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).