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)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

You would think that librarians, as a rule, would be more skeptical of data, facts, and other pieces of information than the general public. Most of us spent at least a couple of years working on a graduate degree in library and information science that ostensibly should have prepared us to ask the “hard questions” about what we read and hear in our professional discourse. Perhaps I’m more skeptical than many, but I expect librarians to have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter with the ability to work through information like data and statistics to discern the “damned lies” from reality.

Source: Wikipedia

Therefore, I was taken aback by the sturm un drang over the recent statistics in the Library Journal’s annual placements and salary issue by members of the profession.  Social media and the library blogosphere lit up with posts and statuses that bemoaned the plight of librarianship and the lack of jobs in the marketplace. After all, Library Journalone of the more respected sources of information in the profession, paints a dire outlook for the profession with confusing statistics that appear to show employment rates of recent graduates hovering in the area 10-15% for many schools. Dismal indeed! Additionally, the usual suspects that you would expect to call out this type or rhetoric, like the Annoyed Librarian, even took the bait, and saw the results of the survey as “not pretty”. Taking the data at face value does indeed paint a dreary outlook for our profession.

As you dig into the data a little further, you realize that there are some glaring problems with how the data is presented and represented. I’m no statistical wizard, but I could see immediate problems with much of what was presented. Population data is compared side-by-side to sample data. Response rates for the survey are not readily available. The data in the tables is a hybrid of survey responses and data provided by the placement offices of a few schools. The list goes on and on.

I don’t blame Library Journal for the way the data is presented. Could they have done a better job? Sure. Is the data misleading? Yes. Should they have been more forthright with how they presented the data? Absolutely. But as librarians and information professionals we should have dug deeper into the facts presented and drilled down a bit before snatching the doomsday ball and running with it. I guess I expected better from the profession. How can we teach our patrons to be enlightened consumers of information when we were so easily swayed by this information? Do we think that librarianship is such an enterprise bereft of value that we are willing to buy the “big lie” that it’s going to hell in a handbasket?

I wish I had answers to these questions. I know that I have spent the last two weeks talking colleagues and new grads that I am mentoring away from the proverbial ledge. In my own Facebook post about this I learned of many new positions opening at various libraries. Yes, the economy as a whole is pretty bad right now, but there’s no reason to think that were seeing rates of 90%+ unemployment for recent LIS grads. Librarianship will weather this “storm” just as it has previous “storms”. The sky is not falling. Librarianship does indeed have a bright future. Of this I am sure. Regardless of what the pundits and naysayers and their “damned lies and statistics” say about this.

N. B.: There were some in librarianship who saw the errors and  called them out on their blogs, including Jacob Berg, His post was the catalyst for me digging into the data and writing this post.