Dr. Litlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Library Literature

By Wilder, Stanley | American Libraries, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Dr. Litlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Library Literature


Wilder, Stanley, American Libraries


If you'd told me back in library school that one day I would feel compelled to establish my credentials as a cynic in regard to the literature of librarianship, I'd have said something snide: "The human element seems to have failed us here," as George C. Scott said in the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove.

Mine was the pure and unquestioned cynicism of the times, a steady stream of digs and sharp jokes.

If I had been pressed to defend my position, I would have pointed to a few badly written or researched articles, and felt I'd made my point. But I was rarely challenged to defend my cynicism, for the simple reason that I was not alone.

It would be charitable to describe the attitude of librarians to their professional literature as ambivalent. No one denies the prodigious volume of library information that we produce at every level, and in the most arcane-sounding specialties. None of us needs to be reminded of the many concrete career benefits that accrue to those who contribute. Clearly, somebody out there thinks this stuff is important.

In librarianship, however, that somebody is a far cry from everybody. When the subject turns to our professional literature, we librarians are often our own harshest critics, matching our disdain for the literature with derision for those who contribute or consult. A badly written article here plus that unproven conclusion there equals a profession that has badly overstepped its intellectual limitations. Here is a representative sampling of the arguments I hear most often:

* Library literature is dominated by the contributions of people whose need to publish dwarfs their capacity to make real contributions.

* Library literature contains too many articles of the "How I did it good" variety.

* Library literature does not measure up to the literatures of other professions.

* Library literature is boring.

Hearing some of these arguments in the hallway recently, I had an uncomfortable epiphany as I realized that I disagreed with all of them. Without ever having noticed the change, I have discarded my cynicism and taken my place among those who believe that library literature is important. Here is how I would react to these arguments today.

Library literature as career vehicle

There's no question that librarians in all types of libraries feel career-related pressures to publish articles. Publishing is often part of our raise-and-promotion formulas; it can elevate one's profile within one's institution and professional organizations; it's an important line item on one's resume; and, in some libraries, it is necessary just to keep one's job. It is even possible that some librarians publish for sheer personal aggrandizement, the pleasure of seeing their names in print, again and again.

Librarians can take some small comfort that they are not alone in dealing with such crass motivation. In some form or other, nearly every profession provides substantial rewards for publication. In academia, the pressure is especially acute, and produces strange by-products such as research results broken down into "least publishable units," articles with more than 30 coauthors, or page charges for authors who then must hand over to publishers the copyright for their work.

Scrapping the system for these kinds of defects is like selling a car because it needs a tune-up. We can't, on the other hand, justify career-motivated publishing in librarianship by pointing out that "everyone does it." In fact, there is only one reasonable justification for career-motivated publishing, and that is that it produce good and useful finished products. Serious criticism of library literature can only focus on the content of our publications, not on their motivation.

The ubiquitous "how I did it good" piece

Library literature is replete with articles that do very little more than recount how a particular problem was handled at a particular library.

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