What is a LIS degree? This question is a favourite concern to me as director of a postgraduate LIS programme (#citylis). Surrounded by rocketing costs for the professional masters, piled on top of hiked-up undergraduate fees and set in the midst of global economic uncertainty, there is the very real question of why anyone would choose to enrol on a face-to-face taught course instead of learning on the job.

Leaving aside for the moment, the choice of which subjects should be presented in the classroom, our slant at #citylis has always been on an academic focus, emphasizing the theoretical principles underlying professional practice.

Unsurprisingly, we face the occasional suggestion that it might be better to teach more about what people actually do in the workplace. This latter approach has always seemed short sighted to me. Skills I used in the workplace 5 years ago are already sliding from dinner party conversation (command line searching anyone?) and I am constantly being reminded that what employers value most are those harder-to-quantify skills, which start with ‘excellent oral and written communication’ and run through to the pinnacle of ‘flexible thinker’.

Whilst it is difficult to find an agreed upon definition of  ‘flexible thinking’, let alone ensure its presence in the curriculum, it is unlikely to emerge from a purely vocational based course. Our belief is that thinking skills develop from academic study. That is to say, if you want to learn to think, practice thinking.

But there is more to a successful career than being able to pronounce on theory. It is important to show how theoretical principles can be used to deliver results in the workplace. Here again, practice is the key, and to this end we augment our research based content with practical examples delivered by leading practitioners. This blended approach has received two welcome validations recently. The first by Andrew Preater (@preater) comes in his concise blog posting Reflections on the LIS Professional Qualification where he writes:

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practice.

The second comes from Diane Pennington, speaking at a Symposium organized by McGill University’s iSchool, (reported in InsideASIS&T Oct/Nov 2013, 40(1) p 16) who argued against divisions in the curriculum between those intent on a vocational career, and those aiming for PhD study.

All of this should be obvious, but the situation often seems a little hopeless to those of us who are constantly called upon to justify the existence of our cross-disciplinary, academic curriculum in terms of immediate job skills and learning outcomes. It is good to stand back and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. In our academic approach, we are laying the foundations of resilience and adaptability that will support a life-long career, rather than just a first position.

sensingspaces immersive

The attractive colours scattered over this construction by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré reminded me of those tiny, coloured sugar balls used to decorate sweets and cakes. A visual feast then, the space was conceived to tempt visitors inside to meet each other as they navigated the narrowing between the two main areas. The multicoloured plastic straws (an industrial echo of real straw used to finish clay buildings in Gando) were provided to entice us to participate in the creation of the space – to leave our own contribution to the installation. There were some fine pieces of straw modelling, and even though I felt a little self-conscious, I wound my purple and pink bendy plastic into a decorative bag to allow a very small part of me to join in the dynamic.

Participation and immersion within architecture and design. Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy until 6th April 2014.

At the start of a rainy February, it seems fitting to write about escaping into the unreal worlds of the mind, and the pleasing indulgence afforded by the inner flights of fancy conjured up by words on a page, a favourite memory, or simply the imagination. But what if we had some means by which these ‘unreal’ experiences could be perceived as real? A way in which we could experience fantasy worlds with the same sensory perception as that which we have when we engage with reality.

Developments in pervasive and multisensory computer technologies are leading us in just that direction, so that in the future, ‘reading’ a good book may deliver an entirely realistic experience, where the ‘reader’ participates in a simulated version of the story, and may be able to influence the final outcome.

These computer generated experiences could well be the next generation of documents, and library and information professionals should consider how they might fit within the information communication chain processes of creation, dissemination, management, indexing and use. It is entirely possible that we will see radical changes in information behaviour as documents become more immersive and pervasive.

Most of us enjoy becoming drawn in to a good story; the more vivid the text the more we enjoy the fantasy. I first came across the phrase ‘immersive text’ in relation to the Harry Potter series of books. Whether or not you are a fan, the popularity of the world of the school for witches and wizards drawn into the mind by JK Rowling’s words is undeniable. On watching the movies, I found myself wishing for a study like Dumbledore’s but I didn’t feel that I wanted to be any of the characters, and when I read about the Harry Potter Studio Tour, I didn’t feel compelled to visit a theatre set Diagon Alley. But it seems a lot of people do. Many fans want to drink in the world of Harry Potter, they want large doses of unreality.

But there is nothing really new here.  We are all ‘fans’ of something, and there are, of course, fictions, films, plays and games that tempt even the most dedicated of us all into unreal fantasy when we engage with them. One of the richest arenas for keen advocates of unrealism is provided by cult-tv and its close relation, cult-fiction. The exact characteristics which identify a television program as ‘cult’ are nebulous, but examples come readily to mind. Star Trek, as long ago as the late ‘60s early 70’s, spawned followers who afforded much time and effort in writing and distributing works of fiction related to the show (fanfiction). Unwilling to leave their engagement with the show alone until next week’s episode, they augmented their experience with fictions, poems, art work, songs and in recent years videos and conferences. As much as they could, they made (and still make) their imaginary world real.

Early cult-tv progams themselves encouraged the concept of unreal reality, by anticipating the technology which would make this happen. In the popular 1970’s children’s series TimeSlip, we see a ‘fantasy room’ which contained a tubular device (rather comical by today’s technological standards) which when placed on the user’s forehead allowed their dreams to be experienced as a reality. (Series 01, Episode 07 pt 2)

Wim Wenders’s film ‘Until the End of the World‘ (1991) depicted a more modern looking headset device, which again, allowed the wearer to experience dreams as a reality.

Whilst contemporary 3D films allow members of the audience to perceive objects as real visually by donning rather flimsy plastic glasses, a more convincing sensory experience remains elusive – within the realms of science fiction rather than science fact.

Ironically, it is science fiction cult-tv that shows us how this might work, and the holosuite – a concept popularised on Star Trek – The Next Generation is perhaps the most widely known portrayal of unreality tech. The holosuite is a space in which people engage within a computer generated unreality that is indistinguishable from reality. Fans of the show will be able to recall with ease, and in detail, all the best holosuite episodes but to summarise the holosuite could be used for shared experiences of entertainment (taking part in a crime novel or a going to a jazz bar), and also for examining historical incidents, or for training.

This unreality comes with issues however. Most centre around aspects of sensory stimulation – eating and drinking for example. Do you get drunk if you drink holosuite wine, and do you get fat if you eat all the computer generated cakes? But there are deeper issues: if you die in the unreality are you dead in the real world? If you fall in love is it ‘real’? More philosophically though, do characters generated in the holoworld have the right to existence? Once they have been created, do we have the right to turn them off by shutting down the program? One poignant episode considered whether a computer generated hologram had the right to leave the holosuite environment to persue his life elsewhere.

Fast forward to the 21st century and fandoms for newer television shows such as Buffy or BBC’s Sherlock enjoy even greater forays into unreality supported by developments in computing technology and social media. Crucially, the latter makes the distribution of fan-related works easy, and essentially, social media allows fans to find each other and to arrange shared activities such as cosplay, where fans dress -up to ‘become’ characters in their favourite unreality. Unreality is more ‘real’ if it is shared.

Cult-tv then, allows us to understand from one perspective, how far fans will go to make their unreality seem real.

But there is more. The ‘immersive’ adjective has moved beyond its association with traditional texts. Fuelled by the progress in networks and mobile computing platforms, electronic ‘immersive’ texts are emerging, which combine aspects of the traditional printed book, and televisual experiences. These documents reach beyond what most of us understand by the term e-book, in that the story follows the reader into the real world. Boundaries between reality and unreality become blurred.

In this new type of document, exemplified by ‘The Craftsman’ (Portal Entertainment), events unfold in real time, and engage their readers as part of the fiction. Readers receive texts, emails, calendar updates and ‘phone messages from other characters within the plot. The text plays out across a range of devices (transmedia), and can be put down and picked up again when convenient. Although we have the technology, the creative writing techniques to support this sort of fiction are in an early stage, and such immersive fictions are few in number. They are also expensive to produce, and reviews so far are mixed, with some commentators suggesting that action is limited and takes too long to update. These criticisms could be addressed in time, with more initiatives like “The Immersive Writing Lab”.

Yet the rise of ‘immersive’ doesn’t end with texts, electronic or otherwise. In recent months I have encountered ‘immersive-plays’ (Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man), ‘immersive-exhibitions’ (David Bowie is) and ‘immersive-installations’ (Tomorrow )

The unique selling point of each of the above is participation. The viewer is invited to step into the unreality and live as part of the fiction; although each still requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the ‘reader’ or ‘participant’.

So at the time of writing then, none of this is really real. In spite of the popularity of engaging with highly elaborate fantasies, demonstrated by cult fandom, transmedia specialists, theatres and museums, there is room for improvement when it comes to delivering experiences which cannot be distinguished from the real thing.

The emergence of multisensory computing and network technologies does however, bring the promise of applications which offer us a more realistic fantasy than those which play out in our imaginations.

In order for unreality to work, we need technology that allows us to sense everything in the same way as we do if it is real. This goes beyond seeing and hearing, to include touch, taste and smell. Recent work on this type of multisensory communication so far leaves us with rather clunky, physical devices, which go only part way to evoking a sense of reality. Wearable tech is hardly a lightweight experience and even though some of the demonstrations help us engage with a plausible world, it is still impossible to forget the simulation whilst wearing a headset, gloves and other unappealing apparel.  (see this demo from UCL)

Participants in the holosuite are clearly perceiving the computer generated world as real, via all of their senses, by some, as yet,fictional neurological mechanism (photons?). Whilst we can speculate on how to stimulate areas of our brains without visible means of support, experimental work in this area flags up a few ethical issues to say the least. Nonetheless, work such as that of @AdrianCheok, shows us how much progress has been made in haptics, and the multisensory internet, and suggests that the rendering of unreality as reality may not be so much science fiction as we may think.

In his book, ‘Beyond the Library of the Future’ written in 1997, Bruce Schuman speculates on what will become of the library. He presents several scenarios for the near future, and in one of these he suggests that the library in the year 2022 will curate ‘experiences’ – rather than just physical works. The experiences are envisaged as computer programs which allow a ‘reader’ to engage with a recording of a real experience (memory), so that they perceive it as real for themselves.

If we allow ourselves to extrapolate beyond our current technological boundaries for a moment, there is no reason to suppose that these experiences could not be fictional, an extension of the ‘immersive texts’ suggested by ‘The Craftsman’, or indeed, entirely imaginary.

Whilst it is easy to comprehend the lure of fantasy, allowing us to enjoy something in unreality which we could never experience in real life, such immersive encounters could also support training and development in areas such as emergency response, surgery, piloting a plane or dealing with difficult customers.

Immersive experiences will undoubtedly have an effect on information behaviour. The use of Google Glass and smart watches are already instigating  questions of ‘information etiquette’. There is certainly an interesting future for library and information professions then, in trying to organise not just everything we know, but everything we can imagine. Every unreality.

Vilnius New University Library 2013

I was both happy and sad last week to attend the opening of the new University Library in Vilnius.

Known as the National Open Access Scholarly Communication and Information Centre, (Library to its friends), the building was formally opened on February 6th in a packed celebration which featured congratulations from the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, as well as contributions from Director General, Irena Krivienė and the architect Rolandas Palekas. A choir sang and ballerinas flitted about the foyer, echoing the falling snow outside. The reception, originally planned for the evening, was held after the ceremony in the late morning in order to accommodate the President’s schedule. It would have been rude to refuse, so a joyous time was had by all, even if some of the attendees did have to go back to work afterwards. Wandering around the light, airy spaces, catching up with friends and colleagues whom I don’t see very often, I felt happy and privileged to be invited to join in.

Sad however, that my very wonderful friend and colleague, Audronė Glosienė did not live to see this beautiful library; something which she believed in so passionately, and for which she fought so determinedly.

In spite of economic difficulties, new libraries still catch the imagination to the extent that they attract financial backing. This new library was funded partly by the Republic of Lithuania, and party by the European Regional Development Fund. I have also just heard about the new undergraduate library given the go ahead for Leeds University.

Whilst this is excellent news, it is often easier to write about why not to build a library. Why not close them down and use the building for designer flats? The impertinent question dampening all our enthusiasm is “why do we still need physical library spaces in the (digital) 21st century?”

The reasons for this question will seem trite and obvious to anyone remotely interested in library and information science. The world is digital and wireless. We can access pretty much anything we need from wherever we happen to be. On our smartphones, tablets or laptops. Information comes out of the ether and computing is pervasive. Why would we want to go to a specific place to get something we can accessfrom wherever we happen to be?

Furthermore, there are the costs of maintaining a physical collection to consider. Although somewhat offset by the need to preserve digital files, physical documents require care and conservation. And a physical building needs maintenance, cleaning, heating and light.

So why build a physical library space?

This has been answered before in the concept of the library as a 3rd space. Somewhere that is not your home and family, and not your place of work, but rather a place you choose to inhabit – a 3rd choice of space.

A contemporary update on this is easy to get – just ask for a show of hands in answer to the question “would you go to a library?” The resounding response is “yes”. But why? Because the library is a place where it is possible to interact with other people. In our increasingly isolated, digital worlds, that small chance of a conversation is too good to miss. Like real-time, face-to-face lectures, the library offers a chance for social interaction. As a student, if your dormitory is grim, the library is probably also the place you go to soak in a clean, warm bright space too. With added network access and friends. Let us not forget that library and information science is about managing recorded information for human communication. It underpins our civilized society. The death of the library, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated.

So much for the new then – what about the old? I was treated to a tour of the fabulous Vilnius Old University Library, which was established as part of Vilnius University in the late 16th century. I first visited this library about a decade ago, and it was a pleasure to see how the recent government-sponsored renovations had turned an undoubtedly gorgeous, historic city focal point into somewhere pleasant and appealing to 21st century students – without losing any of its ancient ambiance.

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library - Renovations

Vilnius Old University Library – Renovations

Finally to mention the current exhibition in the main library hall, “Vetera Reducta” – the past regained. I often mention to my students that the one sure way to obliterate a nation’s identity is to destroy its cultural heritage – starting with the library. Vilnius is no stranger to this process. Yet the extraordinary efforts of Levas Vladimirovas, Director General of Vilnius University Library during the 1950’s, resulted in the recovery of over 18,000 books of Vilnius Public Library, and the old University Library. Amongst these treasures was the first Lithuanian printed book from 1547 “Martynas Mažvydas’ “Catechism”. Still celebrated in today’s digital age, books then, do not entirely die, and the physical object still holds its meaning to us.

Vetera Reducta

Change. From LIS curricula to company mergers. From changing your password to changing your job. From who do you know to who do you trust.

These were a few of the conversational themes raised over breakfast with Sue Hill, members of her team (@suehillrec) and other IM colleagues yesterday, as we met to consider what’s prominent in the profession today and what might be round the corner.

I am always keen to hear from the world of work, and although there is much to angst about (applying for a job, getting a job, keeping a job) the feeling I came away with was one of realism, leaning towards the optimistic. Information will always need organising won’t it? Those journals will not circulate themselves. And someone has to do all those analytics. But the services we provide are continually on the front line for budget cuts and job losses, and although it’s getting old, we still need to ‘prove’ ourselves. Even when we do, it is sometimes not enough. What can we say to be convincing?

I am not the only person to ponder on the fact that the phrase ‘we are all information specialists now” is kind of true … but has a troubling undertone. Because although every baby born today looks for the Google box before crying, there seems little concern over what it all means. 30 years ago, library and information science was concerned with books, journals and newspaper articles. The avante garde dealt with images. Accurate indexing and ‘truthfulness’ were taken for granted in dealing with search and retrieve. But this is the 21st century, and its main concern is making money.

Is there any place for truth, then? Knowing what is out there to find, who wrote it, and what they really meant; an awareness of who is quietly keeping track of everything you click on, purchase or read. Let’s not forget that Google knows and remembers every time you search for your ex, or anything else burning away at the front of your mind. Do we trust them? Isn’t it creepy that every time I use a social media site I am offered an opportunity for online dating, weight loss schemes and cosmetic surgery. Yeah. All this ‘new’ personal information mining, entirely possible since everything we do is online now, and pouring ourselves into social media is as normal as breathing. As one of us said:

“As we become more free, we become more captive.”

Is trust our trump card then? Is the point not just to understand what is there and how to find it, but to highlight the risks and benefits associated with every shred of information? To tell the truth, and be trusted to do so.

If so, we can argue for information professionals. There is no need to ban Twitter, set up alternative networks, or to come off-grid entirely (some recent national responses to the power and the threat of our information society). We simply need to encourage more people to think about the concepts underlying information dissemination, its organization, storage, preservation, access and use. It is not so much that we are all information specialist now, but that we should be. Information skills are valuable and our civilization depends on them, as it always has.

For anyone contemplating an academic career in library science let me draw your attention to City University London’s current ad for a new team member …

Here is an excerpt from the specification:

“City University London has been a centre of excellence for research and teaching in library and information science for over 50 years. As part of the University’s strategy to develop academic excellence for business and the professions, we now wish to appoint a Lecturer in Library Science. The new lecturer will work alongside David Bawden and Lyn Robinson in City’s Centre for Information Science, teaching on our Masters programmes in Information Science, Library Science and Information Management in the Cultural Sector, and being actively engaged in research and publication.

This is a post for an early-career academic, with a good level of academic maturity and independence. Applicants should hold a PhD in a relevant subject area, and have at least four significant publications in peer-reviewed journals. Relevant professional experience, and experience of teaching in higher education, would be advantageous. Areas of expertise of particular interest are: GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector issues; collection management; culture and heritage information and informatics; digital humanities; social informatics; and publishing.

For an informal discussion, please contact David Bawden (db@soi.city.ac.uk) or Lyn Robinson (lyn@soi.city.ac.uk).”

There is never less to read – only more. I sometimes use nice historical quotes in my lectures to show how famous people of yore also felt they lived with too much information, and that our concerns about there just being too many books are hardly new. I offer the usual advice of the need to be selective, and emphasise that the ability to choose reading materials is a fundamental skill for the information worker. I would go further, and argue that it is a fundamental skill for all – but already I am veering off into the waters of information literacy, when all I want to do is to say something brief and informative about background reading for library and information science.

This post is for all those of you who are joining one of our LIS masters courses this September (see http://www.city.ac.uk/lis), or those who are interested in learning a bit more about library and information science as a subject. I don’t mind if you are going to study LIS at a different institution – these personal recommendations should still work.

The most important book
Obviously our own “Introduction to Information Science”. I am a shamelessselfpromoter, and will often wear sequins to get attention. But, the book has emerged from around 60 (combined!) years of thinking and writing about information science; what it is, how it relates to library science (and other related subjects), its main components, protagonists, its past, present and future, and how it can be presented within the context of an academic masters course.

Neither DB nor myself imagine our book to be the last word in information science. It is not the first either! Rather we set out a contemporary landscape, and signpost many other resources and references. Since we signed off on the text, vowing ‘never again etc.’, we have thought of far more to add – there may be a second edition – but at least for the forthcoming academic year this will do for starters. The chapters do not correspond exactly with modules offered on the City courses – there are more modules than topics we cover. The content (listed below) does however, reflect what we believe to be the current core of Library and Information Science, and it should therefore be of interest to anyone who, for whatever reason, finds themselves concerned with LIS:

1: What is information science? Disciplines and professions
2: History of information: the story of documents
3: Philosophies and paradigms of information science
4: Basic concepts of information science
5: Domain analysis
6: Information organisation
7: Information technologies: creation, dissemination and retrieval
8: Informetrics
9: Information behaviour
10: Communicating information: changing contexts
11: Information society
12: Information management and policy
13: Digital literacy
14: Information science research: what and how?
15: The future of the information sciences

I should add that we are privileged to have a collection of forewords to the book, all written by internationally famous LIS professionals, and obviously friends of ours.

Other background reading
I am often asked to recommend background reading, or ‘summer reading’. I love making these suggestions as it gives me a chance to enthuse about things I have read in the past, or just come across recently. I enthused about James Gleick’s “ The Information” for about a year before it was published.

My short list of four for this summer is shown below – although I am always changing my mind according to what comes to my attention. Ours is not a dull subject, nor one that is short of lovely new volumes. I have a lot of books. I think one of the key attractions of LIS for me is that information communication spans each and every subject, even if you are into cult fanfiction and rarely step away from your tumblr account. The task here is to be brief yet inclusive – although anyone else will give you a different selection. And you are completely free to undertake your own voyage around the catalogues and byways to fit your own intellectual preferences once you get started.

I haven’t included journals, conferences, great bloggers or folks to stalk on twitter – wait until you get the course reading lists for those *smallish smirk*.

  1. Briggs A and Burke P (2009). A Social History of the Media: from Gutenberg to the Internet. 3rd Edition. Polity: Cambridge.
  2. This will get you thinking about how information communication works in society, and its tenacious relationship with publishing.

  3. Chowdhury G G et al. (2008). Librarianship: an introduction. Facet: London.
  4. This is the book to start with if you would like to compare our view of LIS with another one. Gobinda Chowdhury is an excellent writer of textbooks and you can add anything of his to your bookshelf with confidence.

  5. Floridi L (2010). Information: a very short introduction. OUP: Oxford.
  6. For all you philosophers … and for those who tend to skip this sort of thing in favour of easier reading – this is easy to read – apart from a few bits..

    The ‘very short introduction’ series from OUP is addictive so in the end you will have about 12 different ones, which collectively will take some time.

  7. Ince D (2011). The Computer: a very short introduction. OUP: Oxford.
  8. If you are nervous about having to understand how a computer works – this will reassure you – and this is more than enough – ps. computers are not going anywhere other than into your clothes, kitchens home furnishings and anywhere else you thought was safe…

Do you want more? My collection on LibraryThing
There is always more, dearest reader. If you are joining us in just over a month then you can simply wait for your reading lists and lecture notes, but if you are impatient and greedy for books then you may wish to take a look at my LIS collection on LibraryThing.

http://www.librarything.com/catalog/lynrobinson and http://www.librarything.com/profile/lynrobinson

Very briefly, to avoid turning this posting into a thesis, LibraryThing is an application which allows you to create a catalogue for your own personal use, or perhaps for a small business, library or information unit. It is also ‘social’, in that it allows you to connect with like minded souls in a variety of ways; your can share your catalogue with others, you can in turn, share theirs, and find out for example, more about a particular work, who has also added it to their collection, how to order a copy, swap a copy, discuss a copy etc. There is plenty of information on the LibraryThing website, so I won’t reproduce it all here, and indeed, although I would never want to live without my personal catalogue, I have to say I probably don’t use as many features as I could.

The link to my profile on LibraryThing above, takes you to a page explaining the background to my collection – i.e. that it contains the LIS books I am familiar with and use. I tag those which I use in class, so if you are in the right frame of mind, you can search for a course code to see what’s coming up … I list the course codes in my profile.

(Limit course-code searches to the comments field if you understand field limiting)

When using the search function, remember to enter terms into the lower box, to search my catalogue, rather than the upper box, which searches the whole LibraryThing universe.

Try also searching for “library-science” or “information-science” (limit to the tag field if you know what this means). This will bring up some relevant books to fill in your free time.

The catalogue is again a personal view of LIS – other documentalists will have a different selection – but many of the books will be found in any good LIS collection.

I started out with the intention of creating a LIS catalogue to accompany the modules which I teach – but then the addiction took hold and I began to add all the other books in my house. This is an ongoing pursuit. If you like book-stalking, you can browse through all my other stuff – but there is no need to if all you want is a masters in library science.

I have been describing library and information science as an understanding and study of the information communication chain for several years now. More recently, I have branched out into an effusive declaration that LIS underpins civilized society – no organization and access to information, no civilization. Having the good fortune to have been working in China earlier this year, I was rather naively stunned when I couldn’t access twitter there – it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make our own decisions about what we read and write isn’t it?

This lovely infographic (not mine, linked to authors) Orwell vs Huxley, reminds me of why I study and teach LIS; facilitating understanding of the information communication chain at least allows us to know what is out there, even if it is not allowed.

I was thrilled to be invited to talk about the British origins of information science at a celebration of the 75th anniversary of ASIST last week – especially as it meant nipping over to Croatia and spending a day in the sunshine (v short stay due to other commitments alas ..).

The celebration concluded this year’s very popular LIDA conference, and attracted an audience ranging from legends such as Tefco Saracevic and Nick Belkin, to bright, beautiful students at the start of their careers.

The theme was Information Science in Europe, and the papers presented alongside ours were a pleasant reminder of how much interest for our subject exists internationally – I was also heartened to meet others who feel that disciplinary history is essential for understanding how we define ourselves today, and for giving any kind of intellectual basis to our speculation on our future. I am always excusing myself for caring about the past and it was good to perform for fellow history dwellers – although not all the presentations took the storytelling angle – German and Nordic colleagues presented a history through scientometrics, detailing counts of institutions, courses and papers in every which way.

Colleagues talking about the origins of information science in Italy and Croatia offered new names and insights that I was previously unaware of; always good to get new material…

The origins of information science in Britain is a story which has already been written about, in depth, and with an eloquence which comes with a lifetime of involvement – authors such as W Boyd Rayward, Michael Buckland, Jack Meadows and indeed my co-author David Bawden all stacked up across my desk as we attempted to add something meaningful, representative of our current day interpretation and understanding of our discipline.

The starting point for us, writing from City University London, has of course to be Jason Farradane, credited with coining the phrase “information-scientist” around 1955. For those new to the story, Farradane established the first information science course “Collecting and Communicating Scientific Knowledge” at the Northampton College of Advanced Technology. The College became City University London; Farradane established the Centre for Information Science (we are his direct descendants… ), and the course became our MSc in Information Science. See:

Robinson L and Bawden D (2010). Information (and library) science at City University London; fifty years of educational development. Journal of Information Science vol 36, 631-654.

Farradane’s original course was vocational, designed to train those handling scientific and technical documents in practice. An obvious, and still largely unanswered question is to consider how the course seeded a new academic discipline. Still further, how we came to our present day definition of information science as the study of the information communication chain, through the techniques of domain analysis, paying attention to factors for change including technology, economics, politics and social mores. There are many papers on this, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future, but try:

Robinson L (2009). Information Science: the information chain and domain analysis. Journal of Documentation, vol 65(4), 578-591.

The story of information science in Britain is intertwined with the development of the subject in the US, as well as in Europe, and most accounts agree that although the 1950s provided the right societal, technological and economical environment for the new subject, the issues surrounding the processes of information organization and retrieval were hardly new. Those championing information organisation and access have always endured an impossible torrent of new materials, and the cry of “too much information” can be traced back to biblical times.

As the 1950s heralded a new, post-war, industrial optimism, the accompanying flood of scientific publications brought attention back to the need to harness new knowledge in a way which facilitated its use; a way which promoted the prosperity presumed to arise from exploitation of information and intelligence. This movement centred on information within documents, reports and papers, as a crude division from librarianship and/or library science, which concerned itself primarily with whole “books” and the services associated with organising, storing, preserving and lending specific items.

This rather coarse difference between librarianship and information science, in terms of the level of indexing they dealt with, was certainly still evident in the mid-1980s, and is used to argue in favour of separate library and information science disciplines. However, a closer look at work undertaken at the turn of the nineteenth century reveals that our contemporary understanding of a document and the processes of the information communication chain, i.e. the idea that library science and information science are part of a single disciplinary spectrum, are Victorian in origin – although the main protagonists of these insights, (Otlet and la Fountain in 1895), used the term “documentation” rather than library or information science.

Information science as we understand it today is pretty much agreed internationally to have its origins in the Belgian/European documentation movement. The role of special libraries – well documented and represented in both the UK and US schools – is also acknowledged, but the relationship between the two movements, and their separate influences remains largely uncharted territory, (a question posed by Michael Buckland in 1998) and it may stay that way if, as seems to be the case, no particular records exist as to how the two movements came together. It is important to note that ‘history’ is just what we make out from memory or surviving records. If it was never recorded, we may never know.

The point at which documentation and/or special librarianship became “information science” is still open to consideration, and will be the focus of our next paper. The question of the extent to which the UK origins of information science differ from those of the US was also something we though worth highlighting – a brief glance at the contents of any US text or information science course content will reveal a much heavier computer science bias – and whilst it is easy to dismiss US information science as UK computer science, the overlap is more complex and it would be of interest to explore this in historical context in order to understand more completely how the discipline is regarded in different geographical locations. For anyone who cares, we do not consider information science to be part of computer science, although the disciplines undoubtedly have areas of overlap, especially, as is already well known, within the area of information retrieval.

In addition to the variance in emphasis on technology, our US colleagues did not focus so much on the intellectual tools associated with the documentation movement – although in the UK the information retrieval, or systems paradigm certainly had its day in the history of what is information science.

Nick Belkin reminded me of all the names I had not mentioned (enough!) during my 30 minute romp through our underpinnings – those names associated with classification (Ranganathan, Mills, Foskett), information retrieval (Spark-Jones, Robertson) and user behaviour (Wilson) – all subjects traditionally regarded as comprising the core of information science. Quite so– but constrained by time I attempted to focus on the origins of our endeavours, which (although Belgian rather than British), still describe with startling prescience, our 21st century mandate, and of necessity, left out much of the middle.

Several colleagues at the ASIST 75 event raised their own questions, and we were collectively convinced that a publication drawing together the national origins, similarities and points of departure for information science would make a good read – let’s hope it happens. For now, with respect to the origins of information science then, there is always more to add to the story.

I am always drawn to events professing to talk about the future, especially if it gives me a chance to listen to William Gibson (@greatdismal) in person, and so I was at the British Library for one of their panel discussions in the series The Future: Science and Society, earlier this week.

The other commentators were by no-means lightweights in their respective fields (writers Cory Doctorow [@doctorow] and Mark Stevenson, economist Diane Coyle and chair Jon Turney) but obviously I was not the only starry-eyed Gibson fan in the room, which was packed with the sort of people who cannot resist treating their idol to a rambling monologue on metaphysics drawn from the random clutter of their inner psyche, during question time.

No matter – for in addition to hearing some of William Gibson’s clever, considered comments, I could not help the comforting smugness which enveloped me as it became clear that for many people in the audience, “the future” was all about information – (ha!). Mark Stevenson reminded us that “.. it is not called the information society for nothing..”.

Ostensibly, the discussion was to draw out ideas from current scientific research on what our future may look like – thus the mix of science/sci-fi writers on the panel. Although Mark Stevenson mentioned he had been talking to people at IBM and MIT who were engaged in “amazing stuff”, I did not catch what this might be. I did count four mentions of Star Trek though, and have to admit that although my almost word-perfect knowledge of the original series episodes far exceeds my knowledge of most of the other sci-fi writers that were mentioned, I feel well equipped to deal with the future as foreseen in the 1960s Kirk/Spock era.

The future, it seems, is very personal. And William Gibson commented that it is only possible to write about the future from the perspective of the present. He wondered about the reception that his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), would have had if he had described today’s world of personal wifi, AIDS, international terrorism and the non-existence of the Soviet Union in his early 1980s vision of the future. So I guess that hints at the future we envisage as being a product of our personal view of the present.

Diane Coyle provided the economist’s perspective – that the future is all about investment, and that investors rarely look beyond the next 5 years – the near future. There was then discussion around whether there were any “far future” ideas any more, and whether we were currently experiencing such an enormity of technological advancement that we were simply “rendering” what we already have – a rather good analogy from a member of the audience. Other voices commented on the fact that technology already exceeded its promise, and gave as an example the lack of augmented reality apps. I have seen some interesting early instantiations of augmented reality (Aurasma, and the Museum of London’s Street Museum app) but have to say for the moment I agree that it doesn’t propel me very far forward. Maybe in time though.

To information then, and the concern that so much information will never be digitized that finding it will be impossible. Cory Doctorow argued that Google had digitized over 90% of books anyway, and that the rest would soon be dealt with. I am not sure his figures are quite right – digitization is not always that easy or straightforward, and, for sure a lot of documents have not yet reached the scanner. The enthusiasm for digitized material may lead to relevant items being missed in a search – unless you happen to be an information specialist – the question being rather whether anyone is looking hard enough, in the right place, in the right way.

In response to the issue of relevant documents being lost within “too much information” Diane Coyle argued that it was about attention; most information can be found, but is missed because no-one is looking at it – for example if it is listed beyond the first page on the Google search results listing.

On the flip side, we moved on to “bit rot” where information is lost because the technology to read it no longer exists. Cory Doctorow again voted for confidence in technology, stating that if information was held on “spinning platters” then it could be transferred to another type of spinning platter indefinitely. No-one considered whether this was always cost-effective though.

And to one of my favourite concerns – that nothing is ever deleted, and the more dire the image, the more likely it is to pop up again and bite you at some inconvenient time in the future. “Its tweeted in stone” – William Gibson’s observation, seemed entirely apposite.

So what about the story of the future – and who writes it? I don’t think the discussion answered this, although I was pleased to think that the future will clearly contain a lot of information which will need to be organized, and that thus, LIS specialists could still find employment. Interestingly the information related concerns were all problems of the present, so at least we are recognizing that things that are problematic now may go on to be a bigger nuisance in the future.

Other discussion centered around what it means to be human, and what we mean by “progress” – more knowledge, or a “better society”. And what is a better society – longer lived? Better informed? And how can we know how the future will be fashioned by our present?

William Gibson wondered if the inventors of the pager knew how much it would change drug dealing.

Humanity’s motto, he concluded, could well be “ who knew?”


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