Review: Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science

If you’re not familiar with the thought of Jesse Shera, you should be, and an easy place to begin that familiarity is Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science by H. Curtis Wright. This was originally published as Occasional Research Paper no. 5 by the School of Library and Information Science, Brigham Young University in 1988, and is now reprinted with a new introduction and index by the Library Juice Press.* Since the library school at BYU has been closed for 20 years, I’m assuming this has been out of print for a long time. Welcome back.

Some might call it a biography, and a review of the first edition in 1988 criticized it as a “run in attempt” at a biography. However, biography is the wrong word to describe the book. Yes, we find out a little bit about Shera’s childhood history and early manhood and a little bit more about his early career in libraries. However, the bulk of the study isn’t about Shera’s life, but his thought, specifically his intellectual journey from believing information science provided the theoretical foundation of librarianship to his belief that “symbolic interactionism” instead provides that foundation. This is combined with an extensive, possibly exhaustive, bibliography of Shera’s 57 years of publications. Of the 120-or-so page book, roughly half is the lengthy essay on Shera’s thought and half the bibliography. The combination makes this an indispensable volume to begin a serious study of Shera.

Early exposure to librarianship in the 1920s convinced Shera that librarianship as it had traditionally been practiced was a cramped and overly practical affair, and he spent the rest of his career trying to reform the profession, at first from the inside, later as a professor of library science at Chicago, and finally as the Dean of the library school at Case Western Reserve. During the 1940s and 1950s, Shera came to believe that the theoretical salvation lay with information science and technology. He was a cofounder of the reorganized American Documentation Institute, and cheered on the impressive gains of information science during the period. Eventually he changed his mind, saying much later that “twenty years ago, I thought of what is now called information science as providing the intellectual and theoretical foundations of librarianship, but I am now convinced that I was wrong” (41).

He changed his mind because he came to believe that librarianship is a humanistic affair involved with human communication, knowledge, and ideas. Information science is no such thing. While information science can provide useful tools and improve processes, it can never be the theoretical foundation of a field primarily involved with humans communicating ideas. “Information science . . . deals with only a part of what the librarian does” (45). Regardless of the prevalence of information science and technology useful to librarians, Shera believed that “the social purpose of the library remains unchanged–to bring the human mind and the graphic record together in a fruitful relation” (44). Thus, while librarianship might make use of science, it isn’t itself a science, and it has little to do with the information in information science.

At this point in the argument it might be useful to define terms for those unfamiliar with the debate. Most librarians believe we’re in the information business. We even have desks that say “information” on them, so that everyone knows what we do. And, in a sense, we are in the information business. However, the “information” in information science isn’t the same thing as the “information” that librarians trade in. (For a lengthy discussion of what “information” means to information scientists, I recommend James Gleick’s The Information. For a totally unrelated adventure story about a woman who trades in information in the sense librarians deal with, you might try Taylor Stevens’ The Informationist.) Here’s a key paragraph from Wright:

It was librarians, Shera reminds us, who “eagerly seized information science as potential supports to their . . . professionalism.” But information science, he says, has “misinterpreted [Claude] Shannon and [Warren] Weaver’s specialized use of the noun information and assumed that it related to the communication of knowledge rather than the transmission of signals.” This has created a genuine problem for libraianship, because Shannon was interested solely in creating a theory of pyhysical signals for describing “the message-carrying capacity of a symbol, a telephone wire, or any other medium or channel of communication.” (47)

Information science is concerned, according to Shera, purely with the transmission of signals, while librarianship is founded in human interactions and is concerned with ideas and knowledge as well as information. While the efficient transmission of signals or the storage of information in the IS sense is a necessary part of librarianship, it’s not as sufficient part.

Shera’s finally believed that “symbolic interactionism” should provide the theoretical foundation of librarianship. Symbolic interactionism is a theory borrowed from George Herbert Mead. Supposedly, unlike information science or systems theory, symbolic interactionism “investigates the psychophysical interaction of the empirical order and the ideative order in human beings by studying the relationship between the physical symbol and its symbolic referent” (55). While I accept the humanistic nature of librarianship, I wasn’t convinced that symbolic interactionism as such provides a theoretical foundation of the profession, and there wasn’t sufficient argument in the book to persuade me. It is perhaps the one flaw in the book that Wright, a friend and former student, provides little critical distance from Shera, because precisely at this point I would have preferred a little critical analysis in addition to the clear explanation of Shera’s thought.

However, that wasn’t the purpose of the book. There was enough to explain what Shera believed and to some extent why, and ample resources in the bibliography to follow Shera further if I cared to argue with him. So, overall, a satisfying volume, a quick read, and a passionate introduction to Shera’s thinking. Anyone concerned with what librarianship is or should be would profit from reading the book.

*[Disclosure: Library Juice Press published my book Libraries and the Enlightenment.]

One thought on “Review: Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science

  1. Pingback: Catching up… | Libraries are for Use

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