Altogether Different: Questioning the Union of Librarianship and Information Science

Before studying Library and Information Science, I majored in English and History, so I know something about justification. While Bachelor of Science in Engineering sounds both adequately prestigious and comfortably applicable when said aloud to family and friends, Bachelor of Arts in English and History seemed concerningly unattached from any easily describable job. Engineering students become engineers. Nursing students become nurses. Even library and information science students often become librarians (though more on this in a moment). English students are a little more problematic for caring communities hoping to see us well settled in stable careers. I got used to hearing, “So you want to be an English teacher?” And I learned to explain that while teaching might be an option, the skills of an English major were foundational to success in many areas outside of academia. I even came to believe it—you know, almost confidently.

I thought my background as a student in the humanities had prepared me for the questions that would follow the declaration that I would now study library and information science. I was wrong. There’s a subtle but significant difference between a broadly applicable course of study and a course of study leading to a dying profession—and librarianship is a dying profession in the mind of most people I meet.

I, like many of us, have been thinking about the future of librarianship since I began to consider pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science. And, also like many of us, I have often felt that the most promising careers might be more interested in my mastery of information science than my mastery of librarianship. After two years as a student in this field though, I’m questioning that supposition.

Over and over, my interests have ricocheted between the analog and the digital, the traditional and the completely new. And I have embraced the kind of big tent librarianship that makes that ricocheting not only totally okay but totally awesome. As an HLS reader as well as an HLS writer, I’ve read the manifesto:

“We are the future protectors and promoters of information access, preservation, and literacy, and so we must protect and promote one another.”

“Library school mixes us all together and exposes us to the challenges and strengths of other information professionals and gives us the perfect opening to start a relationship with potential collaborators and future colleagues.”  

“What could these partnerships look like? What could they achieve? In a society where information has become such a commodity, how could our collaborations ensure not only the existence of our professions and our institutions, but a flourishing? Quoting Hack Library School’s own “About” page, ‘What will the information professions be next year of we define them for ourselves today?’

More than five years beyond Andy Woodworth’s original call for big tent librarianship and Brit Foster’s echoing call for big tent librarian education, I begin to think that the theory may not serve us so well moving forward. To explain, I need to change metaphors though.

Think of it like a river. Your attention flows with the water, and your education is going to move you across a landscape. You may run straight or you may twist and turn. You may flow broad or you may flow deep. Because education is a time-limited affair though—water is not infinite and neither is our time on earth—there is almost always a tension between breadth and depth. (I know all about this. I studied English and History, remember? Super useful.) To study the breadth of Shakespeare’s work in a semester, you’ll have to sacrifice depth of understanding. To study the texts in depth, you’ll need either less breadth or a longer period of time.

The study of library and information science is much the same. As the quantity of information continues to grow and the quality of information continues to change, our profession is growing and changing too. But we, like the guardians of literature and history, can leave little behind as we march into the future. The big tent has grown over these five years. Or, if you prefer, the riverbed has widened. There is danger that the water each of us has to fill it may not be sufficiently deep for us to swim there.

Librarianship has a deep history. For centuries, librarians of one kind or another have safeguarded and shared information. The American Library Association is now in its 137th year. For that long at least, we have been learning how best to serve as stewards of information in a thriving republic. Google is not nearly so experienced or so wise. And yet, Google’s work is critical in the new, digital world. The Library of Congress still matters; it is neither is diminished by nor diminishing to the Digital Public Library of America. We need both. We also need Netflix (at least I do) and Amazon and Tumblr and The New York Times archive and Pinterest. The digital world that we now deem as fundamentally a part of our daily lives as access to running water requires informational expertise. The history of information science is not nearly so deep as that of librarianship, but its many branches are spreading out into our professional future like a delta. Decisions are being made about collection, organization, access, cost, and privacy. We can and should be part of those conversations. But I’m not sure we can each do it all.

Some of us are going to spend our careers in libraries that emphasize access. Some of us are going to spend our careers in libraries that emphasize preservation. More of us are going to spend our careers working for or starting up companies that need our expertise for other reasons. We may be asked to help manage digital assets. We may be asked to find a way to archive valuable resources. We may research important people or important topics or important methods for connecting people and topics. We may, in short, do any number of things. Here’s my question: Can a school offering a Master of Library and Information Science truly prepare us to enter any and all of these careers? Or is it time for big tent librarianship and big tent library education to acknowledge that information science may not fit under the same canvas roof? Our skills may be useful in lots of places, but that doesn’t mean we need to study all of the places.


Thanks for the cover image to Emir Dundar, a photographic storyteller from Turkey (CC 2.0 BY-NC-DD).

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