A Paradigm for the '90S; in Research and Practice, Library and Information Science Needs a Unifying Principle; "Least Effort" Is One Scholar's Suggestion

By Bierbaum, Esther G. | American Libraries, January 1990 | Go to article overview

A Paradigm for the '90S; in Research and Practice, Library and Information Science Needs a Unifying Principle; "Least Effort" Is One Scholar's Suggestion


Bierbaum, Esther G., American Libraries


In research and practice, library and information science needs a unifying principle; "Least Effort" is one scholar's suggestion

RIGHT ON TIME, THE U.S. DEpartment of Education has delivered the "New Age" for library research: Rethinking the Library in the Information Age-Issues in Library Research: Proposals for the Nineties. Readers will recall that we greeted the '80s with A Library and Information Science Research Agenda for the 1980s which was hailed by Michael Stuart Freeman in Library Journal as "a bold attempt to organize the research effort of a profession." The Agenda has not been widely heard of since.

I should like to suggest that agendas and proposals are not the most urgent matters facing library and information science research and practice. For one thing, agendas are imposed; for another, they have a major flaw, their vulnerability to changes in the environment. The Agenda, for example, made broad technological assumptions that were superseded in less than five years by CD-ROM.

What we need before all else is a unifying principle that equally addresses research and the applications of professional practice. In short, we need a paradigm.

Ask the right questions

A paradigm is a reference frame, a comprehensive model that helps us ask the right questions. It summarizes "truths"empirical and workable discoveries-and thus undergirds research and measures practice. As Thomas Kuhn argued in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, every so often the foundations may be shaken and the truths rearranged, so that one model is exchanged for another.

Kuhn's argument was so persuasive that his notion of "paradigm shift" has created a new way to look at science. Hence, his theory was itself a paradigm shift. So-where to seek a paradigm for library and information science?

First of all, we must concede an ultimate focus for our research and professional activities: Ours is the only profession that conjoins persons and a particular behavior, that of seeking information. Herein, we are unique.

As a second aspect of paradigm-seeking, we need to bring research and practice back together. In library and information science we require a model amenable to research but which will also speak as widely as possible to practice. I suggest as our paradigm candidate, the Principle of Least Effort, as formulated by George Zipf in Human Behavior and the of Least Effort, published in 1949.

The Principle of Least Effort

Zipf described Least Effort as "a single unifying principle ... defined as meaning that each individual will adopt a course of action that will involve the expenditure of the probably least average of his work (by definition, least effort)." But Zipf also factored into his proposition the elements of time and the "expectations" of a person who "acts on his foresight."

Least Effort, then, does not simply measure laziness or avoidance. Rather it expresses the results of human experience over time, continuously compared to the individual's internal agenda. Zipf tested his principle mathematically and logically in a wide variety of human circumstances.

The Principle of Least Effort is not new to library and information science; it is already acknowledged in our field and resident in its literature. For example, Mooers' Law is a restatement of Least Effort: "An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it! " In an extensive examination and content analysis of journal articles about the information behavior of scientists, Herbert Poole found that 43 of 51 studies 84%) directly exemplified least effort and pain avoidance.

Indeed, the Principle of Least Effort has been a demonstrable model in our profession for a long time, albeit often unrecognized and unarticulated. Cutter presaged the model when he urged the "convenience of the reader"; likewise, Ranganathan invoked it in his Fourth Law, "Save the time of the reader. …

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