Wright on Librarianship and Management


Source: postscapes on Flickr.com. 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.


Values-based Librarianship

Chris Bourg of Stanford University Libraries gave a presentation at the Penn State University Libraries a few months ago entitled “Beyond Measure: Valuing Libraries” on assessing academic libraries based on the core values of librarianship as defined by the American Library Association. This presentation, and some other reading that I am undertaking, including Michael Gorman’s “Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century” have me thinking a lot about values-based librarianship lately. Values-based librarianship, as I see it, is professional practice informed by these core values. In other words, in a values-based system our core values forms the guiding principles for what we do as librarians.

Setting our shared values as what guides us as librarians leads to some interesting, and necessary questions. What if who we are as librarians were based on shared values? What would this type of librarianship look like? Would it change the way we manage libraries, build collections, provide information, and facilitate the creation of research and knowledge? What if these shared values informed all that we did as libraries and librarians? Can these shared values answer the why questions of librarianship and show us the importance of what we do as librarians?

I will be exploring these questions and additional readings in the upcoming months as I grapple with the idea of values-based librarianship. Please feel free to comment and stay tuned for more writing on this topic.

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?


Source: justinplambert on Flickr

Librarians are the quintessential “uber-generalists”. Our training and the nature of our profession require us to have an understanding of information and knowledge, research acumen, and familiarity with information creation, storage, retrieval, and usage, but does not require us to have extensive training, education, or expertise in any one “academic field” (with a few notable exceptions). Although some librarians possess additional “specialist” degrees, especially true in law, medical, music, and academic librarianship, a law librarian may be asked to help a student research more than law, and a social work librarian will have something to add to a discussion on interlibrary loan.

The day-to-day work of librarians is extremely varied and this is what drew me to the profession. As someone who has the propensity to bore easily, librarianship has allowed me to guard against this quite nicely. I enjoy my work as a librarian and enjoy the varied number of venues and subjects in which I have labored. I have worked in software development and implementation, in academic law librarianship, and now at a small regional campus of a large top-tier university where I am asked to do everything from facilities management to budgeting to research help to library instruction. We “generalist librarians” may not know as much sociology as a sociologist, biology as a biologist, law as a lawyer, or music as a concert pianist, but we have a “wide angle” view of all fields (and most everything else), and make good use of this generalist approach to our career and vocation.

For a long time this “generalist” approach to librarianship bothered me, mostly because I was not an “expert” in anything. Being a generalist left me feeling like a “jack of all trades, but a master of none”. As I have gained professional wisdom in the field, I realize that the generalist nature of librarianship is a blessing, rather than a curse. Most librarians, whether academic, public, school, special, or other, are free to set their own agenda, be creative in what interests them, and serve the public in many different ways, from specialized story hours, to a focus on a certain underrepresented group in the community, to tackling a large issue facing the library or the profession today. In being a generalist, we are free to “think outside the box” and be creative, pulling in resources and ideas from a number of different professions. And this is what truly makes me glad to be a librarian. The uber-generalist.

Is there a glut of newly minted librarians?

Brett Bronfield does an excellent job of crunching the numbers and analyzing the supply and demand for MLS/MLIS graduates in the “In the Library with the Lead Pipe” blog. Common wisdom (as handed down from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and ingrained in our professional psyche) would say that the profession is graying and we’re on the precipice of an upspwing in demand for librarians to fill this void. But I have been hearing the same rhetoric for the past 15 years.

Bronfield’s excellent analysis places two questions in my mind: 1) Why isn’t the ALA or some other organization crunching these numbers and reporting on trends in library employment on a regular basis? and 2) Why don’t we as librarians currently holding a position care more about this issue? I look forward to further analysis (will there be a Part 2?) on this important topic.

Is the United States Training Too Many Librarians or Too Few? (Part 1) | In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Blogging Once Again

After a long hiatus and busy summer consumed with library renovations, staff changes, and other sundry projects, I finally have some time to start blogging again. I’m going to try and use the blog as more of a “professional stream of consciousness” and write more often about my current research, the state of the profession, and where I see library and information science heading. There will, of course, be forays into technology, diversity, and higher education in general — three more areas of professional interest.

Thanks for sticking with me, those of you who subscribe. I promise I’ll be a little more forthcoming in the future.