Tuesday, August 28, 2007

CAUTION: Paradigm Shift Ahead

As a librarian inclined to think that libraries are at risk, I am one of those open to many of the more radical ideas about how libraries need to change. Several of the other librarians I work with may gravitate towards ideas that support the traditional core values of librarianship and will reject those that involve redefining reference, circulation, and cataloging services. The resulting discussions are very intersting, if not polarizing.

I was just rereading a John Blyberg post about how librarians are drifting into two camps – those that believe libraries are in peril and those that don’t.
"Like two distinct brands of the same religion, librarians are drifting into two camps–those that believe libraries are in peril and those that don’t. Those who find themselves as a member of the former tend to feel that their libraries need to change in a number of fundamental ways in order to remain relevant. Those who identify with the latter group feel that good old-fashion librarianship is still what their users want or need. They’re the purists."
This brought me back to Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he discusses paradigms as they relate to scientific discovery and evolution. It is the work which popularized the term 'paradigm shift.'

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 new 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 reference librarians sitting at desks. These are the two camps that John identifies.

According to Kuhn, scientific paradigms before and after a shift are so different that their theories are incomparable. It is impossible 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 essence, a new paradigm cannot build on the preceding one, it can only supplant it. 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:

"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. If Kuhn is right, as the profession's retirement bubble bursts over the next few years the next generation should help complete the library science paradigm shift.

That is, until the next paradigm emerges. Sphere: Related Content


Jerry E. Stephens said...

You've raised a truly interesting idea. It's one that we need to carry on a conversation about. For lack of time today, I'm going to suggest only one counter notion. I'm not convinced that librarianship is undergoing a paradigm shift. Certainly not a shift of the magnitude of the Copercian Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. For one, libraries have always and readily adopted new technologies. One of the reasons was to get access to new library resources. Another, certainly, was to make access to these same resources much easier for library users. But the adoption of new technologies has always been something of a problematical thing. Let me stop on this note. I might yet have something else to say in reaction to your very nice essay.

Eric Schnell said...

Thanks, Jerry for sharing your viewpoint.

While libraries have indeed been adopters of technologies, the shift that is poised to occur is in how fast we adopt them.

Traditionally, we like to process things to death before we implement them. Technology now has a shelf life of 9-18 months. By the time we create committees to look at a technology and finally decide to use it, more likely to have spoiled than at any time before.

Instead of studying before implementing we need to put technologies out there and then study how it is being used. Our gaming/text messaging future library customers will simply bypass us if we don't.

As these future customers also become library staff they will want to adopt service introduction patterns more inline with how they deal with technology. This is where the shift where at least one shift in librarianship is likely to occur.

Ryan Deschamps said...

I think Kuhn's Paradigm shift analogy is apt. And to contest what Jerry says, I personally do not see the shift as necessarily technological in nature. If you are right on this, the differences will have almost nothing to do with technology, but will have to do with epistemology.

What we know and the way we know it could change fundamentally assuming the "collective knowledge" thing takes over. Industrial Revolution or Heliocentric Universe kind of change? Hard to say. But I think it's sufficient enough to say that the world will be very different in the next decade. At minimum, libraries will have to respond to that change.

stevenb said...

Eric - your post certainly resonates with me. Concerns about the marginalization of academic libraries is in part what prompted the development of Blended Librarianship - an effort to shift or transform from the traditional role to one in which the library is far more integrated into the teaching and learning process. In C&RL News July/Aug 2004 a colleague and I wrote:
"Academic librarianship is at a critical profes-sional juncture. There is growing ambiguity about our professional role and where our future lies in the academic enterprise during this period of tumultuous change. As a profession we are struggling with ways to harness and weave new technologies into our existing fabric of high-quality information service delivery. As the wants and needs of our end users transform, librarians have sought to redefine what the library building and our services mean to our communities. And as the nature of the content librarians work with dramatically re-structures, our profession has experimented with new ideas for its capture, organization, and delivery. All of this change is happening in a new, increasingly competitive information environment in which the academic library no longer is the de facto resource of first choice for those it exists to serve."
We then listed core threats to the library (circa 2004)
Blended Librarianship is not necessarily a paradigm shift, but it certainly offers a different path and set of approaches for academic librarians that want to focus their efforts on taking the educational role of the librarian to a new level.