Monday, January 7, 2008

The Wissen of KO

I just reread Jesse Shera's wonderful piece on "Librarians Against Machines" from Science, May 12 1967; it is fascinating how relevant that piece is even today, 40 years later... When he says:

"That librarians were thus caught was largely due to the unfortunate fact that they have never given much consideration to the theoretical foundation of their procedures, nor developed a research program that would advance such theory or explain and improve its applications. Librarians know very well how to do what they do, but they never concern themselves to any great extent with why they do it. They understand the Können, but the Wissen has escaped them. Their discipline is a vast accumulation of of technical details rather than a body of organized abstract principles that can be applied in concrete situations, a body of knowledge that is known and understood by all members of the guild and one which the librarians themselves alone have created."

I can't help think that this sounds like something any thoughtful intellectual would say about the situation in KO today; I mean, most textbooks (and courses) in KO focuses almost exclusively on the how-to part,
the Können part, as if the goal is to produce worker bees who simply know how to fill in catalog cards. It does seem like too little attention, too little respect is given to transcending the tradition and bringing the field forward, as Shera says: "Lip service is given to creativity and innovation, but excessive departure from traditional course content may well be regarded with considerable suspicion". I suppose we will only generate real change, real innovation if we manage to educate a generation of KO people with a substantial understanding of the "body of organized abstract principles" for KO; that requires, of course, that such a body of principles exist... and that we are able to recognize them, if they existed.

Lastly, given the intertwined nature of today's information world, it is unlikely that "the librarians themselves" can create this body of knowledge -- the body of knowledge needed today (and probably also at the Shera was writing this) reaches way beyond the library and the library profession.

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