Library Science and Library Policy

  • Introduction

There is a tension between finding knowledge through experience on the one hand, and building consensus on the other.

The ideas of science (experience knowledge) and politics (normative knowledge) are not mutually exclusive, but they can contradict each other. A scientist can develop consensus on a theory by establishing that multiple experiments over time have proved the theory to be at least approximately true. Meanwhile, the idea of science itself is a consensus that experience ought to play an important part in  understanding our world.

But sometimes, in bringing these two concepts — science and politics — together, problems arise. Consensus developed by science becomes a paradigm and can be hard to break, even when science itself calls for a significant shift in understanding. A good example of this is the shift from the Keynsian-style “macro” model of monetary policy (the insistence that wages are sticky and therefore, monetary policy ought to be used to reduce unemployment) to the Monetarist-style “micro” focus (monetary policy should be “tight” to prevent inflation). It took policy-makers years to break out of the stagflation rut in the 60s because of the early paradigm.

Consensus can also develop a science of sorts as well. I think that “Information Literacy” is a good example of this. When I look at the name and what it implies (that some,  probably most, people lack the required skill in information studies to meet their full potential [aka “literacy”]), it implies to me a consensus (by librarians and educators most likely) that people ought to be more “information literate.” From there, librarians go out and do science to establish best practices, often without thinking about the opposite assumption that maybe information literacy is not important.

I think this tension is important to understanding librarianship in the 21st century.

  • From Science to Consensus : Digging to originality

To look at the first example, — science to consensus — which Richard Feynman demonstrates quite nicely in this lecture on quantum physics, the scientist is surprised by the results of experience and (if lucky) slowly builds toward an established consensus in the wider world.  Consensus is difficult to build under these grounds. An obvious example of this difficulty is the controversy surrounding evolution theory, despite the solid evidence to support it. But even evolution has better general support than, say, a PhD student’s thesis on an esoteric aspect of evolution or physics.  There is a lot of science out there that has zero influence in the wider world.

The metaphor often used to describe this sort of science is “dig deeper,” but in a sense, there isn’t any digging at all.   For instance, one way to be ‘surprised’ by science is to break off a small piece of a theory and make it your own — it is much more like trying to separate a grain of sand from the beach than digging a hole.

Another way is to take two seemingly separate theories and somehow synthesize their assumptions, which would explain such disciplines as biochemistry and neuropsychology.   This is more like studying sand by putting it in water and calling it “mud.”
Either way, the science does develop into consensus through experiment. There are a wide class of people that jump into the disciplinary or interdisciplinary science game.  To an extent, I accept typical and altruistic motives for these actions: a feeling of status among colleagues, a desire to learn, and a curiousity for the unknown.

But also important in this game is the desire to carve out an identity through the practice of work. Identity in this paradigm requires consensus. John Nash, for instance, requires a progeny of game theorists to legitimize his identity as someone important to the field of economics. If no-one picks up this interest, whether it is empirically true or not, John Nash is not really a “scientist” in the long run.

But the ultimate problem with this approach is that even when consensus is developed among colleagues, it is a narrow kind of consensus that requires a narrow way of understanding to develop fully. When someone does establish that the grain of sand he or she pulled off the beach is unique, it hardly matters to the beach goer, because he or she will only see the beach. Very few of those grains are going to be truly useful unless they are understood in a more holistic fashion (one that understands both the grains of sand and the beach).

  • From Consensus to Science : The Positioned Thought

I am going to be harsher on this side of the coin. That is most likely because it is the world I experience most. This is the world of the ‘professional’ over whom I think we should (and must) hold a very tight microscope.

The professional develops out of the foam of long-standing (and probably permanent) human problems. For example, the physician is a person who ultimately believes that death ought to be delayed as long as possible and that suffering should be kept to a minimum.    He or she will likely never create a world free of death or suffering.   Similarly, the lawyer is someone who believes in fairness and justice, but who will always encounter the opposite during their lifetime.

There is no real testable hypothesis that can tell you things like “death ought to be delayed as long as possible.” This is just a value that has been legitimized for long periods. In short, it is a consensus through which professionals begin their science.

Thus, medical science has such things as “good” and “bad” bacteria, and the use science to create tests that will detect  which bacteria are good and which ones are  bad. These divisions usually have humanistic roots. A “bad” bacteria is one that causes harm to humans or to a lesser extent, other plants and animals;  a “good” one provides them some benefit. The obvious difficulty here is that bacteria are also animals, like humans, and the values humans purport about the preservation of “life” become watered down when some “life” is sacrificed to the benefit of others.

John McKnight is a famous criticizer of the professional life. I will venture to put words into Dr. McKnight’s mouth by putting forth my view of how he would see a subject such as “information literacy.” Information Literacy, in McKnight’s view would be a way that librarians identify — through consensus — a “problem” that needs to be solved. By uttering ‘information literacy’ out loud, librarians assert that at least some individuals are weak in the area of information and must be “fixed” in order to better the cause of humankind. They then develop methods that do just that: “fix” the information illiterate.

But let’s say the “information illiterate” is, as a result of their weakness in this area, better in another area such as “field work” or “experimentation.” Maybe a librarian’s attempt at instilling information literacy would kill the methodological excellence in this student, as the mounds of poor journal writing are apt to do to someone of this ilk. Maybe there ought to be scientists out there who do not care what the pedigree of their discipline says. Who knows? The point is that, by focussing on weakness, we can misunderstand strength, and the root of this misguidedness is consensus itself — Then we use science to make this misguidedness as efficient and effective as possible.

Even worse, the science affirms the existence of the professionals. “Look,” we say, “there are all these people who need ‘information literacy.'”

(“Information what?” says everyone else).

“We need more librarians to instill this love of learning in people. And to find these librarians, we have to offer great salaries and tenure. And we’ll need research time and sabbaticals too.”

And what’s wrong with that? If someone believes in something so strongly, why shouldn’t they affirm their work?

When you look back away from the librarian’s “consensus” and into other people’s “consensus” you begin to understand. In a world of limited budgets, you can’t pay librarians more without paying someone less. And there the fight begins. You now have a wide group of people, all of whom believe their “consensus” opinion is important, pushing each other around for limited budgets. Not only do you have a potential for serious misguidedness, but you also have a wide range of institutions pushing and pulling at each other like techtonic plates, and ultimately taking the ground away from those who are most vulnerable. Thus, professionals, through being “professional” can end up attacking those who they purport to protect.

  • The Librarian as Scientist and Professional

Without being derogatory, I know my share of people who just want to be surprised by the world and I know plenty of people who believe in the profession strongly and get lots of positive things done because of it. I daresay that I know more of the latter than the former. This should be no surprise since very few librarians go on to become library science doctorates.

So, understanding the two problems stated here, I offer a call for change research in library science as I perceive it now. Library Research needs these two qualities:

  1. It ought to be relevant to people outside the profession.
  2. It ought to focus on community strengths.

The collorary to each of these is that library science research ought to ask itself two questions. 1) So what? and 2) Who are you to profess such a thing?  (The answer to the latter is not “I’m a professional — professing is what we do!”)
It is my contention that the current scenario is that I, the reader, am the one asking these questions when I read most library science journal articles. A couple of ad absurdum examples to illustrate my point:

1) “The information behavior of African Studies professors in French-speaking rural universities who are on sabbatical in South America”

2) “Using quantitative data, performance measures, tear-filled children and fancy hats to convince library boards and city officials that your public library deserves more funding.”

I think there is a real lacuna in the library world, just begging to be filled.   We need an Einstein or Skinner to challenge the way all people — not just librarians — think about information.   With the world of Web 2.0 and the grass roots community movements I see building in the world, I think there is tremendous opportunity for a forward-thinking librarian to do just that.   That librarian will understand his or her place within the profession — but there will also be an “other” view (pun intended🙂 ) in their head that keeps prodding at him or her.   I can’t wait.

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