Where’s the Theory?

Earlier this week I gave a brief talk at the end of a half-day online conference about QR codes and augmented reality.  Throughout the afternoon we had heard lots of interesting information and ideas about how to generate QR codes and AR environments, and how libraries are using these tools to provide interesting  information experiences.

My talk took a different approach to these twin topics.  I wanted to explore with the group some of the larger issues that QR codes and AR could highlight if they become widely accepted and used.  Specifically, I suggested that our very sense of place – of our homes and haunts – probably will change.  We may revert, at least in part, to a pre-industrial sense of place, before all of the transportation revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries made the very idea of “being here” more-or-less a daily fight-or-flight decision.  I could stay here, or I could fly to Cancun for some R&R. 

ball of string casts a long shadowThe idea of getting away from here may have been one of the defining ideas of the last half of the 20th century.  The idea has been immortalized in such ad slogans as “You are now free to roam about the country” and “I’m going to Disney World!”  A friend of mine recently observed that the prospect of getting away for a week on a cruise ship was the distant reward that made her day-to-day existence in the here-and-now tolerable. 

My talk sorta fell flat.  It was late in the day, and people had been listening to and discussing these two topics for over three hours.  It was not the ideal time to be trying to discuss the bigger picture of what we are about.  As the conference evaluation forms started to arrive back from the attendees, most people gave the highest praise to the person who had presented the most practical information about QR codes.   

This type of aversive response to theory and big-picture thinking, however, is amazingly typical to talks, articles, blog posts, and other utterances that occur in my field of Library and Information Science.  Because librarianship is a very practice-driven profession, practitioners want to know what to do, where they can get the tools they need to make it happen, and how much it will cost.  These are all good, valid concerns and interests, and in general I applaud action whenever it springs forth from the perpetual froth of talk, but I still wonder:  Where’s the theory? 

Most librarians seem almost averse to theory.  Their reluctance to have conversations about theory and the deeper, long-term implications of our practices is palpable whenever the dreaded T-word comes up in conferences, workshops, and comments to blog posts.  I’m trying very hard to understand this attitude toward theory that seems to be widespread in my profession. 

Perhaps this blog post is just sour grapes on my part, cloaked in some high-falutin angst about the state of theory and theoretical discussions in my profession.  Maybe I’m just a boring speaker when I try to engage in theoretical talk.  Perhaps my theories are all cracked and my ideas are harebrained.  In a strange way, those explanations would be a comfort to me, but they don’t allay my fear, which has been growing for over two decades now, that my profession has a deep-rooted problem regarding theories and theoretical thinking, and that this problem has real, practical consequences for the profession that are not good. 

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