Don’t go to Library School: you won’t learn anything useful

empty lecture theatre

photo by @lynrobinson cc-by


I keep hearing this, in a variety of guises. The dismissive certainty that library schools are out-dated in their understanding of how digital information has changed the modern world and its management of humanity’s record beyond recognition, and that LIS masters programmes produce graduates who are unemployable.

Having directed masters programmes in LIS for nearly a decade, I take a different view, and offer my firm belief that our library school, #citylis, delivers a sound contemporary understanding of today’s information landscape, and fosters a wide range of highly desirable professional and personal skills in our students. I doubt I am the only library school advocate, I know several colleagues from other schools who are equally passionate about their curriculum. At #citylis, we enjoy a constant dialogue with practitioner colleagues, our professional body (CILIP), employment agencies (Sue Hill, TFPL), alumni and current students, which allows us to elicit trends in technology, services, economics, user needs and other aspects of current practice. We are also avid horizon scanners, keeping an eye on the literature beyond the boundaries of our LIS discipline, to ensure we understand the wider context of what library and information science is trying to say. These combined activities result in a constant need to update our classes and materials, but we think our relevant, contemporary syllabus is worth it.

That is not to say that we offer everything to everybody. In the first instance, we work from a UK perspective, although within an international context, and secondly, our content is driven by the interests and backgrounds of our staff, and available resources, together with the primarily London-based collection institutions to which we defer for practitioner context. I don’t think any library school does, can, or even needs to offer an exhaustively comprehensive curriculum. Some variation between specializations of individual courses is perfectly acceptable, and even advantageous.

Our #citylis students are enthused, engaged and positive about their chosen discipline and profession, and the majority readily find employment, not only in the traditional areas of librarianship and information work, but across a wider range of information centred activities, such as publishing, information policy and governance, data management, information architecture, web-design, customer relations, training, user-support, and educational technology to mention just a few. All businesses rely on sound information management, so the future should be bright for well qualified graduates from LIS schools.

And yet, there are still doubters in the back channels. I recently read Deanna Marcum’s clearheaded report “Educating the Research Librarian: are we falling short?” Within the scope of research libraries, and with a US focus, this well written report of a conference aiming to use design techniques to map the future of library education, suggests that the problems stem from the broad scope of LIS itself:

“Perhaps the diverse backgrounds of the participants guaranteed the utter impossibility of developing a general curriculum that will meet all needs. For many of the younger representatives, technology was the main concern. How do we prepare new professionals to take full advantage of social media and emerging technologies to deliver information services to all who need them? Library buildings, legacy collections, and preservation— these were all topics that hardly registered on their list of interests. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab argued passionately that the purpose of a library and information school is to produce a cadre of individuals devoted to the universal right to access to information. Public librarians at the conference believe that new librarians must be trained as community activists focused on civic discourse. With no common vision for the library’s role, there could be no agreement on how library schools should prepare the next generation of students.”

I have also read posts from library school curriculum dissenters on Twitter, in blog posts, and have verbally heard discontent from potential employers working in the sector. In response, I have informally attempted a wider conversation to solicit the actual knowledge, skills, understanding or abilities that library schools fail to provide. Responses to my question “what knowledge and skills do LIS graduates need that they don’t get from library school?”, are often vague, but some are highly sensible and relevant, including: a clearer focus on the implications of the transformation of information communication pathways brought about by digital, the subsequent changing expectations of users of library services, designing systems and processes for information management, information architecture and research data management.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these specific suggestions have a technological focus, and I am in complete agreement with the necessity for LIS courses to acknowledge the significant changes affected by digital advancement. Indeed, over the last two years, colleagues and I have already gone a long way to enhance our library technology focus, via curriculum design and out-of-hours workshops and seminars.

A significant number of dissenters cite a lack of emphasis on more generic skills such as how to use a spreadsheet, marketing and promotion, design of promotional material, and communication skills. Communication skills covers many areas; ability to write well, ability to make a convincing case/argument (advocacy), ability to lead, to work in a team, ability to analyse, interpret, present and communicate data, ability to teach, ability to attract funding, and all-round social know-how. Knowledge of the company and its ways of working, was a favourite request, but here there was agreement that this could only be attained once a graduate was employed by the specific company. The generic skills outlined above, are all valid and important. The question here is which of them should be included in the LIS curriculum. Most (UK) masters programmes are a year long, and the schedules are already tight. Inclusion of more generic skills invariably means something else must be excluded. And, of course, there are other aspects of LIS to be fitted in, in addition to the purely technical aspects, and the generic.

At #citylis, we are keen to get this right, and would be willing to host a forum/meet-up where employers, professional bodies, students and programme directors can meet to discuss the role of LIS courses in preparing new professionals for work in our sector. Students, I am sure, would welcome this dialogue. Such a discussion is likely to stir up the longstanding tension between the demands of an academic masters course to cover theory and concepts, research methods and ideas found at the edge of our literature, versus the demands of employers for graduates who are ready to go from day one. But, a debate could surely only aid the smoothing of joins between the two halves of the whole. If anything it would allow us to re-examine ‘essential’ knowledge and skills, which need to be explored in the masters programme, alongside areas which could be covered by continual professional development, or in-house training.

To conclude, here are a few of the areas we feel are presing at #citylis. Some of them are newish, some of them of longstanding centrality to our work:

  • communication – traditiona/social media
  • research skills
  • information literacy
  • digital culture
  • scholarly communication
  • data analysis and presentation
  • digital curation and research data management
  • information resources – documentation
  • information organisaton – metadata
  • human information behaviour
  • information law, policy and management
  • information and communication technologies
  • role of library and information services in the 21st century

#citylis logo

Thanks to Dave Thompson (@d_n_t) for ideas.

Time for the blue whale

Text developed from my presentation with Ludi Price, (@LudiPrice) for the CDP25 Career Development Day on Thursday 26th Feb 2015, in London.

The title of this text draws on the analogy with the Natural History Museum’s recent move to replace their iconic, and much loved (plastic) dinosaur skeleton, which greets visitors to the museum, with the real skeleton of a blue whale. The rationale is that although the dinosaur, affectionately known as Dippy, has been there a long time and evokes many fond memories, there is the question of whether it continues to be representative of the museum’s vision for promoting humankind’s contemporary, ecological challenges, and our hopefulness for the future. The blue whale is not yet extinct, and can embody values connected to aspirations of a bright and harmonious future for our planet, rather than those of prehistoric times. Whilst nobody is claiming that the dinosaur skeleton has not served us well, it may now be appropriate to redefined old paradigms, and to offer a more plausible platform from which inhabitants of the 21st century can build their relationship with the natural world, and indeed, their memories of London.

So too, perhaps, it is time for a re-evaluation of what we mean by  “librarianship”. A brief examination of relevant academic curricula and job specifications (UK/US), and of course, the Google zeitgeist, (search for ‘is librarianship dead?’), provides us with evidence that librarianship could be morphing into the soggier end of computer science, and that the need for anything resembling traditional library/information skills in a world of mobile interfaces and big-data analysis, has all but disappeared.

From those of us positioning ourselves within the field, there has always been a sense of dissatisfaction with the status afforded to the discipline and practice of librarianship, and the related information professions, but there is now a renewed impetus for redefinition spearheaded by the actions of a wider community. It is protagonists from other disciplines who are blending into, and consequently diluting, our universe. Even core components of librarianship such as information organisation and access are proving attractive to a wider audience, as we hear that ‘everyone is an information specialist now’. This is somewhat similar to the crisis felt by information science as few decades ago, as one of its core facets, information retrieval, mostly packed up and left for the domain of computer science.

If we believe that our discipline should survive as a unique domain, we may have to replace the beloved dinosaur definition of librarianship with a new entity. I doubt I am alone in thinking that a 21st century understanding of librarianship needs to push the information perspective further into related disciplines than is perceived by onlookers, many of whom are looking from within the profession.

The view that librarianship keeps collections of documents in a place called the library and that information science is concerned with looking things up for people using such collections, undoubtedly still has appeal. However, if we are to redefine the meaning of our professional moniker, I would like to suggest the combined definition of library and information science  (LIS) that we use at City University London, (Robinson 2009), which considers that LIS is concerned with the information communication chain. LIS works to an overall understanding of the procedures contributing to the journey of ‘information’ from its creation to its use.

creation > dissemination > management > organization/retrieval > use

The terms in the model can be readily expounded upon, but at a glance are seen to encompasses changes in authorship, publishing, management and policy, description/retrieval, information architecture and human information behaviour. In the current, rather gloomy climate, this model is worth revisiting, as it emphasises the scope of library and information science. Also worth reiterating is the concept that LIS underpins civilisation. Recorded knowledge is the basis of our society. Witness the continued presence in the news of book burning and destruction of libraries (Fadhil 2015).

To support the view that librarianship is not dead, but changing, here are seven modern problems, distilled from the wider news environment, which can be placed within the information communication chain, and which, should LIS professionals wish it, provide routes via which the information perspective can contribute to related disciplines.

• Privacy/Freedom of Information
• Digital Legacy
• Digital Preservation
• Future of the Document
• Information Literacy
• Information Organization and Access
• Library as a Physical Space

Privacy and Freedom of Information
Individual privacy battles against constant erosion, as social media goes into overdrive to gain person details to feed advertising revenue. Increasingly, use of social media engenders an almost blasé approach to privacy, in that it becomes seen as a necessary evil. Access to personal communications by government intelligence agencies is perhaps resisted more, but the number of our conversations, emails, texts, photos, videos, purchases and search histories which are committed to the network in perpetuity keeps on increasing. (MacAskill E, Borger J, Hopkins N, Davies N and Ball J, 2013)

On the opposite side, the right to find out about financial dealings or decisions which should be of public concern, is often fraught with difficulty, see Shear MD, 2015 for a discussion on Hilary Clinton’s use of personal email to avoid disclosure of state correspondence.

These issues of security of personal details and of openness have long been within the remit of library and information workers. Although technology has catapulted them onto a much bigger stage, LIS should have a key role in development of local, institutional, national or international policy, and in education to promote understanding of the implications we face.

Digital Legacy
Here we come face to face with digital ghosts. Once someone dies, what happens to their online presence? There have been calls for digital legacies, which state what happens to social media accounts when the owner dies. Facebook has recently allowed relatives to say what happens to a Facebook account for example. There are really two issues, firstly what happens to a personal digital presence, and secondly what happens to digital equity, such as ebooks or CDs. These, essentially archive queries fall within the remit of library and information science, and yet the game is played out by social media companies and funeral policy makers. See my previous post, for further consideration of digital legacies.

Digital Preservation
The potential loss of our digital heritage is often in the news. It is something that concerns many organisations, from national libraries to local societies. Each of us is concerned with the preservation of our own electronic resources. Somewhat linked to the concerns of digital legacies, we need to understand how we can organise, locate and keep safe, our digital documents. This is a modern twist on a core aspect of librarianship, and yet the main decision makers are from other, largely computing, industries and government. See Pennock M, 2015.

Future of the Document
The changing nature of the document has been of interest for librarianship from the earliest days of writing. Tablets, papyri, codices, printed works, electronic books for example. The incorporation of videos and CDs into library collections heralded a move to hybrid libraries and the management of collections of both print and digital materials. Latterly, we have all digital collections such as Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America.

But document forms evolve continuously, and the emergence of augmented and virtual reality technologies is challenging how we define a document. I have written previously on the concept of immersive documents, wherein the reader perceives a scripted unreality as reality. This builds on the ideas of many other writers, to elucidate an original view of VR from the lens of library and information science. We should be concerned with the description, storage and access, preservation, and use of these new documents. The input from LIS so far, however, has minimal, with the majority of the news coming from the technology industry and creative writers.

The domain of fan-studies is also relevant here. Yet again, very little interest in fan works from the LIS community. (Work with @LudiPrice on information behaviour of fans seeks to address this).

Let us also consider datasets; these newer forms of documents, accompanied by their analysis and curation processes (data visualization, data analysis, data mining and data curation)  are also well within the scope of LIS.

Information Literacy
There is a large body of literature from, and obvious connection with, the LIS community in regard to information literacy. However, the question remains could more be done? Every school and higher education institute now faces the need to ensure students are information literate. Beyond this, everyone needs to be information literate. There is also the link between information literacy and information poverty, and inverse correlation with the latter for economic growth and development. The role for LIS professionals is surely enormous. And yet, we seem a little reluctant to take on responsibility for communicating the basis of our discipline to others. Alternative fields such as educational technology, and distance learning providers have become key players in promoting information literacy.

Information Organisation and Access
Many documents are now born digital, and the move from bibliographic data, to meta-data and linked data is widely accepted. This work is about describing documents, and as such of primary interest to the LIS community.

Furthermore, the questions of discovery, and of the design and implementation of digital library platforms require significant knowledge of information resources and human information behaviour. However, design of library and information systems is increasingly attracting those with computing skills, and we have to consider the need for LIS to take on a more technological component.

Library as a Physical Space
The role of the library within society has been a fundamental tenet of library and information science for thousands of years. In the digital age, when remote access removes the need for a physical space, what purpose could the library serve? Is this question best left to politicians, publishers and e-book sellers? Does the LIS community have an opinion? (Morris S and Flood A, 2015).

Neither library and information science as an academic field, nor librarianship as a practice are dead. The skills and resourcefulness of members of our discipline are ideally suited to address the problems raised and faced by the 21st century information society. We do need to re-examine how we define and promote our theory and practice. There is obviously a need for a more technical foundation, to reflect the prevalence of digital information systems in our world today. However LIS addresses wider concerns than those solved by coding and programming. We suggest that the information communication chain model still serves us well as the basis from which our concept of LIS can evolve, and that we would be wise to focus on how we embody generic resilience for the future, rather than continuing to solely emphasize what we have done in the past. Time then, to bring in the blue whale.

Fadhil M (2015). ISIS destroy thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul libraries. The Guardian, 26th February 2015. Available at:

MacAskill E, Borger J, Hopkins N, Davies N and Ball J (2013). GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications. The Guardian June 21st 2013. Available at:

Morris S and Flood A (2015). Birmingham turns page on glittering new library as staff and hours slashed. The Guardian, 10th December, 2014. Available at:

Pennock M (2015). Preserving our Digital Heritage: How are we really doing? British Library Collection Care Blog. 23rd February 2015. Available at:

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

Shear MD (2015). Obama says he didn’t know Hillary Clinton was using private email address. New York Times, 7th March 2015. Available at:

21st Century Library and Information Science

Time .. always changing things ..

Time .. always changing things ..

Some thoughts based on my recent presentation to the INFODAYS14 conference held at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic 5-7th November 2014.

The future of library and information science (LIS), is inextricably linked to the future of the document. Leaving aside for the moment, the question of exactly “what is a document?” this comes as no surprise to those of us working in this area, as we know that civilization owes its existence to recorded knowledge. For the time being also, let us allow ourselves to consider knowledge and information to be interchangeable terms, and within our LIS discipline, we will assume that for the purposes of communication, such knowledge or information must be instantiated as a document of some kind.

We can further understand that documents contain, and therefore allow access to, ‘formal’ information – i.e. something that is published, and therefore subject to the processes of the information communication chain, [Popper’s World III, instantiated in World I, physical objects]. This is in contrast to ‘informal’ information, which remains inside someone’s head – although developments in telepathic communication are starting to enter the research literature, we are still some way away from being able to intercept and understanding the thought processes of another being, [Popper’s World II].

I am often called on to comment on the nature of library and information science. To reiterate, here at City University London, we consider the discipline of library and information science to be the study of documents, on their journey through the information communication chain.

The realm of library and information science then, is the realm of the document. We, as researchers and practitioners within this field, are concerned with the activities surrounding the creation, dissemination, management, organisation and retrieval, and use of documents. We study these processes of documentation through the lens of Hjørland’s concept of domain analysis, invoking study and praxis within facets such as knowledge organisation, information retrieval, document preservation, historical studies, and research into information behaviour.

The changes in this chain of events, are driven largely by technology, although factors such as economics, politics and social tastes are all able to impact on the business of recorded knowledge.

Let us take a look at some of the developments that can be seen to be influencing the nature and definition of documents, as 2014 draws to a close.

Information Theory

A quick scan of the literature on the definition of information, reveals the troubled history of the concept central to our discipline. To-date, there is no single, satisfactory explanation of what information actually is. There are many attempts at definition, and indeed theories, both within the field of LIS and within other, seemingly unrelated disciplines. Resurgence in interest in information communications theory, can be seen to have heralded interest in information physics, philosophy of information and information biology. To some, the concept of information in these fields remains unconnected to the social discipline of library and information science, but to others, there is an interest in looking for connections and a possible theory of unification. See Bawden and Robinson papers below, for further reading in this latter area.

Data Science

The jump to prominence of data science and related areas (big data, data analytics, data visualisation) can be seen in the number of recent university courses being introduced (we have introduced one this year at City University), and reflected in the required skills listed in many job advertisements. One of the top skills sets required by employers across the sectors is the ability to collect, analyse and interpret data. Data handling and communication are now sitting alongside the more traditional ‘verbal and written communication skills’ that professional level work demands. These skills are becoming essential to practitioners within library and information science as e-science and the digital humanities pour more and more data sets into our sphere of influence. These digital data files are one example of the new forms of document that require the attention and understanding of members of our discipline. The move to open data, and the expectation that data will be published alongside findings are changing the way library and information professionals support scholarly communication. Indeed the move towards digital scholarship heralds a new era for partnerships between librarians and researchers.

Digital Humanities

The mass digitization of literature, poetry, art and music has led to an increase in materials and methods available for humanities based studies. There is a movement towards situating digital humanities research within the library and information environment, which seems to many, to be its natural home. Again, as with e-science, the availability of large data sets and multi-media files is fuelling new growth areas for understanding patterns and trends (text mining), and for facilitating the final convergence of the GLAM sector, where digital renderings of text, image, sounds or even objects bring the previously separate collection disciplines into a melting pot of new services and interpretations. We are witnessing new roles redefining library and information science as a producer of new content, understanding and insight, supporter of new forms of scholarship, and a leader in scholarly communications.


Library and information science has always had an intimate relationship with the processes of publishing and dissemination. Changes in both scholarly and trade publishing are well documented, driven by the open access movement and the demand for new models of consumption respectively. The rapid growth of mobile devices and social media has revolutionised what it means to be an author and what it means to be a disseminator or a reader. It is probably fair to say that anyone with access to technology (not everyone) can be both an author and a publisher. New mechanisms for content creation (image/media capture devices, writing for transmedia) allow new forms of documents (interactive narratives) to flourish, and we are seeing a move towards content marketing, an increase in the use of images or video over text, and in data mashups. New tools to help us understand the reach and potential impact of new publishing formats, referred to as altmetrics, are entering the armoury of library and information science alongside existing bibliometric and informetric analyses. What it means to publish is changing alongside the development of the document.

Computer Science/Technology

Technological advances undoubtedly drive the most significant changes in the form and nature of documents.

I have written previously in this blog, that developments in pervasive computing, multisensory network technologies and participatory human computer interfaces will allow new forms of documents to emerge, specifically ‘immersive’ documents, where unreality can be perceived as reality. News of current developments in virtual reality headsets and roomscape projection abounds, and consumer versions of games, narratives and training scenarios appear to be just around the corner timewise, rather than siting themselves somewhere in the mid to long term future. Before we arrive at the availability of completely immersive documents, we will see a range of lesser, participatory experiences, such as the interactive, transmedia narratives mentioned in the previous section. In these narratives, the story reaches out beyond the imaginary world, into the reality of the reader, with texts, phone calls and connections, seemingly coming from characters within the plot. The way the narrative plays out can be influenced by the reader, as can the ending.

The blurring of boundaries between a game, a learning experience or pure fiction with this type of document is evident. There will also be ethical implications with regard to how these documents are used.

Implications for Library and Information Science

As documents evolve, so then will the scope and processes of what we understand as library and information science. New forms of document will require extensions and adaptations to our current tools for knowledge organisation, new information architectures and new understandings of human information behaviours. Most interestingly perhaps, for the LIS profession, will be the need to engage with and promote ‘immersive literacy’, possibly in a similar way to which Gilster suggested for digital literacy less than two decades ago.

Further Reading

Bawden D and Robinson L (2013). “Deep down things”: in what ways is information physical, and why does it matter for LIS? Information Research 18(3), paper C03 [online], available at

Gilster P (1997). Digital Literacy. New York NY: Wiley, New York.

Hjørland B (2002). Domain Analysis in Information Science: Eleven approaches – traditional as well as innovative. Journal of Documentation, vol 58(4), 422-462.

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

Robinson L and Bawden D (2013). Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains. In: Theories of information, communication and knowledge. A multidisciplinary approach. Eds. Ibekwe-SanJuan F and Dousa T. Springer.

Robinson L (2014a). Multisensory, Pervasive, Immersive: towards a new generation of documents. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, in press.

Robinson L (2014b). Immersive information behaviour; using the documents of the future. New Library World, in press.