Cossette’s unified philosophy of librarianship

July 30th, 2013 § 2 comments

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!

§ 2 Responses to Cossette’s unified philosophy of librarianship"

  • You are correct, John. I do not advocate a particular theory or philosophy or approach to librarianship in my post, although I definitely have ideas about this that I will lay down in upcoming posts. I do share your criticisms of Cossette as well. I think he tries to hard to create and define a “philosophy of librarianship”, or as you say a “unified theory” of the field, instead of laying out some philosophical foundations of librarianship.

    I think there is much to be learned from the philosophy of social science, epistemological theories, pedagogical theories, and the philosophy of communication and information rather than “reinvent the wheel” in creating a philosophy of librarianship. I feel strongly, however, that we need to take an empirical approach to what we do, based in solid foundations in social science, to create new theory and explanation about why we do what we do, rather than just simple explanations of what we do. Case studies are great, and a lot can be learned from them, but we need to spend a considerable amount of time on the “whys of librarianship” to truly move forward and thrive as librarians.

  • Both of you raise very interesting ideas about “why we do what we do” as librarians. My philosophy has been for the last couple of decades “Theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind” taken from J.R. Kidd, a Canadian educator from the mid-20th Century. I see the truth of that played out repeatedly in librarians who go through the motions, do the same actions daily, and pursue their programming without really understanding the “why” of any of it.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people (mostly not librarians) accomplish significant achievements by being messy and following the General Patton philosophy “Something beats nothing all to hell.” They seem to follow the “It ain’t pretty but it works” approach to making things happen.

    In my consideration of and blogging about 21st Century Librarianship over the past few years I’ve seen more significant successes from what appears to be the Patton approach than the Kidd approach. What this tells me is that in the current environment practice is shaping theory, and I think this discussion would be well served by more focus on practice rather than theory. Perhaps.

    In any case, dialog is very important, but IMHO action is more important at this time for libraries to retain their relevance to their community.