Cossette’s unified philosophy of librarianship

Yesterday, Matthew Ciszek posted on Cossette’s essay, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, translated by Rory Litwin. It’s been a few years since I read Cossette’s text and admittedly my knowledge of it is a bit rusty, but I remember thinking that he fell into the same trap as Ranganathan, the same trap that many thinkers in our field continue to fall into: trying to define a “unified philosophy of librarianship.” Cossette argues that by creating a unified philosophy of librarianship, we could bring “faith and certitude” to our actions as librarians, inspire professional unity, and give us a raison d’etre for what we do.

The longer I work as a librarian, the more I begin to believe that a unified philosophy simply isn’t possible given the diverse communities different libraries serve (public university, private college, city public, state repository, middle school, corporate archives, etc.) and, in fact, the pursuit of such may do more damage to our causes (esp. in raising public awareness, connecting our services to institutional goals, and telling our story to stakeholders) than good. What Ciszek argues is more sensible: an empirical approach that looks at what we are doing and explains why it is important to society. But I would add that this only works externally when the emphasis is placed on our society.

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.

Of course, I’m reading my own views into Ciszek. His goal in the above paragraph is to argue for a reemergence of the library theorist (hear hear!), not a specific methodological approach. With that said, there is a groundswell of discussion happening now, mostly surrounding the New Librarianship class and mostly happening on Twitter and in blog comments. So if the future of library theory interests you, join the discussion!

I am a librarian

It’s self-affirmation Friday here. This is for all the MLIS students, the part-timers, the contract employees, the assistants, the staff-not-faculty, the not-yet-employed, and all the other library workers who go above and beyond their call to service.

I am a librarian.

I teach students how to discover value in information resources and in doing so help them to recognize the value of their own thoughts.

I stay at the reference desk until every question is fully answered and only then do I take my lunch break.

I keep a copy of Dublin Core next to a copy of the customer service manual because I believe metadata is a service.

I double the Rule of 3.

I advocate for policy changes that increase diversity, recognize and celebrate alterative perspectives, and make the workplace a safer and more equal environment.

I stay late on a Friday because that one colleague needed someone to cover her instruction class at the last minute. And I do it off the clock.

I make students laugh at access policy jokes.

I assess everything.

I develop research guides for students not because they are requested, but because they are helpful (and I really love creating bibliographies).

I spend my breaks reading through virtual chat logs to stay up to date on student assignments.

I test each new product the library purchases. And I always fill out the feedback form.

I share new ideas for outreach because our patrons are an ever-changing organism. And I know library services won’t simply sell themselves.

I always stop and talk to the student with the confused look on her face.

I assume everyone who comes to the circulation desk is faculty.

I never miss an opportunity to make students feel welcomed and loved.

I rock professional library conferences.

I have an MLIS.

I am a librarian because I have librarian skills. I am a librarian because I have library values. I am a librarian because I have library passion.

My job description does not define me. The title on my office door does not define me. My salary does not define me. My institution does not define me.

I am a librarian. And always have been.

::drops mic::

Entrepreneurial revolutionary, reporting for duty

Anthony Molaro, Associate Dean of Library and Instructional Services at Prairie State College, wrote a provocative post today entitled “What Librarians Lack: The Importance of the Entrepreneurial Spirit.” I would not go so far as to say all librarians/libraries lack entrepreneurial spirit (NC State, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Virginia, and Champlain College immediately come to mind as libraries making significant strides in library services and technology and I’m sure there are others), but I would agree that tectonic shifts rarely happen in academic libraries. When was the last time we created a shift so profound that the academy shuddered and the profession balked at the mere thought?

We don’t lack for innovators. As Molaro notes:

No society is devoid of entrepreneurs, ubiquitous protests of “we have lost our entrepreneurial spirit” notwithstanding. They may be under the radar, languishing in non-entrepreneurial positions, or channeling their entrepreneurial spirit in non-productive ways, but they are present. Find and enlist them. Support and mentor them. Galvanize the entrepreneurship resources and stakeholders to support them as well. Use your positions of power to help them find new customers, investors, advisors, and business partners.

I’m ready to do something radical. I’m ready to try something scary. Let’s build something from the ground up and terraform the library landscape.

Glorious, buzzing hornets

Over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Kim Leeder discusses the rhetorical value of the term “traditional library.” She closes with the following observation:

If we define [the traditional library] rhetorically as an institution focused on physical spaces and materials, then there remains no question: the traditional library is dead. That doesn’t mean libraries as an institution are dead, nor does it mean that the physical library as a component of some larger organization is dead. The traditional library has been replaced with an expanded vision of itself, one that encompasses traditional values and features but extends outward to include the vastness of free and licensed digital resources as well as spaces and services that are entirely people-focused. The contemporary library, in contrast to the traditional library, resides online, teaches, reaches out and asserts its value across its community. [emphasis added]

In this way, every academic library exists on a spectrum between traditional, book-/space-centered work and contemporary, instruction-/service-centered work. In my opinion, a moderately successful library will be one that is keenly aware of its place on the spectrum and is able to articulate its value as such, but the highest success (at least in today’s information-rich, digitally connected landscape) will be reserved for those who can strategically align themselves closer to the contemporary side of the spectrum through teaching and outreach.

On breaking up with libraries, by Nina McHale

Last week, Nina McHale told us why she’s breaking up with libraries. Nina is currently the Assistant Systems Administrator for the Arapahoe Library District but will soon be moving into non-library work with Aten Design Group. While my interactions with Nina have been predominantly through online professional groups, I’ve come to know her as a highly talented, creative web designer. The loss to our community is significant and one we shouldn’t be too quick to write off.

Nina notes two major reasons for her decision to leave LibraryLand: finances and a general frustration with technology.

Like Nina, I live in a two-income family. We just had our first child. While we could probably live on my wife’s income alone (though not without sacrifice), we certainly could not live off what I make as a paraprofessional at a private university. Well, perhaps if we sold the house and moved into a 2-bedroom apartment in the Valley. Maybe.

As Nina points out, salaries for librarians often go for much less than the median pay for positions in other fields that require similar skills.

I knew going into my MSLS that I wasn’t going to get rich working in libraries, but accepting less than I’m worth puts undue strain on our family finances. I’m not willing to be a martyr for my profession if it means compromising what I want out of life for myself, my husband, and our kids.

If we want to keep talented, creative people on staff, we don’t have to pay them exorbitantly, but we have to pay them enough so that they don’t have to worry about it.

Nina also points out the lack of technological innovation. We spend millions of dollars on products that fail to provide decent user experiences and rather than demanding changes or working together to collectively build a better product, we acquiesce and continue to pay for substandard ones. As one commenter on Nina’s post put it, why didn’t librarians invent Yahoo in the 90s? We could have. We should have.

We sacrifice instead of create. We compromise instead of improvise. We undersell our worth and consequently are underpaid for it.

It’s been a year since I finished my MLIS degree. I am still working in the same position for the same pay (adjusted for inflation). As I see it, until I’m able to move into a position that makes full use of my degree, every day worked is a loss of potential earnings.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love the work I do, but as Nina points out, “we are so eager to please that we kill ourselves helping people for compensation that’s all too often below the country’s median salary.” Eventually, the need to provide for our own will catch up with us and at that time if there is a shiny job in a different market, can you blame us for leaving?

The transformation toward information science

“People who come into this field [library and information science], whether formally educated in it or who drift in through a job, sooner or later go through a transformation, wherein they shift their primary focus of attention from the information content to the information form, organization, and structure. The Ph.D. art historian who gets a job working with art history information out of a love of the subject matter eventually finds him- or herself working with the core questions of information science, not of art history.”

Bates, M. (1999). The invisible substrate of information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(12), 1043-1050.

Humanism and libraries by A. Cossette

A few weeks ago, Wayne Bivens-Tatum posted his thoughts on André Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries; an essay on the philosophy of librarianship, published by Library Juice Press and translated by Rory Litwin. His remarks prompted me to immediately order the book and read it through. I found Cossette’s discussion of librarianship thought-provoking and, given the work’s historical context, a bit quaint. While I also disagreed with certain claims made in the book, the issues raised are important questions that librarians should occasionally ask themselves as individuals and as institutions: namely, what do I do and why do I do it?

Cossette begins by delineating the difference between librarianship as philosophy and librarianship as science. He makes positive arguments for both perspectives but strongly favors the philosophical approach. He argues that creating a unified philosophy of librarianship will bring “faith and certitude” to our actions, inspire professional unity, and give librarians a raison d’etre, a meta-purpose for what they do.

He argues that up until that point (at the time, he is writing at the University of Montreal in 1976), librarianship, especially in the United States, had been to focused on the pragmatic aspects of the profession and lacked a strong desire for or practice of reflection. As a result, there is no one who could clearly say what a philosophy of librarianship should be. Of course, Cossette provides a response, saying that a unified philosophy should include a definition of librarianship, a statement of its goals, and a study of its relationship to other disciplines.

He defines librarianship as “the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audiovisual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (p.33). He argues that it is both a science, in that it has both an object of study and a method, and a humanistic endeavor, in that it is artistic at the level of individual execution/expertize. It chooses as its subject human beings, information, and the interaction between them.

Cossette calls for a move from subordination to autonomy, especially in the realm of academic and school libraries. On the one hand, he states that the perception of libraries as “services” has hindered their ability to define what they do and why. On the other hand, he acknowledges that libraries are part of the community which they support, though not epistemologically determined by them. This part was particularly salient:

“The educational sphere does not determine the aims of academic libraries, but does exercise a certain influence on many of its processes. The academic or school library pursues the common goals of all libraries: the maximal diffusion of bibliographic resources; in the educational sphere, these resources are selected and dealt with according to the needs of a specific scholarly clientele, which has their own specific information needs”(p.53).

And here is where Cossette tells us what he really feels. He argues that the primary aims of libraries is not preservation and is certainly not education. He even goes so far as to say that the main reason why academic librarians think of themselves as educators is due to a sense of inferiority in relation to faculty (or, in the least, a realization of who gets paid more). I cannot speak for what the situation was in the late 1970s, but in our post-internet era, I would argue that Cossette would have a very different view in 2010.

For one, technology has created a void where there was once a select few who could effectively navigate the information pathways of indexes, bibliographies, and publication lists. Simply put, it is much easier to find some information on a subject these days. Fact-finding in particular is a much easier, more accessible task. But with this ease and influx of information comes the difficulty of wading through the flood and of determining what information is valid. The void created by the introduction of the internet and automation needs to be filled with educators who specialize in information literacy and critical skills. While the role of educator may have been debatable at one time, it is no longer. It is essential.

Essential to what? In the definition of librarianship presented above, I believe Cossette neglects one important aspect: our moral obligation to help information seekers find the best ways to use the information they need. This requires knowing how to discuss and illustrate information literacy and critical thinking skills. It does not require that we be “elitists” of information; we can acknowledge that all information is useful in some way, regardless of its source. But we should be able to show users how certain types or sources of information may be better suited to their specific tasks. This is our moral obligation, the human side to our science and art.

Perhaps one of the main reasons there isn’t a unified philosophy of librarianship is the need for uniformity itself. Is it really possible to define all libraries according to a single idea? Is there something essential about libraries that cuts across all types of libraries from public to academic, from school to special? Personally, I much prefer the idea of having a shared set of values, like those defined by ALA, which vary in importance from one institution to another but are nonetheless an essential part of their reason for being. Preservation may very well be one library’s primary purpose, that doesn’t mean they possess less “library-ness” than a public library who’s primary purpose is to provide access.

I recommend reading Cossette’s work. It is brief and thought provoking and despite some shortcomings (see Wayne’s post for more information), reflecting upon the ideas expressed therein would be worth the time of any librarian (or, like me, librarian-to-be).