The “L-Word”

Before I get to the matter at hand, I have a confession to make. I love being a librarian. Although I fell into this profession by accident, all the signs were there pointing toward my eventual calling. I was fascinated by the public library as a child. I put rudimentary Dewey numbers in my books at home and “played library” with my younger brother and date due stamp my Aunt Adele loaned us. I was the only one on my dorm floor in my undergrad career who understood how to do research, and I helped many through the required and dreaded “library skills workbook”. Connecting folks with the human record is what I live to do. Librarianship is in my mind and in my heart and in my soul and I cannot see it any other way.

In contrast, there are many in our profession who desire to be information scientists. The seek to run from the “L-Word” as fast as they can, perhaps because they feel librarianship isn’t a real profession or a real academic field. Perhaps they seek the greater prestige and financial gain that information technology brings. Perhaps they think that librarianship or library science is subservient or secondary to information science. Perhaps they don’t have the same strong feelings for the profession that I do. Whatever the case may be, we’re in a 50+ year struggle for the soul of librarianship, and if I’m being honest, it makes me sad that many good people that I know are willing to sell the profession out for a “few magic beans” much like Jack in “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

So why is Matt writing about this now? Well, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has decided to be the latest “library school” to drop the word library from the name of the school. To be fair, the GSLIS at UIUC is a founding member of the iSchool movement, and has been heavily involved in information science for a very long time. Additionally, the school is retaining a commitment to its ALA-accredited MS in LIS program. But something doesn’t sit well with me about this name change, and I’m not the only one based on recent Twitter conversations I’ve had since this was announced.


Minerva, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo used with CC BY-NC-ND license from travelrelationship on

As I see it librarianship (and I use the term librarianship and library science interchangeably, more about the reasons why in a later post) and information science are two separate, yet related fields of research. Librarianship is, according to Michael Gorman in his Our Enduring Values Revisited,  “facilitating learning by fruitful and wide-ranging interaction with the human record”. Said another way (by David Lankes), “the mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”. Information science, on the other hand, can be defined as a field primarily concerned with “the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, movement, dissemination, and protection of information.” Wayne Weigand says it best when he posits that “the common misconception that libraries are part of the world of information is an inversion of reality”. The differences between these two related fields of study are important, and “information science” cannot assume the place of librarianship as a separate field.

But this is not a simple conflating of two related fields in the case of the Illinois “name change”. The underlying forces at play here are more nefarious than just confusion over librarianship’s place in higher education. It has been explained to me a few times in the discussion of the change with various groups that this was done to ensure the viability of the school and give it more “prestige” in the pantheon of academic programs. After all,  who wants to continue to fund a “library school”? Few, if any, grant-making organizations fund “library research”, but millions of dollars are given every year to research in information sciences and technology. After all, isn’t librarianship a dying profession? Who uses the library anymore anyway? All the information you’d ever need is on Google.

It bothers me that librarians have a) lost their way in the rush towards information science and technology, and b) see no future for librarianship other than as information scientists and technology mavens. Librarianship remains a vibrant and vital profession, apart from information science and technology. Librarians are called to create institutions and places that “allow every person in the communities served…to continue his education, to become more knowledgeable, and to live the life of the mind in the way in which he chooses…Through lifelong learning, libraries can and do change lives, a point that cannot be overstated.” (Gorman, p. 40) We librarians need to recapture and revitalize our profession and our course of study, especially at this time when the world needs us the most. Retreating into the relative “safety and security” of information science will not do. Librarianship must take its rightful place as the critical task of “facilitating human interaction with the human record”. (Gorman, p. 16)

Wright on Librarianship and Management


Source: postscapes on Used per CC BY 2.0 License.

As a means of reading more of Jesse H. Shera’s work, I read the brief, but interesting biography, “Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science” by H. Curtis Wright, the former dean of the library school at Brigham Young University (which closed well before I entered the profession). Wright was a scholar of library history and philosophy and contributed much to the Journal of Library History. It is in this journal that I found the 1978 article “Inquiry and Science and Librarianship”.

I was especially interested in his “two views of librarianship” (p. 255), which posit a managerial view of librarianship that is functional and materialistic in outlook and a user view of librarianship, which aims to provide patrons “with access to the metaphysical resources of information itself, not supplying them with the physical instruments by means of which information is expressed.” (p. 255) This reminds me greatly of Lankes’ more contemporary “Atlas of the New Librarianship” which suggests that “the mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”.

The “money quote” from Wright’s article is this:

The librarian, who can no longer get ahead as a librarian, has turned to administration as the best way up, the route to the summit. But administration is also the librarian’s way out of librarianship, for it leads to the top of the wrong mountain, where there is not librarianship, only more administration. (p. 256)

Although this article was written nearly 40 years ago, I feel the situation in librarianship hasn’t changed much since then. LIS programs and iSchools all have “information management” at their core. Students are instructed in how to manage, organize, and provide information resources. But perhaps we have been getting it all wrong these past 40+ years.

Management and provision of resources is not the true mission of librarians, but rather providing access to the “metaphysical resources of information itself”, this facilitation of knowledge creation, is what librarianship is all about. My hope is that we can break, as a profession, from “information managers” to knowledge facilitators. Our profession demands it.

Wright, H.C. (1978). “Inquiry in Science and Librarianship”, The Journal of Library History (1974-1987), 13(3): 250-264.

Shera on Humanism and Librarianship

downloadI’ve been reading a lot lately on humanism and librarianship, and stumbled upon this quote from Jesse H. Shera that I think encapsulates the essence of the tension in librarianship between the social sciences and the humanities. Although this quote is nearly 40 years old, it still speaks volumes about contemporary librarianship now and in the future.

“[L]ibrarianship, despite its increasing utilization of the sciences and its affiliation with the social sciences, remains in its essence humanistic. It is humanistic because it is basically concerned with that elusive and subtle relationship between the human mind and the record of great adventure. Librarianship classifies as a social science because the library, as an institution, is a creature of society, and its goal is the improvement of society by helping the individual to understand himself and the world to which he is a part. But the library is also concerned with man as a rational being. Thus, it remains primarily a humanistic enterprise. The traditional lines of demarcation are breaking down and in certain areas becoming almost obliterated; and librarianship, in both its technology and its services, is drawing even closer to the social and physical sciences. But we would do well to remind ourselves of the library’s humanistic origins; otherwise in excessive enthusiasm for the technology of science and the social action of the behaviorist, we may lose sight of the individual and his needs and the humanistic values implicit in them.” (Shera, JH. Introduction to Library Science: Basic Elements of Library Service. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1976. p. 9)