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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.3 (2002) vii-xiii

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When's this Paradigm Shift Ending?

Charles B. Lowry

Since 1962, when Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of the century's milestone works in the history of philosophy and science, his notion of the paradigm shift has been interpreted broadly as a model, and applied not only to scientific thinking but also to social phenomenon. 1 The term has been applied increasingly and loosely to a transformation of libraries. As a general rubric, this does no great damage, but as a rigorous explanation, it is wide of the mark. It is past time to examine what we mean in using it in this way and begin to assess more thoroughly the pace and meaning of this change. In this brief essay I cannot provide a very thorough examination of the complex transformation, but it is possible to capture the gestalt. The starting point of this discussion is to distinguish between cause and effect and not to make the error of reversing them.

The paradigm shift is found in the organization and delivery of information (scholarly information for this discussion)—not in libraries. Libraries and the profession of librarianship are responding to this change in an effort to maintain their institutional role and to expand it. To understand better what is happening now, we should cast our view back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when libraries as we know them took shape in response to an earlier revolution in information. At the beginning of that century, libraries were principally repositories or archives. They had little in the way of organization, services, or standards—nor was there a profession of librarianship or professional education. Indeed, libraries had not really changed radically since the scriptorium was overcome by the Gutenberg revolution. That is not to say there were no libraries, even great ones—for example, the library at Oxford restored in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley who secured its future by arranging that it be the legal deposit library entitled to free copies of all books printed in Great Britain.

But, as with so many other things in that century, the industrial revolution made the difference. Arguably, that revolution began in the eighteenth century, but the rapid advance of invention and large-scale industrial organization came after the American [End Page vii] Revolution—beginning in Britain and expanding outward. This emerging industrial society with high literacy and education rates demanded a systematic recording of new knowledge, particularly the exploding scientific knowledge of the age. Scientific rigor gradually spread to "soft" disciplines and the social sciences emerged. Classical knowledge and training took a back seat as scientific curricula were established after mid-century. Engineering emerged (at first in military academies) as a discipline rather than the provenance of self-taught practitioners. Perhaps the most significant marker was the emergence of the German system of doctoral education that by the 1870s was transplanted to the United States. As new learning and discovery transformed the content of the curricula and classical canonical studies disappeared. the setting was ripe for the invention of the modern academic library. In the United States, a hallmark of this process beginning was the "takeover" of student debating society libraries by colleges as the foundation of institutional collecting efforts. This also occurred around mid-century.

The precise contours of modern scholarly information evolved gradually through the century and the library was invented in response. The first periodicals appeared as early as the 17th century. In 1665, five years after the founding of the Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions, the first scientifically oriented periodical, appeared. However, save a very few early examples, neither the scientific journal nor the scholarly society really made an appearance until the 19th century, when science became widely accepted as a subject worthy of university and individual study. Scholarly societies arose—e.g., Royal Astronomical Society 1820 and the American Association for the Advancement of Society, 1847—and along with them the publication of journals. The first general periodical index of...


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