The Evolving Epistemology of Librarianship

Will the internet and e-publishing kill librarianship? This question is perpetually at the forefront of news about libraries. Researchers measure the numbers of people reading ebooks as compared to print books and compare library users who access digital materials to those who show up in person. We’re encouraged to debate the digital future in our library school courses. Patrons who keep up with trends in the news may express surprise at the number of people using computers in the library, while parents try to tell us our databases don’t count as resources for their children’s “no internet allowed” research assignments.

Sometimes, the pre-digital age looks like an easier time for librarianship. Way back when books were rare treasures, the simple fact of that form conveyed authority. Eventually, as books became more available, information gatekeeping was established through editorial processes and publishing houses, and librarians developed our own heuristics for identifying reliable sources. As the keepers of official content, we were trusted and consulted in ways we just aren’t anymore. Now, we’re beginning to define a role as information literacy guides for a population that’s increasingly aware of the dangers of unverified and unreliable information. Whether we’ll convince the rest of society that they need us (and should continue to fund us) for that role remains to be seen.

However, there’s one significant way in which we collect, organize, and share information that hasn’t yet been described in the post-print world: relationships. Patrons enter the library with information needs beyond what they find on our computers, and the growing number of social workers and social service providers in our libraries is one sign of that. But the more we rely on social workers, the more questions arise about the meaning of our own work. If social workers address needs beyond the scope of librarianship, is there a role for information services in those patron interactions? If social workers give patrons what they need, what use are librarians? Why not just let public libraries become social service hubs and community centers?

The core of my response is: librarians are important curators of community relationships. This is a social gap librarians are perfectly positioned to fill.

We’re not used to thinking of relationships as elements of information. They don’t fit neatly into discussion of “information packages.” But they are the most basic channel of information-sharing in all of human experience. Before there were libraries, and even now where languages are primarily oral, history is transmitted from one generation to the next through family, clan, and relational culture. Historically, when people looked for a husband for their daughter or a trustworthy car mechanic, they turned to personal relationships  for recommendations. In some respects, we’re still able to replicate this network of relationships online, through things like Angie’s List, Facebook, or Next Door. Those sites provide the transactional piece of human information-sharing: a recommendation, piece of news, or local source of services. What those online relationships don’t provide, though, is all the information that goes unrequested but is still needed by each of us: safe places in times of crisis, resources for when we’re foundering or when we have something to share but don’t know how or where. There are times when we don’t know what to ask for, or we’re too ashamed, or we just don’t realize what’s possible. Those are the times when it’s crucial to make contact with someone who has the network of relationships to help us and the contextual understanding of our situation to divine what’s missing.

This is essentially what social workers have been doing in outreach to our patrons experiencing homelessness. They see a need they’re trained to address through their professional connections. The library provides an important setting because our patrons – their clients – can show up without even knowing that they need a particular service, or they might just feel safe in our space. There’s no pressure to ask us, and they don’t have to have a question in mind beforehand. They’re present, and the social worker can find them. There are some very important differences between what a social worker is able to offer and what a librarian is able to offer, though. Social workers have well-developed networks around a particular issue or type of client service they provide. They’re not trained to know a whole set of connections and resources, much less organize them and make them accessible. They are specialists in one kind of personal help.

As librarians, as information specialists, we can gather and index community relationships in a way that social workers can’t – and shouldn’t. The services we know our local social workers provide are one type of resource, and our relationships with those social workers give us a path for connecting patrons to their specific information. But there are so many other areas in which we can apply these same relational methods. For example, if a young person shares with me that they’ve been writing poetry and want to read it to others, I’m a much better resource if I can connect them to the person I know who runs a local open mic night than if I am only able to provide books or show them how to run an internet search. If someone with a brain injury asks for my help completing an online application, I’m a much better source of follow-up information when I can connect him to my contact who works with veterans at a job readiness center. These are reliable paths to greater opportunity that can only happen through personal connection.

The more I work in community engagement, the more I see and believe that the new reference service is the one in my mind and heart. Where we once selected the best reference materials and turned to those books for answers, we now collect community relationships and prepare to steer our patrons to them. This is important for its own sake but is also complementary to the work we do on information literacy. In the past, our authority derived from physical materials and respect for social roles. Now, when people are distrustful of traditional roles and formats, a librarians can demonstrate our trustworthiness through reliable, community-connected service.

I believe that there’s a kind of “cataloging” we can do with relationships, such that they’re as much a part of our organization of knowledge as any periodical. Every community has different types of resources to connect with and explore: community education, food shelves, religious organizations, art galleries, etc. There are ways to approach a new community and get a baseline understanding of its needs and strengths through demographic information and structured observation. These are the elements we need to start building into all LIS education if we truly intend to provide equitable, whole-person service.

Kudos and thanks to Mary Nienow for helping me name these thoughts.

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