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.

The Nonexistence of “Digital Natives”


Source: vancouverfilmschool on

Jacob Berg does a great job of dispelling the myth of the “digital native” in his blog post this morning, The “Digital Natives” Myth and Library Science Education. I’m not sure why library and information science, especially LIS educators, have taken such a shine to this concept. Perhaps it’s because we see it as a way to “keep up with changing times”, but as his post (and a lot of subsequent research) has shown, the profession is chasing rainbows in tying itself in knots by looking for new collections and services to serve this “new group” of users.

Sure, college students and younger folks are more tech savvy than others. But what do we really mean by tech savvy? I find myself helping plenty of college-aged students use Microsoft Word or Google Search while they run circles around me in the features of their iPhone or downloading music from the web. I think there’s a long way to go to bridge the divide between “knowing how to use a smartphone” and being a true “digital native”, where being a productive member of the Information Age, with a mastery of technology and information sources, is as natural as breathing. A long way, indeed.

I agree that we need to stop using the terms “digital native” and its cognates “born digital” as soon as possible and face up to the fact that individuals are complex organisms with varied talents, skills, needs, and abilities. We need to be smarter as librarians and information professionals in gauging these needs and responding to these talents, skills, and abilities. If we can do that, a true revolution in our profession will occur.

I Code, Therefore I Am

Image: nikio on Flickr

I have tracked the rise of the “coding movement” in librarianship with great interest. It began over 10 years ago with groups like Code4Lib, consisting of tech gurus and programmers who had a love for libraries and were working in or working with libraries on programming, website creation, and other IT-heavy projects. Markup languages like HTML and XML were starting to be taught in ischools and LIS programs. There was a great deal of buzz a few months ago about whether coursework in coding should be part of the LIS curriculum for all students. Finally, I have watched with great interest the DEV DEV Summer of Code camp for teens play out at the Chattanooga Public Library lead by the talented Justin Hoenke. My take on all of this is that it’s great for libraries and great for librarianship.

First a bit of background on my experiences. It must have been about 1982 or 1983 when my father signed my younger brother and I up for “computer courses” at Radio Shack. My father the visionary knew that computers were the future, and he wanted to make sure that we had the skills necessary to meet this “brave new world” head-on. We learned BASIC and LOGO and how to do the most rudimentary of coding. We got books and magazines filled with programs and came home and tried them out on our Apple ][e. We tried, through trial and error, to make the programs better, and fix typos or oversights that the original authors had made.

But more importantly, we learned how to think in a structured, ordered, and organized way. As I progressed through high school and college, my knowledge of computers, coding, and systems analysis grew, and my appreciation of learning “how to think like a programmer” increased. I learned Unix shell scripting, FORTRAN, and C++. I tried my hand at HTML 2.0 and created the most rudimentary of web pages. I learned TeX and BiBTeX to format documents for large academic printing jobs and my term papers. But above all, I learned how to think like a programmer.

Learning how to think like a programmer not only made me good at working with technology or learning programming languages, but it made me a better problem solver. After all, coding and programming is simply a means of solving problems in a technological way, and learning this new “language” was deeper than just learning C++ or BASIC. It was learning a new way to problem-solve. As I learned about loops, and flow charts, and regular expressions, I also learned about solving problems in a systematic, regularized, heuristic way using algorithms and logic. Approaching problem-solving with this new way of thinking ultimately makes me a better librarian.

In addition, this new way of thinking proved invaluable as the Internet took off and technology seemed to creep into every corner of our daily lives. I prided myself on being able to “bridge the gap” between the techies and librarians and library staff in my first two post-MLS jobs working for library automation vendors. My master’s degree taught me how to think like a librarian, but my coding skills taught me how to think like a techie, and this was sorely needed then and now. This ability to operate in two worlds simultaneously — the tech world and the world of librarianship — is something I feel has become incredibly important and a necessity in 21st century librarianship. We are often called upon as librarians and library staff to not only be masters of information, but masters of information technology as well, and  training in coding, programming languages, and system analysis and design goes a long way to make sure that librarians are well equipped to operate wherever they are needed.

I am grateful that my father planted the seed that fostered the need in me to understand technology and work with it on an intimate level at an early age. Additionally, I think that all librarians and library school/ischool students benefit from learning this new way of thinking and new way of problem-solving we call “coding”. Coursework in system design, programming, and coding should be part of the LIS curriculum, not to make librarians into coders, but to give librarians an understanding of the way coders think and problem-solve and the way that information technology functions on a level beyond that of an end-user. The only way that libraries and librarians can master technology is to truly understand it, and understanding comes through learning how to code: learning how to think like a coder and problem-solve like a coder.