April 24, 2018

So Much More Than Info Tech | BackTalk

In his Wall Street Journal (WSJ) January 11 op-ed piece, “In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved,” public librarian Steve Barker writes, “The role for librarians and public libraries is shrinking” because of emerging information technologies. Five respondents disagreed in letters to the editor reprinted a week later by calling attention to librarians’ ability to ferret out “higher-level information” and their capacity “to readily decipher between the relevant and irrelevant information” that has been made possible by the profession’s “metamorphic shift to information science.” And American Library Association (ALA) president Sari Feldman justifiably concludes, “At a time of information overload and growing gaps between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ the roles for dynamic and engaged librarians are growing.”

Space and stories, too

Part of Our LivesAmerican public libraries mean so much more to their communities than the information technology on which Barker and his respondents concentrate. In a book I recently wrote, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford Univ., 2015), I ask why people have so loved these ubiquitous civic institutions over the generations. Turns out for three broad reasons:

  1. The information they make accessible
  2. The public spaces they provide for the construction of community
  3. The billions of commonplace stories they supply that help readers make sense of their worlds.

Because Barker focuses his remarks almost entirely on the first, he fails to consider the contributions inherent in the latter two that millions of American public library users still consider ­essential.

My research shows that for the past century and a half, America’s public libraries have been places of performance where users displayed moral progress and achievement. They have also operated as a robust commons in which members of the public discussed a variety of issues that concerned them. They have functioned as centripetal forces to craft a sense of community among disparate populations and evolve community trust among its multicultural elements. They have acted as key players not only to increase literacy (tens of thousands of immigrants learned English by reading printed materials from their public libraries) but also to construct group identity through the stories and places they provided. Public libraries have also started neighborhood conversations, welcomed the recently arrived into their midst, and served as community anchors. All of this is rendered invisible when one focuses almost entirely on information technology.

A shifting focus

I can’t fault Barker too much, however. It’s a sad fact that in their almost blind pursuit of information technology, many LIS education programs graduating professionals like him give almost no curricular attention (and have developed almost no research traditions) that address the community impacts of providing spaces and supplying common­place stories that public libraries still make available to the millions of Americans who continue to support them. As these programs evolved in the last 30 years, a few stayed close to “library,” most others privileged a focus on “information” defined by the professional discourse they inherited and married largely to the storage and retrieval properties of developing communications technologies. When representatives from the 17 “iSchools” (12 accredited by ALA) met for the first time in 2005, almost none had courses analyzing “reading” and “place” from a “library in the life of the user” (rather than a “user in the life of the library”) perspective. They still don’t.

Making a place for place

If Part of Our Lives proves reading and place have been as important to the American public library as information (and I would argue reading and place are equally important to school, academic, and many types of special libraries), then not having a core course in either at ALA-accredited programs is the equivalent of an American Bar Association–accredited law school without a core course on the Constitution or civil procedure. As I’ve written elsewhere (“Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots Reconsidered: Part of Our Lives as a Test Case,” Library Quarterly 85, No. 4, p. 347–370), unless ALA through its Committee on Accreditation—also steeped in a professional discourse marked by the same kind of tunnel ­vision—insists that reading and place are part of librarianship’s “domain,” LIS education programs will continue to mirror the ­blindered thinking evident in the arguments Barker makes in WSJ.

Wayne A. Wiegand (wwiegand@fsu.edu) is the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Science Emeritus, Florida State University, Tallahassee. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

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  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Well said, and written, Wayne. During my 43 years as a public librarian, people have come to the libraries I have worked in more for books and programs than anything else. I am still delighted to see children with happy looks as they or their moms or dads carryout a stack of books. Don’t notice this that often when people come here looking for information.