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)

Ranganathan Killed the Library Theorist

Courtesy tinfoilraccoon on

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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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.

Some thoughts on “library futures”

The Wikiman does an excellent job this morning of collecting discussions around points on the “future of libraries” and how these are already happening in many places. Many of the points are not related to collections, but rather service focused, which I think is an interesting shift that is happening in the profession.

Some highlights are:

  • Smaller borrowing limits for unlimited time periods
At Penn State we have already increased the loan period for most all of our patrons (except community borrowers) to a semester-long loan. We would offer longer loan periods, but this works best with out current automation system and procedures. Most patrons also get unlimited renewals and can check out a ridiculously large number of items at a time. The benefits to students and faculty alike have far outweighed the fears of empty shelves and scarce resources.
  • Front line staff will become much more highly skilled
At my branch academic library we have four full-time staff: two librarians and two library assistants. All of us do reference, answer questions, and have proficiency and skills in providing good customer service and an increasing skill set and familiarity with the resources and services offered. We also combined the reference and circulation desks into a central “information desk” shortly after I arrived, and all front line staff, including student assistants, do “reference triage” where simple questions are answered as skill sets allowed and more difficult questions are passed off to the “experts”. It has really worked well for us.
  • Library will offer a wide range of “non-library” programming
We have seen an uptick in the amount of “non-library” uses for the Library building in recent years from an increase in computer lab space to “digital commons” where students can edit and create video and sound recordings and usage of the library classroom for outside conferences and events. All of these have benefited the library by showing that it is a viable and dynamic space on campus and a place that students want to be.



Skip to the end! Library futures, now… « thewikiman.

Join the Collaborative Marketing for e-Resources Project « E-Views

Interesting uses of marketing/promotion of electronic resources. From the post:

In essence, the project “proposes a model for a national distributed project to develop marketing plans for electronic resources while collaboratively building benchmarks for the marketing of electronic resources in college and university settings.” [from the poster session] By participating in the collaborative working group you can learn how to employ a typical marketing plan at your library, complete one marketing campaign from start to finish, and contribute to a national project that will determine if collaborative benchmarking for marketing electronic resources is feasible.”

Join the Collaborative Marketing for e-Resources Project « E-Views.