Theory and Practice in the Library Workplace

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

Every so often I hear someone remark that they didn't learn anything in library school; that their real professional learning happened on the job, or worse, that they think that the need for a library qualification is just gate keeping and protectionism. This always causes me some concern because it ignores the important role that library and information science theory plays in the workplace.

It is true that when you start working in a library there is a wealth of on-the-job learning to do. There are process and practical skills to master, and local policies and procedures to absorb. The daily improvement as we gain hands-on experience brings an immediate sense of achievement and an obvious increase in knowledge. The relevance of this behavioral learning is clear because it is needed to do the job. In contrast, knowledge of theory and principles is about understanding why we are doing the procedure. This understanding is important when making decisions to change local policy or practices, or in deciding how to adjust local practices in response to the impact of external factors.

Practical processes and procedures are there to help the library achieve its goals. The theory of libraries (or cataloging, reference, etc) is what is taught (and hopefully learned) in the process of gaining a professional library qualification. And in turn, that theory informs the daily procedures and practices. Furthermore, this library school learning gives library professionals a shared theoretical basis and often a shared value system, on which to make decisions in the workplace; decisions about what the policies will be, and what practices are most appropriate for helping a library achieve its purpose.

Of course, such knowledge is not set in stone. Over time, the theories and principles will change as the professional body of knowledge changes to incorporate new understandings of the library and information world.

In for-profit organizations practical measure usually exist to judge performance. Did more widgets get sold? Are widgets being produced more cheaply? Did the company make more money as a result? The bottom line is more complex however, in not-for-profit organizations like libraries. How do we know that the library is achieving its purpose? More people through the door? More books issued? More information literacy classes taught? Such quantitative measures are useful but they seldom express the real value libraries contribute to their communities. And because there is not a clearly agreed, black and white measure of the bottom line for libraries, many staff make assumptions based on their own value system. That is, they may assume that the purpose of their work is defined in terms of their value systems.

Changes in processes, policy or practice can be particularly difficult for those who are comfortable with their daily routines and who are working hard in the belief that their actions are contributing to the greater good of the library. Principles, theories and values can be difficult to articulate because they are often deep-seated, intuitively known and taken for granted. As a consequence, some people may be protective of a given activity because it is representative of their values and beliefs about libraries. A threat to an activity becomes a threat to their values. Resistance or obstruction to change can easily result if those affected belief that a proposed change is going to have a negative impact on their library's core purpose.

Library managers, or those leading change (even at the process level) may find it helps to take time to explore the commonly held beliefs and assumptions of their staff. Consider whether they are disagreeing with how things should be done, or if the conflict is at a more fundamental level. Do participants have differing theoretical perspectives on what sort of action adds value to the library's community?

This is important because changing beliefs and value systems is a far more challenging proposition than changing daily routines. Yet all too often in libraries the focus is on the more tangible behavioral learning rather than on the intangible theory that underlies practice. Of course, it makes sense on a day-to-day basis to focus staff training on how things should be done, but when a significant change is needed, time needs to be given to talking about why the change is being made and how it fits into the theory and principles of libraries and librarianship.

It seems that this kind of talk is not that common in libraries. Perhaps there is a tendency to assume that we are all working from the same set of core principles and theories, because most of us are as a result of our library school learning. But problems arise when time or external changes make some of our theories obsolete or irrelevant.

In recent years libraries have faced a constant stream of change. Changes are occurring not just at the operational level (think of the impact of the Internet, the web or Google on our local practices); there has also been a paradigm shift in how libraries are perceived. For example, these days libraries are often seen as social spaces with a focus on customer needs, rather than the quiet, scholarly environments of the 20th Century. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this shift in thinking is not universally accepted. The rate and extent of change means that we should not assume that there is a shared understanding of the principles on which our practices and polices are based.

Talking about theory and principles may seem abstract, 'wishy-washy' and unnecessarily time-consuming to practically-oriented library staff who just want to get on with the task at hand. But without such discussions conflict and resentment over change can endure longer than necessary. Taking time to dwell in the theoretical area could serve to bring staff together with a better understanding of the value of library activities and services. It may also be that some people will discover that what they know is as important as what they do and this link between theory and practice means that their professional education was not a waste of time.


Vye Perrone is Associate University Librarian, Collection Services at the University of Waikato Library in New Zealand. She was President of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) in 2007/2008 and has just finished her year as Immediate Past President. Vye completed her MLIS from Victoria University of Wellington in 1998.

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