Thursday, July 10, 2008
The Philosophy of Librarianship: A Journey Towards Discovery
This essay was accepted for publication in the second issue of the Journal of Bloglandia from Wapshott Press.
With the growth in the area of information technology leading to various modes of communication and various ways of accessing the record of human knowledge, the responsibility to manage and organize information has become increasingly complex for the 21st century librarian. As a corollary, the once static chain of products and service to the library patron has been transformed into a dynamic, integrated knowledge base that requires collaboration between user and provider. Through this collaboration, information is not authoritatively given, but mediated between the librarian and the patron. At the personal level, this philosophy of service requires the mediator to focus on the thought process of the patron in such a way that the patron, not the librarian, allocates the information he/she is seeking. At the abstract level, this philosophy of service requires the librarian to mediate the past record of human knowledge to the future record of human knowledge, through the present patron.
Mediation at the personal level falls largely on the shoulders of the reference librarian. As Helen Uhrich points out, “…the reference librarian is the liaison between the school and the library, at the direct point of contact between the student and the book.” As a mediator, the librarian must interact with the patron in a number of ways to facilitate the information exchange process. A reference librarian cannot expect to sit in splendid isolation, simply receiving input and giving output. On the other hand, the reference librarian must enter into a dialogue with the patron – listening, discussing, evaluating, and sharing information resources available to the patron.
A reference librarian’s ability to mediate information will be dictated by their view of the user. Thomas Gilbert views a library’s mission as an extension of evangelical theology: “seeking and saving the lost.” Portraying the patron in this way inevitably posits the reference librarian as a redemptive authority: a savior. Moreover, this attitude implicitly believes that the power of knowledge is bestowed upon the patron. Raymond Morris succinctly described the library’s mission as: “providing the right book at the right time.” Although it removes the redemptive undertones of Gilbert, this description is noticeably absent of patron participation.
I believe that it is better to view the patron as a seeker at various stages of a journey. Utilizing Kuhlthlau’s model of the information search process (Task Initiation, Topic Selection, Prefocus Exploration, Focus Formulation, Information Collection, Search Closure), a reference librarian may interact with a student at any level of the research process. By joining in the experience with the patron, and focusing on their thought process, the reference librarian collaborates in a procedure of discovery. In discussing her own experiences with the research process, a fellow librarian used this terminology in describing her enthusiasm for finding resources in the library, “It was always exciting to discover new things or how things worked.” Discovery is the byproduct of a philosophy of service focused on the librarian as mediator.
As a mediator, the authoritarian model of librarianship that librarians give patrons information should be replaced by an understanding that the more knowledge is shared, the more it grows. This means that libraries – and consequently librarians – are sharing out their knowledge. Not just the knowledge available in the library, but also the librarian’s personal knowledge. This model of mediation requires a more all-round professionalism and dedication. David Faupel, addressing the American Theological Library Association in 1973, touched upon this point by stating, “Continued professional development is no longer a luxury, nor a privilege, but it is an obligation inherent in executing your function as a professional in the contemporary world.” Librarians will have to bridge several gaps with the user (language, computer skills) and many will have to involve themselves in personal development projects and continuing education in order to be able to join in fully and reap the benefit of a philosophy of service focused on mediation with the user.
Whereas mediation at the personal level is a journey of discovery with a patron in a one (librarian) to one (patron) relationship, mediation at the abstract level is a many (past record of human knowledge) to many (future record of human knowledge) relationship manifest through service to the individual patron. Describing the cataloging process in this way, Uhrich states, “[The librarian] is an active participant in a creative process wherein men [and women] are in search of the thought and experience of the past and seek in turn to contribute their interpretation to the extension of this knowledge.”  Successful collaboration, through shared knowledge, between the patron and librarian will result in more knowledge for the librarian to catalog, organize, and share with future patrons. David Stewart, acknowledges this idea when he writes, “Whether consciously or not, in this kind of work, each of us builds on the work of those who preceded us, and sometimes we are reaping where others have sown.” This circular structure underwrites the dynamism that is required in a philosophy of service focused on mediation.
Overall, I have come to articulate my own philosophy of service as mediation. Interaction between a librarian and a patron is a dynamic process that requires sharing information and dissolving the authoritarian role of the librarian as the bestower of knowledge. At the personal level, this requires joining the student in the research process and collaboratively taking a journey towards discovery. In order to effectively perform in the role of mediator, a librarian must make a lifetime commitment to personal development and continuing education. Successfully executed, this interaction draws upon the past record of knowledge in an effort to expand and increase its quantity and quality. According to Uhrich, “Life is not static and therefore books are not.” In my opinion, neither is a philosophy of service.
 Uhrich, Helen B. "The Community of Learning." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 71.
 Gilbert, Thomas F. "Circulation in Theological Libraries: Seeking and Saving The Lost." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 106.
 Morris, Raymond P. "Theological Librarianship as a Ministry." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 192.
 Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. "Model of the Information Search Process." In Seeking Meaning, 2d Ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004: 44-51.
 Faupel, David W. "Developing Professionally on the Job." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 25.
 Uhrich, Helen B. "The Cataloguer and Instruction." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 172.
 Stewart, David R. "Parchment, Paper, PDF: The Literature of Theological Librarianship." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 188.
 Uhrich, Helen B. "The Community of Learning." A Broadening Conversation: Classic Readings in Theological Librarianship. Eds. David R. Stewart and Melody McMahon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 188. 65.