On Library Science, Library Services, and Library Humanities

Is there a Library Science that is distinct from Information Science?

I think we’ve been doing a great job of practicing Library Services and what I think of as Library Humanities, and I don’t want any of those efforts to dwindle in any way—I particularly love #critlib and all the related work that’s going on in our field.

My dream is for there to be just as much effort going into Library Science, and that’s not happening. If it were, I think libraries would be more useful to the people who use and rely on them, there would be more reason for people to work toward degrees in LIS, and schools of information would be more apt to give their library programs shared billing.

In my mind, the examples of good library science are as old as the term “Library Science” itself: Ranganathan’s Five Laws has quite a bit of basic science, along with dozens of statements that could be turned into testable hypotheses.

As for contemporary library research, Evidence Based Library and Information Practice tends to publish more about information and “information practice” than “library practice,” and more about academic libraries than public libraries, which I attribute to incentives: academic librarians publish more than public librarians because it’s part of their job description. For related reasons, LIS schools have been hiring faculty that are mostly interested in information, and the few that are interested in libraries tend to be mostly interested in academic libraries. The same dynamic exists for the Library Assessment Conference, where there’s some library science, it’s just mostly about academic libraries.

Other interesting work includes Megan Oakleaf’s report for ACRL (to her credit, she does a good job of summarizing the work being done in non-academic libraries), the University of Minnesota’s Library Data and Student Success, and a rare example in a public library, “Remaking One of the Nation’s Busiest Main Libraries.”

I published my own ideas here on this topic a few years ago at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. The tl;dr version: I think we could start measuring voting (to see how libraries might actually promote democracy), literacies, employment, and social capital. Another set of possibilities is available as an ISO Standard on library assessment that’s imprisoned behind a pretty serious paywall (I haven’t ponied up, so I’ve never read the whole thing).

Another scientific project I’d like to see: quoting my Lead Pipe article referenced above, “(P)re-K programs are linked to outcomes, such as studies on the Brookline Early Education Project (BEEP), the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Perry Preschool Program in which longitudinal studies demonstrate measurable improvements in well-being.” I think we could do the same kinds of studies on storytimes and other pre-K library-based programs. I’d love to learn how often kids need to participate in order to produce significantly different outcomes, and also find out if different kinds of programs lead to different outcomes.

So what do I mean by Library Science vs. Library Service vs. Library Humanities, and how does it relate to the kind of self-assessment I’ve alluded to above? All of the following definitions are personal. I don’t think people would necessarily disagree with the distinctions I’m making, I just wouldn’t be surprised if they chose different terms in making them.

Library Science, like our cognate disciplines within the social sciences (such as communication, sociology, psychology, economics), uses scientific methods to learn how people interact. Unlike physical sciences (such as physics, chemistry, biology), we’re not just trying to figure out how the universe works, we’re trying to investigate ways to increase well being as much as possible for as many people as possible. When a psychologist teams with a neurologist and biochemist to figure out if a drug works for their patients the way they think it should, they may call it science, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. It’s just that I consider it similarly accurate to say they’re engaging in self-assessment.

Library Services is business practice (such as marketing, operations, management, or accounting) applied to the library setting. It’s the reason so many library managers like to refer to people who use and rely on libraries as “customers.” These managers are providing library services in much the same way that business people provide their services. There are similarities between business and the social sciences: business people in the workplace, as well as business faculty and other scholars, often use scientific methods. There’s cross-disciplinary work, too. My father’s field was consumer behavior, which is half marketing and half social psychology.

The difference is in the metric you’re able to use in tabulating results. People studying business track pricing and profitability. That’s not available within the social sciences, at least not explicitly. Which is why I don’t like referring to people who use and rely on libraries as customers, and also why I think there are issues in suggesting that libraries should think like startups. If you’re keeping track of well being, rather than keeping track of prices and earnings, the incentives and outcomes are going to be different, even if you can use some of the same methods to track your progress.

Library Humanities is very much my own term. Humanities is kind of a catch all for anything that isn’t strictly science or arts. I do some work with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, and we struggle with the term as much as anyone. I think we’ve sort of reconciled ourselves to the idea that if it’s not going to get funding from the National Science Foundation and it’s not going to get funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, then it’s probably humanities. Some examples: history, philosophy, literary or art or cultural criticism (if you hang it on the wall or perform it on a stage or someone made it up and published it as a novel or a poem, it’s arts; as soon as you start writing about the arts, you’re practicing humanities). So libraries provide a lot of humanities programming, and we also incorporate humanities practices, such as #critlib, into our self-reflection.

Again, I’m not playing favorites. I think all three are important and I want us to continue to make improvements in every area I’ve identified. It’s just that one of them, Library Science, is practically non-existent, especially in public libraries.

A librarian friend read this far in an earlier iteration of this essay and sent me a thoughtful response:

I don’t see what I do a great deal of the time or why I like working at a public library in any of your definitions. Where would ACA enrollment assistance go? Not science, although one could apply that to those programs and it would certainly be helpful. Not service, although it could be applied. Not humanities: I don’t feel that’s a good fit either.

I’ll take these one at a time.

I don’t see what I do a great deal of the time or why I like working at a public library in any of your definitions. Where would ACA enrollment assistance go? Not science, although one could apply that to those programs and it would certainly be helpful.

Why not science? And, specifically, outcomes-based science, which is what I believe we should be doing. Why can’t we improve healthcare outcomes within our communities? And verify our success with data?

We have epidemiological information. It’s used all the time by public health researchers. We can find other libraries that are similar to our own—similar as libraries and similar epidemiologically—that can serve as control groups. And then, when we choose to focus extra attention on ACA enrollment, we can see if our work is associated with improved well being.

Not service, although it could be applied.

Why not service? Why not see if we can get more eligible people in our community to enroll in ACA? As well as other, complementary government programs. One of my neighbors worked for ten years at a company called Solutions for Progress. Part of their work is helping people sign up for the benefits for which they’re eligible, and part of it is working with states to figure out what percentage of federal funding their residents aren’t signing up for, even though they’re eligible.

Not humanities: I don’t feel that’s a good fit either.

Why not humanities? Who is being excluded? What unintended messages are people getting when they attempt to enroll in ACA? What are the barriers to access libraries can help to address, both as guides and advocates?

My point? Public libraries are doing a lot of important work. I think that’s a useful prior. We are awash in anecdotal, advocacy-inspired examples of the value we provide, and we are developing an impressive literature based on the humanities-based self-reflection we do. I’d like for us to engage in more library science, in outcomes-based self-assessment, in order to come up with data we can use to analyze and improve our work, with the goal of increasing well being for the people within our communities who use and rely on their libraries and on us.