Theory Matters: Constructing a Personal Philosophy of Librarianship

What draws you to librarianship? What is it about this field that makes you excited, energized, purposeful? There’s something, right? Something that makes up the beating heart of your answer every time someone asks you, “Why do you need a master’s degree to do that?” It’s maybe the most difficult thing to articulate to the outsider, but at the same time the most crucial to your identity as a librarian. What is it? Why is it?

I started library school because I didn’t know what else to do. I had been an English major in undergrad, and I knew I liked books and quiet and people who like books and quiet. My understanding of what librarianship meant back then seemed to fit in with these personal preferences. So I went for it. People would ask me why I had to go to school to be a librarian and I would tell them that I had no idea.

I kind of knew the “what” of librarianship, and that seemed like enough for me. It didn’t even dawn upon me to consider the “why.”

Library school gets a lot of flak, and as a student I wasn’t immune to the urge to complain about it myself. I’d talk the ear off of anyone who’d listen about how pointless it all seemed to me. Almost every one of these conversations would draw around to the idea that our courses involved too much theory. Being a librarian means doing things! So why weren’t we doing? What were we waiting for? The theory, the “why” of librarianship, seemed immaterial to me. I saw librarians participating in the “what,” so that’s what I wanted to learn about.

While I say that, I was actually fortunate enough to take part in the practical side of librarianship through an on-campus job as a library assistant. I learned a crazy amount in a short length of time about teaching, research, and helping people. Another upside of the job was that I had found in my work supervisor another person with whom I could discuss my many complaints about library school. But in the middle of one of my rants about the pointlessness of theory-based classes one day, he interrupted me to ask me why I chose librarianship when I could have done any number of jobs involving books and quiet.

I thought for a minute. Librarianship, to me, seemed to hold a weight and purpose greater than doing something like working for a financial firm or government agency. The part I could play through academic librarianship, to further students’ research understandings and capabilities, seemed more important to me than the idea of possibly doing anything else—and I told him so.

“Good,” he said. “That’s the foundation of your approach to librarianship. That’s what you’re absorbing when you read about and discuss that theory you find so pointless.” He went on to talk about how performance without meaning was hollow—how I could go through the motions of being a librarian without really thinking about what my actions mean. But in doing so I would strip my duties of purpose. Without a personal philosophy based on theories picked up in class and on the job to guide my actions, everyday tasks would have the potential to be nothing but pointless, rote busywork.

Woah.

Through that conversation I realized that I had been so focused on wanting to imitate librarians’ actions that I hadn’t stopped to think about the underlying purposes propelling them to act in the first place. In other words, I had been intent on learning about the “what,” but what I really needed to understand was the “why.” It had been and continues to be vital for me to learn about and consider things like the role of information literacy in an information-saturated world. Without it, what’s the point of the work I’m doing to help students develop information literacy skills?

The practical aspects of librarianship can change at a moment’s notice, but the reasons for engaging in these practices are resilient and enduring. That’s why it’s important to consider not only what you do, but why you find it important. I think too many professions place too much of their emphasis on the “what.” The thing that’s so special about librarianship is that it does have theory behind it; our actions have purpose. Taking the time to hash out what it is that makes you tick as a librarian-to-be can be the most important thing you do as a library student, in order to inform your practice in school and in your career with unmistakable purpose.

I don’t know if I can tell you exactly how to develop your personal philosophy of librarianship. Apart from learning as much as you can about the things that seem most important to you, and finding ways to work though these ideas in authentic contexts outside of the classroom, there’s not really a step-by-step process for figuring it out. The path to developing a personal philosophy varies from person to person, and it never truly ends. If you’re doing it right, your ideals will constantly form and re-form, adapting and revising themselves to accommodate new experiences, new theories, new ideas.

It’s just one of those things where you have to be willing to listen to your gut, be fearless, and—most importantly—be curious. But we’re future librarians. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

7 replies

  1. Love this! And actually, I typically ask people I’m interviewing for jobs what their philosophy or approach to librarianship is. Figuring out why the people who want to come work for me do what they do can be really informative!

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    • That’s awesome, David. While on the job hunt I’ve noticed that the places that seem most connected to the mission of librarianship (read: the places I most want to work) care much more about who I am as a librarian than necessarily the specifics of what I’ve already done on the job.
      And as a candidate or potential candidate, it’s good to see when a library cares about the “whys,” too. I’ve seen a couple of job postings from libraries that don’t even have mission statements and it always makes me wonder what working for such a place would be like. It seems like it would be super unsettling–and unfulfilling.

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