The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) School of Information Sciences awarded SC&I’s Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science E.E. Lawrence the prestigious Berner-Nash Memorial Award, for his doctoral dissertation titled “Reading for Democratic Citizenship: A New Model for Readers’ Advisory.” According to the website, The Berner-Nash Memorial Award was established by UIUC graduate students in the early 1970s in honor of two of its graduates, Mr. Bill Berner and Mr. Bill Nash, who died in a car accident.
Lawrence said his dissertation takes a critical view of the current philosophical approach to providing Readers’ Advisory services in the library. “Contemporary librarians are taught to give nonjudgmental recreational reading recommendations that accord with patrons’ current preferences. You (the patron) express an interest in a particular sort of reading experience, and I (the librarian) suggest books that I believe will give you that experience. My research asks: What happens when this seemingly unobjectionable practice comes into conflict with our other shared values as library practitioners? As a means of resolving the points of tension that I identify, I ultimately propose a new aesthetic education model for Readers’ Advisory wherein the service functions as a forum for patrons to practice democratic citizenship.”
Describing his reaction when he learned he had been named the 2019 recipient of the award, Lawrence said, “I felt extraordinarily honored to receive the Berner-Nash Award, which marked the close of my doctoral career and transition into life at Rutgers. My advisor Emily Knox was—and remains—a wonderfully kind and insightful mentor to me, so it was especially meaningful to accept the award from her at the University of Illinois iSchool’s graduation brunch.”
Emil’s doctoral advisor, Associate Professor and Interim Associate Dean at UIUC’s School of Information Emily Knox, who earned her Ph.D. from SC&I in 2012, said, “Working with Emil was one of the highlights of my career so far. He was my first advisee and I’m not sure I will ever have someone as focused and thoughtful.” Knox’s doctoral advisor at SC&I was current Professor of Library and Information Science Marija Dalbello.
Lawrence received his bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan, his M.L.S. in Library Science from the University of Maryland, College Park, and Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Learn more about Lawrence’s doctoral and current research in our Q&A below.
How did you become interested in this subject, and what discoveries did you make during the course of your research? What surprised you?
I used to work as a reference and web services librarian and so have a longstanding interest in how we in this field can most ethically and effectively go about interfacing with the public.
Beyond that, I find Readers’ Advisory to be a particularly fascinating corner of library practice. It is also one that is changing on the ground much more rapidly than it is in the literature—by which I mean, critical practitioners are pushing the service in new and exciting directions, addressing distributive and representational inequities and thinking about our moral obligations vis-á-vis social justice. One of the things I discovered as I began digging into my research was that my task was not to serve up something brand new to these librarians but rather to identify and articulate the normative foundations for the sophisticated work they were already doing.
We often think of theory as this thing that ought to drive practice—historically there’s been a fair amount of bellyaching about how librarians don’t pay enough attention to theory or are too resolutely practical in their approach—but it seems to me that it’s at least as important to find ways for critical practice to drive theory. Once this gelled for me, it really became the goal of the dissertation.
Will you continue this research at SC&I?
Yes! I’m still carrying on research on Readers’ Advisory. I have a paper in press with the Journal of Documentation that treats the incompatibility between librarians’ dual obligations to satisfy readers’ existing preferences on the one hand and to promote diverse books to all patrons on the other (https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JD-01-2020-0002/full/html). That paper is characteristic of the direction my research has been headed lately. I’m thinking a lot about how libraries exist as part of a larger literary apparatus riddled with social inequities, and what we can do to advance social justice and democratic functioning despite being implicated here.
Do you teach your research/writing methods to SC&I students?
My research methods are philosophical (as is my academic temperament, really) and so they often come through in one way or another when I teach. In my “Reading Interests of Adults” course we also get to directly address some of the critical issues that most captivate me about recreational reader services. SC&I students are really sharp and engaged, so that makes this doubly rewarding.
In what ways can the general public benefit from your research findings?
I think our craving for Readers’ Advisory is even more readily apparent than usual at the present moment, given how many of us are seeking not just escape but meaningful social interaction. (Public librarians, please confirm!) Although we’re receiving automated or algorithmic recommendations day-in and day-out, there is still this desire for expert advice from a real live human being who is both sensitive to our stated (and not just our implicit or revealed) preferences and isn’t, to put it a bit glibly, trying to sell us anything. My research asks questions about how to advise readers well, in ways that further collective ideals and combat injustice; moreover, it amplifies the call for social reading activities that give us the opportunity to interact with differently-situated community members about issues that matter. It makes a case for Readers’ Advisory as a service that is central to the project of the public library, and in so doing speaks to the cares of our patron communities, who overwhelmingly value the library for its role in promoting literacy and a love of reading (source: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2013/12/11/libraries-in-communities/).