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An Alternative to Chaos

Note: This post is not a commentary on the current situation in the Philippines (but I suppose I could draw a connection between Nitecki and those who claim that the sky is falling). It is, in fact, a paper I submitted for a class in 14 April 2003. I have not changed anything except to update the links. The paper's subtitle is "A Critique of Chapter 7 of Volume II of the Nitecki Trilogy." To casual readers: consider yourself warned =)

I. Introduction

Volume II of the Nitecki TrilogyPhilosophical Aspects of Library Information Science in Retrospect—has three parts, the largest of which is Part II, “Intellectual Insights into LIS: A Compendium.” Part I is basically an introduction to Part II—or, as Nitecki himself states, it provides “…an overview of the emerging philosophy of LIS by summarizing the citations listed in Part II of the book.” Part III is composed of three appendices naming the philosophers cited in the compendium, references to selected names mentioned in the compendium and a bibliography (Nitecki 1995).

This paper will focus on Part I because, while Part II is arguably and seemingly more important due to its length, Part I explains how and why Nitecki chose the contents of Part II. In addition, Nitecki proposes in Part I a framework by which Part II may be understood.

This paper will deal most substantially with Chapter 7 because, after summarizing the compendium’s contents in the previous five chapters according to his model of metalibrarianship, it is only in Chapter 7 that Nitecki begins to comment significantly on the views he has summarized. It is also here that he utilizes chaos theory and implies that the philosophy of LIS is in a state of chaos to which there is an underlying order. And this is the reason an alternative to chaos theory will be proposed in this paper—because this author does not agree with Nitecki’s assertion that a chaotic intellectual situation exists in the philosophy of LIS.

II. Ideological Chaos?

In Chapter 7, Nitecki states that, “An important lesson learned from the theory of chaos is that even in the largest disorder there is some underlying order.” He implies that chaos theory applies to the intellectual discussion regarding the philosophy of LIS. In fact, the chapter is entitled “Understanding Intellectual Chaos,” and toward the end of the chapter, he refers to “the present ideological chaos.” But the truth is, according to a review of 1,160 articles published in six LIS journals from 1993 to 1998 (the period during which the Nitecki Trilogy was copyrighted), only 397, or 34 percent, discussed or employed theory (Pettigrew and McKechnie 2001). Does a publication rate of 34 percent indicate that theory was not important during the period mentioned? Not necessarily, but it does not look as if the field was as chaotic as Nitecki makes it appear; most of the articles reviewed were not even substantially about theory but just incorporated theory in “either title, abstract or text” (ibid., 66). In fact, the editor of a recently published issue of Library Trends says that, “there is little formal theory to agree or disagree on” (McGrath 2002a, 309). This was stated in an issue devoted to theory.

In the same issue of Library Trends, Nitecki’s work (1993; Volume I of the Nitecki Trilogy) is called a “tour de force” in an article devoted to reviewing LIS research that could contribute to the development of a grand unified library theory (McGrath 2002b, 357). However, in the next paragraph, Nitecki’s work is said to have limited value to the review because “the philosophy of librarianship [does not tell] us how to develop an explanatory theory of librarianship” (ibid.). Apparently, while McGrath finds Nitecki’s metalibrarianship model interesting, he does not find in it the explanatory and predictive qualities found in other scientific theories like those of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. And Volume II is really not much more than a compendium of abstracts forced to fit into the boxes labeled by Nitecki as metaphysical, epistemological and valuational; and concept, context and process (see Table 1). Hence, Volume II is even less likely to be of value to McGrath’s review except, perhaps, as a bibliography to be consulted.

Nitecki exaggerates by claiming that a state of intellectual chaos exists in LIS but, after going through the compendium of abstracts he compiled, he may perhaps be forgiven for overstating his case. He may just have gotten disoriented by the volume of literature written on the philosophy of librarianship—and forgot that a few hundred articles and books do not necessarily add up to a chaotic situation.

III. Paradigm Shifts

Kuhn (1970, 92) defines a scientific revolution as a “noncumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.” Covey (1990, 23) defines a paradigm as a “model, theory, perception, assumption, or frame of reference.” That a scientific revolution is now occurring cannot be denied, but it is not happening exclusively to LIS. It is an information technology revolution that is changing the world—and LIS—as we know it. Paradigms based on manual processes are being replaced by paradigms that maximize the potential of technological advances in the past ten years.

Could it be said that chaos exists in the world right now when it comes to technology? To a certain extent, because of the ongoing revolution, yes. Does the same apply to LIS? The answer is no. LIS is affected by the current changes in technology and these changes are causing problems, but not necessarily chaos. Just because a technological revolution is taking place does not mean that chaos reigns in the philosophy of LIS. Nitecki uses chaos theory as a reference point and proceeds to show that, using his own metalibrarianship model, order actually reigns amid the chaos. But what he fails to consider is that chaos theory was devised with large populations and/or enormous quantities of information in mind—and not a few hundred articles and books. And so, of course, it will not be difficult to discern order in a not very chaotic situation using an all-inclusive model devised to account for everything under the sun.

Nitecki would probably be better served by replacing references to intellectual chaos in LIS with the need for a paradigm shift. Replacing an existing paradigm with another that better accounts for “anomalies” in existing paradigms (according the language of Kuhn) is much more realistic than instituting order where chaos does not quite reign. But introducing the need for a paradigm shift will not be without its own difficulties. After all, while there is “extensive reference to theory in LIS literature, whether from a well-informed intent to place LIS on a more rigorous foundation, or from a na├»ve effort to sound more scientific” (McGrath 2002a, 309), there are not many LIS paradigms in existence. In fact, it would be difficult enough to identify which paradigm needs to be replaced.

McGrath (2002b, 359) refers to the studies he reviews as what might be called “normal” science by Kuhn. But McGrath follows this with a very chilling comment—that existing theory is “much more elemental or primitive, and LIS has far to go to build good explanatory theory.” In short, while the studies he reviews may be considered normal science, LIS theory is still not mature. Kuhn (1970, 10) defines normal science as “research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.” What is particularly distressing is that the LIS community does not seem to agree on many specific achievements—aside from Ranganathan’s Five Laws and the different systems of classification—as supplying its foundation.

Van House and Sutton (1996) claim that there is a need for evolution in LIS education; otherwise, LIS may just become like the panda—threatened with extinction. But this author will have to beg to disagree. What is needed, in the midst of the information technology revolution that is currently taking place, is not an evolution that may take decades, but a radical paradigm shift now. However, due to a dearth of competing paradigms seeking to explain the nature of LIS, this author can only hope that someone will formulate—and soon—a paradigm that will attract the attention of LIS practitioners and lead LIS into the next century.

IV. Dilemmas

Nitecki cites four dilemmas around which the abstracts in his compendium revolve. These dilemmas presumably comprise the bulk of the intellectual chaos that Nitecki refers to in Chapter 7. Further examination of these dilemmas will serve to illustrate the not quite chaotic nature of LIS philosophy.

Theory vs Practice. Nitecki refers to a “theory vs. practice controversy” but there does not seem to be any evidence of a conflict between two parties on a scale that would justify the use of the word “controversy.” A dispute, after all, or even a scholarly discussion—on the nature of LIS, for instance, as published in the book edited by Machlup and Mansfield (1983, 343-405)—is not necessarily a “controversy.” Eberhart’s The Whole Library Handbook 3 (2000)—a collection of LIS articles deemed useful to librarians—does not even have the words “theory” or “philosophy” in its index. What it does have are references to Ranganathan’s Five Laws and Gorman’s Five New Laws. And on the Internet, the Librarian’s Index to the Internet (http://lii.org)—which presumably would have a bias for library-related websites—has subject headings for “library science,” but none of the very few websites it lists under this heading can be said to focus on “theory” or “philosophy.” There does not seem to be any evidence of the “controversy” that Nitecki asserts will be “resolved” by making a distinction between the new generation of theoreticians and scholars, and the practicing librarians.

Librarianship vs Information Science. There is much more evidence of the “related contemporary tension between librarianship and information science” that Nitecki writes about. He speaks of terminology changes carried out by computer and information specialists and the corresponding changes made by librarians in their terminology. But he also speaks of “searching for order in the chaos of the information ‘explosion.’ ” Here, the reference made to chaos is much more apt because he is not just referring to a limited quantity of documents but to a universally acknowledged and undeniable exponential growth in the quantity of available information that can only be described as “chaotic.” However, it must be pointed out that tension between librarianship and information science does not necessarily translate into intellectual chaos in the philosophy of LIS.

Service vs Teaching. This is the least developed of the four dilemmas that Nitecki enumerates. The two sentences devoted to it seem to imply that service is limited to the appropriateness of answers provided to users, and that teaching involves understanding the meaning behind questions asked and identifying resources needed. It is not clear, however, what dilemma Nitecki is referring to because questions and answers are clearly two sides of the same coin. Suggesting that one should be more important than the other is not necessarily a dilemma but more like nitpicking.

Involvement. Nitecki again employs the term “controversy” here and he may well be right. As recently as last year, librarians were characterized as “supposed to quietly fade away with the advent of the Internet” (Sanders 2002). But, in fact, librarians in the United States—through the American Library Association (ALA)—have led opposition to legislation on copyrights, the Patriot Act and the installation of Internet filters on library computers. The dilemma appears to have been resolved in the manner that Nitecki suggests—that of the need for a distinction to be made between “aggressive professional politics” led by library professional organizations, and “the ideological neutrality of the specialists” as reflected in the professional behavior of individual librarians. It is, however, difficult for this author to accept that there was ever any real “controversy”—in the sense that two opposing camps were pushing different agendas—because individual librarians have always been free to act independently of their professional organizations.

Nitecki uses the terms “dilemma,” “quandary,” “controversy” and “tension” in this section almost as if they are interchangeable. And so, the reader should probably not be surprised that Nitecki employs the term “chaos” to describe a field that is clearly not chaotic but still in the process of maturing.

V. Conclusion

Nitecki’s work is very important. Among other things, it emphasizes that LIS has much literature on philosophy to draw from. But to claim that this literature indicates “ideological chaos” in the philosophy of LIS is not just an exaggeration, but a dangerous statement that could lead to complacency. After all, most people will think that if a state of chaos exists, then all that needs to be done is to restore order. And if Nitecki, through his metalibrarianship model, has already detected the underlying order in the existing disorder, then nothing else needs to be done. Right? Wrong.

If no state of chaos exists, then there is no need for order. And in fact, there is really not much theory to agree or disagree on (McGrath 2002a, 309), so how can there be chaos? Even before Nitecki came up with the first volume of his trilogy, Schlachter (1989, 283) already declared that research in LIS was “fragmented, noncumulative, generally weak, and relentlessly oriented to immediate practice.” What is needed is not an all-inclusive classification system for anything and everything under the sun in the field of LIS as Nitecki has proposed, but for more basic and applied research to be done (Sison 2002). Or, using the language of Kuhn, we need more competing paradigms that will challenge existing beliefs and take LIS philosophy into the new millennium.

Nitecki ends Part I of Volume II by saying that he is “sadly amazed… amazed at the dramatic impact of the new technology on the scholarship of all disciplines, and saddened by the minimal acknowledgment this modern revolution is giving to it library antecedence.” He is, of course, correct but I think librarians have brought this indifference upon themselves.

LIS practitioners will be greatly needed as the global information society develops but the contribution that LIS has made and can continue to make will only be recognized if the LIS practitioners themselves make it happen. Sure, libraries are undermanned and librarians are too busy doing everything themselves in their own libraries to worry about advocating their cause, but no one else will fight for libraries if librarians don’t. And if LIS practitioners leave others to come up with paradigms that subsume LIS, then we deserve to be as sadly amazed as Nitecki.

As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene II), “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…”

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