Slouching Toward Theory: A Perennial LIS Problem


Published: July 25, 2012 by Dr. Anthony Bernier

“Unlike his colleagues in other fields of social activity the librarian is strangely uninterested in the theoretical aspects of his profession.”[1]

“Within library and information work there is a fairly long-standing antipathy toward “theory.”[2]

Among the several projects keeping me busy this summer one is putting the final touches on a collection of essays I’m editing (from my own work and solicited from colleagues) that I hope will be adopted by faculty to spark a much needed debate in LIS classrooms. And while this collection is rooted in a particular subfield of LIS it certainly draws on and pertains to larger patterns exhibited across the field.

As the two header quotes demonstrate LIS has long exhibited a reluctance to fitfully define and engage social theory. As a consequence of this historic antipathy a kind of intellectual haze has lingered: the confusion of “theory,” for instance, with “critical thinking” (as if there is any other kind of thinking!); the conflation of theory with “ethics” or “ethical practice;” and the most popular misconception of them all: contrasting of theory against “real life.” Without a better grip on the idea and how social theory operates within our field it is not difficult to see how students in particular would resist engaging theory, misconstrue it, or naively believe that they can advance the field by simply ignoring it.

All reflective professions require theory. Professionals use theory to aid in diagnostic and creative processes, help explain relationships among various static and changing phenomena, excavate old patterns and perceive new trends, distinguish the fleeting from the more durable, draw generalizations, weigh and critique alternatives, adapt to different contexts, anticipate new insights and developments, and improve “depth perception” (how pertinent a particular example is to a larger pattern).

Theory differentiates professional education from vocational training. Physicians, lawyers, accountants, journalists, and executives in all fields require theory to serve their clients, constituents, patients, or other stakeholders. Professionals require theory to defend, build, and lead institutions.

Theory and theory construction constitutes the first major component of the scientific method of inquiry. So, with reference to my colleague Bill Fisher’s earlier CIRI blog post in quest of meanings for “research,” at least one component of successful research is the active awareness of theory and how it operates on and within research projects. Without theory we surrender our claims to the “S” in LIS. Masters students, no less than doctoral students, require theory upon which to mount their own original contributions – in the classroom or in the field.

Theory and theoretical approaches to LIS operate at a higher level of abstraction than the teaching, learning, and application of codified procedures, techniques, practices, methods, and structures. Theory exists in the “background” as assumptions about what and how we perceive something as “true” or “false,” helps us determine the degree to which a notion is enduring or fleeting, and highlights the difference between “glad tidings and testimonials” versus genuine and defensible “best practice.”

There is, necessarily, a higher degree of ambiguity in assessing and applying theory. With theory the same phenomena or data can be described or explained in very different ways and inform different interpretations, understandings, and meanings. But also, at base, theory permits professionals to interpret data and relationships to make higher quality, more creative, and more confident decisions. We advance LIS when alternative paradigms or theoretical models are examined, learned, scrutinized, and modified.

In contrast, technicians or para-professionals simply apply methods that fit repetitive and preconceived circumstances. Without theory we train employees not professionals. Without theory true professional volition cannot emerge.

If we accept the proposition that an LIS graduate education should recognize a more dynamic and complex relationship between “practice” and “theory” it makes sense to reconcile what we currently do. First, on the practice side, the School is already deeply involved in the vitality of practitioner associational life (faculty serve on practitioner bodies, publish occasionally in practitioner journals, and speak at practitioner conferences). Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of an LIS faculty is the large percentage of us who bring ample field experience to our teaching endeavors. We also continually invite celebrated practitioners into our classes and colloquia to address current concerns. We strategically cultivate professional informants from field and business contacts (advisory boards, for instance). And, to varying degrees, we employ “practical” and “real-life” anecdotes as well as value students’ field experience in assignments, lectures, projects, and student contributions in class. All of these contribute value to the educational experience of our students.

We draw so heavily from practice, in fact, that some of the thinking I’m doing this summer in my role as editor of this collection of essays (due out this Winter!) leads me to note again how LIS education is not sufficiently addressing the more abstract nature, assumptions, and dimensions required to advance our work.[3]

With respect to youth services at least, the answer to the question about whether LIS is sufficiently addressing social theory is a decided “no; it is not.” Consequently, as I argue in my forthcoming book, LIS research and theoretical perspectives on youth have not been critically examined in the entire century since the creation of the “youth sciences.” Thus, and without indulging in my own affinity for post-modernism, it should be apparent that libraries design YA spaces one way, for instance, when we view youth as “at-risk,” slightly another way when we view them through the so-called “youth development” lens, and yet another way if we envision them as citizens.

The best way LIS has discovered to even begin a conversation about its widely-shared ambivalence with theory is to pursue “praxis.” Praxis represents the intersection of theory, education, and practice. It complicates assumptions about “theory” and “practice” that are commonly and erroneously thought to exist in a simplistic binary opposition to one another.

Briefly put, the pedagogical goal of praxis is to understand and explicitly teach the relationship between professional activity and theory so that curricula do not function as mere sequences of disembodied discrete elements, procedures, methods, or techniques. Or, as LIS scholar John Budd has put it, “Praxis refers to action that carries social and ethical implications and is not reducible to technical performance of tasks.”[4][full disclosure: John Budd wrote the forward to the collection I’m editing]

Praxis provides an opportunity to apply a conceptual framework to the design of a new project, the interpretation of data, the critical engagement of legacy practices, among others. This is not the study of theory for theory’s sake.

But praxis furnishes students with a higher level of criteria by which to assess practice beyond pedestrian impressions. Instituting praxis broadly and variously throughout the curriculum might also boost LIS standing in academia because it emphasizes intellectual labor rather than vocational training. The field of youth studies, for example, has seen fit to entirely ignore LIS scholarship. This signals an epistemological crisis to me – for both sides of the equation.

Just as we need to keep current with technological innovation so it seems to me that we need to stay more current with developments in the conceptually innovative domain of social theory and then relate theory better to LIS practice through the exercise of praxis.

In addition to the above argument it should be noted that few LIS schools currently and explicitly identify the role of theory and praxis in their respective curricula. And, as demonstrated above, there is widespread and historical LIS reluctance even to define theory. Thus, a more theory-aware/enhanced program would help to better highlight and distinguish SLIS from among our peer programs. I hope that my edited collection helps spark such awareness in future LIS classrooms. But I also believe there is much more to be done. And thank you for reading my commercial for social theory!

[1] Buttler, P. (1933). An introduction to library science. Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. xi-xii.

[2] Budd, J. M. (2003). The library, praxis, and symbolic power. Library Quarterly 73, no. 1, pp. 19-32.

[3] A new article in JELIS provides an interesting and relevant contribution to theoretical engagement in the larger LIS enterprise. See, Hartel, J.. (Summer 2012). Welcome to library and information science. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 53, no. 3.

[4] Budd, (2003), pp 20.