This is Not a Pipette: Bringing Humanities Methods into LIS Programs

When I was talking with my friends and family about preparing for library school, I couldn’t stop tripping over the phrase “information science.” Between my humanities background and penchant for absurdity, I kept having visions of putting sterilized books into autoclaves or using a pipette to carefully dispense precise information units to patrons. I’ve been taught that history and culture influence any endeavor—particularly so when it doesn’t carefully reflect upon these things. I’m relieved to say that my professors have warmly welcomed my attempts to incorporate my humanities background into relevant assignments and projects, despite the fact that my program calls our work a “science.” This post won’t argue for whether or not our field might more productively be called “information studies” rather than “information science.” A number of programs have historically been called both, many currently include “information studies” in some part of their name, and perhaps most importantly, research more recognizable as “studies” than “sciences”—such as history, culture, or literary-style close readings—can from my experience all be performed even in an “information science” program, given the right conditions.

Photo of various pipettes and test tubes with computer-printed labels and handwritten descriptions

Pipettes, Test Tubes, and Metadata: Oh My!

Beyond my own experience, the editors of one of our field’s most distinguished journals, College & Research Libraries, recently published an editorial explicitly stating that they were looking for papers using broader methodologies. Its editors James Elmborg and Scott Walter assert, contrary to a 2001 editorial by then-editor Donald E. Riggs which advocated a model of research closely aligned with the social sciences, that:

“Library research needs to become much more open to critical theory as one part of the broad range of research approaches that can help us imagine the future of library practices. Indeed, the intellectual vibrancy of this field depends on our ability to synthesize multiple research traditions” (4).

Similarly, in “Education, Adoption, and Development: Building a Culture of Social Theory in LIS,” Paul T. Jaeger argues that our field could benefit greatly from looking at the sorts of critical social theory extensively used in education, another field where both a Master’s and practice are the norm.

So for anyone coming from a similar humanities perspective, I’d like to share and summarize a few articles I’ve found that help show how those of us with more humanities intellectual lenses can bring them to bear on library and information work. If you come from a humanities background, you might also want to check out posts other Hackers have written, such as Anna-Sophia’s “Why I Loved Lucy Even Though It Got Terrible Reviews: Toward an Info-Humanism” and the many posts on Digital Humanities.

Wiegand, Wayne. 2003. “To Reposition a Research Agenda—What American Studies Can Teach the LIS Community about the Library in the Life of the User.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 369–382.

Wayne Wiegand’s 2003 essay “To Reposition a Research Agenda: What American Studies can Teach the LIS Community about the Library in the Life of the User” links questions about democratic theory to questions about culture. The essay invites researchers, both of LIS and American Studies, to study how libraries have been given and produced meaning within the larger scope of their users’ lives. Rather than prioritize the “useful information” habitually regarded as most important by LIS researchers, Wiegand turns to a host of scholars of publics, places, and cultural studies to show how their theories have influenced thought on how people make sense of places and reading, whether individually or as communities. Like John Buschman’s “Democratic Theory in Library Information Science,” this essay closes with a list of potential research questions, primarily focusing on libraries as cultural spaces and on libraries in the reading lives of library users.

Radford, Gary, Marie Radford, and Jessica Lingel. “The Library as Heterotopia: Michel Foucault and the Experience of Library Space.” Journal of Documentation, Vol. 71 No. 4 pp. 733–751.

Another article that focuses on how library spaces operate in our culture, “The Library as Heterotopia: Michel Foucault and the Experience of Library Space,” explores fictional representations of libraries. Written by Gary Radford, Marie Radford, and Jessica Lingel, this article reads fiction as accounts of affective encounters with the transformative potential of libraries. These fictional accounts range broadly, touching for instance on works by China Mieville, Umberto Eco, and Doctor Who.This delightful article accessibly explains how Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia can help us understand the experiences and potentials of libraries. Heterotopic spaces mix and juxtapose a person’s relationship to multiple spaces in a way that allows for critical understanding of how any space positions and constructs subjects. Ranging from fascinating to horrifying, the fictional accounts of library spaces suggest that writers regard these institutions more as spaces for possibility rather than for static, functional retrieval of documents.

Kapitzke, Cushla. “Information Literacy, A Review and Poststructural Critique.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2003, pp. 53—66.

Cushla Kapitzke’s 2003 article “Information Literacy, A Review and Poststructural Critique” addresses the status of information within LIS, primarily by exploring how various library and education professional groups describe information literacy. She shows that professional groups routinely envision it as a neutral method or skill with universal outcomes. As a corollary, she argues, these groups depict knowledge and truth as static and findable with the appropriate method—conveniently the method of information literacy. Kapitzke points out that according to poststructural theories of language, knowledges do not stand outside of the mediation inherent to cultural signs and symbols but instead are socially constructed. As with many other LIS writers who look to critical theory, she uses Foucault as a touchstone for the discursive production of knowledge. Kapitzke argues that librarians should consider the socio-historical production of “information literacy” as a discourse as well as develop more critical alternatives.

Day, Ronald E. “Poststructuralism and Information Studies.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, v39 n1 (2005): 575–609.

Written for those with more than passing familiarity with structuralism and poststructuralism, Ronald E. Day’s insightful 2005 article “Poststructuralism and Information Studies” addresses these bodies of work on a large, syncretic level, although he also covers specifics of certain thinkers. The article in particular addresses Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. Day’s article shows how these two interrelated bodies of theory trouble the standard information science account of the “conduit metaphor” of information. This model imagines “information” primarily as concept or meaning that lies outside language and can be successfully, unproblematically passed from one subject to another through adequate use of words, signs, or symbols. In different ways, structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers assert that meaning does not exist outside of language. Day shows how structuralism and poststructuralism compellingly suggest that a meaningful unit only reliably bears meaning within a larger system, posing problems to theories of information that construct information as its own self-enclosed entity that can stand on its own.

This round up of humanities-based approaches to library and information work doesn’t even approach being a thorough lit review of its own. Do you have others you’d like to recommend to fellow Hack Library School readers? What success have you had bringing your previous humanities methods and questions into your LIS work?

Photo Credit: “Pipettes & test Tubes” by Luca Volpa, used with a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.

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