Putting the Social in Social Science

Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve done an informal survey of LIS faculty interests across our most reputable PhD programs, based on how they present themselves in online profiles. To summarize my impression: virtually everyone outside of youth services  (and to some extent archives, but that has always been its own world) is focused on the information science part of “library and information science”: informatics, human-computer interaction, information technology policy, data management. This isn’t really a surprise, I suppose, but seeing it written out so starkly in descriptions of faculty interests has really driven home what I’ve also observed in my workplace. We consolidate, organize, manage, and disseminate information of all types; increasingly, we also participate in the generation of the information we then curate (publishing open-access electronic textbooks, for example). Librarianship is pinpointing its focus on information provision.

I don’t oppose information scientists in managing big data, helping faculty members make fair use decisions about copyright, or working as researchers to understand the way people decide how to word their Google searches. I’m happy for people to be studying and working on those things, but I’m happy about it in the same way that I’m happy my brother gets to design large engines, which is to say, keep up the good work, folks, but there’s no need invite me to join you. What troubles me is not the focus on information, but rather that it increasingly seems to be the only focus. Personally, I was attracted to librarianship not because I love information itself but because I love to help people harvest what they need from that well-tended field of information. That human focus is what I miss so much in our professional trajectory towards information science and is one of the things I am striving to restore to significance through the application of Whole Person Librarianship.

To give one example, my place of employment recently invited a couple of research library to speak to staff about the history and future of academic research libraries. When the historian spoke about the development of modern American librarianship during the latter part of the 19th century, he focused on the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs – how librarians took inspiration from the Victorian scientific ideal of exerting control over the world through documentation and indexing. That’s a valid and insightful connection, but I had a another track running in my mind, in which librarians were part of a simultaneous social movement to open up and a free world of knowledge to people of all backgrounds – and what’s more, to facilitate the connection between people and knowledge. There were undoubtedly aspects of that movement which would seem problematic to us now – the idea, for example, that some books are “good for you,” while other books aren’t – but the it was part of a larger trend of social justice and expanding democracy that also blossomed into social work. I want the legacy of that to be acknowledged, respected, and valued equally to the legacy of the card catalog.

At the same time, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve picked the wrong side and am fired up to fight a battle that’s already been lost. I tried to suggest to someone yesterday that public librarians, in a future where books and articles are all accessed through a central database, could still have a vital role in being the connection between people and that distant information source. Her response was that such a role would be considered “less than,” and public libraries would no longer be able to continue to justify funding their existence. She pointed out that public libraries will be fine as long as people keep checking out stacks of 30 picture books, but what happens when that stops? This was someone whose opinion I respect a great deal, and her response poured a bucket of cold water over me.

But let’s think about this for a moment: parents and caregivers do come into the library to check out stacks of picture books, that’s true. But they also come for all the fantastic literacy programming that youth services librarians put together. Where can you find the most creative outreach programs in the public library? Youth services. Where are our faculty still focused on studying how to reach and educate people, giving consideration to their developmental and social needs at least as much as the format of the information they use (aka, considering the whole person)? Youth services. So why aren’t we looking to that model for success? Why is programming and the human focus “less than”?

I would suggest that our professional dismissal of the human focus is due at least in part to neglecting our place as a social science, alongside social work and education. There are methodologies for evaluating and measuring the impact of services that we could apply more broadly in our research and practice to begin to put the human focus on par with the information focus in librarianship. When I’ve asked about, for example, measuring the impact of prison library services on the literacy rates of inmates, I’ve heard about why that’s a very difficult thing to do. But I don’t know that we, collectively, have yet tried everything we can do and supported each other in making in-depth, social science-based research happen. I don’t know that we have pushed hard enough and far enough to say what’s too difficult for us to accomplish. In the meantime, the vacuum that was left by the death of traditional reference services is being filled by the expansion of information management, and where that’s lacking, by business models that codify the dumbing-down of our public services.

So, going forward, if I ever do seem to be the enemy of the information focus, it’s because I feel the human focus – consultation, public services, programming, outreach – needs strong advocacy to reach parity. Whole Person Librarianship is a catchy name for this messy yet necessary rallying point: Librarianship is a social science, so let’s put the social back into it.