View Full Version : The "L" Word Controversy

Saturday, March 25th, 2006, 01:52 AM
Getting to the Heart
of the "L" Word Controversy

By Christopher V. Hollister

To be sure, there are many ways of broaching "the 'L' word" controversy, and there is no shortage of fervid voices addressing the matter in today's library literature. Still, much of this debate fails to address the heart of the controversy — why it is, exactly, that the word "library" is methodically being rubbed out. I should state here, for the record, that I am increasingly exasperated with library schools that are insistent upon stripping the word "library" from their departmental titles. On the surface, such a decision seems little more than an academic fashion statement. Importantly, however, it is also symptomatic of a deeper, more insidious problem that has permeated the discipline of library science, and the profession of librarianship.
When I was in library school, a casual hallway interaction inspired me to write my first piece on "the 'L' word" controversy. It happened as I was walking to lunch with a fellow library school student. She and I were discussing what it was that we desired to do in the future as professional librarians — librarians, mind you. Along our way, my classmate recognized someone from her undergraduate days gone by, and we stopped for a moment so the two of them might quickly exchange one another's recent academic endeavors. It was then that my classmate informed her friend that she was pursuing a career as an "information specialist."
This anecdote provides instant access to the heart of "the 'L' word" matter. Among library students, educators, and practitioners alike, there seems to be an uncertainty in the viability of library science, the profession of librarianship, and even the word "library" itself. This uncertainty is breeding fear. And these fears and uncertainties are made manifest by a manipulation of the language — i.e., the offing of "the 'L' word." Still, as cliché as this may seem to those who would dismiss the word "library," cavalierly or otherwise, I put forth that words are used for a reason, and that we must give careful consideration to how we employ them (or discharge them).
The most commonly cited reason for library schools dropping the word "library" from their departmental titles is "information." That is to say, given the advances in information technologies, and the changes in our understanding and manipulation of information, the terms "information studies" and "information science" now encompass the domain of present day librarianship. So say 15 of today's 56 ALA-accredited schools in the United States, its territories, and Canada, which have forsaken the word "library" to become schools of information, information studies, or something of the like. "Don't despair if the 'L' word is displaced to some degree," writes Thomas A. Childers, Director of Library and Information Science programs for the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University. "Words aside," he continues, "the reality is that education for careers in libraries not only continues but is strengthened intellectually and technically by new information alliances, and by a broader view of the information field formed in some of the schools."1 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#1)
With the word "library" displaced, as Mr. Childers and others would allow, how will these new schools of "information" be perceived by prospective library students, by fellow academics, or by the public at large? It is, after all, "education for careers in libraries," — Mr. Childers' own words — of which we should be concerned. More to the point, however, I take issue with Mr. Childers' use of the phrase "information field," as if this were a specifically defined entity that makes "the 'L' word" expendable. The information field is at best vaguely defined. Doubters of this would do well to consult the mission statements of today's various schools of information, and then compare their respectively singular notions on the topic. (One would further do well to have a bottle of aspirin handy at the time.) A simple online search of the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines "information science" as the following: "The collection, classification, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of recorded knowledge treated both as a pure and as an applied science." Another search of the same database defines "library science" as: "The study or the principles and practices of library care and administration or of any division of it."2 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#2) Surely, "collection, classification, storage, retrieval," etc., are among the core practices of librarianship. In other words, information science falls within the domain of library science — not the other way around. And furthermore, based upon these definitions, one could conclude that information science is rooted within library science, and that removing "the 'L' word" is like removing the philosophical ground upon which information science stands.
Certainly, the information revolution, no matter how one defines it, has called into question what libraries, librarians, and library schools once, if ever, thought themselves to be. I am cognizant of this evolution, and quite comfortable with the addition of the word "information," and of the study of information science to enhance, not replace, today's library schools. Leigh Estabrook, former Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes on this matter: "In sum, we believe 'library' and 'information' to be complementary, not oppositional, words ... the proverbial two sides of the same coin, not different currency."3 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#3)
Though I embrace "information" for the betterment of today's library schools, and information studies as a partner to library science, there is a line that must be drawn. Too many individuals, librarians and otherwise, believe that information technologies have made today's libraries obsolete. Leslie Ayers, for instance, begins her review article of the InfoBeat and LEXIS-NEXIS databases as follows: "Remember the library? Card catalogs? Microfiche? Forget them! Thanks to the Internet, you no longer need any of these 20th-centiry relics to do comprehensive research. An Internet connection puts you first in line to grab all the information you're looking for."4 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#4)
The ignorance in Ayers' writing speaks for itself, and I truly fear her idea of "comprehensive research." Who among us is content with Ayers' vision of a scholarly future dependent upon the 27% relevancy of the Internet, or the non-standardized storage and retrieval mechanisms of today's online databases? The public, however, has historically been ignorant of what libraries, library schools and professional librarians are, and what they do. Why should the advent of today's information technologies make this any different? And why is it that this ignorance has metamorphosed into a fear, which now pervades the library community? How soon we forget that librarians have always been at the forefront of the technologies involved in the organization, storage, retrieval and dissemination of recorded information. Certainly, information technology is an integral tool for practitioners in information and library science, but not a replacement of it. As retired librarian, Dorothy M. Broderick, writes: " Librarianship is about the power of words, not the power of bytes: it belongs to the humanities, not the sciences."5 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#5)
So, why else, beyond the fear of being gobbled up by information technology, would a library school strip "the 'L' word" from its title? Why is it, as a recent survey indicates, that library school students perceive their school administrators and faculty as "deeply disenchanted with the words and concepts library and librarian"?6 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#6) The same survey indicates that today's library students are pleased to be so, but frustrated with their programs' "excessive emphasis on technology," and insufficient course offerings in traditional librarianship. If there are those who wish to be educated in library science, and if there is a demonstrated need for those individuals in today's market place, why are library schools prostituting themselves to the entities of information technology? Could it be, perhaps, that library schools are simply tired of perceiving themselves as bottom feeders in the academic food chain? At long last, does this passionate debate over "the 'L' word," and all its related issues, cynically come down to money and status? Bill Crowley, Assistant Professor of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University, believes so, and writes of today's library schools attempting "to enhance their status in higher education," as "self-serving and ultimately doomed."7 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#7)
Mr. Crowley also suggests, however, that by dumping the word "library," and emphasizing "information," there is also an "admirable concern" among library schools for the future employment of their graduates. I am not so sure. Who among us truly believes that supplanting "the 'L' word" with sexy information vernacular will ineluctably attract and retain more employers from here on in? Is this not analogous to the wave of businesses that added the ".com" suffix to their names to boost investor revenues in the e-hysteria of yesterday's marketplace. Who among us cannot see that this is the difference between a sound investment and a fad? And if today's library schools are dropping "the 'L' word" to gain more funding and status within academia, they are fooling only themselves. As higher education researcher, Tony Becher, points out, "fellow academics will see use of the term information as simply another attempt by a low-ranked field to manipulate words in order to raise its status."8 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#8)
I am not so naïve as to dismiss library school funding, whether public or private, as unimportant to "the 'L' word" debate. The library school I attended is not immune to the nonsensical financial ills of the modern university (which is the topic for another rant). Libraries and library schools, however, are historically under-funded, and simply stated, will continue to be so. "There is no possibility that I can overstate the magnitude," says Marilyn Gell Mason, speaking of today's crisis in library education. Mason, former Director of the Cleveland Public Library, insists there are three major areas of concern regarding current library education — shortages of qualified graduates and core competencies, and the loss of "the 'L' word" from library school titles.9 (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml#9) Notably absent from this list are the words "money" and "funding."
So, what is to be done to save "the 'L' word?" That's easy. The word "library" does not need to be saved. It needs to be rejuvenated and strengthened, and such an undertaking would involve fundamental change. Why should there not, for instance, be a resolution passed mandating that no ALA funding be expended on accreditation for library schools that do not have the word "library" in their program names? It is, after all, the American Library Association that issues this accreditation. Then, there are those who believe that ALA-accredited programs should be made to adhere to more rigorous academic standards-i.e., a language requirement. True, proposals such as these, if enacted, could create their own sets of problems — some practical, and some profound. Still, these are measures that seek to strengthen the concept (and the word) "library" — not to sink and abandon it.
I believe it is incumbent upon a new generation of library school students, educators, and professionals alike to reverse this trend of abandoning "the 'L' word." Let's face it: it is preposterous that in today's information-crazed environment, with a great and ever-expanding need for core library skills and practices, there are those who would dare to dismiss the cradle of those skills and practices as obsolete or irrelevant. The idea of the library, made manifest by that very word, is an institution of knowledge and service. Our generation needs to wake up and stop this fatuous dumping of "the 'L' word."
1 Childers, Thomas A. "Adventures with the 'L' Word: The Drexel Chronicle." Library Journal 15, no. 3 (1998): 112-13.
2 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Available online at http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/ugl/e- resources/webster.html. (27 November 2001).
3 Estabrook, Leigh S. "Message form the Dean." Available online at http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/gslis /newsletter/f98/dean.html. (20 December 1999).
4 Ayers, Leslie. "All the News That's Fit to Click." PC Computing 12, no. 4 (1999): 119.
5 Broderick, Dorothy M. "Turning Library into a Dirty Word: A Rant." Library Journal 122, no. 12 (1997): 42- 43.
6 Berry, John. "Students Sound Off About Their Schools." Library Journal 124, no. 18 (1999): 46-48.
7 Crowley, Bill. "Dumping the 'Library'." Library Journal, July 1998, vol. 123, no. 12: p. 48-49.
8 Becher, Tony. Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines. Bristol, PA: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1989. Quoted in Bill Crowley, "Dumping the 'Library," Library Journal 123, no. 12 (1998): 48-49.
9 Kniffel, Leonard. "Practitioners, Educators Seek Library's Place in Professional Education." American Libraries 30, no. 6 (1999): 12-15.

link (http://www.bibliozine.com/articles/042002/01.shtml)