International and Comparative Librarianship

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

My work on Chapter 3 and subsequent reading and rethinking resulted in an article on revitalizing comparative librarianship:

Lor, P. J. (2014). Revitalizing comparative library and information science: theory and metatheory. Journal of documentation, 70(1), 25–51.  DOI 10.1108/JD-10-2012-0129

Abstract: This article is intended to stimulate theoretical reflection in international comparative studies in library and information science (comparative LIS).  On the basis of literature from other comparative disciplines, a framework for examining issues of metatheory, methodology and methods is constructed. Against this background the role of theory and metatheory in the literature of comparative LIS is evaluated. General observations are illustrated using examples selected from comparative studies in LIS.  It is found that much of the literature of comparative LIS is atheoretical and based on assumptions that reflect naive empiricism. Most comparativists in LIS fail to link their work to that of colleagues, so that no body of theory is built up. Insufficient use is made of theory from other social science disciplines. There is a little evidence of awareness of metatheoretical assumptions in the sociological, teleological, ontological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Recommendations are made for improving teaching and research in comparative LIS.


A general article on librarianship as an international profession, was published in August 2009 in the special IFLA Congress issue of Biblioteche Oggi.

During the past few years 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.

In 2008 I was privileged to speak at the VALA Conference in Melbourne, Australia, and presented a paper, “International Librarianship 2.0: some international dimensions of Web 2.0 and Library 2.0“.

The World-Wide Web is evolving into an interactive, multipolar social space, referred to as Web 2.0. Libraries are urged to follow suit, as implied by the term Library 2.0. A brief exploration of the evolving environment precedes a discussion of a number of trends which affect the library profession and which require attention at the international level. They include the commodification and dematerialisation of information, globalisation, and disintermediation. Their effects are diverse and affect freedom of information, equity of access, and inclusion in the information society – three themes that are addressed as part of IFLA’s international advocacy programme.

Important journals in international and comparative librarianship

For a recent list of journals that contain articles relevant to international and compararive libraries, see here. It supersedes an earlier, outdated list of relevant journals, in which  URLs are given for journals available on the Internet free of charge. 


15 Responses to International and Comparative Librarianship

  1. mashudu says:

    this is one of the clear difinition i’ve come across because it was my first time hearing about this two terms and this difinition gave me a better explaination in a way that am enough

  2. i did not get the real meaning of an international library

    • Peter Lor says:

      Victoria, in the USA the expression “international library” means a library in a country other than the USA. In American English the word “international” often means “foreign”. I prefer standard (British) English usage. In Standard English the expression “international library” is uncommon. I imagine it could be used to refer to the library of an international organization such as the UN or UNESCO.

      • Tina says:

        Prof can it be, the activities that describe the relationship,support, MOU’s, sharing,between libraries across countries,continents,regions,borders etc.

  3. Pingback: Peter Lor Suomeen: Kirjastoammatin kansainväliset ulottuvuudet – Verkkari

  4. Pingback: Monthly discussion: What is international librarianship? | International Librarians Network

  5. omegaquilins says:

    Cross-societal and cross cultural element can be within one single country, therefore is it possible to do comparative librarianship within a country with diferent soceites and cultural values? I would like to also get help to clarify which is broader to each other between international librarianship and comparative librarianship or they run in parallel?

    • Peter Lor says:

      Thanks for your question. Yes, it is possible to do comparative LIS research when comparing LIS in different societal or cultural contexts within one country, e.g. comparing public library development in Quebec and other Canadian provinces. On the relationship between international librarianship and comparative librarianship, I prefer not to see these in a hierarchical relationship (as one including the other), but as being in different categories. They overlap. Not all international librarianship is comparative, and not all comparative librarianship is international — although I do think that comparative librarianship is concerned with comparisons at what Ragin (1987:5) calls the macrosocial level, which is that of societies, cultures and nations.
      Reference: Ragin, Charles C. 1987. The Comparative Method: Moving beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

  6. bukar abba says:

    i would like to know the effects in international and comparative librarianship. thanks

  7. Chowdhury Al -Naheyan says:

    Can you please describe the difference between international librarianship and comparative librarianship


    • The main difference I see between the two concepts is that comparative librarianship aims at a comparison of libraries/library services/library developments from different countries. Comparison implies looking at similarities and differences.

      However, international librarianship is not limited to a comparison. It can focus on cooperation and efforts at libraries from two different countries working together or the relationship between two libraries in two different countries.

      • International librarianship denotes the library or librarianship activities taking place between or among two or more countries, while comparative librarianship aims at analyzing the similarities and differences between or among libraries/librarianship in a number of countries.

  8. Peter Lor says:

    I agree with Mark.

  9. paul says:

    Sir,pls, i want to (compare the library users, practitioners, government across political, cultural and geographical boundaries). i am finding it difficult to compare.

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