User-centered Discourse: An Analysis of the Subject Positions of the User and the Librarian

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Tuominen, K. (1997). User-centered discourse: An analysis of the subject positions of the user and the librarian. The Library Quarterly, 67(4), 350–371.

This article includes the results of a discourse analysis of Carol Kuhlthau’s Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Informative Services, a well-regarded volume on information seeking behavior written from a user-centered position. After a background discussion on discourse analysis, representationalism, and the concept of subject positioning as it relates to user-centered discourse in LIS, Tuominen analyzes Kuhlthau’s text to identify LIS’s socially-constructed assumptions about users and librarians. This analysis concludes that the user-centered discourse reflects implicit and unequal power relations through its positioning of users as inferior objects in need of the expertise provided by librarians and information professionals.

I was struck by the Tuominen’s critique of lifelong learning (pp. 366-367). She frames lifelong learning as conditioned dependence on information systems and institutions and professional I’ve never intentionally reflected on the meaning of lifelong learning, the intricate social concepts of what that term really is, or its role in legitimizing our profession. Perhaps it’s because I so often forget that society devalues learning that occurs outside of an institutional structure, whether that be in a formal educational setting or, at times, in a more informal setting, like a library. I’ve personally never seen learning as dependent on institutions, on other people to some extent, but certainly not situated within the confines of a place or space. My personal interpretation of lifelong learners is embodied in autodidactic philomaths, individuals who teach themselves out of a love of learning, which aligns with Maack’s (1997)¹ use of the term “autonomous learning” (p. 291).

Yet within Maack’s article, there are multiple markers of the dichotomous and imbalanced power relations between professionals and users that Tuominen describes. Maack quotes a volume by Durrance, who states: “if citizens are to make informed decisions in a democracy, they need assistance through the maze of sources” (p. 295). I’m not contesting that users (and librarians) are expected to adapt to unwieldy systems, navigate mazes, extract themselves from rabbit holes, and shimmy up silos. What I contest is the constraints on our role as mere information maze guides and not as molders, tweakers, and creators. Should we not ensure that the systems that we use aren’t designed as mazes? Should we not break down the walls within the systems we’ve created?

This expansive definition of our professional role would, as Tuominen proposes, “liberate the user from the constraints of the system” imposed upon them and start to blur the lines between expert and client, knowledgeable and ignorant, rational and irrational (p. 267). Professional self-preservation and irrationality guides the construction and adoption of these maze-like systems. If no one outside of our own profession can effectively use the systems we employ and create, we aren’t even close to being knowledgeable experts we purport to be.

Question for future exploration:

  • So much of our literature focuses on users, clients, patrons etc. What of those who do not “use” the sources and services that fall within our professional domain? What terminology can LIS adopt that is more inclusive in nature?



1. Maack, M. N. (1997). Toward a new model of the information professions: Embracing empowerment. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science38(4), 283–302