Ranganathan Killed the Library Theorist

Courtesy tinfoilraccoon on flickr.com

I have been thinking a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of librarianship lately and recently reread Andre Cossette’s essay: Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, (1976) which was recently translated from French by Rory Litwin, and is available from Litwin’s Library Juice Press. This essay illustrates the lack of philosophical and theoretical thinking in librarianship that has been troubling me as of late, and lays out a “philosophy of librarianship” grounded in the humanist/realist schools of thought that I feel could  bring about a renaissance to our profession and pull us out of  the malaise that we are currently mired in professionally. I’ll write more about this in a later post, but I want to focus for a moment on why we are currently in this state in the profession.

There is no doubt that S. R. Ranganathan is one of the greats in the field of library science and in the profession of librarianship. Ranganathan is most famous for his Five Laws of Library Science which form much of the foundations of librarianship and are still taught in library and information science programs today. The Five Laws (1957) seek to “reduce the numerous empirical facts of the world of libraries to a small number of basic principles” (p. 20), and are as follows:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

Much has been written on the Five Laws of Library science in the nearly 60 years since Ranganathan posited them. Librarians and scholars have sought to broaden, refine, or update the Laws, and some have confused the Laws as a “philosophy of librarianship” or some sort of “unified guiding Truth” to the profession as Cossette has illustrated. According to Cossette, Ranganathan himself misunderstood the nature of the social sciences, and sought to create “normative principles” with the Five Laws, instead of more generally accepted aims of social science theory: “to state the existence of regular patterns and necessary relationships among social facts, that is, to examine society as it is.” (p. 12)

I would also argue that when Ranganathan posited these five “normative principles” as “laws”, he effectively shut the door on further debate within the profession about the nature of librarianship, when he named these five principles, essentially law-like generalizations, laws. Laws are typically the realm of the physical sciences and are generally accepted truths that have been tested and confirmed or corroborated. Lawlike generalizations, on the other hand, are “statements in generalized conditional form that fill all the criteria of laws, but have not been tested and confirmed or corroborated. To say that a lawlike statement is highly confirmed, or corroborated, or believed to be true, is different from saying that it is absolutely true, or true-with-certainty, or “True” (with capital “T”).” (Hunt, 2002,p. 148)

By naming these five “lawlike generalizations” “Laws”, Ranganathan placed them on the pedestal of capital-T Truth, and closed the book, albeit accidentally I believe, on testing, expanding, corroborating, and ultimately refuting these principles. Theory in librarianship has suffered because Ranganathan declared the Five Laws of Library Science the capital-L Laws of our profession in 1957.  Case closed. No further discussion necessary.

As Cossette concludes in his discussion of Ranganathan:

“[W]e can conclude that The Five Laws of Library Science is a work of science expressed in a philosophical language. Ranganathan wants to uncover the laws of librarianship, which constitutes a scientific method, using a language that leads us to believe it is philosophy. It is this ambiguity in the thought of Ranganathan that has led his followers to their incorrect interpretation. They believe that they have found a philosophy of librarianship because the author spoke of “normative principles”, but it is very much a matter of science.” (p. 13)

My hope is that through an empirical look at generalizations like the Five Laws we can begin the work of creating new theory, grounded in the social study of the phenomenon of libraries and librarianship, and philosophy that seeks to answer why what we are doing is important to society. Let’s start of renaissance of thought in librarianship and move past Ranganathan. He’s served us for almost 60 years, but it’s time we move the profession forward. Let’s resurrect the library theorist.

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“Rockstarism” and Librarianship

Am I a rockstar librarian or just a rockstar? Doesn’t matter. L J just named me a Mover & Shaker even though I haven’t done shit. How awesome is that?!” – Mr. Library Dude

Like many fellow librarians this summer, I have been participating in Dave Lankes’ Master Course on the New Librarianship MOOC delivered through the iSchool at Syracuse University. Dave has also been interacting with participants and other interested professionals on Twitter using the #newlib hashtag. On Wednesday, Dave offered the following tweet:

@mciszek @librarian_kate I have no probs w rock stars who perform. My problem is with the entitled and jealous on the other end.

— R. David Lankes (@rdlankes) July 24, 2013

which set off a massive Twitter discussion about what I like to call “rockstarism” in librarianship and the role that Library Journal‘s (LJ) annual Movers and Shakers (M&S) list plays into this “-ism”. I captured the Twitter discussion in Storify and it can be found here, if you would like to get the background on this. I had promised in the Twitter conversation that I’d lay out my arguments against rockstarism and the issues I have with the M&S list, so here goes.

I’d like to first define rockstarism as the belief that in order for one to have professional worth, one must be “famous” or well renowned in the profession. Often this fame or renown comes without a body of work backing it up, leading some to wonder why a colleague is so “library famous” without ever “having done shit” as so eloquently put in the Rockstar Librarian quote above. Additionally, marking certain librarians as rockstars without a good explanation why the profession believes them to be rockstars leads to jealousy, hard feelings, and general animosity within professional circles. Rockstarism makes us bad colleagues, fame-driven professionals, and ultimately poorer librarians.

Don’t get me wrong, I think professional accolades are a great thing. Peer recognition is also something to be commended. We should highlight colleagues that are doing good work in libraries and in society and upholding the values and principles of librarianship. I also think that many librarians on the M&S list are doing just that, but there is a danger, as I describe below, in how this list is created and used in our profession. The M&S list is not the “end all, be all” of what makes a good librarian. Not by a long shot.

When the M&S list was first announced by LJ over 10 years ago, I thought that it was odd that a commercial trade magazine would be selecting professionals and holding them up as “the best and brightest” of librarianship. After all, LJ has a commercial interest in librarianship and is hardly either a “neutral party” or “peer driven”. LJ’s purpose is to sell advertising space and sell subscriptions to libraries and library professionals. In my dealings with LJ during my time in vendor-land, I know that LJ would often give better treatment of vendors who advertised heavily in the journal. It was very hard for small or up-and-coming vendors to get any “good press” unless they had a personal relationship with LJ and its writers and editors. While I don’t think that monetary economics are at play in who makes the M&S list, I suspect that those that have relationships with LJ staff or at institutions who have relationships with LJ staff could be given preferential treatment when the M&S list is formed.

Therefore, I think it’s fair to say that the M&S list is not a “peer recognition” award. While librarians and other library professionals nominate people for the M&S list, it is ultimately LJ staff who pick the finalist for the list. Journalists and editors are not peers with librarians, no matter their degree or interest in the profession. Peers typically are the same level, working in the same field, with the same values and interests. I see no way that we can call the M&S list a “peer recognition” award. Furthermore, for M&S to have more value to the profession, I would expect greater transparency on how the list members are chosen and the criteria used to create the list. List members tend to work in very tech heavy areas of librarianship and members on the list who are doing more cutting edge projects and work seem to be more represented on the list.

Additionally, I have heard the M&S list used in some very detrimental ways in the profession. Friends and colleagues tell stories of feeling worthless or dejected because they do good, solid librarianship on a daily basis, serving patrons and building the profession in positive ways, but are not in typical positions in tech, marketing, administration, and the like that garner interest from the M&S selection team. I know of two colleagues that have been nominated multiple times, yet have never made the list in over 10 years. I know of others who have had supervisors question their work because they were not a rockstar or on the M&S list yet. I know of at least 3 people who were on the list at various times, and lost their jobs, not because they were bad librarians, but because they were not living up to “rockstar” status.

So how do we fix this? How do we move away from rockstarism to recognizing librarians in a fair, transparent, equitable, peer-reviewed manner? Here are my suggestions:

  • Create an award or an annual list managed, reviewed, and granted by librarians to recognize exemplary work in the profession
  • Base this award or list on criteria honoring the values of the profession: Diversity, the Public Good, Intellectual Freedom, and the like
  • Be transparent in who is selecting the awardees and how they are being evaluated
  • Work harder as a profession to recognize the “unsung heroes” in our profession who may not be working in the “sexiest” of positions, but is providing top-notch service to patrons and improving the profession in a thousand small ways
  • Strive to value every member of the profession, regardless of accolades, as a professional and one called to this vocation of service to the public we call librarianship

Together we can combat rockstarism and truly honor those making a difference in the world and in our profession. We all need to “shake it up” and truly get “moving” to make this happen. Will you join me?

Librarianship as Vocation

Let’s Play Library

When I was younger, my brother and I “played library”. We had a small collection of books, and after a trip to the local public library and discovering the simple elegance of the Dewey Decimal System, I “cataloged” the books, but rudimentary Dewey numbers on them, created a “shelf list” and set up shop. Armed with the date due stamper I borrowed from my parents, I was the librarian and my brother was the patron and I dutifully stamped the date due in the books and circulated them to my brother. While I don’t remember levying any fines or having to lean on my brother to return his overdue books to our library. This exercise instilled in me a deep connection to libraries and the work of librarianship at an early age.

This was further strengthened and refined upon numerous visits to the Niagara Falls Public Library armed with my own library card and the opportunity to check anything out of the collection. A special treat for me around the age of 10 or 11 was a “behind the scenes” tour of the library courtesy of a friend of my father’s who served as the circulation librarian. I was fascinated by the card catalog, the circulation machines which took a microfilm copy of your library card and the books that culminated in a large thump, and the work of the library. The only place I felt the same type of awe and reverence at anything was in church, and my time in the library as a child was nothing less than transcendental.

Over the next number of years, I pursued a number of vocational and professional goals. My interest in architecture and urban planning sustained me through high school and ultimately is what brought me to the State University of New York at Buffalo. While there, I discovered many different subjects including computer science and information technology, history, and English literature. My love of reading and writing on what I had read culminated in a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, but I had no clue where I wanted to go after that. I applied to business school, law school, and to other programs. I thought a lot on what I wanted to be when I “grew up”.

During the last year or two of my undergraduate degree, I found myself helping friends and others complete the dreaded “library workbook”, a library skills exercise required of all students before graduation. I breezed through the workbook and never had any issues finding information in the library. Library work seemed to come naturally to me, but I never considered a career in librarianship until a good friend of mine suggested that I look into a Masters in Library Science as an option. I did some research, applied to some schools, and ultimately decided to stay at SUNY Buffalo to complete my MLS. This seemed like a perfect fit for me, and I was quite happy as a library school student.

When I graduated, I could not find a job in a traditional library setting and worked for library automation vendors for several years. It was during this period that I began to reconsider my vocation, moving back to architecture, or urban planning, or business, or theology. I wasn’t working as a librarian, per se, so I did not feel the connection to librarianship that I had sought in grad school and earlier, and since I have interests in many areas, I considered them all. My career path eventually brought me back to libraries, and I bounced around to a few academic libraries for a few more years before landing the tenure track position at Penn State.

About the same time as I got the job at Penn State, I had begun to seriously consider the priesthood in the Episcopal Church as my true vocation. I had always had a deep relationship to the church (more about that here), and I felt a strong calling to the priesthood. I knew that I needed to continue in my position at Penn State, so I put my efforts and energies into the promotion and tenure process, which had its fair share of ups and downs. Over the last year, it seemed that I was being drawn more and more to the priesthood, and I entered the discernment and application process to become a priest.

Simultaneously, things began to fall into place in my vocation as a librarian: I was tenured and promoted and awarded the University Libraries Diversity Award for my research and work in diversity. Newer librarians that I had mentored over the past few years were expressing gratitude to me for the advice and guidance I provided. I had articles, and book chapters, and papers published and was building a reputation on diversity in librarianship and higher education. I was becoming a leader in the profession through my work in ALA and other professional organizations. And ultimately, I saw librarianship as my true vocation.

I have ended my pursuit of the priesthood, for the time being at least, to concentrate on librarianship and library and information science. I know this may shock many of my friends and family, especially those I know through the Episcopal Church, but I feel deep in my heart and know deep in my psyche that this is the right path for me to follow at this time. Librarianship is something deeply ingrained in me and my true vocation is to develop and nurture and further this calling in me — to serve others through providing information and connecting them with the resources needed to live a full and productive life. This is my true vocation and I am excited about all the possibilities for me in the future this field.