Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation

by Kevin Michael Klipfel
19 August 2014

One of the first things you learn as a professional librarian is that very few people have any idea what you do. In fact, enough people who actually want to become librarians are sufficiently in the dark about the nature of the profession that many Information and Library Science graduate programs explicitly require their prospective applicants to state in their applications what interests them about the field other than loving books.

arcimboldoIn fairness, the whole “librarians love books” thing isn’t entirely misguided. The very etymology of the word ties librarians to books, and, when Emerson famously announced the need for a “professor of books,” it was a role librarians consciously sought to fill. Nevertheless, I am a librarian and not only have I never read a novel during work, I’ve never shelved a book in any professional capacity either. In fact, my experience of the librarian-esque is really rather limited. I’ve never had the chance to use one of those little stamp things telling you when your book is due, because I’ve never actually checked out a book to someone. Only if forced to at gunpoint could I find a book using a card catalog (probably, if you gave me a minute); and my most frequent exposure to a rare book is the copy of former Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas’s autobiography sitting on my home bookshelf—a piece of childhood esoterica I’ve kept all these years merely to preserve proof of its existence. Recently, a girl I did not recognize came up to me at Starbucks and said, “Aren’t you a librarian?” When I said “Yes,” she said, “That’s so cool, it must be nice to have a job that isn’t very stressful.” I smiled and nodded, thinking it not worth the effort to explain that the whole reason I was at Starbucks was that I was so stressed out about something at work I was pretty sure my life was over.

Folks a little more hip to things sometimes say things like “Libraries are all about technology now, huh?” which, like most generalities, is sort of true in a limited sense, but not in a very interesting one. Sure, a class that could more or less have been called “How to Use Computers and Some Programs Commonly Found on Many of Them” was, indeed, a required course during the first semester of my Information and Library Science grad program. But the only reason I made it through the course was because I was failing such “easy” material, which was too unbearable for my fellow students to emotionally bear and so they held my hand through the material to ensure sure that I passed. Now, when it comes to tech skills, I’m somewhere in between, say, someone who doesn’t know how to check their email and someone who knows the shortcuts for doing mathematical calculations in Excel. So, you see, if you want to be a librarian (and by now why wouldn’t you?) and your computer skills aren’t exactly off the charts, you’ll probably be just fine.

One thing some of the technology advocates might also mean is this: the internet has changed things, and with that change librarians are increasingly viewed as becoming more and more obsolete. When I started “library school” this is something that concerned me, too. Librarians help people find information, we’ve been told, and now, with the success of Google, people don’t really need much help finding things. We can go ahead, then, and replace my tenure-track gig with a couple new computers, and give the rest of the money back to California’s taxpayers. But this would be too hasty, because helping people find stuff in the manner the public perceives is not, in fact, what librarians do.

Part of the public confusion about librarianship, I suspect, has to do with an ambiguity inherent in the profession itself. As poet and librarian Philip Larkin once noted, “A librarian can be one of a number of things. He can be almost a pure scholar or he can be a technician … or he can be a pure administrator, or he … can just be a nice chap to have around, which is the role I vaguely thought I filled.” There is a deep sense, then, in which the nature of librarianship is not only dynamic but ultimately undefined, perhaps even to librarians themselves.

My own attempts to make the nature of librarianship a little clearer are drawn, oddly enough, from the realms of counseling psychology and education. In a 1973 paper on the philosophy of education, “Questions I Would Ask Myself If I Were a Teacher,” humanistic psychologist and student-centered educator Carl Rogers states that, in the classroom, one of his central questions is:

Can I discover the interests of each individual and permit him or her to follow those interests? … Can I be creative in putting them in touch with people, experiences, books—resources of all kinds—which stimulate their curiosity and feed their interests?

We can isolate, then, two distinct elements of a Rogerian educational philosophy, where the task of an educator is to:

1. Promote Authentic Learning by discovering students’ interests and facilitating the freedom for them to pursue those interests in the context of their coursework,

and

2. Provide Students with Resources and the materials necessary for them to learn about their interests and curiosities.

Roger’s educational philosophy garners an enormous amount of support in the current educational psychology literature that pushes for “autonomy-supportive” pedagogical approaches to student learning. Indeed, educational psychologists Assor, Kaplan, and Roth go so far to say,

the primary task of the teacher is to try to understand their students’ authentic interests and goals, and then help students to understand the connection between their personal goals and interests and schoolwork. In addition, teachers may also find or develop tasks that fit their students’ interests. When students do not have clear personal interests and goals, teachers may assist them in developing such interests and goals.

What is particularly fascinating about the Rogerian conception of education, from a librarian’s perspective, is just how close it is to what most people believe librarians have been doing all along. Rogers states that:

I believe that a good facilitator of learning should spend up to 90% of his preparation time in making resources available to the young people with whom he or she works. To a large extent … it is not necessary to teach them but they do need resources to feed the interests. It takes a great deal of imagination, thought, and work to provide such opportunities.

This area of “great imagination, thought, and work” is where library science becomes a unique and challenging discipline. There is a subtle but ultimately profound difference between the banality of “librarians help people find stuff” and a robust conception of librarians as educators whose task it is to develop an authentic connection with students in order to find out the stuff that matters to them as people, and to find resources connecting those interests to their schoolwork. While this pedagogical philosophy, the research seems to indicate, should be at least part of the work of all educators, it’s the sine qua non of the librarian’s existence.  To put the point in Wittgensteinian terms, there may be no single, common feature unique to what librarianship, in an essentialist sense, is; rather, what we have is a number of people calling themselves “librarians” connected by network of “family resemblances” with the two features of Rogerian pedagogy serving as the common threads.

Thus, at least in an academic library, we may have a bunch of super-tech-savvy folks working on the back end to make sure that when you type in “Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations” to that misleadingly Google-esque search bar on your school’s library homepage, the catalog record telling you where that book is in the library is actually the one that comes up. Thus, we have librarians in “E-Resources” and “Cataloguing” working on Rogers’s second criterion: they make sure that people can actually find the stuff they’re looking for when they’re looking for it.

And then there’s the people like me—“Teaching and Learning” or “Information Literacy” librarians—who are the ones working with students directly, facilitating their discoveries in the process of research. This, I submit, is a bit more complicated than a typical Google query, where one can type in, say, “Drake Sacramento,” and have Google tell you when Drake’s coming to your town almost instantly. If we take serious the notion that research is, quite simply, an occasion to investigate something one would personally like to know more about, it’s the librarian-as-educator’s job to instruct a student on how they can look up something they’re curious about, and instruct them in how to do it well. The “well” here is everything, and it’s the reason why librarians will be around for as long as educators are needed to help people figure out how to interpret the world. Not only does the librarian’s task involve (1) facilitating a student’s curiosity about the world (Rogers’s first criterion), it involves (2) teaching them to think critically about it, as well. If (1) explains why, as an academic librarian, I spend an enormous amount of professional time reading and thinking about research in psychology and education, (2) explains my interest in critical thinking and philosophical epistemology. For, implicit in Roger’s second criterion—the one about finding information—is the task of facilitating a process where students can develop good judgment about whether this piece of information would count as good evidence for this idea or claim (and if not, where would I find it?). In short, “how do I know if this is the kind of thing I should believe?” is central not only to philosophical inquiry, but to librarianship as branch of applied social epistemology (a term originally coined in 1953 by two Library and Information Science professionals). In this sense of the term, libraries are, indeed, only a small part of librarianship itself: they’re just the places where a lot of the information you’d determine to be reliable (after you’d critically thought about it) happens to be.  Librarians themselves, in their various roles as Rogerian facilitators of creativity and learning, are in a constant state of evolution, changing with the times to help people think well about what matters to them. Unlike Google, they’ll be central to teaching and learning for a very long time.

 

Kevin Michael Klipfel is the Information Literacy Coordinator librarian at California State University, Chico. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his research on student engagement and information literacy won the Dean’s Achievement Award for the Best Master’s Paper of 2013 in the School of Information and Library Science. He has articles forthcoming in College & Research LibrariesReference Services Review, and Communications in Information Literacy, and is the co-founder of Rule Number One, a blog devoted to discussing educational theory; information literacy instruction; and academic librarianship (http://rulenumberoneblog.com).

5 Comments

  1. Kevin,

    I think you would enjoy this book:
    http://libraryjuicepress.com/cossette.php

    It gets into many of the themes you write about here.

    Rory Litwin (who translated it from French)…

  2. What is that image of the book man used to illustrate the article? Where did you get it? I appreciate the article as a 35 year storyteller/librarian.

  3. Joan, it’s The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

  4. This is a great article, which so accurately expresses what librarianship is. Employers, even in schools rarely know what they want the library to do, and yet throw so much money at it in an effort to prove its worth. Don’t get me wrong, it is worthy, but not in ways which can be quantified by Bursars, box-tickers, and bean counters. Students do get it, and SMTs should speak to them when they want to know what the library is worth.

  5. Pingback: 50 Library Stories You May Have Missed in September | OEDB.org

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