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)

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.

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.

The Synchronicity of This Week’s Events

As followers of my Twitter feed or Facebook page know I have been reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book The Googlization of Everything which has an entire chapter dedicated to a critical analysis of the Google Books project that aims to scan books from the world’s foremost libraries and make them available in digital form, copyright be damned. Add to this the fact that a ruling was announced on the settlement between some large publishing groups and Google (long story short the settlement is moot), it has been an interesting and synchronous week for me. I’ll post more once I have the chance to read through the backlog of chatter on the matter and finish Siva’s book!