Oh, the Humanities: A Literature Scholar Turned Librarian Ponders the Art and Science of Librarianship

by Heidi LM Jacobs
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

When librarians with humanities backgrounds have an opportunity to meet and talk, I am struck by how we seem to cling to each other, relieved and grateful to have someone to talk with who understands us. It also strikes me as strange that while there are many, many academic librarians with backgrounds in the humanities, we feel so alone within LIS.

It seems unchallengeable that LIS is a social science: indeed it is and there is nothing at all wrong with this. Yet I often wonder what would happen if we thought about librarianship as a humanities endeavor, bringing together, as Denise Koufogiannakis writes, “the art and science of our profession”:

“We need to embrace both the science and the art of evidence based practice — otherwise, we will overlook important elements of the whole situation that practitioners work within. Doing so is not neat and tidy, but does that really matter? LIS is a social science, and the “social” implies “messy” because people and real-life situations are not easily controlled. The art of our craft allows us to embrace the messy situation, find ways to be creative, put our professional judgments to use and find the best solutions to meet the needs of individual users by applying the best of what we find in the research literature together with the best of what we know is likely to help this person.” (49)

I’m not at all disagreeing with Denise and the countless others who have called LIS a social science, but I do want to raise this question: what would happen if we called LIS a humanities subject? How would our ideas of evidence change? What kinds of evidence would we use? What kinds of evidence would inform the questions that we ask? Our decisions? Our profession?

In 2013, John Horgan published an interesting blog post on the Scientific American site called “Why Study Humanities? What I tell Engineering Freshman.” This post raises ideas that pick up on points I made in my last blog post and helps me think more fully about what the humanities could offer librarianship in terms of both research and practice.

Horgan writes, “We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that’s fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

“But,” he goes on to argue, that “it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt, skepticism.”

“The humanities,” Horgan tells his students, “are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. . . The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class.”

I’m particularly drawn to Horgan telling his students that they are going to “wrestle with some ridiculously big questions.” It seems to me that if we focus our research and our inquiry into things that we can count or quantify or that we can collect a particular kind of evidence about, then we’re scaling back the questions we can ask about our practice and our profession.

Literature students are trained to ask questions, look for fissures in logic, notice how meaning can hang on a single word or the placement of a comma. We look for the silences and gaps that reveal significant things through omission or silences. We are taught to question continuously. We are taught that never arriving at an answer is perfectly fine as the journey of asking questions is not only valid, it’s vital. In short, we are taught that things that you cannot count do count.

As an information literacy librarian, I continually bring questions to my students: where is this information coming from? Who wrote it? Who is presenting or sponsoring this information? Who is benefitting from having this particular kind of information published? What kinds of information aren’t we finding, why might that be? While we cannot always answer these questions definitively or answer them without a qualifier like “it depends,” it is imperative that we ask these questions of them and with them.

I want our profession to embody what we teach our students about information: doubt it, question it, be skeptical, be critical. It is not that I am against quantifiable evidence but I want to ensure we are using it carefully and critically and not complacently. And also that we don’t exclude other kinds of evidence that – though it cannot be counted – still counts.

Horgan concludes his essay arguing the point of the humanities is that they “keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.” Librarianship is at a point where we are bombarded by “some ridiculously big questions” and if we limit our inquiries to what we can answer, prove, quantify, and chart, we’re doing ourselves and our profession a disservice.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.