“Folkloristic approaches in library and information science”

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Gerard, D. (2000), "“Folkloristic approaches in library and information science”", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 139-156. https://doi.org/10.1108/lr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

On the assumption that the title of this issue of Library Trends might puzzle – even intimidate – our readers, let us clear the decks at the start by quoting the editor in her introduction: the aim is to draw on “folkloristic processes and ideas to illuminate respective fields of interest in librarianship and information science”.

This enterprise is further evidence of our restless contemporary search for significance, the itch to analyze our sublunary state; it is what brings the sociologists and psychologists filling the journals with pages of graphs and statistics. In our own profession where there is a will to expose some hitherto unsuspected dimension, there is infallibly a way. In this instance it is the way of the folklorist, traditionally associated with Cecil Sharp, Morris dancing, or the study of the sexual practices of the Trobriand Islanders. In the cosy familiarity of our library offices, workrooms, issue desks, and terminals, such methods must seem bizarre, hence the further comment by the editor: “This issue of Library Trends differs from the usual … an experimental issue … library and information science researchers looking at an old subject in new ways”. The “fields of interest” alluded to in the first quotation above are presented under four headings: Oral History, Customary and Material Lore, Technolore, and Storytelling in Oral and Print Traditions.

The first and fourth of these headings offer no surprises. Sound recording is of obvious utility in preserving personal histories or the experience of particular communities, but is also eloquent testimony to the personality of the speaker: voice betrays status through accent, idiom, vocabulary, conveying so much more than facts; through the voice we hear the habis, the prejudices, the unconscious inheritance of the tribe, its mindset, its world view. Under “Oral History” we hear the life story of a respected American academic librarian, Don Krummel; an account of a pioneer, Jean Antes, who established medical libraries in remote areas; and finally the place of written narratives prepared by the older generations in a family for a “folksy” archive. Under the fourth heading, Storytelling in Oral and Print Traditions, again familiar ground is trodden while three contributors explore the meaning of the archetypal folktale as it appears in children’s fiction. A refreshing re‐examination of the whole notion of storytelling, that familiar arm in the repertory of children’s librarians. Thus far, a conventional overview of oral history within librarianship.

It is the second and third headings, Customary and Material Lore, and (note the very coinage) Technolore, that give us pause. There is a sense that the topics have been forced into a straitjacket to conform with the folklore theme: “Folkloristics of Educational Spaces”, and “Paper, Piles and Computer Files: folklore of information work environments”. It is hard to deny the conclusions of the studies, that any environmental space, library, classroom, laboratory, will betray the lifestyle, the values of the surrounding society, the “culture of space”. We are affected by the physical envelope in which we work, and in turn affect it, a message acknowledged for many years; one wonders if it needs to be reanimated with a “projected folklore of information work space”? It is possible. In our brave new world of the Internet, work is conceivable anywhere, not in a specially designated location, yet that ungainly neologism “folkloristics” jars somehow. Under the heading “Technolore” it is applied to the world of computer software which we are assured “is equally embedded in folkways”, yet the article fails to articulate just how, while its companion piece, “The Mythology of Information Overload” appears to drop the baggage of folklore altogether, to investigate the effects of too much data on the countless users in our post‐industrial society. It must be at least 50 years ago that this reviewer first heard the phrase “the threshold of stun” with a warning not to cross it. Resourceful and ingenious though the contributors to this symposium are, they end by crossing and recrossing that threshold, and we are tempted to conclude with an older maxim: parturiunt montes nascetur ridiculus mus.

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