in the world. To support our campus, our library should be no less.

What do we need to accomplish?

The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library concluded in 2013 that “the most important contribution of the research university library in the next twenty years will be to provide the increasingly sophisticated human expertise required to successfully navigate [the] rapidly shifting heterogeneous terrain” [emphasis added]. I agree.

Every well-educated, successful participant in the modern world needs to be information fluent. With the explosive and low-cost abundance of information resources, everyone needs to be their own librarian, finding and evaluating information all day long, every day. That doesn’t mean there is no role for us: just the opposite. First, we are needed to help our students and faculty become information fluent. But even though every college graduate can write, we still need professional writers in our society. And even when we elevate all of our students and faculty to more advanced levels of information fluency, our second responsibility will be as expert informationists, working with them to solve their more challenging and advanced information problems in this “rapidly shifting heterogenous terrain.”

The rapidly growing availability of new data, and computational tools to analyze them, provides one of these emerging challenges for many. Most of our faculty and students are not yet trained or equipped to provide for all of their own data curation, management and preservation needs. As the core provider of advanced information service on campus, we must further develop our expertise and provide an ever stronger set of data services to campus. We won’t provide all data services by ourselves of course, but will create a complete portfolio through partnerships with other campus units.

The University’s mission is to “discover knowledge and to disseminate it to its students and to society at large.” To support this, we must make it easier for scholars to engage in open access dissemination. At the same time, we have to work to create a more financially sustainable publishing ecosystem so that we can afford to provide access to scholarship at the same time as we deliver our other services. Our faculty and students will benefit from more open and lower cost dissemination, and the whole world will benefit from greater access to Berkeley’s discoveries.

We have many great spaces for contemplation and study. But the ways are changing in which students and faculty engage with information, and with each other as they use information to advance learning and discovery. We need to re-envision and re-design many of our spaces to support an age of interactive, connected and collaborative learning and discovery. For example, students need more sophisticated, powerful access to local and remote information collections, and to use new technologies to find, evaluate and use this information. We can provide them with access, training and experience to prepare them for their future. Equally or more important, students need access to each other — face to face and virtually — to engage inconnected, collaborative learning, discovery and knowledge production. We should provide spaces, technologies and human expertise to make our libraries the vibrant, go-to campus hubs for connected learning. The just-initiated renovation of Moffitt 4 and 5 is a first step in this initiative.

None of this is to say that we will abandon our collections, nor that we will stop building them. But our mission is not building collections for their own sake, but helping people to find, evaluate and use information. In some cases the most important way to help is to continue to build and preserve our tremendous collections of print and physical and digital objects, and we will devote considerable effort and resources to doing so. In other situations we should focus on providing advanced services to help people access, evaluate and use digital resources owned and stored elsewhere.

More than anything else we must provide professional, advanced service. Our people — you — are our most valuable resource.

We are at the dawn of the second Gutenberg age, with information production and dissemination growing explosively. Societies have evolved from primarily agricultural, to industrial, to service-based, and now we are entering the Information Age. At this time society needs ever greater knowledge institutions. What an exciting time for a university research library.

For me, this isn’t a job, it’s a passion, and I’m on a mission. Let’s make great things happen together.