Academic librarians and the rhetoric of excellence

SOCRATES: What is the excellence of the art of music, as I told you truly that the excellence of wrestling was gymnastic — what is the excellence of music — to be what?
To be musical, I suppose.
Very good; and now please to tell me what is the excellence of war and peace; as the more musical was the more excellent, or the more gymnastical was the more excellent, tell me, what name do you give to the more excellent in war and peace?
But I really cannot tell you.

Plato, Alcibiades I

As academic librarians strive for ever greater levels of achievement in our professional lives, we frequently find ourselves caught up in the fashionable discourse of excellence. Awards for excellence, endowments for excellence, excellence in librarianship, excellence in research, excellence in excelling. Like Alcibiades stuttering his way through Socrates’ relentless questioning, we have to admit that we don’t really know its true meaning except that the concept is supremely valued and sublimely variable.

We read articles by other librarians extolling accomplishment, distinction, inimitability, and overall superbness [1-2]. We hear rousing accolades to the “mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship” between business and the library as a “centre of excellence” [3]. We are subjected to peculiar perorations such as the following:

The continuous repetition of the entire excellence processes at regular intervals, including a renewed assessment, ensures a development of the library that is close to the market and meets the needs of a knowledge-based society. This dynamic leads to a continual optimisation of the library whereas the scale of the excellence achieved often corresponds to the current situation. The improvement of a library therefore knows no upper limit and new optimisation potential can be revealed continually [4].

“Centre of excellence,” “close to the market,” “no upper limit,” “continual optimisation”:  there is certainly a message here, and the language it is written in is that of the corporate communiqué and the total quality management handbook. It seems that whenever one hears of excellence, along with it there is the sound of a cheque book being snapped open.

As Elizabeth Hodgson, President of the University of British Columbia Faculty Association, writes in her recently published rant on excellence, this all-too-familiar morpheme has become “a supersaturated term like ‘patriot’ or ‘family values’, a word that means both everything and nothing” [5]. Like the Lacanian Big Other or the Foucauldian instrument of social control, it hovers over and underlies our discourse. Everyone has an idea of what excellence means, but it remains just beyond the margins of the definable. Immeasurable and impossible to grasp, its attainment is all-important, yet ever-receding. Robert Merton, the well-known sociologist of science, described it this way: “Many of us are persuaded that we know what we mean by excellence and would prefer not to be asked to explain. We act as though we believe that close inspection of the idea of excellence will cause it to dissolve into nothing” [6, p. 422].

Despite this hermeneutic panic on the part of some thinkers, for our elite groups, including university administrators, the word has become a handy shibboleth. It conveniently stands in as a universal signifier that justifies almost anything — for who could possibly object to excellence? To question the pursuit of excellence could only arise out of the envious rancour of mediocrity, the resentment of the underachiever or the subversive. As with Protecting Our Children or Supporting Our Troops, excellence allows no nuance or debate. It is absolute, inviolate, and demands uncritical acceptance.

There is a large degree of expediency in our leaders’ relentless emphasis on excellence. It provides ideological cover for power wielders, impresses those with money, and nicely papers over inadequacies. For, as has been remarked of old, often the cockloft is empty in those whom nature hath built many stories high. The bullying use of the term in the academy must further the same ends. Why else bring coals to Newcastle by pushing excellence in a setting that is already marked by an abundance of ambitious over-achievers, self-motivated, creative, and zealous of their scholarly reputations? Academic librarians have jumped on the excellence bandwagon partly to prove that we are as good as our faculty colleagues and that we deserve the resources we require to do our jobs, and partly also out of our own conformism and conceit. We should look harder at this trend. We should ask why there are so many awards for excellence in librarianship.

Where none admire, ’tis useless to excel;
Where none are beaux, ’tis vain to be a belle.  (George, Lord Lyttelton – Soliloquy of a Beauty in the Country)

A fixation on excellence can quickly go to one’s head. The way some librarians carry on, a dull-as-ditchwater meeting is made to sound as exclusive as a reunion banquet for the Ptolemies. A commonplace journal article recounting the creation of a few web pages unexpectedly and embarrassingly bursts into praise for “librarians’ persistence, performances [sic] and achievements” [7]. Are we not too familiar with unseemly preening and puffery of this sort? We enter into heated arguments and contractual battles about the measurement of excellence in research and scholarship, teaching, or professional performance. Excellence-obsessed concepts and practices such as enterprise culture, managerialism, total quality assurance, and customer care have battered the coastline of academic librarianship in successive waves. Scarcely has one subsided than the next arrives. Yet in all this commotion around excellence we can’t suck clarity out of our thumb. Right, but we can always establish another award.

While we are all scrambling in pursuit of our ideas of excellence, the cheque book reveals its true utilitarian and economic hue. Our academic centres of excellence are prodigious factories. Research excellence and research commercialization are in a tight embrace. The three drivers of research excellence are the creation of new, high-quality scientific and technical knowledge, its accelerated transmission to user communities, and the commercial exploitation of that knowledge. Achieving and maintaining excellence is now all about competing at national or international scientific frontiers, and attracting sufficient resources to maintain a lead. Striving for excellence has become of paramount importance in science policy and informs the quality assurance practices of granting agencies [8].

Universities are taking this game seriously. They look for stars to ratchet up the excellence factor, perform as big money magnets, and compete with other institutions doing exactly the same thing. In this invidious process the message becomes clear: if you are not excellent — i.e., bringing in vast grants and accumulating ever more social and professional brownie points — you are essentially worthless. Yet it is patently absurd, as Elizabeth Hodgson reminds us, to refuse to recognize that any group of people will include a normal and healthy range of abilities, levels of commitment, and measurable success rates. A bemused colleague whispers in her ear: “Do you think they know that someone has to be in the bottom decile?” Are administrators not aware that there is a natural spectrum of achievement, that more nurturing and less needling might work wonders, that an orchestra composed only of star performers does not play well?

I recommend Hodgson’s essay to stressed librarians who feel caught up in the treadmill of competitiveness and the rhetoric of excellence. She concludes her self-acknowledged rant with a call for common sense:

As it is, we spend more and more of our work energies having to prove repeatedly that we deserve the resources we need to do our jobs. We spend more and more time attempting to demonstrate, in order to keep our jobs, that we are even more excellent than we were the year before, more excellent than our colleagues and more excellent than the university across town.
The net effect, ironically, is that we are far more likely to do less of what we were trained to do, what we are genuinely gifted at. You don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it; you feed it. “Excellence,” I assure you, despite its fine sound, has no nutritional value [5].

There’s food for thought. To switch metaphors, let’s avoid the fate of the fanatical climber in Longfellow’s poem, who reaches the mountain top only to end up lifeless but beautiful, and half-buried in snow, “still grasping in his hand of ice / That banner with the strange device, / Excelsior!”


1. Hardesty L. Excellence in academic libraries: recognizing it. Library issues. 2007;27(4):1-4

2. Hyams E. A new impetus to professional excellence. Library + information update. 2005;4(6):33-35.

3. Reid D. The National Library of New Zealand as a Sun™ Centre of Excellence. The electronic library. 2006;24(4):429-433.

4. Herget J. Excellence in libraries: a systematic and integrated approach. New library world. 2007;108(11/12):526-544.

5. Hodgson E. A rant on excellence. CAUT bulletin. 2010 Jan;57(1):2,12.

6. Merton R. The sociology of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1973.

7. Wu L. Montreal hospital librarians’ websites: striving for excellence. Journal of hospital librarianship. 2004;4(3):101-108.

8. Tijssen RJW. Scoreboards of research excellence. Research evaluation. 2003 Aug;12(2):91-103.

Photo credit: cc licensed flickr photo by Frankenstein

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