Philosophies of Librarianship

I’ve had a couple experiences recently that have made me realize how much our philosophies of librarianship impact our professional practice. And I’ve realized, too, that even if you don’t have a fully-worked out philosophy of librarianship, you’re unconsciously applying one in your work. Now, by a “philosophy of librarianship” I don’t mean some fully worked out metaphysical system about the nature of librarianship’s role in the universe. I’ve always tried to avoid using the phrase “philosophy” when it comes to thinking about librarianship precisely because of the pejorative connotations that philosophy is a bunch of theoretical abstractions that have nothing to do with practice. But I think that people, consciously or not, really do operate with these abstractions, in the sense that they have a way of looking at things related to librarianship that directly impacts what they do.

The Thinker

One example that illustrated this to me very clearly was when I led a discussion on student-centered reference librarianship at the recent ALA-Midwinter conference. One of the discussion questions very explicitly asked a Socratic-style “What is F?” style question, asking what student, or patron-centered reference is. Now, people basically agreed that it involves taking students where they’re at, and not taking the role of an expert transmitting information to their students from high on the mountaintop. And, I suggested, that student centered teaching involves understanding how students learn, what motivates them, and then tailoring our instruction accordingly. This seemed uncontroversial, as a “philosophy” of librarianship, but what’s really interesting are the really radical practical implications of looking at things in this way. For example, if you really think this is the right way to understand student-centered reference philosophically, then your whole conception of what you need to do as a librarian ought to change: you should start being interesting in psychology, basically, for your aim is to understand your students from their point of view. So now, because of a pretty plausible philosophical premise, a whole set of issues in learning and cognition, the psychology of motivation, and counseling theory are directly relevant to librarianship.

Or, to consider another example, what you think information literacy is determines the kinds of classroom activities you do. If you think, as I do, that information literacy involves not just showing students where to click in a particular database, but to equip them with the skills they need to think about information both in school, and in their regular lives, what you do in the classroom is way different. One involves showing the students where the peer-reviewed button is in the Philosopher’s Index, the other involves trying to figure out information literacy lesson plans based on teaching strategies that are proven to help students transfer information to other contexts.

Thinking more abstractly, it’s been our basic premise all along that librarians are educators; most of the discussions on this blog about specific approaches and teaching strategies stem from that basic idea. Alex Carroll illustrates this nicely in a recent comment on my post about website evaluation, when he writes that thinking of ourselves as educators brings with it certain implications, that, e.g., :

Educators (1) present conceptual knowledge, (2) provide context for these concepts that is relevant for students, (3) model successful behavior based on these concepts, and then (4) provide time for guided practice of these concepts

That’s exactly right, and it has direct practical applications to librarianship, some of which Alex notes:

What educators don’t do is spend their classroom time demonstrating how to use tools, which is exactly why classic bibliographic instruction is so problematic right? Instead of creating learning objectives like “students will be able to understand the importance of using evidence to support a rhetorical argument,” we create learning objectives of “students will be able to utilize MeSH within PubMed to create a literature review.”

In short, what you think directly impacts what you do, and what you do is probably not going to be very interesting unless you’ve thought about the underlying reasons for why you’re doing it.

I actually, in a lot of ways, have way less patience for philosophy than one might think. But I think that there’s a lot of ways of looking at librarianship, and that these ways of seeing things have direct implications for what we do. This is why they’re worth thinking about.

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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

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