Humanism and Libraries

Those who weary of the unreflective pragmatism pervasive in librarianship should appreciate Andre Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, newly translated from the French by Rory Litwin for his own Library Juice Press.  The slender volume is a clear, refreshing discussion of the philosophy of librarianship, and Litwin should be congratulated for making it accessible to English-speaking readers.

Humanism and Libraries makes a distinction between library science and library philosophy and tries to establish the definition and aim that unifies all libraries and provides their philosophical foundation. Library science “is the theoretical construction of objective relationships among the activities of librarianship,” and should be contrasted with philosophy, which “is the theoretical integration of library practice as a unity, the encompassing understanding of the meaning of the profession.” Library science studies the activities of libraries, while library philosophy explores their underlying unity and justifies their function in society. Because of their practical training and pragmatic tendencies, librarians tend to function without a coherent philosophy, which isn’t fatal for daily operations. “For librarians, the fact of not having a coherent professional philosophy does not prevent them from being motivated by ideas and principles, but these bear more resemblance to religion than to a genuine philosophy.”

He asserts that a philosophy of librarianship would need a definition of librarianship and a set of goals for all libraries. For the definition, he claims inspiration from Jesse Shera and proposes the following: “Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audio-visual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community.”

This seems simple enough. It’s the discussion of aims that becomes complicated. The aim is crucial, because Cossette takes a teleological approach to library philosophy. “The vast human project of the Library can only be evaluated according to the aims toward which it is directed.” Though I disagree in part with his assessment, I’m in agreement with the approach, as it is exactly what I proposed in my essay on “Technological Change, Universal Access, and the End of the Library,” where I argued that “part at least of any philosophy of the library must include thinking about the telos or end of the library. We must ask and try to answer the question: what is the end of the library?”

Cossette examines three possible ends: preservation, education, and information access. Some have considered the aim of libraries to be preservation. Cossette makes the excellent point that “if the role of the librarian only consists in preserving texts he is merely a technician and can not be considered a professional, nor scientific.” 

Cossette also denies that education is a sufficient end, but his reasoning is much shakier here. He first denies that education can serve as the end of the library because it’s “classist.” “In maintaining the illusion that the ultimate goal of the library is education, thinkers in library science perpetuate an ideology that is inseparable from the division of society into classes, which exists in the interest of the dominant class. This bourgeois librarianship, which aims to disseminate high culture, to grant access to the treasures of civilization, is alienating for the vast majority of working people…. This librarianship is classist also for the reason that it universalizes a system of values that belongs to the dominant class.” This objection seems weak for a number of reasons. Something being “bourgeois” isn’t a philosophical objection to an idea as the ultimate goal of an institution. Libraries are perhaps bourgeois institutions, and there’s an end on it. If access to the treasures of civilization alienates the majority of workers, then so much the worse for the workers. However, the biggest weakness is that Cossette’s definition confuses education with indoctrination or perhaps acculturation. Libraries as educational institutions don’t “disseminate high culture,” or at least that’s not all they do. 

In addition to denying education as a possible end of libraries, he has a serious problem with the notion of librarians as educators, which a lot of academic librarians consider themselves to be. He’s opposed to the idea, quoting Kenneth Kister that the “educator is mainly interested in critical analysis of the material involved, whereas the librarian is largely concerned with such services as acquisition, organization, retrieval, and distribution of that material.” He argues that just because librarians teach people how to use libraries doesn’t make them educators. Librarians who believe they are “have a poor sense of the fundamental nature of librarianship. They have neglected to take account of what all types of libraries have as a common goal: the maximal dissemination of information.”  (This is his end for libraries.) 

He claims that “Librarians are not engaged in a pedagogical situation, which means they are able to play a role that is completely different from that of a teacher, whose function is normative, hierarchical, and distanced. His fundamental role consists of providing the information requested by the reader, as rapidly and effectively as possible. In academic and school libraries, it is plain that users require, in the majority of cases, information for their educational needs. But it would be an abuse of language to claim this as a reason to call a library an educational institution or a librarian a teacher. The aim here is merely to teach students how to access information.” (My emphasis.)

But is this true? I don’t believe it is. Academic librarians teach people both to access and evaluate information, and collection development librarians also build library collections not just by including some works but by excluding others, which often involves some sort of intellectual evaluation. Cossette is so dedicated to defending his primary claim about the end of libraries that he ignores what academic librarians actually do.  Librarians as educators upsets Cossette’s scheme because then academic librarians and special or public librarians couldn’t claim to be experts in the same field of expertise. Such a rigid definition itself fails to take account the possibility that all libraries might not have a common goal. 

He concludes with the fairly banal point that the telos or goal of libraries is the maximal distribution of information.  

The contemporary library becomes a service for information retrieval with the aim of providing all people with pertinent information toward educational, cultural, utilitarian, recreational, or other aims…. It is not a question of imposing on readers this or that type of information as a pretext for fulfilling a supposed educational or cultural mission. Rather, the librarian leaves it to the user to determine the purpose of his information request and accords him the full freedom to choose for himself the information that he will use.

Elsewhere, I’ve called a version of this the Universal Access Principle (or UAP), “ the proposition that libraries should provide free access to all information to all persons all of the time.” At the time I argued that this principle is confused. “The belief underlying the UAP allows for no evaluative choices, and yet it is used to justify an evaluative choice–i.e., that citizens should be taxed to support thi
s principle. It is founded upon a radical ethical relativism, asserting that we have no way to decide what is good or bad, and thus we must let individuals decide for themselves, but then it decides for them. Specifically, it decides for the citizens that it is good for them to underwrite ethical relativism.” I’m not sure I still agree with my previous assessment, especially the claim about ethical relativism, but I agree with the basic point that the UAP claims a neutrality that cannot possibly justify it as an end of the library. It claims to be value neutral, but is cryptonormative instead. And the hidden norm isn’t the ethical relativism I once thought, but instead Enlightenment liberalism. 

Even after deciding upon the UAP as the telos of the library, Cossette sneaks education and acculturation in through the back door when he addresses the role libraries play in informing citizens and helping free the oppressed.  “In providing needed information to all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged, the library lends its support to the realization of democratic ideals: it contributes to the formation of an informed electorate that is capable of rational decisions.” This is definitely not the goal of neutral information provider, and if this is the essence of libraries then there can be no libraries in totalitarian states. He says that ”librarians working in democratic libraries are professionally neutral in facing political, moral, and religious problems that divide readers. If there is controversy, they defend intellectual freedom.” However, the defense of intellectual freedom is not a neutral political position. 

This section concludes by bringing in more voices affirming the non-neutral neutrality of librarians. “They provide free access to all to a collection that contains controversial texts and ideas. The impartiality is made possible by their professional ‘indifference’ to all competing opinions. ‘If he [the librarian] has no politics, no religion, and no morals, he can have all politics, all religions, and all morals.’ The contemporary library is a center of liberalism, ‘but its function is not to preach it but to be liberalism in operation.’” The ideas quoted so approvingly don’t make much sense, though. Librarians can’t defend intellectual freedom and have no politics, and though it makes political sense to claim so librarians aren’t really professionally impartial about ideas or books. A library that is the “center of liberalism” cannot possibly be neutral. Cossette affirms as much when he finally discusses libraries and humanism in his conclusion. Libraries are humanistic because they aim toward creating a certain sort of human being. “How can we call a service that aims for the creation of autonomous individuals who are sufficiently well informed to bring about all of their various projects anything but humanistic? … The work of librarianship is truly a human endeavor, that is to say an activity of humankind for humankind, that has as its end the well being of humankind.” 

Earlier, Cossette had claimed that the end or goal of libraries was the maximal dissemination of information in a neutral manner, but even he can’t maintain that as the end. In the conclusion, we are told the end is the “well being of humankind,” and its well being in a very particular way—the creation of autonomous individuals informed enough to complete their various human projects. That’s an awfully ambitious goal for librarians who are supposedly neutral. Obviously, the UAP claims neutrality, when in fact it isn’t neutral, but aims to create a liberal culture of free autonomous human beings. This is where I think Cossette and the “neutral” liberals he quotes are confused. If the UAP is the founding philosophical principle of librarianship, then libraries are not in fact neutral and can’t possibly be. They are necessarily institutions of education and acculturation—to create educated, informed liberal democratic citizens. Librarians may build collections housing diverse views, but they don’t believe those diverse views, and they are not neutral about them. Some of the ideas are better than others, and librarians help decide that. Cossette wants to have the library be neutral towards information while claiming that neutrality serves emancipatory goals, but that’s disingenuous. Libraries as he conceives of them are institutions actively participating in the Enlightenment project of human liberation through education and tolerance. It’s educational, critical, and bourgeois. It assumes that critical thought is as necessary as information, and helps provide both. Though beginning as an Aristotelian, Cossette turns Kantian in the end.

Cossette’s definition and ultimate end of librarianship assumes that all libraries have something in common, the library-ness of the library, as a Platonist might say. He has to spend so much time deriding the educational claims of academic librarians because if they are educators in any meaningful sense then they have something peculiar they might not share with public or special librarians.  However, by the time he concludes with the humanistic, liberal end of libraries, this attempt at unity is no longer necessary. By undercutting the supposed neutrality of librarians, he has reintroduced an educational role for both academic and public librarians. Though public librarians sometimes deny their educational role and affirm their neutrality, some occasionally embrace an educational and cultural mission. That’s the point I got from the Darien Statements (which I evaluated here).

I disagree with his attempt at unification, because academic and public libraries have different, though sometimes overlapping missions. There may well be no library-ness of the library to examine. This doesn’t mean there can be no philosophy of librarianship, only that such a philosophy will have to be more complicated than providing access to information. Ultimately, I agree with Cossette’s conclusions that we can only understand and philosophize about libraries by understanding their place in a society and culture. The end of the library cannot be an end in itself, but must reflect the ends of society. By acknowledging the role of libraries in liberal democracies, Cossette says as much himself. 

Though I’ve found much to criticize (and left many interesting arguments untouched), I highly recommend Humanism and Libraries. If it weren’t so thought-provoking, I would never have addressed it in the first place. Regardless of whether one agrees with all of Cossette’s methods or conclusions, taking the journey with him through this discussion should give any librarian much food for thought. 

2 thoughts on “Humanism and Libraries

  1. I apologize that this comment will be short in length. I just wanted to thank you for the reading recommendation. After reading your post, I immediately want to read Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship (and hopefully find other articles tackling the subject). Thank you again for the excellent post and for the recommendation.

  2. I look forward to reading the book as well. Perhaps we can have a discussion based on it at conference… I enjoyed your review.

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