Monday, March 14, 2011

Putting the Science Back in Library Science

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I know library school has changed since I got my degree in 1999. Many programs have taken the word "library" out. I don't have a strong opinion about that - I call myself a librarian, and my degree is an MLIS. It's the "science" part I am interested in today.

Hard Science or Soft Science?
Wikipedia has a nice definition that says that hard sciences rely more on "experimental, empirical, quantifiable data, relying on the scientific method, and focusing on accuracy and objectivity". The soft sciences are social sciences, or "the fields of academic scholarship that study society."

Those who think about the science part at all might consider library science a soft science. We study how society uses information. Isn't that study a hard science, though? Don't we use experimental, empirical, and quantifiable data? Don't we focus on accuracy and objectivity? My suggestion is that there may be a social science aspect to many library careers, but the work of library and information scientists and what we do with that information is also very much a hard science.

Putting the Science Back
For the sake of example, let's consider a public reference librarian (since that's where my experience lies). That librarian spends their days:

- Connecting people to the information they seek (ie. answering reference questions)

- Choosing what information to collect to meet the needs of those people (ie. collection management)

- Teaching people how to find and use information (ie. bibliographic instruction)

- Providing an environment where information can be shared (ie. programming)

...and a million other things, but let's stop there. Any one of these examples can be looked at as a social science on its surface. There are people and sharing and needs in these examples.

If you go deeper into each example, there is definitely hard science there too. Let's start with "connecting people to information." Answering reference questions requires:

- Experimental, empirical, and quantifiable data. We have to get enough data from the person asking the question to answer the right question. We have to get data from reference sources to get an answer. We have to interpret that data to be sure it does answer the question. Sometimes we have to verify the answer against other sources.

- Accuracy and objectivity. We have to give accurate answers. We have to be objective and not insert our own biases and judgements into the answer.

How about collection management? It's so much deeper than selection and weeding. We don't just read reviews, choose materials, hope they are used, and remove them when they aren't. We use hard science to:

- Set collection benchmarks and objectives using Experimental, empirical, and quantifiable data. Circulation statistics, turnover rates, and request rates are just a few pieces of data we use to determine how our collections are working, what to add or remove from them, how and where to shelve them, etc.

- Accurately and objectively make decisions for our collections. Accuracy is key in cataloging and shelving. Objectivity is key in choosing which materials meet the needs of all of our users.

Information Professionals are Scientists
It is way too easy to get so comfortable in your job that you just show up, answer some reference questions, buy some books, weed some books, and teach some classes. If you forget the science, the work is much too surface. We provide services to our users that the internet can't replace. Have you ever been asked if you're afraid the internet will replace librarians? My answer is always a firm "no." I'm not afraid of that at all. Yes, my job will change over time. I will probably focus more and more attention on access to information in it's ever-changing formats. There will always be people who need an information scientist to help them navigate that complicated field. We will have more and more information to dig through. We will have more and more formats to teach people to use. Technology will try to get between people and the information they seek, but we will be there to help them make sense of it all.

My challenge for you is to dig deeper into the hard science of libraries and information. We need that data in order to give better service on the social side of our profession, as well as to accurately portray our worth to our stakeholders.

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