Monday, February 8, 2010

Inputs and Outputs

If you ever have a chance to review the catalog for a library graduate school, you’ll notice that there are lots of courses devoted to the “inputs” needed to create a library (assembling and providing self-serve access to knowledges) but blessed little on the “outputs” that the library is supposed to provide.

The assumption is that people come for books, media, and databases. I’ve always found this odd and disquieting. It is true in some areas such as fiction guidance, but not true for most people most of the time.

Consider reference services. The dilemma is contained in its very name. The original idea is that people would come to the library and that librarians would “refer” them to the correct material that would answer their needs. I rather imagine that the first reference librarians discovered within the first ten minutes that people wanted to obtain knowledge ASAP (and in simple words) rather than read a text which they might not have the educational background to understand.

Hence reference service evolved into providing answers … but our library schools did not evolve into providing the types of broad education (in a wide array of knowledges) needed for the reference librarian to understand the texts (and questions!) themselves.

This is, I think, understandable from the POV that early reference librarians most likely *did* understand most of the reference questions they encountered. The “information world” was vastly smaller then.

And yet …

Long before Dewey opened the first graduate school for librarians there was a call for advanced library education in what was called “encyclopedia.” This made perfectly good sense in an age where each library cataloged its own material since each person involved with cataloging had to have at least some basic understanding of the text in front of him (and they were mostly “him” rather than “her” prior to the development of the Dewey Decimal System).

Somewhat ironically, Dewey himself tried to establish a multidisciplinary graduate degree prior to his successful establishment of the “technical” graduate degree, the Master’s in Library Science). Columbia would have none of it, in large part (I suspect) because of lack of cooperation between the established schools (turf issues). The technical degree was possible, I think, because the latter 19th century was an era where graduate degrees in technical areas were proliferating … that’s why so many US universities have the word “Technology” in their names.

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