The S in RIPS and the Value of Libraries

by Paul Gatz

In 1976, a Québécois librarian named André Cossette published a thin volume on the philosophy of librarianship, which, many years later, was translated to English by Rory Litwin and published under the title of Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. Clear and concise, analytic and maybe even optimistic, Cossette’s reflections offer a refreshing tonic if you ever happen to fall under a professional malaise that leaves you wondering what, exactly, the point of this all is.


Le drapeau national du Quebec. By the Government of Quebec.

I read it some time ago, but one passage from the book has stuck with me. I cannot help but read it as a sort of provocation, even though it is included as a point almost tangential to the main argument (or as tangential as anything can be in a 61-page work). After setting forth his definition of librarianship and discussing the epistemological status of library science, Cossette urges librarians to critically reexamine “the supplementary and secondary character that has been attributed to libraries.” [38] By “supplementary and secondary character” he refers to the idea that the central function of a library is to serve the larger institution of which it is a part. He expands on this:

This vision of libraries as secondary institutions with the principle role of “service” has considerably retarded the development of library science, because it has placed theory – the principles and knowledge base of the discipline outside of professional practice – in a region outside the sphere of influence of librarians themselves. [39]

I call this a provocation because, 40 years later, service to the greater institution – of which the library is only a part – unquestionably seems to be the central function of the library. We pride ourselves on the high level and quality of service that we provide to our patrons – performing research, developing collections, and even crafting mission statements based on the needs of our primary institutions, whether law school, firm, or court. Law libraries and law librarians provide services to these institutions – it’s what we do.

What significance, if any, should we, as law librarians, attach to Cossette’s denigration of service? When he discusses libraries as possessing a secondary or supplementary character, it does seem like he has a particular type of library in mind: namely, a library of a large research university, which, due to the breadth and depth of its collection, stands as an accomplishment in itself above and beyond its services to the larger university. And his objection to the library’s “supplementary and secondary character” is expressly concerned with the effect of perceptions of such a character on the ability of librarians to develop their own theoretical grounding. It is unclear whether this sort of concern needs to be shared by every type of library.

Perhaps the value of Cossette’s comments on service lies precisely in their propensity to provoke, to rouse us out of our usual assumptions. Service is no doubt a necessary function of any library, but that recognition need not commit us to the idea that the library is a secondary or supplementary institution or that service occupies the whole of our professional identity as librarians. Certainly, the creation, maintenance, and development of the library, to borrow Cossette’s definition, as a system for “the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audiovisual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access” [33] is a good in itself, and, moreover, supports and makes possible the service we provide.

And the provision of that service, in turn, is fully part of the creation of the library’s information system, sitting at the nexus between the system and the user, benefiting one no less than the other. Perhaps this nexus offers a vantage point for a Gestalt shift of sorts. Indeed, at first glance, the library’s function is to provide information services of a high quality. But, with a sudden shift in perspective, we may see that the work we do in providing that service itself creates the library, an information system the value of which transcends any particular service. The former view is important for communicating our value to others, for helping them to understand our place in the larger institution. The latter gives a deeper meaning to our work and our professional identity, maybe even helping us to better understand ourselves.

About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Issues in Librarianship (generally), Patron Services and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The S in RIPS and the Value of Libraries

  1. Dean C. Rowan says:

    Thank you for bringing Cossette’s work to our attention. It seems to me that seen from a certain angle virtually all human enterprise serves a supplementary or secondary–call it ancillary–function. Lawyers, for example, are not per se essential. They serve other endeavors. But “the vision” of legal practice is clearly focused upon a species of legal theory, “the principles and knowledge base of the discipline outside of professional practice,” rather than upon the legal professional as ancillary. If it were, professional responsibility would loom larger as a concernthan it does. Instead, professional responsibility is but one component of a theory of lawyering. In lamenting the emphasis on libraries as ancillary organizations, I fear Cossette is revisiting the unfortunate topic of the “image” of libraries and librarians. He isn’t suggesting that service is a bad thing, but that too emphatic an acknowledgement of one’s secondary service function is, one practical consequence of which is that libraries and librarians are (viewed as) not responsible for the development of their own principles and knowledge base. We merely carry out as dutiful servants the conduct prescribed by theories elaborated by others.

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