March 22, 2017

Why We Do What We Do | Peer to Peer Review

Last month In the Library with the Lead Pipe published a long essay asking What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It? It calls for a philosophy of librarianship, noting that people have been calling for such a thing since at least the 1930s. Having read around in the literature, including many of the works mentioned in the article, I’m not sure there can be such a thing as “a philosophy” of librarianship, but there can definitely be philosophizing about librarianship. Since the article didn’t address my philosophizing about the topic, I’d like to continue the conversation.

In Libraries and the Enlightenment, I lay out the case for why librarians do what they do based upon the intellectual history of modern American libraries. Since this is a column for academic librarians, I’ll focus on that history for now. Because academic libraries are adjuncts to the institutions they serve, philosophizing about libraries is also philosophizing about higher education, specifically about the origin and purpose of research universities and the effect they have had on higher education and academic libraries.

The research university as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although there have been universities for close to a millennium, the modern research university began in 1810 with the University of Berlin, and its purpose was created in the minds of a handful of German philosophers around the turn of the 19th century, specifically Kant, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Schelling, and von Humboldt. Let’s do a brief survey of their thoughts on higher education.

In his book The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant discussed the then contemporary organization of German universities. They were divided into four faculties—those of law, medicine, theology, and philosophy. The philosophy faculty (which corresponds to what we would now consider the arts and sciences) was the lowest faculty, providing undergraduates with a basic liberal education prior to their study in the “higher” faculties. Kant argued that the philosophy faculty was clearly the superior faculty because, unlike the others, it didn’t just pass on inherited knowledge or knowledge of practical topics. Instead, philosophy was superior because it was the only faculty whose task was to investigate every topic, subject only to reason. Thus, while the law faculty might teach what the law was and how to be a lawyer, it was not dedicated to creating knowledge or examining law in the light of reason.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German Idealist philosopher and theologian influenced by Kant, took this argument further in his book Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense. Among many arguments about universities, he wrote that “the business of the university is to awaken the idea of science in students and to embrace all knowledge.” By science (wissenschaft in German), he meant the scientific study of all topics, not just the natural sciences as we usually use the word today. Any organized body of knowledge that can be analyzed, investigated, and developed is a science in this sense (e.g., library science). So universities should embrace all knowledge and educate students to think as curious scholars. Moreover, the two main principles of students and faculty were the freedom to learn (lernfreiheit) and the freedom to teach (lehrfreiheit). Scholars should be able to study anything they want and teach as they want without the interference of political or religious authorities. Their only master is human reason, exercised in freedom.

In his essay “Vocation of the Scholar,” Johann Fichte wrote that “the purpose of all this knowledge is…the equal and progressive development of all human talents,” and that “the true vocation of all scholars [is] the supervision of the real progress of humanity in general, and the constant support of this progress.” This progress comes through the scientific investigation of pretty much everything, because science is part of culture and “each branch of it must be developed if the capacities of humanity are to be developed.” To this end, all scholars have the right and obligation to further knowledge, especially through their own disciplines.

Friedrich Schelling addressed the relationship between the university and the state, arguing that governments benefit most when they desire “to further the life of ideas and the freest scientific development,” not by suppressing areas of study or turning universities into vocational schools. In a protest against philistinism, he writes that “science ceases to be science the moment it is degraded to a mere means, rather than furthered for its own sake. It is certainly not furthered for its own sake when, for instance, ideas are rejected on the grounds that they are of no use in ordinary life, have no practical application, are unrelated to experience.” To gain the benefits of scientific investigation, scholars have to be free to follow their investigations wherever they may lead.

And finally, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founding rector of the University of Berlin, argued that the value of universities “rests on such institutions being designed as places where learning in the deepest and widest sense of the word [Wissenschaft] may be cultivated, and where the contents of learning… may be given over to the nation’s mental and moral education.” Scholars embrace all knowledge for the good of the students and the good of the nation.

This understanding of what a university should be became known as the “German Model,” and its influence on American higher education has been profound, from the creation of the first German-style graduate school in the United States—Johns Hopkins in 1876—to the grafting of the German Model onto existing colleges throughout the country. By the mid-20th century, the model of teaching supported by research had extended even to four-year liberal arts colleges as the qualification for teaching in them became the Ph.D., i.e., the research degree. As the range of scholarship grew, so did the collections and cooperation of academic libraries to support it.

The free scientific investigation of every subject in the light of human reason awakens the idea of knowledge in students and improves human society. This, at its best, is the goal of higher education. Academic libraries are part of the vast apparatus that supports this goal though the collection, preservation, and dissemination of human culture and scholarship.

Academic librarians are trying to support a scholarly mission to create better human beings and a better society through the creation of knowledge in all areas. That’s why we do what we do. There are worse jobs to have.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Michael Paulus says:

    This is great, but did you really meant to say “adjuncts”? The German model put libraries at the center of the university. For a view of the American reception of this ideal, see Noah Porter’s Plea for Libraries (1848).

  2. Wayne Bivens-Tatum says:

    Michael, “adjuncts” probably wasn’t the right word, since I didn’t mean to imply that the library isn’t of central importance to a lot of the research that goes on in a university. I was just trying to say that academic libraries don’t just stand on their own, as public libraries do, and that their mission is bound with the mission of the institution they serve. However, in my next column I’m hoping to argue that we do go beyond that mission in the sense that academic libraries have a mission that transcends their individual institutions, but then so do the individual institutions.

  3. This history is fascinating, and thanks for sharing it. Have you read the Cossette essay? In it he discusses the relation of libraries and librarians to education. He does, however miss this important German Model.

    And also a quick note that in my article I wasn’t so much as arguing for a philosophy of librarianship, but more for the individual praxis of librarianship. I agree with others that one central philosophy would not work with the breadth of the work that we do.

    I’m glad you contributed to this conversation, and I agree with the mission that you spell out– “to create better human beings and a better society.” I’m keeping this one in the back of my mind. Thank you.

  4. Emily, I have indeed read Humanism and Libraries, and wrote a long review of it here:

    That review basically lead to my own book being published with Rory. Cossette was necessarily being much broader than I am and trying to include all libraries, or at least academic and public libraries. In Libraries and the Enlightenment, I also address the relationship between public libraries and the Enlightenment values of reason and freedom, which is a different story than with academic libraries and has more to do with the dissemination of knowledge to create educated and enriched citizens in a democratic republic. Since this is a column on academic libraries, I didn’t include that story here. There are also other stories to tell about academic libraries, but I focused on the German Model because it had the most significant impact, I believe, on the creation of American research universities and the general development of research libraries into the enormous, cooperative institutions they are today.