Waxing and waning, but hopefully mostly waxing

Blaise Cronin presents an interesting and insightful article in the latest issue of Information Research on the waxing and waning of a field; reflections on information studies education. It is the latest contribution to a very long debate, going back over three decades, as to whether library / information science has a good future, as an academic discipline and profession; for other interesting examples, see an article by Tom Wilson, and the papers in the book edited by Alan Gilchrist. Cronin’s presentation gives, among other things, a neat potted history of the discipline, and an informed assessment of some aspects of its present state.

However, unlike some of the other contributions on this topic, it is based on some solid evidence. Cronin has been among those who have studied the way in which LIS imports and exports knowledge, to and from other academic disciplines. Here he summarises evidence which show that over recent years LIS research is being cited more outside the field than within it, as other academic disciplines make use of its research findings. LIS is becoming less introverted and self-referential.

Unmitigated good news one might think. But Cronin points out some systemic weaknesses in LIS as a research-based discipline. Its ‘methodological heterogeneity’, i.e. its cheerful use of methods and concepts from a variety of other disciplines, while an obvious strength in some respects, is also a weakness. It leads to an accumulation of isolated findings, rather than to generalizations, and a solid base of disciplinary theory. Cronin terms this ‘epistemic promiscuity’, and warns that it comes at a price; LIS’s sense of identity as an academic discipline, already rather weak, will decrease still further. The information studies field, says Cronin, is increasingly fluid and permeable.

One consequence of this is that LIS has never had a natural home within academia. Indeed, a study of European LIS departments carried out a few years ago showed them located in almost all parts of the academic universe: faculties of science, of social science, and of humanities, business schools, and schools of computing and informatics. Cronin also alludes to a recent rash of restructuring and reorganization affecting academic departments of LIS which he has personal knowledge, and to equivalent changes affecting information pratitioners.

Unlike other more pessimistic commentators, Cronin takes a view which is by no means negative overall; while some parts of the field will wane, he points out, others will wax. This seems to me to a sensible assessment, and one which should give us cause for optimism. These sort of concerns are far from new, and, I think, an inescapable consequence of the nature of the information sciences as academic disciplines. If, as I believe, library / information science is best regarded as a ‘field of study’, focused on the very broad topic of information as its subject matter, then its permeability to other fields is inevitable; indeed is right and proper. And if, as my colleague Lyn Robinson has argued, the proper subject of study of information science is the whole communication chain of recorded information, then we will naturally overlap with all the other disciplines who have some interest in this, from computer science to psychology, and from sociology to publishing. This is arguably a wider list of overlapping interests than most, if not any, other subjects; not for nothing has information science sometimes been called a meta-science.

On this basis, I see a lot to be optimistic about, given what Blaise Cronin concludes about the increasing recognition of LIS insights and results by other disciplines. Like him, I see the field waxing and waning over the years, to a different extent in different parts of the discipline, and perhaps also in different parts of the world. But I am confident enough to believe that there will be, on the whole, more waxing than waning. What matters is not trying to hold on to some rigid and permanent core of the subject, and try to keep others away from it; what matter is rather to ensure that its insights cross its increasingly fluid boundaries.

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