Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship

Preface and Introduction


André Cossette, a librarian in Quebec, Canada, wrote the text presented here as an investigation of the foundations of the library profession. As you will see in his acknowledgments, it was written as part of a graduate program in Library Science at the University of Montreal. It was published in book form in 1976 by ASTED (L’Association pour l’avancement des sciences et des techniques de la documentation, more or less Quebec’s version of the Special Libraries Association), under the title, Humanisme et bibliothéques: Essay sur la philosophie de la bibliothéconomie. Mr. Cossette, I very much regret to say, is no longer alive to accept my praise for his essay and to respond to questions and comments.

This text may strike many readers as an oddity during the present Library 2.0 era, when our discourse is so preoccupied with issues that had not yet been imagined at the time of its original publication. It was written in a very different context, and it asks basic, philosophical questions about the profession that don’t occur to most American librarians to ask. Therefore, I feel that it rests on me to explain why librarians today ought to read Cossette’s little book on library philosophy.

Unlike many of the books published by this press, the overall statement that Cossette’s book makes is not radical (except insofar as it insists on the need for a carefully thought out philosophical underpinning for professional practice). Most of what it says would be met with agreement by mainstream American librarians who cut their teeth in library school and libraries at the time of its writing or in the decades that followed. However, if I am not mistaken, many readers may recognize in it ideas that are present within their own practice but which they have not before seen expressed in a systematic way. Cossette’s intention was to build a foundation for the practice of librarianship that was a simple, solid and comprehensive structure, and not a mixture of diverse ideas that sound appealing but are never thought through one against another. This is not a familiar approach for American librarians. We tend to find our philosophical foundations, such as they are, in inspiring statements of ideals that become fuzzy when inspected closely or juxtaposed, but find them useful enough to keep us going. We are generally not concerned with their logical connections or lack of connections.

Cossette’s essay begins with the complaint that modern librarianship lacks a clear philosophy. I would speculate, over what I imagine would be some objections, that it took a librarian from the Francophone world to be piqued enough by this observation to set about finally working out the foundations for the profession in philosophical terms at a time when the practice of librarianship had already reached such a mature phase. I think that this is the case for two reasons. First, it is because modern librarianship, with its emphasis on intellectual freedom and support for democracy, has been very much an Anglo-American cultural development. It was a combination of both the neighboring Anglo-American tradition and the more elitist French tradition that shaped the library context of Quebec. This means that in Quebec in the mid 70s there would have been somewhat more of a reason to work out and state in clear terms what may have been more internalized and intuitively accepted, if not fully thought through, south of the border. Secondly (and this may be utter BS, but seems true to me), Francophone culture is relatively more interested in and receptive to philosophical discussion than American culture, which tends to prefer a practical approach. (Cossette himself identified the more practical and less theoretical orientation of AngloAmerican culture as one of the reasons that a true philosophy of librarianship had not yet been worked out.) If Cossette’s book is typically Francophone in approaching librarianship from a seriously philosophical perspective, however, one should not assume that its philosophy is “typically French,” and reminiscent of French developments in late 20th century philosophy and literary theory. Cossette drew upon a philosophical tradition that I think Anglo-American readers will be comfortable with, and liked his statements clear, simple and definite.

Readers may be asking a couple of questions at this point. The first question I can image being asked is, Why should American librarians be interested in a philosophical treatment of the foundations of the profession if it simply states in a systematic fashion what we already intuitively understand and picked up in a different way in library school and in the professional literature? The answer is that Cossette’s work, in fact, does not only state systematically what we already understand; reading it tells us other things as well. In working through the ideas that underlie the profession in a systematic way, we become aware of the internal logic of what we do, which can be a great source of confidence in the decisions that we make. At the same time, we also become aware of the internal contradictions in much of what we have not really examined about our own practice, and may become aware of some new facets of our professional foundations, with consequences for our approach to our work. Furthermore, in addition to this logical workingout of what otherwise goes unexamined, Cossette gives us a useful historical perspective on the intellectual foundations of the profession. Sound ideas about what librarianship is and what its goals are permit us to claim a degree of autonomy in institutions where we might otherwise serve as mere functionaries rather than as the professionals we are. Without a philosophical foundation, we lack a basis for making decisions regarding how to change our institutions in response to external forces, with the potential result that we do not play the role that we should in decision-making.

The other question that I can imagine being asked by readers at this point is, What is the relevance of a library philosophy of 1976, however solid, to the questions faced by librarians in an era when everything has changed and continues to change rapidly? The answer I would give is that philosophy, of all of the disciplines that can be applied to a study of the profession, is the only one that has a sufficient degree of abstraction and generality to remain valid and instructive over a period of time during which so many of the methods and even contexts of use have been overturned. A philosophy of librarianship is more serviceable than a science of librarianship (see Cossette’s distinction in the first chapter) in providing a source of continuity regarding what librarianship is and what it is for. That continuity, and clear sense of identity and purpose that come from it, are necessary to guide us through a sea of change (to use a corny metaphor) without running aground, going adrift, or being smashed to bits by the results of decisions that fail to take our destination and the big picture into account. The future of librarianship is not guaranteed. To those who do not view librarianship as being a distinct and self-defined profession carrying some kernel of continuity with its history based on a conceptual identity, that isn’t of much importance. Understanding librarianship through a philosophy of its foundations rather than through its contingencies makes it matter, and highlights the importance of its continuation. I hope contemporary readers will find the book useful in this regard.

Rory Litwin
Duluth, MN
October 4th, 2009


Contemporary librarianship is characterized by a fight for the full development of its theoretical foundations. This struggle against the claims of everyday practice and the empiricism of “Library Science” is fought on two fronts. The first is made of a clear and distinct desire to constitute librarianship as a scientific discipline. It aims to apply the scientific method to the library field as a way of providing methods that are understandable and effective. This concern for scientific rigor is largely accepted in the profession today and is on the road to progressively greater realization.

The second front has been pursued by a handful of solitary thinkers who have an awareness of the insufficiency of the scientific approach, and have their beginnings in the founding, in 1926, of the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago. After 1930, the instructors at this celebrated library school would go on to work out, over roughly the next decade, the basic ideas of a philosophy of librarianship. Faced with indifference, the further development of a philosophy for the profession went forward principally because of the work of J. Periam Danton, Jesse Shera and D. J. Foskett, who established that while librarianship as a human activity had become a science, in reaching this status it need not bypass the essential questions in terms of which it must justify itself, its reason for being. These individuals’ interest in the philosophy of librarianship demonstrates a remarkable lucidity and a clear will to go past the traditional pragmatism of the profession.

It is important, to be sure, to work for the improvement of the techniques used in libraries, but it is also important to take an interest in the ends that we want to achieve by them. It is necessary to provide the rational foundations for the beliefs that the librarians have in the value of their work. Noticing that the professional literature leaves questions of philosophy to the side in order to limit itself to questions of technique, the library theorists who have been the most conscious of this made the development of the fundamental concepts of the discipline their priority. These concepts are essential to safeguard the unity of librarianship and to avoid its fragmentation into multiple independent activities.

I am stating emphatically that librarianship has been pointed in a resolutely scientific direction. This orientation, sufficiently well established to mark a point of no return, no longer permits us to identify the discipline as an agglomeration of techniques without any coherence. It is necessary to clarify, at the same time, that the conceptual scheme of librarianship is still relatively undeveloped. This theoretical weakness has given birth to the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the relevance and meaning of the philosophy of librarianship that this essay endeavors to clear up. This philosophy, itself not well developed, has been described by specialists as unsystematic. Here, I attempt to determine the causes and analyze the consequences of this situation for the development of the profession.

This study has as its essential object to analyze the fundamental concepts elaborated by the firsts theorists of library philosophy as a way of separating the nature of librarianship from its technical practices and defining its ultimate aims. The central thesis is that the fundamental problem of the discipline is not one of technique but of ends. What goals guide the library in bringing about the full flowering of humanity? The ultimate intention here is to underline the profoundly humanistic character of librarianship.