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Yesterday, I was reading Baylis, Smith, and Owens’ The Globalization of World Politics, an introductory textbook in International Relations. One of the first things the authors do (in the “Introduction” no less) is to layout the various theoretical approaches to IR, three “mainstream” approaches (Realism, Liberalism, Social Constructivism) and four that I would call “critical” (Marxism, poststructuralism, feminism, postcolonialism). International Relations, then, takes not just for granted, but as its starting point, a set of worked out theoretical approaches that have currency within the field. While LIS is marked - especially lately - by a multiplicity of theoretical approaches, the field lacks the kind of self-awareness that would be able to put together an introductory chapter similar to this one.

I think this lack of self-awareness comes from a few places, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first I want to talk about what I see as two main consequences of this lack of theoretical self-awareness. On the one hand, it means that the underlying liberalism that dominates LIS is still able to present itself as a common-sense empiricism. The liberalism of LIS claims to have a corner on “the facts”, and most often assumes its own foundational epistemology (= provable truth claims) as already given. This is why, on the one hand, it is so difficult to argue against defenders of IF absolutism who implicitly rely on liberalism; they don’t admit that their liberalism is one ideology out of many, rather, they claim for it the status of unmediated knowledge. This is also why panels on Intellectual Freedom and mainstream articles (I’m thinking now of recent articles by Wiegand and Buschman) can completely ignore the entire body of critical librarianship that has appeared, say, in the last five years. Their unaware liberalism precludes them from taking seriously anything “ideological” (i.e. political), in other words anything that takes the relationship of truth and power seriously and which therefore involves us in real political commitments. Of course, there are also very real power relations involved here too: the liberal mainstream has a lock on dominant positions in the profession, have the loudest voices, have the most platforms, etc, and they aim to keep it that way.

The other consequence of this lack of self-awareness, as I see it, is the eclectic treatment of theoretical approaches as a grab-bag or toolkit, from which a researchers may take whatever they need to fit their current research program. So, while one might take a poststructuralist approach relying on Foucault when looking at surveillance in libraries, one might take a Marxist approach when looking at labour, ignoring the fact that poststructuralist commitments tend to be very different from Marxist ones (though the relationship of Foucault to Marxism is a complicated one). The IR textbook makes it very clear that theoretical approaches are not simply methodological requirements, but are directly and inextricably related to the way one understands the world (i.e. there is no “objective” research position). Someone who understands the world through a Marxist lens cannot simply turn around and adopt a liberal perspective simply because a given methodology demands it. This is the problem, as I see it, with the recuperation of Gramsci to a particularly liberal perspective on intellectual freedom: it erases his radically Marxist worldview, keeping only those aspects of his thought palatable to liberalism.

Now, this doesn’t mean that certain combinations of theoretical orientation aren’t possible: my own Marxism is flavoured by certain poststructuralist ways of thinking about knowledge and power, for example, and Marxism informs (sometimes antagonistically) many of the theoretical commitments of feminism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism (I would add Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory to the list of perspectives currently dominant within critical librarianship). But we need to be clear on how those tendencies interrelate and how they change the political commitments they impose on us. For example, the poststructuralist flavoured Marxism I adopt means I care more about a kind of anarchic democracy-from-below than about the dictatorship of the proletariat, or at least that my understanding of that dictatorship is swayed by poststructuralism’s m’s suspicion of authority…

There are two main reasons, I think, why mainstream LIS lacks the self-awareness of its own liberalism, its own theoretical and political commitments, and why the theoretical richness of, say, critical librarianship is so threatening. On the one hand, there is the longstanding and everpresent ambiguity between LIS as an academic discipline and LIS as training for librarians. I suspect there has always been a reluctance within LIS to really hash out these theoretical and politicl differences because a) we’re too polite and conflict-averse and b) because there are many within the library schools who feel this kind of theoretical debate is an irrelevant distraction from the job of training (or being trained as) librarians. This is obviously related to the tension between librarianship as (some kind of) profession and librarianship as a job, and runs immediately up against the practicality and pragmatism of the profession itself. These antagonisms, too, have a long history, marked by the gender divisions of 19th century librarianship between a philosophical, gentlemanly, idealized, scholarly profession for men, and the practical, hand’s-on work reserved for what Dee Garrison has called “the tender technicians”.

On the other hand, after the wholesale adoption of naturalistic positivism in the 20s and 30s, many social sciences drew back from an extreme positivism in the 1960s, but LIS has not. We are still very much bound by positivist thinking (for example, in evidence-based LIS and the “objective” value of systematic reviews), and it is this positivism that raises an unacknowledged liberalism to the status of empirical knowledge and reduces all other theories to the status of non-rigorous, non-scientific ideology. Such ideologies might be suitable for particular research projects which require more theoretical insight than an unconscious, hegemonic liberalism can provide, but those approaches should be seen as aberrations rather than as entailing particular commitments which cannot simply be cast aside when another methodology dictates.

When I was at the CARL Research Institute a couple of years ago, a health sciences librarian with a background in the natural sciences asked why any discussion of theory was relevant to a course on research. She didn’t need or use any theory, she claimed, she simply worked from “the facts”. My favourite counter-example to this kind of claim from natural scientists are tools such as the microscope. Does the microscope present an unmediated view of a slide to the eye? What are the theoretical concepts (optics, lens theory, etc) that go into the design and construction of the microscope, and how are those theories erased in order to allow the use of the microscope appear unmediated? What about an electron microscope, is that still unmediated sense-perception? And so on.

Baylis, Smith, and Owens warn the student that they

do not think that theory is an option. It is not as if you can say you do not want to bother with a theory; all you want to do is look at the ‘facts’. We believe that this is impossible, since the only way you can decide which of the millions of possible facts is by adhering to some simplifying device that tells you which ones matter the most. Theory is such a simplifying device. Note also that you may well not be aware of your theory. It may just be the view of or even the ideology about the world that you inherited from family, social class, peer groups, or the media. It may just seem common sense to you and not at all complicated like a theory. But we fervently believe that in such a case your theoretical assumptions are implicit rather than explicit. We prefer to try to be as explicit as possible when it comes to thinking about world politics.

This explicitness is one of the things missing from library schools and mainstream LIS scholarship. I’m thinking back to my own “Information in Society” class, when the professor claimed that untrue knowledge was not knowledge and therefore had no causal effects, to which I pointed out that the Americans had just invaded Iraq based on untrue knowledge. But I’m also thinking of the ways in which writers from a critical perspective have to engage with mainstream LIS scholarship (Wiegand, Buschman are two clear examples), but the reverse is not true: mainstream LIS, with its unacknowledged, common-sense, hegemonic liberalism, can afford to ignore critical approaches because they are obviously and objectively true while the rest of us toil away on our ineffective and pointless ideological fantasies. The subaltern position of critical librarianship is connected to a whole host of historical political problems and dynamics within the field, but it is interesting to see these problems and dynamics play out in real time when yet another paper on libraries and society is published by a mainstream LIS scholar that cites no work done within critical librarianship.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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