Monday, May 22, 2006

Is Change in Libraries Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

In a recent post, Michael Casey discusses Pip Coburn's book called The Change Function and supports the author's position that for change to be successful it must be continuous, regular, and almost imperceptible:

"Successful change is not the old school variety of change that comes every few years and is accompanied by massive upheavals, frightened staff, and upset customers. Successful change is constant change, and constant change cannot be discontinuous or fractured. Constant change is fluid; it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary."

However, there are those who have successfully argued that the normal pattern of successful transition from one paradigm to another in the sciences is indeed via revolution. In all fairness, I am generally in line with Michael's viewpoints. While change needs to be relatively imperceptible to the customer, the way in which the profession itself changes is another issue.

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author Thomas Kuhn discusses paradigms as they relate to scientific discovery and evolution and popularized the term paradigm shift. There are some interesting ideas that Kuhn discusses that are relevant to libraries and this discussion. While Structure has generated a good deal of controversy with many of Kuhn's ideas challenged, I feel his theories make sense relative to library science.

A paradigm is an acceptable model or pattern that gains its status because it is more successful than other concepts in solving problems. A scientific revolution occurs when an older paradigm is replaced whole or in part by an incompatible new one. When a new paradigm is revealed, the supporters of the new and old paradigms naturally argue in defense of their position. The emergence of a paradigm affects the structure of the group that practices in a given field.

This is exactly what we are are experiencing in library science. We have the emergence of a new technology driven/focused definition of what a library is and is contrasted with the existing traditionalist definition highlighted by the fact we still have reference librarians sitting at desks. The viewpoints of the two competing groups are reflected in part by the reaction to Michael Gorman's President's Message in the May 2006 issue of American Libraries.

Those practioners supporting the emerging technology driven/focused vision are creating a new community that utilizes new technologies to advance their ideas (e.g. blogging). Meanwhile, those holding onto the current paradigm fall back to traditional communication tools as evidenced in how one has to track down Mr. Gorman's piece in electronic format.

Scientific paradigms before and after a shift are so different that their theories are incomparable. The shift does not just change a single theory but changes the way that words are defined, the way that the scientists look at their subject and the questions and rules used. In essence, a new paradigm cannot build on the preceding one, it can only supplant it:

"the normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but actually incommensurable with that which has gone before."

Therefore it is simply not possible, according to Kuhn, to construct a language that can be used to perform a neutral comparison between conflicting paradigms, because the very terms used belong to a the paradigm and are therefore different in different paradigms. Advocates of mutually exclusive paradigms are in an impossible position:

"Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof."

When an individual or group produces a synthesis that attracts the attention of the next generation of practioners, the older schools gradually disappear. In part, the disappearance is caused by the members conversion to the new paradigm. Those who cling onto the older viewpoint and are simply read out of the profession and must proceed in isolation or attach themselves to another group that does:

"a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

The next generation of library scientists graduating from library school will be hardwired to naturally accept the technology driven/focused definition of a library. As the profession's retirement bubble bursts will the next generation force the paradigm shift? Is the shift occuring now? Is this a cyclical process resulting from natural evolution or from a revolution?

Regardless, librarianship has all the characteristics of and is ripe for a paradigm shift. Sphere: Related Content


Michael Casey said...

Wow, I’ve not thought about Kuhn since poli-sci grad school. I suppose I should first say that I was referring to change as I see it within the public library – change as it affects staff and customers through changes in operations and services. Here I believe that continuous change is, in the long run, the most successful. Change must be built into the process. But Kuhn’s point is very well taken. This smooth, steady change will, in the long term, lead to that paradigm shift. I always found it interesting that two excellent examples of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in scientific thought, plate tectonics and Darwinian evolution, are both in their own right theories that reply upon smooth and almost imperceptible change over long periods of time.

Eric Schnell said...

Thanks for the response (and the linkback) Michael! Hey, do you see any similarities between plate tectonics, Darwinian evolution, and the speed of change in libraries? ;-)

Michael Casey said...

Hmmm... No comment!

vonjobi said...

"This smooth, steady change will, in the long term, lead to that paradigm shift."

i don't think this was kuhn's point at all. he was speaking of competing paradigms, where revolution occurs when one triumphs over the other.

as i wrote before: In scientific revolutions, competing paradigms are presented and the "fittest" paradigm survives—along with the terminology it employs. But does our field even have competing paradigms?

i'm not sure that L2 is competing with L1 at this time. these are not mutually exclusive paradigms. i don't know that L2 is even a paradigm.

but please don't get me wrong. i'm all for L2. i'm just wondering about the LIS paradigms =)