Where’s your Bib, Tom?

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Today’s guest post is from Bill Gillis, Librarian Extraordinaire of Eckles Library.  He’s got a unique critique of Hot, Flat and Crowded that I haven’t heard discussed until now.  Leave a comment below if you agree, disagree, or just want to leave a comment.

I know: Thomas Friedman is a journalist.  Hot, Flat, and Crowded is not “scholarship.”  I get it.  I still found myself turning to the back of his book in desperate search of a bibliography.  Not because I thought I would find one, rather because I hoped I would.

Friedman’s book is a call to action, and he does a wonderful job of painting the issues that we face in a grand and sweeping way.  Working my way through his narrative felt at times like following someone on a mad dash around the world: chatting it up with farmers in Brazil, meeting diplomats in the Middle East, stopping by to lunch with folks at what seemed like every think tank in Washington, DC.  But apart from the actual story he tells, there is no bibliographic trail to follow.  With few exceptions, Friedman doesn’t cite his sources.  Again, it’s not lost on me that he’s a journalist and he is not violating any writing conventions here.  And yet, I went looking for a bibliography not because I was trying to hold Friedman to some higher standard, but precisely because he is trying to hold us to one.

I’m pretty comfortable with my biases here: I’m a fan of bibliographies.  That probably makes me more of a nerd than it does a snob, but I’m okay with that.  I’m a fan of bibliographies because of what they represent and how they operate, sitting back there at the end a text, usually overlooked, literally an afterthought.  I like what Van Hillard has to say about bibliographies, however.  Hillard writes that “In addition to recognizing the research act as collaborative in nature, bibliographies themselves can be read as social documents insofar as they provide a record of participants within specific conversations and provide a partial census of those who have shaped inquiry at a particular moment.”[1] Hillard insists that bibliographies, as social texts, cannot be divorced from their cultural, historical, or political contexts.  As I talk to students I often find myself defending bibliographies as living documents that stand in testament to the people the student chose to bring into a particular conversation at a specific moment in time.  It’s not just a list of articles and books and websites that are read and consulted in the process of writing a paper or chapter or book.  Rather, the bibliography becomes a totally unique monument to the ideas, the scholars or journalists –  or in Friedman’s case, the farmers and bankers and diplomats – that are brought together in a way that suggests a fresh perspective (on sometimes very old ideas).  Bibliographies get short shrift.  However, I think they’re one of the most interesting parts of any document, because they represent something brand new – a particular combination of thinkers, texts, websites, stories and ideas that has never existed before.

But back to my point: in a book that seeks to inspire people to action, I think that a bibliography would have provided Friedman’s readers with a concrete resource to which we could turn to learn more about the issues that face us.  Friedman references hundreds if not thousands of articles, interviews, studies, anecdotes and conversations, and only rarely does the reader have a clue where they came from.  (My personal favorite example of this is the epigraph to Chapter 9 that Friedman attributes, simply, to the Internet.  I honestly laughed out loud.)  Obviously we can do the legwork ourselves; it’s not as if the absence of a bibliography renders Friedman’s sources lost to us.  I just think that in this case a bibliography would stand to serve a greater role.  The wealth of sources that Friedman brings together act not only as specific assets to which we can turn to make the connections and acquire the knowledge and further the argument and engage in the discourse that is necessary to effect change, but they also operate collectively as a symbol – in this particular space and time – of Friedman’s urgent message.

Thomas Friedman doesn’t owe us a bibliography.  But something that is framed as the moral, cultural, historical, political, and environmental cause of our time at the very least deserves one.

[1] Van E. Hillard. “Information Literacy as Situated Literacy,” in Kathleen A. Johnson and Steven R. Harris.  Teaching Literary Research: Challenges in a Changing Environment. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2009.


One Response

  1. I generally agree with you. My reasons are not as kind, though. I wish he had a bibliography, because many of his facts seemed fishy to me (not lies, but exaggerated) and I would like to double check their source. Good defense of the bibliography though.

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