On not being a weak discipline

Taking exception
Taking exception
I attended the ISI conference in Zadar earlier this year, as co-author of a paper on the relation between library and information science (LIS) and the digital humanities, which my colleague Lyn Robinson has blogged about. I found myself involved in a panel discussion on the state of information science research, in which some of the panellists and discussants seemed to start from a presumption that LIS is a ‘weak’ discipline. I took exception to this at the time, and thought it worth while writing up some more considered thoughts about it.

There are three respects in which LIS might be reasonably described as ‘weak’: that it is a relatively small and scattered discipline; that it is a discipline tied to professions, specifically librarianship, which are not as significant as they were, and which will soon cease to exist; and that the academic output of LIS is boring and irrelevant. Let is consider each of these in turn.

Yes, it is certainly true to say that LIS is small. It is not expected that most universities will have a department of LIS, or something similar, in the way that it might be expected they might departments of mathematics, languages, sciences, etc. That’s how it has always been, and I see no reason for equating small numbers with weakness, if we can interact effectively with others, and punch above our weight. Cue metaphors about the yeast in the bread etc.

Yes, it is true that LIS is a scattered discipline, both in the sense that people doing LIS-type work are not always found in departments of that name, and also in the sense that where there are LIS departments they are to be found in different areas of the academic structure: technical schools, humanities faculties, social science faculties, business schools, etc. Both are to expected: LIS is a multi-faceted meta-discipline, overlapping in different respects with many others. This is not necessarily a weakness. Indeed, taking a contrarian viewpoint, as I generally like to do, it can be seen a strength; dispersal around the academic body helps to spread the LIS perspective, and ensures that the discipline should always find a home for itself, however the academic landscape may change.

As to the professional linkage, the ‘the end of libraries’ trope is getting rather tedious, and tied to ignorance wilful and otherwise. The British government minister who said recently that libraries needed to embrace the digital age was perhaps not so much ignorant, as pre-emptively seeking to excuse further cuts in the public realm. It is easier to agree with the Chief Executive of the British Library, who believes that libraries will be around when the Internet has been forgotten.

But this is rather beside the point: which is that research and teaching in LIS is very far from restricted to applications involving traditional forms of documents and collections. On the contrary, the skills and perspectives inherent in LIS are applicable in all contexts in which information is organised and communicated, knowledge is shared, and understanding developed; and those contexts extend far beyond libraries. One point of weakness in LIS is that we do not get this point across more strongly.

Finally, is LIS research and scholarship boring, irrelevant and insignificant, so that everyone ignores us. Well, yes, a lot of it probably is. Like a lot of the research and scholarship in any discipline. That doesn’t make LIS weak. What is a weakness is that LIS has a tendency, perhaps more than most other disciplines, to fail both to import ideas from, and export ideas to, other disciplines. (Which is why, the contrarian in me says, the ‘scattered discipline’ is a good thing.) It is also true that where LIS does develop genuinely new and interesting ideas, other disciplines absorb them as their own. Information retrieval is the classic example: 30 years ago, it was clearly part of LIS, and very few computer scientists took it seriously; 15 years ago it was spread across the boundary lines of the disciplines; now, the party line is that it is an integral part of computer science, and always has been. The educational disciplines are now absorbing information and digital literacy in the same way. It would not surprise me if, in the near future, information behaviour was discovered to have always been a part of psychology and sociology. We may say that this does not matter, and that we should be satisfied with getting good things going… yeast .. bread. But it would do no harm for us to talk more about our disciplinary successes.

So, no, LIS is not a weak discipline. It may be an under-appreciated, misunderstood and under-publicised discipline; but perhaps we can do something about that. Starting with cutting out the academic cringe. We’re as good as they are.

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