What is International Librarianship? What is Comparative Librarianship? How are they related?
The text of a guest lecture, “What is so international about international librarianship?” that I gave in Milwaukee in July 2005 was available on the web until recently and was quite widely cited, somewhat to my embarrassment, as my thinking on the subject has moved on since then. I developed my ideas a bit further in an article published in Mousaion (a library journal published by the University of South Africa, Pretoria) in 2008 (Vol. 26, no. 1, pp.1-15): Critical reflections on international librarianship. My considered opinion (as of now) can be found in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (ELIS), in my article on “International and Comparative Librarianship”. You have to pay to gain access, but here is an edited excerpt which conveys the essence:
Parker’s (1974) definition of international librarianship has been widely cited and it serves as an authoritative point for discussion:
“International librarianship consists of activities carried out among or between governmental or non-governmental institutions, organizations, groups or individuals of two or more nations, to promote, establish, develop, maintain and evaluate library, documentation and allied services, and librarianship and the library profession generally, in any part of the world” (p.221).
Several key points for consideration are raised by the definition:
(a) International librarianship is a field of activity, rather than a scientific discipline. This does not, of course, prevent the activities from being studied with scientific rigor. In this case the field may be referred to as “international library science,” particularly as practiced in the United States, where the term “library science” is used to refer to the field as a scientific discipline;
(b) The activities are conducted in a relationship “among or between” parties at various levels, ranging from individuals to governments. Such activities, among others, include resource sharing, standardization, development aid, political and cultural influences, relations between and/or among national associations, and exchanges of staff, students and scholars; and
(c) These parties are located in two or more nations (countries). This stipulation raises the question of what is meant by “international.” Strictly speaking, relations between two countries are referred to as “bilateral” and purists would restrict the use of the term “international” to refer to relations between more than two countries (Keresztesi 1981), but in international librarianship this distinction is seldom observed.
This last point requires some elaboration. In the United States the term “international” is often used to mean “foreign,” hence the use of the term “international librarianship” to mean “librarianship in other countries.” This designation is common in the literature, where books bearing titles that include the term “international librarianship” may be, in fact, collections of articles describing aspects of librarianship in countries other than the United States…
J. Periam Danton (1973) formulated what remains the most authoritative and appropriate definition of comparative librarianship to date. He states that comparative librarianship is an
“area of scholarly investigation and research (that) may be defined as the analysis of libraries, library systems, some aspect of librarianship, or library problems in two or more national, cultural or societal environments, in terms of socio-political, economic, cultural, ideological, and historical contexts. This analysis is for the purpose of understanding the underlying similarities and differences and for determining explanations of the differences, with the ultimate aim of trying to arrive at valid generalizations and principles.” (p.52)
Danton (1977) later slightly amended his definition (p.4). Both of his contributions emphasize three essential aspects of comparative librarianship:
(a) There has to be a “cross-societal or cross-cultural element.” Often this is cross-country or international, but the comparison can be conducted within a single country, provided that the societal, cultural or ideological differences are such that they can give rise to differences in the nature of the library as an institution. Hence a comparison of public libraries in the German, French and Italian speaking cantons of Switzerland can legitimately be classified as comparative librarianship, but a comparison of the library use of working class and middle class Britons would not. On this point opinions diverge. .. The danger of including comparisons that are not cross-societal or cross-cultural in scope is that, since comparisons are inherent in empirical research, the greater part of research in library science could be labeled as “comparative librarianship”.
(b) There have to be “actual comparisons,” which go beyond mere descriptions or juxtaposition of data. Comparison implies the analysis of the similarities and differences in the sets of data collected.
(c) An attempt should be made to explain the observed similarities and differences with a view to building theory. Thus comparative librarianship is described as a discipline which employs a rigorous scientific methodology, on the pattern of other, older comparative disciplines such as comparative education.
Danton, J. Periam 1973. The Dimensions of Comparative Librarianship; American Library Association: Chicago.
Danton, J. Periam. 1977. Definitions of comparative and international library science. In Comparative and International Library Science; Harvey, J.F., Ed.; Scarecrow Press: Metuchen, N.J.; 3-14.
Keresztesi, M. 1981. Prolegomena to the history of international librarianship. Journal of Library History 16 (2), 435-448.
Parker, J.S. 1974. International librarianship – a reconnaissance. Journal of Librarianship 6 (4), 219-232.
Some other writings
A general article on librarianship as an international profession, published in August 2009 in the special IFLA Congress issue of Biblioteche Oggi.
During the past year I have become interested in the conceptual and methodological aspects of comparative librarianship. In a conference paper on internationalization of LIS education I included a large section on research method for comparative librarianship.
Important journals in international and comparative librarianship
A list of relevant journals is here. URLs are given for journals available on the Internet free of charge.