LIS PhD Idea: ‘In Search of Understanding’

The School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering at City, University of London is offering 5 doctoral scholarships for research students who wish to start in September 2017. The School is inviting applications for the scholarships, to be received by May 19th 2017.

The Centre for Information Science would like to put forward a candidate for the project described below, and we would be pleased to hear from potential research students. If you think you would like to work in this growing and important area of library & information science, please drop me a line [].

The project is outlined as a suggestion, which can be further developed to reflect the individual interests of the researcher.

We would also be interested to hear from applicants who have alternative funding, or who are able to pay fees and support themselves.

More information can be found on the School webpage.


In Search of Understanding


The promotion of understanding, as opposed to simply the providing of information or the sharing of knowledge, has gained increased recognition in the past three years as an objective for library and information science (LIS), particularly in the context of concerns about the so-called the post-factual society. But how this can be done remains unclear, particularly when the nature of ‘understanding’ itself remains vague.

Within the information sciences, commentators have put forward an informal view of understanding as a special kind of knowledge, lying on a spectrum between knowledge and wisdom. More formal analysis within LIS has usually invoked hermeneutic philosophy in general, and Gadamer and Heidegger in particular, in discussing understanding, but this has not yet led to helpful insights for the discipline, still less to improvements in design of systems and services. David Bawden and Lyn Robinson (2016a, 2016b) have put forward the outline of a concept of understanding for LIS based on Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information (PI). The aim of this project is to more fully develop this idea so as to provide a firmly grounded concept of understanding, which may be used establish the place of LIS in the contemporary information environment, and to improve practice.


The project will have three main phases:

  1. Conceptual analysis

This will involve: (a) a content analysis of the literature of all relevant disciplines, including but not limited to LIS, information systems and communications/media studies, to establish the meaning and significance of understanding; (b) philosophical analysis, focusing on situating understanding within the PI framework; (c) analysis of publicly available information systems, to establish the extent to which any promote understanding

  1. Expert analysis

This will involve: (a) a Delphi study of LIS academics and reflective practitioners, on the concept of understanding for LIS; (b) a series of in-depth interviews with scholars from a variety of fields, for the same purpose; (c) a critical incident study, to identify examples of information systems (in the broadest sense) enhancing understanding

  1. Conceptual design

This will involve the outline design of an information system (or systems) which would have the explicit aim of helping its users improve their understanding of a topic or issue, rather than just providing them with information about it


The project will have both academic and practical impact. Academically, it will help to establish the conceptual and theoretical framework for the LIS discipline, in particular enhancing its philosophical foundations. This in turn will affect disciplinary syllabi. Practically, it will pave the way towards a new generation of information systems, focused on understanding rather than information and knowledge. This in turn should provide some amelioration for the problems of the post-factual society.


The supervisors will be Prof David Bawden and Dr Lyn Robinson. Prof Luciano Floridi (Oxford Internet Institute) has agreed to act advisor.


Applicants for this studentship need to have: a good degree in a relevant subject (e.g. LIS, information systems, philosophy, communications and media studies, publishing); demonstrable ability for conceptual analysis and evaluation of information; demonstrable ability in communication and dissemination of information (through, e.g. publication of papers or blog posts)


At least three papers will be published in major journals of relevant subject areas (e.g. Journal the Association for Information Science and Technology, Journal of Documentation, Social Epistemology), and at least one paper presented at a major conference (e.g. the Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS) conference). A close of project meeting would be held at the university, in conjunction with a professional association such as CILIP, to publicis the results. A project blog, supplemented by Twitter, will promote and share the on-going progress of the project. Interim results and data sets will be made available in the City University Repository, and in the external Humanities Commons repository.


Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2016a), Information and the gaining of understanding, Journal of Information Science, 42(3), 294-299

D Bawden and L Robinson (2016b), “A different kind of knowing”: speculations on understanding in light of the Philosophy of Information. Paper presented at the 9th CoLIS (Conceptions of Library and Information Science) conference, Uppsala, June 25 2016. Open access version in the Humanities Commons at

Documentation in the post-factual society; or what LIS did next (after Brexit)


Photo by @lynrobinson cc-by

It has become something of a truism that LIS has rather lost its way. The importance of the information professional role is generally believed to have been diminished by the ready availability of digital information, particularly through Google, Wikipedia and social media, while news from the formal library sector is increasingly of closures and mergers. Not surprisingly, the underlying library/information discipline wonders what its purpose is, what it is educating for, and researching about. This is not new, but the concerns have now become more pressing.

One response, with which we identify, has been to suggest that we return to our turn-of-the-twentieth-century roots, and focus on documentation; the study of the varied forms and genres of documents which carry recorded information. This seems particularly apposite in light of the novel forms of complex digital documents now emerging, which traditional LIS is ill-equipped to handle, both in theory and in practice.

More broadly, we might see this movement framed within a wider set of social issues and problems, which we might categorise as those of the post-factual society.

The phrase “post-factual democracy”, now in wide circulation, seems to have risen to prominence in 2013, apropos of the ‘infostorm’ phenomenon, the multiple repetition of an idea on social media:

“Infostorms may be generating a new type of politics, the post-factual democracy. Facts are replaced by opportune narratives and the definition of a good story is one that has gone viral”

V.F. Hendricks, All these likes and upvotes are bad news for democracy

It has come into more frequent use in 2016, particularly in conjunction with Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US presidency, and the referendum decision for Britain to leave the European Union.

However, other variants are older. The term ‘post-factual age’ appears in 1999 (C Bybee, Can democracy survive in the post-factual age? ), and ‘post-factual era’ in 2007 (D. Sirota, Welcome to the post-factual era.)

The phrase “post-factual society” has contemporary popularity, used, for example, in an MTV report in July 2016,  although “post fact society” was used in the title of a 2008 book.

While all these terms seem to have much the same import, “post-factual society” seems most appropriate for the perspective of LIS, with its emphasis on making accessible the (at least partly factual) records of society.

What this means was shown in sharp relief in the political campaign which culminated in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in June 2016. It is generally agreed that the information available to the public during the campaign was accompanied, on both sides of the issue, by a great deal of misinformation (unintentionally false and/or misleading) and disinformation (deliberately false and/or misleading). Two widely publicised events threw light on the post-factual nature of the debate. One was the suggestion by Michael Gove, a leader of the Leave campaign that the public had had enough of experts. The second, the revelation that many British internet users searched for “what is the European Union” in the the days after the vote. Social media also played a major, and, in the views of many a malign, part in the campaign.

There are other, perhaps less dramatic, observations supporting the idea of the post-factual environment. One is the decline in fact-based news reporting, replaced by comment and supposition around a small amount of information (or misinformation, often) spread through the multiple reproduction of an initial report or press release, and lacking fact-checking or research in relevant information sources (K Schopflin and K Stoddard, The news librarian, CILIP Update June 2016, pp 28-30). Another is the reliance on social media for information of all kinds; while undoubtedly rapid, easy to consume, and able to be filtered according to taste, this works against the need for considered rational material, with an openness to views outside one’s filter bubble. Finally, there might be mentioned the inarguable move to a generally shallow, light or distant reading of materials of all kind, exemplified by a reliance on headlines, tweets, updates, snippets in internet news, and on abstracts for professional materials.

What might the response of LIS be to this complex of issues and problems? The problem is certainly not one of a lack of information; arguably the reverse. The response of the library community in particular over the past decade to information overload has been the enthusiastic advocacy of information literacy, with a focus on the selection of ‘good’ sources, and the evaluation of information. While this is no doubt of value, particularly in the educational settings where it is most strongly espoused, it seems too limited an approach to make much headway in a wider post-factual context.

We have argued that LIS should take as a major task, indeed perhaps as its main role, the promotion of understanding, as a replacement for the previous task of the provision of information. Understanding is, ironically enough, a poorly understood concept, and there is scholarly work to be done in capturing exactly what it means, from a documentation perspective, and hence how it may best be promoted. However, it seems likely that it will certainly involve two aspects. First is the development of information fluency: the conceptual grasp of the world of information, in its new digital environment with its new forms of document. Second is the complementary development of digital literacy; the set of skills necessary to navigate, to access and contribute to, the new information environment. These need to be studied and taught within LIS academic departments, and then promulgated through society generally by practitioners. This is certainly not a matter of attempting to go back to some golden age of universal deep reading of the kind of documents familiar in the pre-Internet age; the world has moved on from that, and will not go back. Rather, it is an attempt to help society to regain the fluent and effective dealing with information which has, to a significant extent, been lost in these post-factual days.

But together with these conceptual and practical concerns should go a specific ethical, and arguably political, commitment to oppose and to counteract the post-factual tendency and its proponents. The latter include much of the media, and some highly placed political figures, as well as the section of the population which prefers not to have to engage in rational fact-based debate.

It may reasonably be said that these are not wholly new tasks or perspectives for LIS; and indeed one may find analogies going back to the origins of the public library movement in the nineteenth century, if not before. But the social transformations which we are now seeing lend a new urgency. The transformation of LIS into a subject based around the principles of documentation, and with the primary aim of promoting rational understanding in society, is a necessary response.


Note: The nature of LIS as a discipline and its relevance to practice is one of my research interests, and I often write and speak about the content and boundaries of the subject, and the design of LIS curricula.

Here are some of my previous posts around this topic:

30/03/16 Waving not Drowning

10/05/15 Don’t go to Library School, you won’t learn anything useful

08/03/2015 Time for the blue whale

17/11/2014 21st Centruy Library & Information Science

18/03/2014 My name is Lynxi, I am an academic


If you are interested in studying for your masters in LIS, I give regular presentations on the discipline, careers and our course content at our #citylis open evenings, which are held in November, April and June at City University London as part of their postgraduate open evenings. Check the website for the next date – free but you need to register.

“A different kind of knowing”: speculations on understanding in the light of the Philosophy of Information

Note: This paper first appeared on David Bawden’s blog the ‘Occasional Informationist‘ on July 4th 2016.


This is a slightly updated and extended version of a paper by myself and Lyn Robinson, presented at the 9th Conceptions of Library and Information Science conference, CoLIS9, Uppsala, 28 June 2016. It includes some additional points raised in discussion of the paper.


lyra copyThis is a different kind of knowing… It’s like understanding, I suppose
Lyra Belacqua in (Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 2011)

Bawden and Robinson (2015) have argued that library and information science (LIS) should focus on the promotion of understanding, as much as on the provision of information, and the sharing of knowledge. But there is a lack of clarity and consensus, both in general discourse and in the LIS literature, as to what is meant by understanding. This short and speculative paper considers some philosophical approaches to understanding, particularly those related to Floridi’s Philosophy of Information, and based on the general idea that understanding is, in the words of Pullman’s Lyra, a special kind of knowledge.

Hams-Georg Gadamer
Hams-Georg Gadamer

Understanding is often associated in philosophical discourse with the hermeneutics of Gadamer, drawing on the thought of Husserl and Heidegger, and emphasising interpretation of texts; see, in order of accessibility, Zimmermann (2015), Gadamer (2008), and Gadamer (2013). Stock and Stock (2013) outline this approach, and its relevance to information science and information systems. We are not seeking to ignore or to contradict this approach, rather to suggest that there may be an alternative and complementary viewpoint.

pyramid copyWe begin by noting that the information sciences have commonly fitted ‘understanding’ into a linear succession, or pyramid, of concepts, also including data, information, knowledge and (sometimes) wisdom. In the initial statement of this model, Ackoff (1989) placed understanding as a concept between knowledge and wisdom, characterising it as an ‘appreciation of why’. The idea that understanding is associated with a form of knowledge sufficiently deep as to be able to provide explanation is attractive as a pragmatic way of dealing with the concept. But it has been largely excluded from discussion of these kinds of concepts in LIS (Rowley 2007; Frické 2009), while the whole hierarchy or pyramid model has itself been criticised on numerous grounds (Frické, 2009; Ma, 2012; Yu, 2015). It seems sensible to look for a more firmly grounded explanation, and perhaps a definition, of the idea of understanding.

The study is based on a synthesis of philosophical literature, found from a selective literature review. Items dealing with the concept of understanding from an information-based or knowledge-based perspective were identified from searches on Web of Knowledge, Library and Information Science Abstracts, Philosopher’s Index and Google Scholar, and by following references and citations. Close reading of a set of selected articles led to a synthesis of concepts.

Understanding in Floridi’s philosophy of information
To be of value for LIS, as well as to be congruent with most pragmatically useful views of understanding, we suggest that such an explanation would have to involve the concepts of information and knowledge, and perhaps data, carefully defined. A philosphically rigorous analysis of these concepts which treats them in a way of use to LIS is Luciano Floridi’s philosophy of information, and we begin with this as our basis. We are not thereby ignoring the Gadamer/Heidegger approach to hermeneutics; rather seeking an alternative, and potentially complementary, conception.

 Floridi (2010 and 2011), as is well known, defines information as well-formed, meaningful and truthful data, in his general definition of information (GDI). Knowledge, he regards as information formed into larger units: ‘Knowledge and information are members of the same conceptual family. What the former enjoys and the latter lacks … is the web of mutual relations that allow one part of it to account for another. Shatter that, and you are left with a … list of bits of information that cannot help to make sense of the reality they seek to address’ (Floridi, 2011, p. 288). The references to accounting and making sense suggest that knowledge may necessarily have explanatory power, often associated with understanding. Winograd and Flores (1986, p. 30) also emphasise this link: ‘what we understand is based on what we know, and what we already know comes from being able to understand’.

More formally, Floridi (2011 chapter 12, and 2012) argues that information may be upgraded to knowledge by being embedded in a network of questions and answers that correctly accounts for all of the information items. This is termed a theory of account, an idea going back to Plato, account here meaning simply giving reasons – causal explanations, logical deductions, didactic factual support, clarification through example or analogy, and so on – to link the individual pieces of information. The information items may be assumed to be compatible, and to form a coherent network, by virtue of their conforming to Floridi’s GDI.

Does this equate knowledge with understanding? Floridi is rather cautious here, suggesting that although we would generally say that Wikipedia or a scientific textbook contain knowledge, not just information, ‘it seems that knowing requires understanding, or at least that the two are mutually related’, and therefore textbooks, webpages and current artificial agents hold knowledge extensionally bit not intentionally, and therefore cannot be said to understand (Floridi, 2012, p. 450-451). Understanding, therefore, is a state of a conscious entity, when it has internalised knowledge, which is itself a collection of information arranged in a network of a particular nature, its nodes linked by account-giving interrelations. This is similar to the viewpoint espoused in Shera’s early formulation of social epistemology; an individual person has an emotional interaction with knowledge, and can therefore understand in a way in a society cannot (Shera, 1970; see also Furner, 2002)

Other current philosophical perspectives
Floridi’s is not the only current philosophical account of understanding which relates the idea to information and knowledge, and we now examine some others.

Jeroen de Ridder (2014) regards understanding as a kind of higher-order knowledge, in a network of knowledge with internal coherence and explanatory potential. Somewhat similar to Floridi’s conception, in its emphasis on an explanatory network, de Ridder’s idea of understanding simply takes the concept of knowledge as a given, and makes no relation with information.

David Deutsch (1997) gives an explanation, though not a rigorous definition, of understanding, as distinct from knowing, describing and predicting. He states that understanding is hard to define exactly, but it encompasses the inner working of things, why things are as they are and having coherence and elegance; it is about deep explanations and simplicity. Again there is no direct relation to information, but there is a similar emphasis to Floridi on coherent explanatory capability.

kvanvig copyJonathan Kvanvig (2003) distinguishes understanding from information, knowledge and truth. He suggests that ‘understanding requires the grasping of explanatory and other coherence-making relationships in a large and comprehensive body of information. One can know many unrelated pieces of information, but understanding is achieved only when informational items are pieced together’ (Kvanvig, 2003, p. 192). The object of understanding (that which is understood) is not constituted as a number of single propositions, but rather as an ‘informational chunk”‘. He refers to the grasping of the structure within this chunk as an ‘internal seeing or appreciating’ (Kvanvig, 2003, p. 198). This approach is able to cope with ambiguity, contradiction, missing or false information, and all the other messy features present in real-world information collections. It is not inconsistent with the typical pragmatic understanding noted above, but it goes beyond it. It emphasizes that in understanding we are always: (1) dealing with a large and complex set of information; (2) going beyond a simple ordering and enumerating of the contents of that set; and, (3) gaining some holistic ‘grasp’ of the contents of the set. This seems to be the sort of conception of understanding of value for the pragmatic needs of LIS. There are many similarities here with Floridi’s conception, but one distinct difference: whereas Floridi insists on that data must be true to count as information, Kvanvig’s approach allows for contradictions, and for false information to be managed on the way to understanding.

Adam Toon (2015) takes understanding to be a cognitive state; understanding feels different from just knowing, requiring not merely possession of information or knowledge, but also an ability to see or grasp the connections between them. This is reminiscent of Floridi’s ideas, though Toon does not ground his view in any distinction between information and knowledge, writing of what is to be grasped as ‘relevant facts and theoretical principles’, ‘relevant information’ and ‘various items of knowledge’. Toon argues that understanding should be seen as extended cognition; not merely what happens in a person’s mind, but also involving real world items. He exemplifies this with the use of pen and paper, but it is tempting to extend this to suggest that understanding may involve more complex information tools. However, as Toon points out, having the address of a website of a online course for a subject is not at all the same as understanding the subject.

kelp copyChristoph Kelp (2015) uses a knowledge-based account of understanding to deal with the evident fact that there can be different degrees of understanding. He, like the other authors mentioned here, equates understanding to connected knowledge; the more comprehensive and well-connected the knowledge, the greater the degree of understanding. While most people’s understanding of a topic will be less than maximal, because their knowledge is neither comprehensive nor entirely connected, Kelp suggests that we may argue that someone understands something if they can perform a contextually relevant task.

Understanding for LIS
Of the conceptions of understanding reviewed above, only Floridi’s is rooted in carefully defined ideas of data, information and knowledge. Since this approach seems the most appropriate and acceptable for the LIS context, we suggest that Floridi’s philosophy of information could be used as the basis for a conception of understanding suitable for LIS.

However, Floridi’s networks of well-formed, meaningful and truthful information seem at first sight perhaps too idealistic for the situations encountered in LIS. In particular, the veridicality requirement seems onerous. We know that much information, even the best information to hand at any time, is not necessarily true. Even scientific theories, often held as the most reliable form of our knowledge, are open to correction and improvement. This was the point made by Karl Popper, when he insisted that his World 3 of objective knowledge must encompass error and contradiction (Popper, 1979). We may follow Floridi’s terminology in seeing information science as dealing with ‘semantic content’, itself composed of information (true), misinformation (false) and disinformation (deliberately false). However, this is not how most of those involved in the information disciplines would naturally regard the contents of their collections.

For this reason, Kvanvig’s conception of information, with its acceptance of the intrinsic messiness of most bodies of knowledge encountered in the real world seems more in line with Popper’s ideas, and hence more helpful for LIS. What is needed, it seems, it a reconciliation of the ideas of Floridi and of Kvanvig, in providing an account of understanding helpful for LIS.

This may be approached, we suggest, by adapting the ideas of Kelp on degrees on understanding. Where Kelp takes the comprehensiveness, and the extent of connectedness, of knowledge as the criteria for degree of understanding, we may add truthfulness as a third criterion. Thereby, complete understanding is characterised by a collection of information which is comprehensive, optimally connected, and entirely truthful; when any of the three criteria are less than a maximum, the degree of understanding is thereby reduced.

Finally, we adapt Floridi’s categorisation of understanding as a state of a conscious entity, by adding Toon’s recognition that it may be enhanced and extended by availability and use of information tools and systems.

We are therefore able to propose a tentative account of understanding, to be of value for LIS as follows:

Information is taken to be well-formed, meaningful, truthful data. Knowledge is taken to be information organised in a network of account-giving inter-relations. Understanding occurs when a conscious entity, supported as necessary by information systems, appreciates the totality of a body of knowledge, including its interconnections. The extent to which the knowledge is incomplete, contradictory or false determines the degree to which understanding is less than complete.

While this account is not formally stated, it does seem to satisfactorily reconcile the perspectives of Popper, Kvanvig and Floridi, in a way which should prove acceptable for the pragmatic purposes of LIS. It also poses a useful counterpoint to the hermeneutic conception, so that the complementary nature of the two could usefully be examined.

The pragmatic value of an account of understanding, of the kind developed here, is that it may prove useful in developing new generations of information systems and services which may directly and explicitly support the gaining of understanding. This will require systems which go beyond the provision of facts, knowledge fragments, and documents, and beyond the answering of specific queries (Bawden and Robinson, 2015). Development of such systems will require studies of the information behaviours and practices, and the information literacies, associated with the gaining of understanding, rather than simply the acquiring of information. A careful formal account of what we mean by understanding, of which the tentative proposal presented here is a starting point, is needed to underlie such developments, and to contribute to their success. This is likely to require a synthesis of the conception outlined here, based on Philosophy of Information, and the arguably complementary conception based on hermeneutics.

Post-conference addenda
In discussion after the paper, it was pointed out that different groups might reach entirely different understandings, based on essentially the same body of public knowledge; climate change pressure groups were noted as an example (thanks to Geoffrey Bowker for sparking this discussion). Even more dramatically, conspiracy theorists may form entirely coherent and inter-connected knowledge frameworks, which have little to do with truthful information as generally understood. Maintaining these frameworks of understanding seems to rely on selective information seeking, and on active avoidance of potentially contradictory information, as shown in the paper presented at this CoLIS9 conference by Bhuva Narayan and Medina Preljevic on anti-vaccination pressure groups. It seems reasonable to regard such an understanding as deficient compared with one which is able to accept and consider all potential relevant information. Perhaps a further, fourth, criterion for the extent of understanding; a Popperian commitment to accepting, indeed actively seeking, potentially disruptive knowledge, which could amend and extend the framework of understanding.

The question was also raised as to whether the kind of understanding outlined here is necessarily an attribute of an individual, or whether it could also apply to the understanding of a social group. It is clear that the concept of understanding which we present here is that of a conscious entity; an ‘inforg’ in Floridi’s terminology. Whether it is appropriate to regard a group of people as such an entity seems doubtful, and therefore this is strictly an account of individual understanding. However, where we find groups defined by a common knowledge-base, as in the socio-cognitive basis of domain analysis, it may be reasonable, and helpful, to apply some of these considerations to the understanding of the group as a whole, provided that we do not imply that we are dealing with a group consciousness.


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