Role models for librarians

By Jacob Siefring

Do you know “Dead Germans and the Theory of Librarianship” by Sydney Pierce? It was listed as a required reading on the Information and Society fall 2011 syllabus. The short journal article’s point was this: LIS doesn’t have a distinctive, illustrious, or particularly rich history. It’s here, there, and everywhere. It’s a field with roots in many other distinct areas of inquiry. And, indeed, it’s a field that only really came into its own towards the start of the last century.

This is in contradistinction to the humanities and social sciences. Whereas the theoretical foundations of such fields as sociology, psychology, and philosophy are bolstered by sets of writings (respectively, to cite the key reference points, those of: Weber and Simmel; Freud and Jung; Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Benjamin) that provide a common ground covered by students everywhere, forming a large chunk of the core curriculum, the historical foundations of LIS are often summed up in a single lecture during a given course, with little depth or context provided.

Of course, LIS does indeed have a rich history that should receive our attention. What prevents that history’s investigation is that it would mean countless furloughs and tangents into other disciplines, and into the past, not the future, where everyone likes to believe we are heading. Anyways, this blog can be used as a place to draw attention to areas of interest, historical or otherwise, that may be left out of course curricula. (I hope to do so shortly with a discussion of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, so check back if you’re interested.)

But back to Pierce’s article. By asking head librarians and LIS profs for suggestions regarding who the “dead Germans” of LIS might be, Pierce kept hearing the following names mentioned on numerous occasions:

John Cotton Dana;

Ralph Shaw; and

Jesse Shera.

At least ten other names were dropped, but none besides these three received a double or a triple mention. If you’re in the librarianship stream, you might have already heard about these three guys in detail. If you don’t know them, have a glance at their Wikipedia entries. Their biographies are interesting, and their efforts to advance their professions and society are admirable. Even if their writings aren’t listed on any syllabus (or are they?), these dead Americans deserve a mention and maybe even a read.

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