Toward a New Model of the Information Professions: Embracing Empowerment
by Elizabeth Lieutenant
Maack, M. N. (1997). Toward a new model of the information professions: Embracing empowerment. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 38(4), 283–302.
This article presents a conceptual redefinition of the LIS professions that align it with typical client-centered professions, including social work, education, and psychology. After analyzing the traditional markers and definitions of professionalism, Maack classifies professions into three categories based on the relationship with power and clients: high authority professions, indirect product/process-oriented professions, and empowering professions. Drawing on the professional values of LIS and its commitment to supporting self-sufficiency through informal education and access to knowledge, Maack proposes that LIS embrace its role as an empowering profession, thus leading to the empowerment of both professional body and client base.
The societal concept and literal definition of empowerment are two different things, something that Maack does not address in her piece. The concept of empowering professions, which Maack goes so far as to refer to as subversive professions that challenge paternal concepts of professional authority, contrasts with the primary definition of empowerment:
1: Authority or power given to someone to do something
1.1: The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights
In redefining the LIS profession as an empowering profession, one needs to contend with the contradictions between its concrete definition and conceptual interpretation. Reconceptualizing LIS as an empowering, feminist profession does little if the term defining this new professional identity is embedded in authority and power over clients, patrons, and users. This term reinforces existing power dynamics between LIS professionals and their clientele, instead of diminishing the unhealthy power relations between the two. If LIS were to redefine itself as an empowering profession, it warrants a critical analysis of whom exactly this redefinition seeks to empower. Are we truly seeking to aid our clients in “becoming stronger and more confident” in meeting their own information needs, thus facilitating their participation in society, or we are seeking to empower ourselves by framing our work as acts of “authority and power given to” clients, permitting them to enhance their own power through knowledge? Or as Hunt (2014)² may ask, does this not assume that clients are not, in fact, already powerful?
As Maack notes, words matter (p. 298). Words have their own power and influence our individual and collective understanding of theories, actions, and environments. While LIS should be conscious of its conceptual role in society, it must also be intentional about the words it selects to define its work. Of course, even if LIS were to find a term whose definition aligns with this conception of empowerment, it must be cautious that communal conceptions are not always shared. For example, I am sensitive when referred to as a student, not because I am not a student, but because the conception of student in the eyes of some devalues, limits, and oppresses those who play the student role. While I have yet to find a term that both reflects ones student status and harnesses a positive conception of this role, I have not stopped my search for an appropriate term. Even then, continued challenges to the negative conception of student is needed, as is challenges to the negative perceptions of the LIS profession.
Question for future exploration:
- Maack dichotomizes the actions by LIS professionals into two discrete categories: passive neutrality and high authority (pp. 296-297). How does this polarization impact collective action and resistance to authority? Can LIS not attempt to exert power and influence to disrupt oppressive social authority while also distributing power to clients by facilitating self-empowerment through information?
1. Empowerment. (2015). In Oxford Dictionaries.
2. Hunt, B. (2014). I’m Not in Love with the Word Empowerment. [Web log post].