March 16, 2018

Can, Should, and Will, Pt. 2: Science and Religion in the Library | Peer to Peer Review

rick-anderson-newswireLet me start out by acknowledging that “Science and Religion in the Library” is a provocative subtitle, and to some degree it’s meant to be. Let me explain what I mean by it.

For my purposes here, I’m going to define as “science” those aspects of library work that deal with figuring out and describing things as they are, and as “religion” those that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way. In the sense that I’m using the terms here, science is descriptive, and religion is prescriptive; science is involved with “is” questions, while religion is involved with “should” questions. Both are important: on the “science” side, we need to know whether and to what extent our resources are being used by patrons, how much money is left in the budget, and where current trends will take us if they continue. On the “religion” side, we need to be clear on the ultimate goals behind what we do and on the values that inform our policies and practices. (These are questions that bear on what I’ve been calling Authentic Librarianship in this column.) Furthermore, unless there’s considerable agreement among library leaders and staff as to those foundational values, we are liable to find ourselves working at cross purposes with one another.

In my previous column, I proposed a Venn diagram that illustrates three spheres of endeavor in the library, two of which represent the things we should do (which is a “should,” or religious question) and those we can do (which is an “is,” or science question). In that column I focused on the imperfect overlap among the three spheres and on why I think it’s important that we understand the dynamics behind their interactions. In this column I want to focus on the essential differences between is and should and on what I think those differences imply for the way we think about and carry out our work in libraries.

In the library, we are constantly faced with “science” questions. For example:

  • “How often do our patrons use Chemical Abstracts?”
  • “At what point in the future will we have to start canceling individual journal subscriptions in order to continue paying for our comprehensive Elsevier journal package?”
  • “What has been the ten-year trend line for book circulation in our library?”
  • “Is the information in this catalog record accurate?”

I characterize these as “science” questions because they deal with data that can be detected, analyzed, and measured and from which inferences and projections can be made. Different people may disagree about the answers, but, at least in principle, the disagreements can generally be settled by an appeal to objective facts and data. The answers to these questions will tell us what is, but they will not, in and of themselves, tell us what we should do. In order to proceed from seeing what is to deciding what ought to be, we will have to bring a very different set of questions into play. These might include the following (notice the should terms in italics):

  • “Are our patrons using Chemical Abstracts at a level that justifies the expense?”
  • “Which individual journal subscriptions should we cancel before we start seriously considering unbundling the Big Deal?”
  • “Given the circulation trend line, would it be wise to redistribute our materials budget?”
  • “Do we have the right amounts of the right information in our catalog records?”

Each of the above is a should question rather than an is question. I categorize them as religious—not because they have to do with the supernatural but because we won’t be able to answer them by simply appealing to facts; in order to answer them, we will have to appeal to values. And this is where things can get dicey in the library. When two people disagree about whether Chemical Abstracts got 100 uses or 1,000 uses in the previous month, the dispute can be settled by an appeal to data—but when they disagree about whether the usage is sufficient to justify renewal, a different dimension of decision-making comes into play. “Sufficiency to justify” is not an is criterion but a should criterion and can only be answered by reference to values.

Most of us understand this more or less intuitively. If a colleague says, “I reject your circulation data because they say that our patrons decreasingly value the book collection,” most of us will recognize that this stance represents an inappropriate conflation of is and should (“I reject your data because I don’t like what they show”). But we aren’t always as strictly clear about this important distinction in our meetings and policy discussions as we should be. Too often, we do conflate is and should considerations in ways that make it harder to solve problems and serve our patrons. It’s understandable, of course. Consider how similar they can be, at least on the surface:

  • Is: “We can’t afford to give our patrons everything they want.”
  • Should: “It’s not our job to give patrons everything they want.”
  • Is: “We have to cut Journal X if we’re going to subscribe to Journal Y.”
  • Should:Journal Y is too expensive and its publisher makes too much money.”
  • Is: “We are regularly losing staff members who leave for higher-paying jobs.”
  • Should: “We don’t pay our staff enough.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to tell the difference between should and is statements because one is couched in the terminology of the other—the phrase “we can’t do that” might mean “we don’t have sufficient resources to do that,” or it might mean “doing that would constitute a breach of our values and mission.” The same is true of statements like “we can’t afford Journal X” (which usually means “subscribing to Journal X would require us to cancel something more important”) and “we can’t hire so-and-so” (which may mean either “he doesn’t meet the posted minimum requirements” or “I think he’s an unacceptable candidate”).

Again, it’s important to emphasize that “science” questions are not better or more important than “religion” questions, nor vice versa. Both are essential. But if we’re going to manage our resources and serve our patrons well, then recognizing and dealing with the differences between those kinds of questions is essential.

What does recognizing and dealing with them mean? In practice, for the most part it means simply paying attention and guiding discussion (especially in meetings) accordingly. If you’re running a meeting and encounter religious statements masquerading as science, it might be a good idea gently to unmask them: “John, you mentioned that we can’t afford Journal X—it looks to me like we could afford it if we canceled these three titles from our annual review list. Is it possible that would be a good trade-off?” Do make sure you unmask them gently, though. No one likes having their religion challenged, no matter what it is.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson ( is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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