Featured Paper #1: Toward a Theory of Librarianship and Information Science (1973a) by Jesse H. Shera
Jesse H. Shera (1903-1982, Ohio) received a master’s degree in English language and literature from Yale University in 1927, had professional stints as a bibliographer and researcher for non-profit and governmental agencies, and then earned a PhD in library science from the University of Chicago in 1944. His dissertation was an historical study of the origins of the public library movement in New England (Shera, 1952). A polymath, he went on to become his generation’s preeminent teacher, researcher, educational administrator, technologist, historian, theorist, and ambassador of library and information science. Shera was an early innovator of automated information retrieval systems yet believed that technology is only one tool for enhancing the success of libraries (Wright, 1985). In his lifetime he championed humanistic and sociological perspectives on librarianship and sought to link LIS to other academic disciplines and intellectual movements by articulating a cogent theoretical foundation. In his memory a popular mailing list within LIS is called JESSE.
“Toward a Theory of Librarianship and Information Science” (Shera, 1973a) appears in a collection of Shera’s essays, Knowing Books and Men, Knowing Computers, Too (1973b). It was originally presented as a public lecture on November 1, 1972 at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) in Santa Barbara, California, a now defunct liberal think tank. Shera’s address restates the major themes of his career to an audience likely composed of left-leaning intellectuals and engaged citizens from outside the information domain. The talk proposes a theoretical foundation for LIS in the form of a new academic discipline named social epistemology, originally conceived by Shera’s colleague Margaret Egan* and previously defined as “the study of those processes by which society as a whole seeks to achieve a perceptive or understanding relation to the total environment—physical, psychological, and intellectual” (Egan & Shera, 1952, p. 132). After outlining the tenets of social epistemology he discusses the role of information technology, bibliography, and subject expertise within librarianship, among other topics. Inspired by Shera’s essay, an educator at an LIS orientation program might say:
Welcome to library and information science.
Libraries were created centuries ago as archives of the state and to protect precious printed materials for the use of an elite class. More recently they have broadened their scope and become cornerstones of education and entertainment for citizens of democratic societies. At all times, the library has been a social enterprise that embodies the attitudes, values, and goals of the culture it serves. Its basic mission is to manage graphic records, that is, the written transcript of all that society knows about itself and its world.
The proper theoretical framework for librarianship is ‘social epistemology.’ In philosophy, epistemology is the study of how an individual comes to know something. In contrast, social epistemology concerns the ways in which society as a whole becomes knowledgeable. Social epistemology focuses on the production, flow, integration, and consumption of communicated thought across the social fabric. Drawing upon an understanding of social epistemology, library collections, systems, and services can be designed to conform as closely as possible to the process of knowledge production and use in society.
To this end, the work of librarianship is fundamentally bibliographic, that is, it entails bringing graphic records and users together into an intellectually rewarding relationship. Practically speaking, bibliographic work is composed of three elements: 1.) the acquisition of materials; 2.) their organization, and 3.) the provision of services to users. These functions should not be separated into departments or roles but instead be seen as an integrated whole. Ideally, librarians perform these three core capabilities in dedicated areas where they are subject experts. An understanding of the history, literature, culture and work practices of a subject domain is required to fully meet a patron’s needs. Put another way, a librarian is not just a librarian, he or she is a librarian of something.
Social epistemology and the bibliographic work of librarianship are interdisciplinary pursuits that draw from the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. One complementary domain of critical importance is information science. The field of information science explores the properties, behavior, and flow of information and spearheads the design of information retrieval systems for managing graphic records. Computers are rightly becoming increasingly important and central to the success of libraries. An enchantment with the machine must not obscure the fact that librarianship is fundamentally a social and humanistic enterprise.
Egan’s concept of social epistemology, as championed in the 1973 address by Shera, is probably intriguing to newcomers and invites discussion. Students can be asked: Is there a social counterpart to individual knowledge? If so, is an understanding of social knowledge the ideal theoretical framework for the information professions? Another compelling issue is that many initiates arrive to LIS programs with substantial expertise in a subject area and with hopes to leverage that expertise; others do not and anticipate careers as generalists. Shera takes a strong stand in favour of subject knowledge (to be opposed by Bates, shortly). Students can react to the idea of being “not just a librarian [but ] ...a librarian of something” (Shera, 1973a, p. 103) and diverse opinions may generate lively classroom debate.
Strengths and Weaknesses
This article has significant strengths and weaknesses as a touchstone and assigned reading. On the positive side, Shera is a master writer and orator and the vision of social epistemology remains compelling today. Furner (2002) has said,“...his [Shera’s] was one of the most successful of efforts to define the theoretical foundations of library and information science...” (p. 6). On the negative side this piece show signs of age. Some people may be put off by the persistent use of masculine pronouns; the windy political rhetoric; or the dated pronouncements on technology. It is also problematical that social epistemology (Fuller, 1988) has since coalesced into an interdiscipline outside of LIS (Zandonade, 2004)**. Educators wishing to use the paper can find Knowing Books and Knowing Men, Knowing Computers, Too (Shera, 1973b) in most university libraries, and an audio file of Shera’s original lecture is available at the CSDI archive, now housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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*In “’A Brilliant Mind’: Margaret Egan and Social Epistemology,” Furner (2004) carefully and persuasively traces the origination of the concept of social epistemology to Margaret Egan (1905-1959), Shera’s colleague at the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.
** Following Shera’s death and independent of the literature of LIS, a group of philosophers began to study the collective nature of knowledge under the banner of social epistemology. This effort was spearheaded by Steve Fuller and is chronicled in the article “Social Epistemology from Jesse Shera to Steve Fuller” by Zandonade (2004).