Dead Germans and the Theory of Librarianship

Article excerpt

What do other fields have that librarianship doesn't? A library educator explains.

We all share an image problem, librarians and library educators alike. In academic circles, honest surprise may greet evidence of genuinely interesting research done in the library or library school. Though our concerns--the nature and structure of knowledge, problems in access or information use--are recognized as important, colleagues in other disciplines don't expect us to deal with them in any innovative or intellectually interesting ways. That problem is partly ours.

What brought on this rumination was an advisee interested in taking a course in the history of the book. He explained that the course is central to the profession and would serve as a foundation for everything else he learned in library school. Although he settled on "History of Libraries" as a result of our discussion, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. The foundation of our profession isn't books, but is it libraries? Can our foundation be reduced to the history of our materials or institutions? Is there no thought involved, no intellectual history?

One of the liabilities of possessing two Ph.D.s, neither of them in librarianship, is that I spend a lot of time pondering such questions. A coffee-break conversation on the "interdisciplinary" research of new Ph.D.s from some of our better library and information science (LIS) doctoral programs soon gave me more to think about. Our field imports theory from communications, education, linguistics, management, psychology, sociology, and a host of other disciplines. How odd. Not many other disciplines accept dissertations grounded in the intellectual traditions of other fields.

This research is less interdisciplinary than what might be called "outdisciplinary." Such research seeks theoretical foundations in other disciplines, rather than using selective importation to enrich our own. We live in a kind of intellectual ghetto; our most talented researchers seek favor by imitating practices of disciplines considered superior to our own.

Defining our contribution

Where is the central body of work that is our contribution to knowledge? Why should my students and I have trouble defining it? Why don't our doctoral students know and use it? Surely it's there. Librarians suffer from no deficiency of intellect or talent, and are no worse than average in writing skills. I am convinced the difference is neither in our ability to produce, nor in the quality of production. We can all point to works in our literature that are legitimate contributions to knowledge.

What, then, is lacking? Or, in comparison with the two disciplines in which I did my doctoral work (sociology and English literature), what is different?

The answer is: NO DEAD GERMANS. "Dead Germans" is a course. You won't find it under that name in college catalogs, but that's what graduate sociology students often call the basic theory course. Like graduate students in most fields, sociology students are required to read the classic works of theorists like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim (a French German), and Max Weber. Other courses, of course, introduce students to more recent material, to different works considered seminal by professors teaching in their areas of interest. "Dead Germans" is what sociology graduate students have in common--a common body of theory shaping the intellectual traditions of the field.

In library schools, we talk a great deal about theory without recognizing it for what it is. Theory is not dry abstraction but the body of concerns, methods, and research problems a discipline develops over time. Future social scientists find in theory some of what Kuhn's future scientists find in lab exercises: not only intellectual content, but exposure to conventions governing choice of research problems, methods, materials, and equipment to use (Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. …