It's Not Rocket Library Science: Design Epistemology and American Librarianship
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Contemporary American librarianship is typically considered a social science. Yet libraries and librarians have a strong history of making tools and services that enable access to and use of information resources. Conceptualizing librarianship from a scientific perspective discounts its design roots, leaving the field to flounder in the face of other successful information tools and technologies. Reconceptualizing librarianship as a design discipline offers opportunities for empowering and supporting the continued relevance of libraries in the 21st century. In this dissertation, I draw on the humanistic technique of critical inquiry to argue for design as an appropriate and useful epistemological framework for librarianship and further explore the nature of design in the field. Following a broader discussion of elements of design epistemology and their relationship to the library profession, the dissertation examines three critical cases in depth, each one representing a significant era of library history: • Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature (est. 1848) • The Washington County (MD) Free Library book-wagon (est. 1909) • The eXtensible Catalog (XC) project (est. 2006) Design artifacts and supporting materials from each case were critically analyzed based on the framework of identified elements of design epistemology. Examination of the three cases shows ample evidence that much of librarianship aligns with fundamental epistemological approaches and tenets of design, including wicked problems, problem finding and framing, iteration, repertoire, service orientation, and evaluative approaches to design like critique, rationale, adoption, and reflection-on-action. Other elements of design epistemology, such as the use of representations, abductive reasoning, and reflection-in-action, were not observed in the cases; however, the absence of evidence of these elements is not equivalent to their actual absence in practice. In addition to the presence or absence of these elements, a critical examination of the ways in which they manifested in these cases demonstrates that design epistemology tends to be implicit and passive in American librarianship. Even when design epistemology is explicitly included in these cases, it is often done so in a context that renders it external to librarianship—as something that other fields and other professions do. Elements of design epistemology present in librarianship also help to concretely support the idea of librarianship’s focus on users. Examining American librarianship from a design-based standpoint reveals three major themes: 1) many forms of library knowledge not considered valid in scientific contexts are valid in design epistemology; 2) considerations of materiality reveal affordances, constraints, and limitations on innovation in library design; and 3) although many core values of librarianship are innately embedded in library artifacts, evidence of other values, notably cooperation and standardization, is clearly present. Finally, critical reflection on the cases in this study reveals that design may be implicit and externalized in librarianship due to both lack of support and character of leadership and that the normative and evangelical agenda of librarianship never really disappeared with the shift to an ostensibly neutral and objective scientific epistemology. Given these findings, the overarching recommendation for the field at large is to incorporate design epistemology explicitly into American librarianship in research, education, and practice.
- Information science