What is there to argue about in library science? Well, how about everything…
18/03/2011 § 34 Comments
Jeremy Bold is currently a full-time graduate student pursuing degrees in European Studies at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University and residing in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating in May, he expects to be at least a part time-employed librarian and a full time-obsessed writer living somewhere in the United States. He is an avid (albeit unpaid) reader, writer, photographer and, if it really means anything, philosopher as well. You can find him writing at The Socratic Librarian (an experiment in applying philosophical examination to the life of librarians, librarianship and a bit of the information professions more generally) and The Blank Rectangle (A blog about the most forgotten/ignored state in the US — North Dakota — where Jeremy is originally from).
Each time we have a meeting for my Emerging Web Technologies class, some kind of argument breaks out. And this fact is awesome. Oh sure, the arguments generally revolve around pretty nerdy subjects. Is the book really dead? What amazing/terrible thing has Google today? Should integrated library systems be open-source? What the hell are we talking about with Library 2.0? All this discussion makes for a vibrant class environment, using anxiety-inducing moments of technological development to provoke thought about not just what library’s are doing now, but the things they should be doing to prepare for the future. It makes me glad to be in library school.
But I’m about to graduate – so why is this the first class where I’ve felt excited to go to each class? Why is the only course where I’ve felt the whole community of students to be really engaged in the discussion and challenged to understand and argue over the class topics? Most of the librarians I talk with have expressed a lot of satisfaction with their work, but in almost all cases they expressed a common discontent – one might even call it, hate – of library school. There is the sense that cataloguing class can only prepare you for the basic idea of classification, but using the most general of standards – something that you essentially have to relearn when you get your first job. Library school has mostly felt like some kind of pre-professional school – a long drawn-out training program and mostly just a hurdle to real work in my first job.
So what the hell is library school supposed to be for? In my mind, if we’re going to define this as a school for library and information science, then we’re going to need to start engaging the critical impulse – to not only host real disputes in the classroom, but encourage them. I believe this is crucial in general and I have started my own blog – The Socratic Librarian – to begin developing that philosophical and critical thought approach to librarianship for my own professional life. Already, there exists a rich history of libraries and librarianship in which to apply this perspective; yet I also feel that there is something crucial about the current moment which demands that library science programs also begin to inculcate this approach in all future librarians.
Libraries are facing real existential threats from outside and in as they struggle to orient themselves in a rapidly changing environment. To return to the issue of Emerging Web Technologies, the speed with which the media and modes of communication of information are changing has only increased in recent years. Our relation to information in the digital world has manifested demands of wider access to a complex information environment and simplified interfaces to help us receive and process all of that information. Furthermore, public and academic libraries (at least) are facing impending budgetary crises, in which Phillip Pullman’s “greedy ghost” of market fundamentalism threatens to undermine our understanding of the value of libraries.
But even in the midst of a recession, when people are turning to libraries for “free access to books, magazines, CDs and DVDs, “ we can’t appeal to a consumerist ethic to shore up confidence in libraries. Nor can we expect to rely on a statement like “the Decay of libraries is like Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain……..” (Ted Hughes) which is laden too heavy with sentiment to really provide guidance. So how are we actually going to cope with these changes, some of which may be broadly and fundamentally shifting the ways in which we think about information and knowledge, and, in turn, the values and conceptions people have of libraries?
Now I’m not blaming anyone in particular here. All I’m trying to do is point to the fact that we can no longer accept libraries as given institutions and therefore we need to encourage the examination of the nature of the library as an institution, the activities it has historically undertaken and the most effective and important ways for it to stay relevant in the future. We won’t be able to do that by preparing students with classes that spend most of their time focusing on technical training. We need to encourage discussion and debate over the values of this institution in a way that both librarians and users can understand.
And I’m not arguing that we should retool library science as a theoretical discipline – the librarian is a practical breed of scholar, one that is interested in not just reading research but in applying it in a form of knowledge by praxis. (And trust me, I recognize the need to possess industry-relevant skills before you face to the job market only too well at the moment.) But library school should not just be about teaching future librarians how to patch holes in the catalog or catch up with the present state information technology, but encouraging them to become librarians who live “the examined life,” who will be prepared to define and debate our projections of the future of librarianship as a profession.