Friday, March 05, 2004

Librarians and Engineers

What exactly do we do in LIS research? One of my colleagues pointed out that we just reuse and reprocess old theories from other disciplines and apply the magic tag line: ?information?. The other disciplines do the hard work of hunting down the tough research questions and feast accordingly. We merely boil up the left over bones. My colleague felt that we boil the bones up into some sort of nutrient poor mush. I prefer to think that our boiling produces a type of glue. The real problem then regards what we?re trying to glue together.

We often want to claim that LIS is a social science and was a child of the Enlightenment like our other academic brethren. The truth is that our origins are considerably more recent.

Although special and academic libraries have been around since the Middle Ages (Burke, 2000), Public libraries had an inauspicious start. In the United States, they began in New Hampshire in 1833 and the Boston Public Library got its start in the 1850s (Shera, 1965). The founders of these early libraries were well-healed white males interested in improving themselves and engaging in that great parlour game of the time: educating the common man (Dain, 1975; Harris, 1973). Our own profession arose as a result of these initiatives. Note the dates. Linneus (and Botany) predated Boston Public by 100 years. The first scientific journal?Transactions of the Royal Society?began fully 200 years before Boston Public. LIS is a recent entrant.

One profession that emerged at the same time as LIS is engineering. While the drawings of engineers have been widely studied (e.g., Alder, 1998; Brown, 1999, 2000; Pannabecker, 2002), Amy Slaton provides a very interesting discussion of the field engineer (2001). Her portrayal represents the school educated engineer as someone who could take the rigour of the lab and bring it to the field thereby destroying many of the trade based power structures left over from guild days.

Like engineering, LIS is a school based professional discipline that attempts to bring rigour and structure for greater good of man. Further definition, however, starts to get fuzzy. Using the arbiter of definitions (Google?s ?what is? function), ?Librarianship? is ?the position of librarian? while ?Engineering? is ?the practical application of science to the problems of commerce or industry?. In the definition for ?Engineering? we perhaps find the sort of thing that our LIS theories should be gluing together: practical problems.


Alder, K. (1998). Making things the same: Representation, tolerance and the end of the ancien regime in France. Social Studies of Science, 28(4), 499-545.
Brown, J. K. (1999). When machines became grey and drawings black and white: william sellers and the rationalization of mechanical engineering. IA, The journal of the society for industrial archeology, 25, 29-54.
Brown, J. K. (2000). Design plans, working drawings, national styles - Engineering practice in Great Britain and the United States, 1775-1945. Technology and Culture, 41(2), 195-238.
Burke, P. (2000). A social history of knowledge : from Gutenberg to Diderot. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Dain, P. (1975). Ambivalence and Paradox: The Social Bonds of the Public Library. Library Journal, 100(3), 261-266.
Harris, M. (1973). The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History. Library Journal, 98(16), 2509-2514.
Pannabecker, J. R. (2002). School for industry - L'Ecole d'Arts et Metiers of Chalons-sur-Marne under Napoleon and the restoration. Technology and Culture, 43(2), 254-290.
Shera, J. H. (1965). Foundations of the public library; the origins of the public library movement in New England, 1629-1885. [Hamden, Conn.]: Shoe String Press.
Slaton, A. (2001). "As near as practicable" - Precision, ambiguity, and the social features of industrial quality control. Technology and Culture, 42(1), 51-80.


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