Rethinking Librarianship as a Design Profession

Dr. Rachel Ivy Clarke, who has a PhD in information science, is an assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Her research focuses on the reconceptualization of librarianship as a design profession, rather than a scientific discipline. Her dissertation, “It’s Not Library Science: Design Epistemology and American Librarianship” analyzes examples of artifacts created over the course of American library history to argue that librarianship is truly a design discipline. In celebration of National Library Week this year (April 9-15, 2017), we spoke to Dr. Clarke about her ongoing research.


You’ve written that your time at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles “raised many questions about the information behavior of artists and other creative users.” What made you interested in specifically thinking about librarianship and the behavior of artists?

A lot of librarianship is actually very closely tied to what we call, in information science, the study of information behavior. So, how people are navigating, finding, searching, using, creating information.

I grew up using my local public library and had what I term “normal library experiences.” You go in to find a specific book because you heard about it on the news, or someone recommended it, or you want to read books about horses. Those are all fairly typical information behaviors, and the way that people look for materials in libraries.

When I got a job at the Fashion Institute I found that the students there were looking for things in very unexpected ways. So, they didn’t care if the book was about horses, they cared if the book had pictures. They didn’t care if the book was about horses, they wanted a book that felt cold, because they were designing their winter fashion line.

So all of the things you would traditionally look up in a library catalogue — “let me search for books about horses” — the way that these students thought about things, you couldn’t do through the catalog. You can’t look up “books that make me feel cold” or “books that have glossy pages” or “books that have a lot of pictures in them.” They were looking for things in very different ways.

And I started reading about the information behavior of artists, and found that it’s not just L.A. It’s artists all over. And they’re often compared to people who work in the sciences because people in the sciences often have very specific information that they’re looking for.

They’re looking for whatever’s new, whatever’s most recent — recent discoveries on genetics or cancer. They’re really interested in journal articles because those things turn around quickly. Whereas artists, it doesn’t necessarily matter how old the information is, it matters how aesthetically attractive it is to them, or how inspirational it is for their particular project. So age does not matter to artists in the same way that it does to, say, scientists.

I’m curious about this term “artifacts” that you’ve used. Did that lead toward your research in design?

It did albeit indirectly. I was really interested in how we could have catalogues that would support artists in the ways they look for things. So I left the Fashion Institute and went to do my PhD. I was interested in exploring some of these questions, and I was interested in building catalogs that would help artists, or building classification systems that would help artists. And the more I looked into the building aspect, that’s where design really comes in.

I didn’t come up with the term artifacts. It’s a common term in design and the study of things that have been made. There’s a famous scholar, Herbert Simon, who wrote a book called The Sciences of the Artificial where he contrasts the traditional scientific approach to knowledge in the world and design. And he very specifically characterizes design as making things, and these things are artifactual, they’re artificial, they’re human-created, as opposed to nature-created.

How is librarianship about design, and how is that different from libraries themselves being about design?

A lot of people think of libraries as the physical space, and they talk about design strictly in that context. So they’re thinking about interior design or architecture — like the way the building is built, and the way the furniture is arranged. And that’s all true. Those are all definitely design aspects.

When I talk about librarianship itself, I’m trying to get librarians to think of themselves, and their day-to-day work, as being design work. Librarians are always creating things. We’re always creating metadata for bibliographic records. We’re always creating policies about circulation. Librarians are creating storytimes for kids, and other types of programming. And these are all design activities, but we don’t traditionally think of them as design because we haven’t really been taught that in our library education.

I’m trying to get librarians to reinvent themselves as designers, and to take more agency and more control into what they’re creating in their jobs. So it’s not just about the space anymore, although that’s definitely part of it. But when I talk about librarianship as design, I’m talking about all the work that librarians do.

What are some ways that libraries already utilize design?

There are a couple great examples. One of my favorites is actually at the Chicago Public Library. They partnered with a design firm called IDEO, and they helped IDEO create what’s called a design toolkit for libraries — a whole bunch of tips, methods and approaches. It’s an introduction to what’s called “design thinking” — that’s a really popular term in business right now. It’s a particular process-based approach where you identify a problem that needs to be addressed in your library somehow.

You brainstorm, you ideate a number of solutions, even crazy ones. One thing libraries could be taking more advantage of in this design space is the idea that you put something out there at an early stage, sort of fail early, fail often. You put out prototypes that might not be fully formed, and then get feedback from your community.

So, before you make an executive decision like, “We’re going to have this type of program on Thursday night for teens,” you're going to float some ideas to your teens first, and see what they think. It may be that Thursday night is band practice, and none of them can come.

Why is it important that libraries set themselves apart from all the other information service providers?

So my perspective on this actually goes back to the American Library Association’s set of core values. Libraries have a set of values that they stand for. So things like diversity, things like access, things like anti-censorship and intellectual freedom. And those are things that commercial information service providers don't necessarily stand for.

Did your earlier video game research influence your current work?

I think it did, but again in a roundabout way. I’m not that into video games, but I knew a lot about metadata, and it was a project about video game metadata, so a faculty member asked me to work on it. But as I got involved I actually I realized I am a gamer. I'm just not the typical stereotype of a gamer. I play solitaire on my phone, I play Bejeweled — these casual type games — on the bus, to pass the time.

So, that was actually enlightening in a lot of ways, because it helped me see that there’s not any one specific type of user. In the same way that there’s not one universal library user. There’s artists and there’s scientists and there’s engineers, and all these people are approaching information in a different way. The same was true for video games.

We were talking to users and asking them what challenges they faced when they were looking for new games. And people who were in this casual gaming space said, “all of the games, all of the apps, they’re designed for those stereotypical gamers. It’s hard for me to find a game that will only take five minutes because that’s how long my wait is for the bus. But there’s no way to search the App Store for how long it’s going to take me to play this game. I can't find games that way.”  

So really interacting with those users, it became this design project of “how do we create metadata that will help support all of these different types of gamers, and help them find what they want?”

What are you working on now?

One direction that I’m looking at right now is the idea of repertoire. In the design world, all kinds of design — fashion design, graphic design, architecture, even things like software design and development — designers rely on previously-gained knowledge. And they bring the previous knowledge to bear on their current project.

They might be doing it explicitly. They might remember a specific project in the past and think, “This is very similar to when I encountered that coding problem, so I’m just going to do the same thing again.” But it might be implicit. And it might also not necessarily be related to that work. So a lot of designers might think, “I saw this art piece years ago and now I'm going to make this textile,” or “I saw the weather and it’s going to inspire me to design this building.”

I think catalogers do it when they’re creating bibliographic records, and they’re thinking, “I need to figure out the subject of this book, and I know there was a similar book in the past that I assigned that subject heading, or that Dewey Decimal classification number. I want to put this one in the same place so they'll be together.”

I think it’s happening but I don’t think librarians are talking or thinking about it in that way. So I want to do some interviews with librarians, and some data collection around seeing how they’re using repertory knowledge, and how it impacts their work.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.