Last time in our “Foundation” class, David Bawden spoke to us about epistemology, which is the philosophical study of knowledge and its scope. The relevance of this to LIS is obvious given how our focus is enabling understanding by using data. David followed this by introducing some of the various attempts over the years to apply a philosophical framework to our discipline. This has been a difficult thing to achieve as there has been no agreement within the profession whether such a theoretical structure is even needed at all. People involved in Library and Information Science have generally used pre-existing philosophical ideas from other contexts and translated them into ours. UCL academic Brian Campbell Vickery was particularly critical of this practice. This has started to change in recent years with the work of Luciano Floridi, now at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has created his own philosophical ecosystem for the study of information and sees librarians and information scientists as working at the “applied end” of it. While his ideas have become increasingly influential, there are certainly competing ones. Today I am going to briefly look at the thought of Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera who coined the term “social epistemology” to make sense of what librarians did and were trying to achieve.
Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked together at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1950s and this is when they developed the theory. While Shera was by far the more high-profile figure, in part due to Egan’s early death from a heart attack, he did credit her for her work on this. The basic premise of social epistemology is that knowledge is not an isolated phenomenon and is instead interwoven with a given societal context. This was in opposition to traditional views of knowledge as “justified belief” held by an individual person independent of others. Egan and Shera suggest that societies at different times and places create paradigms of knowledge and libraries and librarians operate within these, working to meet the needs of their users. This idea has similarities to the concept of domain analysis which Birger Hjørland and Albrechtsen wrote about. It seems to me to be no coincidence that this more humanistic approach to library science began to develop at a time of great social change in the U.S.A. when the Civil Rights Movement saw African-Americans campaign against racial discrimination and the emergence of feminism was beginning to challenge conventional ideas about gender. There were of course great technological advances being made in this period which would impact on the world of libraries and so it makes sense that people like Egan and Shera would see knowledge as not immutable but instead something that would evolve along with society.
Photo is of Adelbert Hall at Case Western Reserve University where Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.