My Master of Library and Information Science Is No “Small World”

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So, first day back to the last semester of my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). Time does fly when you’re having fun. Well, minus those back-to-back all-nighters… Anyway, here’s an information behaviour assignment from last term. Is the MLIS program at Western an example of a “small world”? Let me know what you think.

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“I’m an optimist. I want to see just over the horizon, try to capture the world in which we live.” – Nathan Cohen[1]

According to Elfreda A. Chatman (1999), a life in the round is a “public form of life.” It is lived with “an enormous degree of imprecision” and “high tolerance for ambiguity.” Grounded in a “small world” of insider social norms, worldview and shared reality, however, a life in the round provides a level of certainty that is hinged on a “normative,” “taken-for-granted” and “business-as-usual” existence, where information seeking and boundary crossing are pointless and unnecessary except when life as you know it no longer functions and circumstances call for a collective rethinking.

From her information-as-performance perspective, Chatman argues that the insiders’ needs and expectations dictate the information narrative within that small world and the form of information flow is interpersonal. Literally trapped like a prisoner, an individual’s reality is socially constructed and controlled to embody the norms for acceptance and security. Individuality takes a back seat. The “small world” is not so small after all. It insidiously swallows someone whole. The MLIS program at FIMS as I know it is not an example of a “small world” as identified by Chatman. It does not define but rather informs the practitioners’ everyday reality. Insofar as it helps me navigate all things related to library and information science, it constantly challenges rather than reinforces my “insider” assumptions, reaches out for rather than guards against my “outsider” perspectives and demands rather than discourages critical thinking and scrutiny.

From the core, mandatory LIS 9001-9005 courses to the occasional self-doubt and shared career anxiety, it does feel like I am doing time when I stop to ponder about my current predicament. Between the walls of North Campus Building, we indeed share an insider language, symbols, customs, meanings and values. We learn about the DDC and RDA, that no money changes hands in reference transactions, that ILL does not require medical attention, and that freedom to read should be declared a human right. Things are implicitly understood and integrated with a natural order, sense of balance and direction. This social code or shared understanding in the MLIS context, however, does not aim to confine or control information seeking as in Chatman’s small world. Rather, it strives to facilitate discussions and serve as the basis for further exploration. The predictable routine of back-to-back assignments and perpetual lack of sleep are not torturing us to conform.

“[L]ife in the round will, for everyday purposes, have a negative effect on information seeking […] People will not search for information if there is no need to do so,” contends Chatman. From the small-world perspective, “information has little to do with data. It means nothing at all if it is not part of a system of related ideas, expectations, standards, and values.” Does knowledge of the larger society matter? Are we supposed to just blindly wrap ourselves in a bubble? Isn’t the very nature of a MLIS to examine what information is being ignored? We are not trapped in a prison after all. The idea of a small world feels too top-down and escapist to me. Information seeking at a graduate study level should be driven by inner curiosity as opposed to a superficial display of public performance. In the grand scheme of things, pursuing and creating knowledge should never feel like we are on survival mode trying to fit in!

Volleyball head coach. Mother. Father. Lawyer. Lesbian. Teacher. Musician. Gamer… My MLIS has been nothing but enriched by the diversity and life stories of my fellow inclassmates. Each of us has a unique frame of reference regarding our shared reality and experience of librarianship. By “seeing over the horizon” as Nathan Cohen put it, our individual meaning of the self is shaping (rather than being shaped as in Chatman’s small world) our shared journey of MLIS. Whatever common ideas of librarianship the MLIS is presenting to us, it is always up to us to interpret/reinterpret, understand/misunderstand, accept/reject and take action/stay put. Before I signed up for this program, I attended a library school recruitment information session. In the closing remark, one of the presenters urged us to stay true to and embrace our core identity and non-library related interests because at the end of the day, all the cataloguing rules and reference skills could only take you so far. Innovations often require thinking outside the box. Yes, the MLIS at FIMS could feel like a small world, which has its advantages such as common lingo and a sense of community. However, unlike Chatman’s encompassing small world, it is only a part of who I am.

 

Reference

Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(3), 207-217.

[1] Nathan Cohen is an interdisciplinary visual artist. He was quoted here by Arthur I. Miller in his 2014’s Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art published by W. W. Norton & Company.

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