Thursday, August 9, 2012

Toward a Unifying Field Theory of Librarianship, Or Not.

 Ahhh, the social sciences; forever concerned with measuring up to the natural sciences. Today's attempt at turning librarianship and library science into physics, or at least (re)starting the discussion, comes from the excellent In the Library With a Lead Pipe, a must-read blog if you're a librarian, which puts posts through something like peer-review, except that it's the same circle of peers doing the review for the far majority of posts. The search for "a philosophy of librarianship" is problematic for many reasons, chief among them is that doing so is a hunt for a moving target. No doubt physics has changed in the last thirty years, but it's still the study of matter (a media) and motion (actions of said media). Large swaths of a physics textbook published in 2012 don't look much different from one written in 1982, nor does a lab. A library, however, with a few notable and forlorn exceptions, looks very different, and the study of information, of making it searchable and accessible by a given community, has gone from the print medium to multiple media, some of which only exist as a spec on a hard drive, mainframe, or server. And so the Lead Pipe article, written by Emily Ford, begins with the sad tale of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) "digital literacy corps," for which librarians were apparently not consulted (even though they were). Ford assigns blame for the alleged lack of consideration to the deep cause of a lack of a philosophy of librarianship. The author's goal 

here is not to contribute to the groundswell of victim rhetoric that surrounds the de-funding and de-professionalization of librarianship. Instead, I aim to shine a light on what I think is happening. Namely, we haven’t yet sussed out the philosophy behind what it is that we do.
And yet Ford leads with the very discourse she decries, understandable, since everyone I know in the profession bemoans libraries' and librarians' lack of power. Interesting, then, that the word "should" occurs so often in this article, as a philosophy of librarianship is, by definition, an invitation to argue over norms, normative concepts, and power. Biology is the study of life, not what life should be. The latter is eugenics, a word that, again, understandably, has some negative connotations. This is not only a conversation as to what librarianship should be, but also a conversation about the conversation. 
Sound ideas about what librarianship is and what its goals are permit us to claim a degree of autonomy in institutions where we might otherwise serve as mere functionaries rather than as the professionals we are. Without a philosophical foundation, we lack a basis for making decisions regarding how to change our institutions in response to external forces, with the potential result that we do not play the role that we should in decision-making.
That's a quote from Rory Litwin, approvingly cited in the article, but one can substitute any other group of social scientists, those who practice normative science. A hallmark of any reputable and established social science is putting old wine in new bottles, and so it is with a philosophy of librarianship. James Periam Danton, again cited in the Lead Pipe article, properly historicized librarianship in 1934, arguing that it should be
derived from the predominating ideals of that society. Consequently, before a library philosophy can be formulated, there must be an understanding and recognition of the ideals and purposes of the society into which that philosophy must fit.
I find nothing to disagree with in the above two quotes, which to me seem to lend support to library science as Kuhnian "normal science." Geology took a long time to come around on plate tectonics. We take a long time to come around on library science syllabi, on linked data and the semantic web, and on the angst that comes with measuring ourselves via natural sciences. I wonder if digitization has or is creating a paradigm shift, a punctuated equilibrium, but one that cannot touch the "hard core" of librarianship, if one intersubjectively exists.

The Semi-Sovereign Library

The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion.- E.E. Schattschneider
Ford and Lead Pipe want to have this conversation. In doing so, they're attempting to determine the scope of the debate, via their audience (of which I am a part). I don't know Lead Pipe's site analytics, but anecdotally the blog is popular on social networks like Twitter and Google +. However, both those, as all social networks are, often function as an echo chamber. This may be an issue with Lead Pipe's "peer review," and it's definitely and issue in those media. Lead Pipe may be preaching to a choir by engaging its readership. I have my analytics and I know how that goes. Any fight for the soul of librarianship, or at the least a discussion over its values and philosophy, won't take place via that, or this, blog. Rather, a larger discussion of a philosophy of librarianship will take place in a world in which not every, and indeed not most, librarians are on twitter. A damning proxy statistic: fewer than one-fifth of dues-paying American Library Association (ALA) members, the very people one would think would have "skin in the game," so to speak, voted in that organization's 2012 annual election. Again, over eighty percent of librarians who pay money to belong to an organization couldn't be bothered to vote to determine that organization's leadership. That should be the real audience here, not the librarians on social media, which are epiphenomenal in the larger scheme of things. Our peers, it bears repeating, may not be our tribe. So I wonder if Lead Pipe's arena, its audience, of which I am a part, is one voice in a void. A welcome voice. Perhaps even a necessary one. But I worry that "a call to praxis" is a call to a praxis. There are many roads to Damascus. Librarianship is multifinal, from a path, from a philosophy, there are many potential outcomes, some of which I may like, others I may not. A call to praxis may limit these options, and may impose path dependence rather than healthy experimentation, may create a situation in which some tactics are more equal than others. 
Librarians are not heroes, super or otherwise. We are agents navigating structures, some of which we helped to create. #libraryontology— Jacob Berg (@jacobsberg) July 11, 2012
As Ford argues, let's continually examine why we do what we do, what works and what doesn't. That's a praxis I can get behind, but it's not the praxis. That Decemberists' song? It's great. But it's vague. It's unclear from the lyrics why we fight. And maybe that's why it works for me. Why I fight might be different from why you do. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Do good, or do less bad, or less wrongMake as much information possible to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. On this, I hope we can agree. Besides, you don't want to be the natural sciences anyway. None of that stuff can be replicated. Good night, and good luck. 


  1. Wow, reading your blog gives me a wider sense of your philosophy of libraries' mission than one could get on a #newlib tweet, or even the discussion board for the master librarian class, thank you for sharing.
    Laurene Madsen

    1. Thanks, Laurene. I figured with all the voices in the discussion boards, finding posts would be difficult and overwhelming, hence the blog post. I appreciate you reading it.

  2. This reminds me, just because I'm reading it now, of Latour's "Reassembling the Social" where he proposes a new type of social science that doesn't rely on squashing everything into frameworks but instead tracing the actions of an increasing number of actors. Addressing much of this envy of the natural sciences in the process, too.
    There are lots of libraries, with many different missions, some at odds. No one philosophy is going to usefully encompass everything we do. "Continually examine what we do, what works and what doesn't" seems more akin to this tracing of agency and precisely the opposite of establishing a canonical philosophy that can be referred to time after time, no matter how things change.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Eric. It seems I have some (more) reading to do over the break.