What did Jesse say?

Jesse Hauk Shera (1903-1982) was a faculty member at the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago and later dean of the library school at Case Western Reserve University. Shera and his contemporary Margaret Egan are credited for defining and advancing the concept of social epistemology and, in particular, its role as a theoretical foundation for librarianship. (1) They defined the concept as “the study of those processes by which society as a whole seeks to achieve a perceptive or understanding relation to the total environment – physical, psychological and intellectual.”(2) In addition, Shera was also responsible for early research in library and bibliographic automation.(3) In the past decade or so after the beginnings of the ‘digital age’ and ‘information revolution’, I find solace in the fact that it is librarians who are responsible for initially asking the question ‘how do we collectively know things,’ especially in the context of ‘what do we do?’ That such questions emanated from library practitioners indicate, to me, an informed awareness of the dynamic nature of intellectual communication.

A challenge presented in accepting social epistemology as a framework for developing a theory of librarianship is to employ a practice of librarianship that responds effectively to changing social and technological conditions while advancing communication and the creation of social knowledge. In my case, I can narrow such concerns down to information literacy education and facilitating scholarly communication. A further question might ask ‘what principles guide the advancement of the pursuit of social knowledge within academic education and scholarship in the domain of information transfer?’

Shera gave a lecture at the School of Library Science, State University College of New York at Geneseo in 1969. There he provided some practical interpretation of social epistemology and some sage advice:

“Modern society is a duality of action and thought bound together by the communication system. The communication process is also a duality, a duality of system and message, of that which is transmitted as well as the manner, i.e., the medium and the environment, of its transmission. Therefore the librarian must see his role in the communication process as being more than a link in a chain or the intersections in a network. The librarian must concern himself with the knowledge he communicates, its relevance to the individual user, its importance to society, and the environment in which communication takes place. In short, the librarian must know not only how to perform his role, but why his role is to be performed and the extent to which he can fill its demands – he must see librarianship clearly and see it whole.” (4)

Just how clearly the profession sees its role as expressed in the performance of its responsibilities is a topic worth exploring.

  1. Budd, John M. 2002. “Jesse Shera, social epistemology and praxis.” Social Epistemology 16(1):93-98.
  2. Egan, Margaret E., and Jesse H. Shera. 1952. “Foundations of a Theory of Bibliography.” Library Quarterly 22(2):125-137.
  3. Zandonade, Tarcisio. 2004. “Social Epistomology from Jesse Shera to Steve Fuller.” Library Trends 52(4):810-832.
  4. Shera, Jesse H. “The quiet stir of thought; or, what the computer cannot do.” IN: The Compleat Librarian and Other Essays. 1971. Shera, Jesse H. p. 167-183.
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