Explaining the Science of Library Science

The leaves are falling, the weather is cooling (at least for those of us in temperate climates), and November is whipping by. I can hardly believe how quickly this semester has gone, but I am very excited to head home for the fast-approaching holidays. Like me, you may be looking forward to gatherings of family and friends in the coming weeks—and quite possibly anticipating a lot of curiosity about library school and librarianship.

The many questions and quizzical looks I receive when explaining my career aspirations and current studies surprised me at first. Until I started to apply for library school and to attempt to explain my plans to friends and family, I didn’t realize how misunderstood and underutilized librarians often are. I have received questions like: Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian? Why do we need librarians now that we can get so much online? And the crowd favorite: Are you going to take classes about shh-ing people?  I have found, as I am sure every librarian and wannabe librarian does, that those without a lot of experience in “library land” often have a fairly foggy idea of what librarians do and therefore have trouble imagining the training and study involved in master’s programs.

Image via osumlibrarylabs.com

We need to get better at explaining ourselves. Topher offers great advice on fielding some common questions and misconceptions here. I’d like to build on his ideas with a particular focus on the term library science. Of all the questions I’ve received from friends, family, and acquaintances, I’ve noticed the most confusion surrounding the ‘science’ aspect: So you’re studying library science…what is that exactly? How can librarianship be a science? Why isn’t your program described as library arts or library studies?

Those questions have stuck with me through my first semester of library school. At first I wondered if the phrase library science needs a change, but I have since concluded that it emphasizes important features of our programs. Here are the strategies I have found useful for explaining library science:

Frame library science as a social science. So much of what we learn and do in the classroom and at work draws on a range of disciplines concerned with human behavior and society. For example, practices for interacting with patrons and selecting resources draw on education, psychology, communication, and sociology. Like many of the social sciences, library science is concerned with both intellectual advancement and professional practice; library school gives us tools to think critically and develop the skills we learn on the job—much like master’s programs in education. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary nature of library and information science programs may lead to employment outside of traditional library settings, such as with book vendors or digital initiatives.

Emphasize training and hard skills.  Technical training, both in school and on-the-job, allows librarians to complete a variety of complex tasks such as cataloguing, systems management, and web design. Librarians may be database designers, budget managers, resource selectors, and so much more. Many of these complex, technical roles go on behind the scenes in libraries. People who only interact with circulation staff may not even consider the existence of the librarians working to select, buy, categorize, and label a book they want to borrow.

Give examples. Nothing replaces a confused look with a smile of recognition like a clear, concrete example. I’ve found it easier to put library science into clear terms when I give examples from the classes I’m taking, projects I’m working on, or a specific job I’d like to have and what it would take to get there.

Talk about what you love. Although the features of librarianship that most excite and motivate you may not relate directly to the science question, your love for what you do will probably make the most lasting impression. Describing library science is only part of larger conversations involving the ‘who, what, why, and how’ of librarianship—and I would venture to say that any of these conversations are worth having.

How do you explain library science? Have any questions about what you do and why you do it stumped you? Do you have any favorite strategies for explaining your career path?

19 replies

  1. As a recent grad (and a current “Taxonomist), I still have this problem. As a taxonomist especially. People think I stuff animals for a living, or do taxes in April.

    The easiest thing for me to tell people though, is that I work on, and develop, information systems. “You know the things on the left hand side of the screen on Amazon you use to search for stuff? Yeah, I build those.” Makes quick and easy sense, and gives a common, easy example to people, because no one knows how they work, but everyone uses them.

    My other favorite line: “Librarians have been organizing things for thousands of years, you think we can’t help organize the internet?”


  2. As an information architect, I’ve got the same problem. I too went to LIS school (Simmons GSLIS) and rarely had a good answer til now. Whenever people ask now (the title generally makes them not wanna guess) I simply tell people that I build digital information structures.

    Seems to work most of the time.


  3. Yes! The “no one knows how they work, but everyone uses them” issue seems quite central for all kinds of information professionals.


  4. I have to admit now that my official job title is “Librarian” I am much more willing to tell people what I do rather than launch into a lesson on Information Management or ‘No I don’t read books all day”. I used to avoid the topic altogether!


  5. I’m a graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where our library degrees are actually Masters of Arts: Library and Information Studies. I like it this way since I think that “studies” makes much more sense than “science.” I would like it even better if it were “services,” since ultimately that comes closest to describing what I am doing with the degree.


  6. My favorite instance of this, teaching a new assistant copy cataloging and when we got to the 300 field where you enter book’s physical size in cm, she remarked “oh, there’s the library science part.”


  7. My father the engineer was really happy that my library degree just says “Master of Science” (after a B.A. and an M.A. in Anthropology). Going to library school was the first thing about me he understood and approved of.


  8. My title is now “Information Director”. I’ve always told people that information and library science is the study of how people interact with information and libraries. Just using the term “information” is somehow sexier than library…not sure why!


  9. The fact is – it’s not science, social or otherwise. What scientific pre-reqs did we need to get into Library school? None. What basic scientific principles or foundation classes did we take? None. What training in any way shape or form did we take to qualify as “scientists”? None. We call it a “science” and give ourselves fancy sounding titles in order to get respect for what we do, but it backfires because people in the real world know that there is no science involved. The sad thing is, people respect librarians. They love libraries. They find pompous titles annoying and phony. So, we should stop trying to justify the “science” and be proud to be what we are – librarians devoted to helping the rest of the world find and use the information that they need to make a difference in their lives – whether by escaping for a few moments into a world of imagination (ficton and bestsellers) or learning about something new (lifelong learning), or by finding information to help them with a need (reference), or just by providing a place for them to come and be at ease (library as place). That’s what we do, and it doesn’t need to be called “science” to be important and necessary.


    • I couldn’t agree more. The article above doesn’t describe a science of any sort, because what we do is only incidental science at best.

      If you do research in libraries where you employ the scientific method to observe or determine the co-relation between two events or the like. You are engaging in science. We may do superficial computer science or dabble information science. But unless you are a specialist most librarians don’t engage in science of at all. Science requires an organization and building of knowledge that can be tested and explicated.

      It’s so hard to shoehorn our occupation into the category of “library science” because we have mislabeled it.


    • I’ve certainly been thinking about science in broader terms. As to whether or not that’s a problem I’m not sure. I definitely take your point about justification and I agree that it doesn’t *need* to be called “science.” Thanks for pushing back on my ideas – my thoughts on this topic are already shifting and I’m sure they will continue to do so.


  10. The lis (library and information science, is what am studying now at nasarawa state polytechnic,lafia. Nigeria.
    i found it so easy, and am enjoying it at most of the courses that i like e.g classification, cataloguing, indexing and abstract note that even with courses that i have mension a novelist or an author of other book may not be able to do it without a librarian, a librarian can be a database, even a computer literate can come to a librarian for assistance. We librarians are the gate keepers of knowledge, if you doubt it go to a book shop and see if you can afford the books we store,


  11. being a member of this prestigious profession i feel proud when i handle the students and tell then when you will get your degree you will be capable to do anything as a expert of libraries, but other does;t know the value of this profession. so i enjoy all the time and say my colleagues do better have better……….


  12. Being an academic librarian is the best thing that has ever happened to me,I have never realized how interesting librarianship is until I started working in the university.


  13. I appreciate the people who called out the original post because it is NOT science. Be proud of what you know don’t try to make it sound like what it is not.

    I have a family member who is pretending that what she does is the same thing thing that people with over 35 years in computer
    & information sciences. (Like the earlier posters pointed out people in sciences take other science courses.
    In our degrees we studied physics and worked with scientific principles. Some do computerengineering..) No,she uses the systems that IT people create. She doesn’t know how to program, she doesn’t know how to program she doesn’t know how to test , she does not have to create repeatable processes that have to be foolproof and address all contingencies. She knows how to research… it’s not the same thing.

    Frankly listening to her repeat provably false information makes me wonder when she was even taught how to evaluate fact from fiction


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