Interview with Joacim Hansson about his book, Educating Librarians in the Contemporary University

I am excited to have just published a book about the state of library education by Joacim Hansson, titled, Educating Librarians in the Contemporary University: An Essay on iSchools and Emancipatory Resilience in Library and Information Science. I’m excited, personally, because it does such a fantastic job of saying things that I and others have thought about but have lacked the foundations for expressing well.

Joacim, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’d like to start by asking you to introduce yourself.

Thank you, Rory, I feel very happy to release this book on LJP as so many great librarians and scholars have been published by you over the years. Who I am? I am professor and Head of the Library and Information Science department at a relatively young university, Linnaeus University, situated in Växjö, a town in south-east Sweden. I have worked and published internationally within LIS for some 25 years now – time flies. My research projects have spanned over a number or LIS subfields such as critical classification, scholarly communication, studies in documentation and cultural heritage digitization, but most prominently perhaps, library studies. I have also since long nurtured an interest for LIS itself, as a scholarly discipline. On and off I have also written about it and this book is in a way part of that line in my work.

Thanks for that introduction. Something jumps out at me in your listing of your research areas over the years, which is that you separate “library studies” from some other LIS topics. This may relate to the book itself I think. Can you explain how you understand “library studies” here if it is distinct from critical classification studies and scholarly communication, etc.?

That is a good question. Library studies is perhaps the one LIS subfield that is most difficult to pin down, which may seem as somewhat paradoxical. The easy answer is that it is an empirical question, where library study deals with problems that relate explicitly to library organizations and processes. It also puts librarianship as a professional practice at its center of attention. As such, it is a field which often relates to sociological schools of thought, and is therefore where, as I see it, we find much of the critical perspectives in LIS gathered. But how to draw the line against the other subfields? I don’t think there is an easy way of doing that. Is for example Melissa Adler’s brilliant Cruising the library – perversities in the organization of knowledge to be defined as library studies or as critical classification research? It is of course both. Would however her study have dealt with for instance Network Knowledge Organization Systems (NKOS) with the same perspective instead of Library of Congress’ cataloging practices, it wouldn’t necessarily have fit the label Library Studies, as NKOS’ go well beyond the confines of the social institution of libraries. Similar examples could be found in most of the other subfields of LIS. The existence and social significance of libraries in LIS has confused the discipline for decades, but in my book I argue that the relation to librarianship and libraries is necessary for the legitimacy of the discipline. It was founded in relation to library practice and without that relation LIS would never have existed, and this is valid today too. It becomes obvious when looking at the development of the so called iSchool movement, that as it strives to formulate an ‘iField’ it tends to end up in a scientific void. There is no such thing as an ‘iField’, and thus there is nothing to build a scholarly discipline on. Of course, many LIS scholars do not agree with this assessment, but what to do? Yet here we are, with a thriving LIS discipline, secure in its social relevance and a quite nervous iSchool movement.

I think this is such an interesting area. The book that I first encountered that relates to your perspective was Jesse Shera’s The Foundations of Education for Librarianship. Can you elaborate a bit on what you have said? Things have moved on since Shera was writing, but seemingly in the direction that he envisioned. Are we at a breaking point?

Jesse Shera’s writings had a huge impact on me early on in the mid 1990’s. Not many here knew of him then, and still don’t, but as I came across his 1967 Ranganathan lectures collected in The sociological foundation of librarianship, it was a complete eye-opener. I still find this to be one of the most original accounts of librarianship ever written. What he does, and he makes a similar argument in his book on education if I remember correctly, is to place librarianship in a communicative relation between users, citizens, and society, and the social institution of knowledge as being manifested through publications and bibliographical treatment. I think this still holds very well. Especially talking about public libraries, we sometimes tend to diminish the value of collections and the mediation of documentation in, for instance, streaming services, and the more social side of librarianship, which of course is very important too. But without media collections libraries are simply not, well, libraries. This stems from the conviction that knowledge is the basis for advanced, democratic societies and it serves as a direction for both libraries and the education for librarianship. What Shera does so well is to show a way in which to manifest the ideals of the Enlightenment in modern society through librarianship. This is still relevant today, as we see more and more signs that we are about to leave the ideals of the Enlightenment behind. But are we at a “breaking point?” I am reluctant to use that kind of metaphor as it in a way legitimizes the “move fast and break things” approach that now is spreading through society. That is something which has not served us well. Social institutions don’t “break”. Their meaning and significance may change, but behind the change there is a history that gives it meaning. Looking at librarianship I think this is pretty clear – it changes but we can see why and how and as it does, it manages to maintain a strong social legitimacy. How that is being done is what we need to pass on to the students at LIS programmes.

So, in that context, what would you say is the main point of your book, and why do you feel it needed to be written at this time?

Well, this book contains some serious questioning. This is done by creating a kind of reversed discourse that puts librarianship at the epicentre of LIS. Doing so allows me to consider for instance the iSchool movement as a neoliberal anomaly primarily made to fit current research policies and educational norms. This does not necessarily benefit library development or librarianship as a profession. By contrasting the fundamentally emancipatory and democratic mission of modern librarianship against, for example, the close connections between the iSchool movement and the information industry, something that need a much deeper analysis than I offer here, it becomes possible to use some more or less discarded “traditionalist” LIS writings to form a radical agenda for education of librarianship, built on a view of LIS as an ethically charged, humanistic discipline. Why now? Well, why not now? The bottom line is what we want our students to become – useful idiots to the information industry or creative, critical librarians stimulating participatory culture, civility, diversity and knowledge in a way which has been the professional sign of librarians for centuries.

I think we have a lot of readers who will be excited by what you are saying. I’d like you to talk a bit about who you have grounded your research in – what readers may learn about who already sympathize with your position.

In this book, I assume two things will be noticed. The first one may be that I create a kind of bricolage of critical theory approaches in order to create a unified picture of the intersection between university ideology and librarianship, which of course is where we find LIS. Neo-marxism in form of Chantal Mouffe’s theory on agonistic pluralism is combined with Axel Honneth’s theory on the social recognition and Hartmut Rosa’s theory on social acceleration, both carrying the torch of the Frankfurt School. These explicitly critical theories that in different ways emphasizes legitimate conflict, diversity and the political as something vital to democracy are then connected to more subtle perspectives such as Martha Nussbaum’s Human Development Paradigm in higher education. The unification of these perspectives becomes quite powerful. Of course there is a lot of good LIS research in there too. The second thing I would like to mention in relation to your question is that the book takes a primarily European perspective in the form of examples of library legislation, educational models and research agendas. As much of the thematic in the book circles around how neoliberal ideals have been inflicted on higher education and LIS, it is useful to see local and regional variations in how these ideals are implemented, not least as the neoliberal ideology as such portrays itself as both neutral and universal. It is of course neither. This all leads up to a point where professional and educational ethics play a vital part in building a resistance against structures that do not benefit librarianship or library education. The conclusions I draw should of course not be seen as final, but as a point for contemplation, further questioning and vital debate – that is the only way to maintain a progressive agenda in librarianship and in LIS.

That sounds really great. Something I would be interested in hearing is how your choice to center LIS on library studies has affected the way you look at the other areas of LIS where you have done research.

It is a joint experience by many educators at LIS programs to be faced with questions from students about why they need to read certain topics, how the various courses fit together, and what good the program will do them once they enter a job in a library, which is why most of them entered the program in the first place. For me, those questions are rather simple to answer – there is nothing in LIS that does not relate to the processes we generally perform in different forms of librarianship. That does not mean that every study or subfield focus directly on librarianship all the time, but the relation is there. Information retrieval, information behavior studies, scientific communication, data curation, the sociology of reading – for more or less every subfield of LIS there is this rule that if it cannot be related to librarianship then it is most likely better done in some other discipline. It all conflates into library studies, and it is ok! I have always wondered why library studies are not seen as a pride, but instead something that should be marginalized, made obsolete or simply ignored when actually it is what constitutes the most fundamental legitimacy of the discipline. Again, many LIS scholars would not agree with me, but that is alright. Some do. So for me, having worked on and off in many subfields over the years, it basically comes together into one massive umbrella project where all parts are connected, driven by an equal love of and curiosity for libraries and the library profession. There is absolutely nothing obsolete about that. That love and curiosity is what drives me. It is what made me write this book and in some way I hope that shows through.

It does show through. Many thanks for agreeing to this interview.

Thank you, Rory, I enjoyed it.