First impressions of Library and Information Science

Week 1 of LIBR 200, “Information and Society”, has begun. I dove eagerly into our textbook, “Foundations of Library and Information Science” by Richard E. Rubin. Since we don’t have in-person meetings for interaction and discussion, instead we’re required to post to an online discussion forum about what we learned from our reading. And hey, here’s where I also like to post about What I Learned!

What is library and information science?

The element of our assigned reading that struck me most was the open portrayal of Library and Information Science (LIS) as a field with something of an identity crisis. There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s all about libraries, “librarianship”, service, and education, or whether it’s more about information, technology, and data, perhaps prioritizing knowledge over people. Information technology obviously is a major help in providing services to library patrons, which is where the line gets blurred. But how much of this can be said to be “science”? How much of it needs to be? How much should LIS “compete” with fields like “computer science and business administration”?

It is a novel experience for me to see a field deliberately asking existential questions of itself. My prior education is in computer science and geology. Only rarely do questions arise such as “Why do we study computer science?” or “How can geology stay relevant to today’s public?” or “How should computer science distinguish itself from mathematics, engineering, and information technology?” I was astonished, and delighted, to see these big-picture questions being raised as one of the first topics in this introductory course. Indeed. Why does it matter?

Further, this is evidently not a side topic that attracts the attention of only a few individuals, but instead a pivotal issue in how the field defines itself. These questions convey a sensitive humility, in contrast to an academic arrogance that assumes whatever the field carves out for itself is axiomatically important. They can only arise from a community that genuinely cares about staying relevant, and therefore notices when changes occur in the needs and habits of its primary users or beneficiaries. Perhaps this is what distinguishes a service profession from a science or engineering field. I find the intense push to stay relevant and useful to be refreshing and motivating. One of the primary reasons I volunteer at the library is that it gives me a direct connection to helping people, something that is rather missing from my research position at NASA.

How should Library and Information Science be taught?

I was also fascinated by a historical discussion of how librarians were and are trained, and the evolving debate about what information and skills they need. It is a bit odd to be told, just as we’re beginning our studies, that the field itself isn’t quite sure what we should be learning. There is no agreement on a basic shared curriculum beyond a few core classes (organization of information, reference, foundations, and management (!)). But once again, I find this openness refreshing, and being presented with these questions up front feels like an invitation to get involved in the conversation.

I did wish that Rubin’s book were a little more updated. Despite being a 2010 edition, most of the heavily researched statistics (e.g., on media consumption or librarian demographics) come from 2004-2008, and I kept wanting to know what the current values were. Most jarringly, the section titled “Looking to the Future” relies primarily on a study published in 2000 (Rubin p. 110). How many of the six identified trends still hold? What about the future beyond 2012? A description of “the librarian of the twenty-first century” is quoted on p. 112 that comes from a 1985 paper (Debons, 1985)! These outdated references are at odds with the text’s intended message about the necessity of adapting to a rapid rate of changes in patrons and the workplace.

What spoke to me most was the view that “LIS professionals are educators, enriching the lives of others through their advice and guidance” (Rubin p. 119). That is what I would like to aspire to in my studies, in my time at the library, and truly, in how I interact with all whom I encounter.