Praxis and the Perennial Conflict between Theory and Practice in Library Education

05/06/2013 § 7 Comments

prax·is \ˈprak-səs\ n. 1. the actual work of a profession (as opposed to the practice of it in training situations) 2. in social work, the concept of reflexive, integrated theory and practice 3. in education, the processes of reflective experiential learning or, following Paulo Freire’s work, the combination of reflection and action in the world that leads to transformations of oppressive conditions


Photograph from Pages and Pictures.

Does a dog need to read a book about being a dog? Does a librarian need to read a book about being a librarian? These questions may seem similar, but I suspect that most people have different answers to them. And yet, much of the conversation about library and information science (LIS) education seems to suggest that librarians do their work best simply through practice rather than reading and learning about librarianship.
More on praxis, Shulamith Firestone, and dogs…

Are We Learning Enough About Users?

15/02/2013 § 8 Comments

Well into my second semester of library school, I find myself still recovering from a bit of metaphorical whiplash I picked up in the fall.

You see, I’m not sure how to feel about users.

The reference desk at Bucknell's Learning Commons. via

The reference desk at Bucknell’s Learning Commons. via

I know it sounds like a no-brainer. Without users, after all, our workplaces would be nothing but big empty information warehouses.

But when it comes to users, it seems like there’s a contrast within MLS programs. In my library classes, there was a good amount of talk about user needs. Meanwhile, in my archive classes, users got little more than a passing mention. And fair enough- as any first year student will tell you, libraries aren’t archives and archives aren’t libraries. They’re two different types of places. But they both have users, and anyone working in the field needs to be able to understand them.

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Leadership in the Library Industry

17/10/2011 § 6 Comments

View of the British Library Reading Room. Photographed by Hugh Chevallier. Posted here under a Creative Commons License.

I love theory. The ideas that disciplines and professions are based off of. The bedrock of our world views. The base of our ideologies.

Some of my favorite courses in library school were the foundation courses. At the time they were frustrating, because I wanted to be working in a library. But now that I am working in the field, I appreciate those theory courses the most.

I find LIS theory to be a fascinating creature. We have our own theorists (like Ranganathan, Dervin and Kuhlthau) but we are also a discipline of adoptive theory. Communication, education, business and management, sociology, gender studies, even engineering theories (HCI and UX principles are starting to take over the profession) are all relevant to LIS.

One of the last required foundation classes I took was Management and Leadership in the Library Industry. While most of the class discussions were focused on Taylorism and Scientific Management versus more current humanist approaches to management, our instructor provided a very interesting recommended reading list. On it were authors whose books are typically found on the shelves of business sections: Stephen R. Covey, John P. Kotter, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel H. Pink and Peter F. Drucker. I’ll admit: at first I scoffed at these books. Having a background in sociology, I want my theorist to be a bit grittier (and a bit more European): Foucault, Durkheim, Marx, Marcuse and Weber. So I pretty much stuck to the required reading and was none the wiser…

…until recently. I had a good friend (and non-librarian) recommend Good to Great by Jim Collins. This was a title that was on that recommended reading list, and one that I normally pass over. But the friend who recommended it was not someone I would think of as reading it: she spent a number of years selling fair-trade organic coffee, has spent a fair amount of time traveling in Africa and Latin America (including Chiapas, land of the Zapatista) and only recently started working for a corporation (Whole Foods) because of the horrible economy. Not exactly your rank-and-file corporate worker. So I had to check this book out.

Much to my surprise, I am really enjoying it, and finding much of Collins’ ideas surrounding leadership 100% applicable to libraries.

The most relevant lesson taken away so far is what Collins calls “the window and the mirror” theory:

“[Top-tier] leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well….At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly. The comparison leaders did just the opposite. They’d look out the window for something or someone outside themselves to blame for poor results, but would preen in front of the mirror and credit themselves when things went well. (Collins, Good to Great, p. 35)”

Collins uses steel producing companies to exemplify this idea. CEOs of mediocre companies would look out the window and see internationally produced cheap steel as the reason why their companies were not reaching their potential. While the CEOs of top steel companies saw the internationally produced cheap steel as an opportunity. The competing companies would have to ship the steel to the US at exorbitant prices, giving the American companies a distinct advantage. Likewise, these top companies look at their own operations for ways to improve their business, rather than blame outside factors for their failures.

I think the window/mirror theory is an excellent mindset not just for individual leaders, but for the library industry as a whole. We could look at declining circulation counts or reference questions as a factor out of our control that is pushing our services to the periphery. Or, we can look at the changing information searching behaviors of our patrons as an opportunity to offer innovative services and resources that exceeds our users expectations.

For example: In 2009, Project Information Literacy released a progress report, with findings that describes course readings, Google and instructors as the first resources students turn to when researching topics for their school work, and librarians as an overlooked resource. Looking for external factors to blame for lack of library use, this study could be a shining example. Instead, we should look at the fact that students are rarely seeking out librarians as an opportunity to create new services (such as embedded librarianship or collaborating with instructors and faculty) to better assist students. And we should be looking at our current services for potential areas of improvement.

It is widely know that we live in a time of change. Libraries of all types are facing major budget cuts, and we are fighting tooth and nail for what resources we do receive. Rather than being Chicken Littles about it, looking out the window to avoid falling pieces of the sky, we should be looking at the changes we face as the new reality and continue to offer excellent services and exceed our users expectations. Now is the time to ensure our place as leaders in the fight for a citizenry who is not just information literate, but information fluent.

I know that this book has been out for over a decade, and some of the companies that Collins have listed as “great” companies have been the most affected by our current recession (such as the now defunct Circuit City), but Good to Great is still an excellent read. It’s worth checking out. But, as my hero Levar Burton often said: “You don’t have to take my word for it…”

Diversity: A new perspective

12/07/2011 § 13 Comments

Recently I read an article in Library Journal about a panel held at ALA Annual that encouraged the ALA to do more to promote diversity in the field.  I’m certainly not the first blogger to discuss the uncomfortable racial demographics that exists in the information field and I will not bring any earth-shattering solution to the table.  Instead, I want us to think about what diversity really is, why do we care so much about it, how would it help our profession and, ultimately, the population we serve.

Austin’s No-Majority and the iSchool

Talking about the state of diversity discipline-wide is outside the purview of this article; instead, I want to focus on the city where I live, work, and go to school: Austin, Texas.  Austin is a particularly unique city because it has no racial majority: the white population in the city has dropped below 50% and the second largest racial group, Hispanics, are sitting right around 40%.  This population trend is evident in the services the Austin Public Library offers, namely the New Immigrant Centers located in eight (of 21) branches.  NICs have computers with ESL software, bookmarked links to citizenship and immigration websites, and guides to job and house hunting.  Austin Public Library is aware of the growing need to serve a diversified (read: non-white) population and, in my opinion, does a pretty good job.  Nearly every professional job posting at APL prefers a candidate who can speak Spanish.

Unfortunately, the librarians entering the Austin job market aren’t as diversified as the population.   Many professional librarians at APL matriculated from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information.  Let’s take a look at who makes up the iSchool student body:

According to the 2010-2011 Statistical Handbook of the University of Texas at Austin (see page 38 of the “Students” PDF), there were 268 graduate students in the iSchool in the Fall semester of 2010.  Of those, 207 (77%) are white; 26 (10%) are Hispanic and the remaining students are comprised of black, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander.  Not even close to representative of the population we will eventually be serving.  And unlike some other programs that require a course in diversity (such as UCLA’s Ethics, Diversity, and Change), the iSchool doesn’t.

The Value of Diversity

Its easy to look at these numbers and think, well, so what?  I’m inclined to do the same, particularly because the Austin Public Library seems so well attuned to the changing demographics and implementing new services to reflect those changes.   What does a diversified library staff mean, anyway?    What is all this diversity fuss really about?

Diversity should mean more than just scholarships, quotas, and pats on the back.  Striving for a more diversified library staff should be about the integration of the library into the community.  Community-integration requires mindfulness of the library’s location in the city, its collections, its policies and yes, the people working there.  In my statement of purpose to the iSchool I talked about entering librarianship to be a part of community building and what I called community-based collections and organizing, a process that involves creating relevant, comprehensive and sensibly organized libraries that engage all members of the community.  The fact that so few people of color choose to not enter this field (and yes I realize there are myriad reasons higher education is inaccessible to people of color or why those who do would want to choose something with a bit more earning potential) could mean that we, as librarians and community members, are out of touch with our communities.

What can LIS education do about it?

I’ll be the first to admit that the lack of diversity in the information profession is complicated, messy, and has no straightforward solution.  The first step, though, has to start with ourselves.  If your program doesn’t require an internship or some other field experience, do it anyway.  Find out where you live, who you live with, what services are offered, what services aren’t, and who is satisfied.  If your course guide is lacking in critical analyses of race, gender, and other sociopolitical demographics, take one in another department.  Bring it up in class.  Let’s demand a space for the uncomfortable, challenging, and important conversations.

Secondly, as Melody Dworak suggested in her blog, we should try to consult with other “pink collar” and predominately white workforces.  Do they know something we don’t?  I think she’s really on to something when she suggests we look for other ways into the profession that don’t cost as much time and money as a two-year graduate degree.  We, as the future of the profession, need to figure out what roadblocks to the profession exist and what we need to do about them.

We’re facing a critical time for the information profession.  I hope the future brings new meanings and responsibilities to librarianship, but more than anything else I hope we find a way to become an essential service to our communities.  And we’re not going to do that by all looking the same.

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). « Read the rest of this entry »

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