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)

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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