The multicultural, interdisciplinary record of humanity: library and information science

Whilst the cuts to public libraries within the UK have attracted significant column inches in recent years, as a discipline, library and information science is not often in the news. Whilst stemming from the ancient, socio-political stance that preservation of, and access to, the record is ‘a good thing’, historically, this has been rather taken for granted. Library and information science is not an outstandingly popular subject in the UK, and salaries for information professionals are modest. A colleague of mine pointed out that he would love for school children to say ‘when I grow up, I want to be a librarian’, but LIS clings stubbornly to its reputation as a subject with limitations.

I am prompted to comment now, as we are living in somewhat extraordinary times. Where it seems there is a real chance that facts have become what we read on a state controlled social media. Where Orwell’s 1984 has sold out on Amazon, and yet prejudice, hatred and willful consumption of disinformation has never been greater. My Twitter dashboard is filled with anxiety and political commentary pretty much overnight, in response to the US Executive Order on immigration.

So I would like to take a moment to mention our work in Library & Information Science at City, University of London. Our London Library School, CityLIS, has grown from the first course to be offered in Information Science, in 1961. We have always welcomed those interested in any aspect of the information communication chain, irrespective of personal background or academic discipline. CityLIS is an international, interdisciplinary cohort, which collectively supports and works towards the understanding of information and documentation, from micro-blogging, through physical and digital books, papers, journals, creative outputs and commentary in any format, to high-level analysis. We work towards the preservation of, access to, and understanding of humanity’s record.

Library and information science skills are essential not only for those who aspire to work in a library, or information office. They form the bedrock of understanding to those pursuing an academic career, to those working in the media, to those promoting humanitarian causes, to those teaching, to those in the caring professions, to those in the creative industries, to those working in businesses, to those with leisure interests. Library and information science skills are essential to everyone who inhabits civilized society.

Library and information science is a broad field of study, which focuses on the topic of information, and which draws from a plethora of approaches, including those of computer science, human computer interaction, media studies, cultural studies, psychology, linguistics, education, history and philosophy.

The communication of information is the heart and soul of our information society.

The mechanisms and instantiations of our record are continually evolving in response to technology, politics, socio-cultural mores, and economics. At CityLIS we also emphasize ethics. We base our understanding and development of processes of the information communication chain on history and philosophy, especially the work of Karl Popper, Luciano Floridi and the developing approach of the Turing Institute.

CityLIS promotes library and information science as an important, independent discipline, which supports progress in all other disciplines. We welcome students and colleagues who wish to work for an open, rational and educated society.


CityLIS by #citylis: montage by @lynrobinson cc-by


Connected Education: CILIP / CityLIS Employers Forum 2/11/16


Slide from CILIP presentation. Photo by @lynrobinson cc-by

The question of content for a Masters course in Library or Information Science is often considered from an academic perspective. In the UK, academic courses are regulated by the QAA, with the exact syllabus usually based on the recommendation of the Programme or Course Director, backed up by a teaching team and course advisory committee, the latter comprising students, new professionals, employers and other members of the profession. Significant changes to the syllabus may take over a year to plan, according to local quality assurance procedures.

Courses approved by the professional bodies in the UK (CILIP), US (ALA) and Australia (ALIA) all address the core content of library and information science, whilst each exhibits their unique strengths according to the interests and expertise of their academic staff and research students. In the UK, CILIP approved courses are informed by the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base, PKSB, which provides a connection between the world of work, and that of academia.

In order to further connect our academic understanding of LIS knowledge and skills with that of employers, and also with providers of vocational learning and continual professional development, CityLIS hosted a half-day Employers’ Forum in conjunction with CILIP, on November 2nd 2016.

The Programme and panel members can be seen on our (historic) Eventbrite site.

The Forum provided space for a discussion on how to provide coherent, whole career support for library and information science professionals, in order to create the workforce needed for the future.

The event brought together leaders, employers and heads of service from across all sectors, for what proved to be a lively and constructive conversation between all parties: employers, learning providers and CILIP. This was arguably the first opportunity a comprehensive mix of stakeholders in LIS education had been brought together, and the positive atmosphere has encouraged us to think of ways to continue the conversation, to promote library and information science as a meaningful and exciting career choice.

The free, informal event featured a mix of panel discussion, presentations, workshop activities and group feedback. Conversations focused on what skills were either missing or in need of further development within the LIS workforce, and the role of academic, professional, vocational qualifications, and continuing professional development (CPD), in shaping the future workforce.

Nick Poole, CEO CILIP commented on findings from recent workforce studies:

  • Need to have due regard for the heritage of the profession and its accumulated knowledge-base
  • LIS profession must lead positive change; it is too often seen as resistant to change
  • Need to respect each individual’s motivation for joining the profession
  • Few information professionals aspire to lead their organisation
  • Importance of information literacy and critical thinking
  • Importance of personal and professional ethics
  • Bridge between theory and practice in professional education
  • ‘skills’ is too narrow, think about competencies and attitudes

More general observations from the Forum, were that major implications for the workforce came from converging technologies demanding cross-disciplinary skills, and disruptive internet developments. David Stewart (Director, Health Libraries North) emphasised that librarians must become business-critical instruments of informed decision making.

A minority of the group, around 7 out of 70, felt that formal education was not effective in preparing students for the demands of the workplace. The same number however, conceded that they did not know what contemporary Library and Information courses offered, as they had not been in contact with academic education providers in recent times.

The topics identified by employers as important included: data literacy, information risk, evidence-based practice, teaching skills, workplace experience during education, budgeting and finance, metadata, RDA (although some responders suggested cataloguing should be removed from courses), creativity and innovation, and critical thinking.

Mindful of my well known advocay for the value of library and information science as an academic discipline, both for personal education and development as well as for providing a foundation for workplace skills, I contributed that whilst the demands of employers were broad, the amount of material and experience which could be fitted into the one year masters in either library or information science was limited. Most of the topics collectively suggested above are already covered by Library Schools, although the amount of time spent on each aspect might differ. One of the challenges faced by LIS course providers is how to render the broad spectrum of LIS subjects into a series of lectures, demonstrations and practical sessions that can be delivered and assessed within an academic framework, and which offers the student the best preparation for the workplace, and life(!).

The core LIS curriculum is shrink-resistant, and the information communication chain offers us little that is ‘optional’ to the information professional. Cataloguing is perhaps the only significant topic for which continued relevance has been debated in the literature, but it is also a practical skill that attracts fierce advocates. Digital culture and digital society have extended the knowledge and skills to be negotiated by information professionals to include a realm of digital literacies from data to ethics. At the same time, our analogue world still holds attention and demands we respect legacy systems and schemas. All this leaves little room for emphasising subjects peripheral to LIS such as marketing, finance, teaching, leadership, management and business. That is not to say these are not important, but that they may be better taught outside the main academic LIS curriculum. Indeed, these latter subjects are all domains in their own right, and would arguably be better served by specialist coverage, either on a further academic course, or via CPD.

Employers demand workforce ready employees, but it is unrealistic to expect that those who have just completed a formal qualification will also have had time to acquire organisation specific know-how, and to be adept at the interpretation of theory for specific practice. Even those with work experience may find new situations challenging at first, and then there is the continual change to working practices wrought by technology.

It has become fashionable to criticise academic, thinking skills and to emphasise the value of low-level practical ability over a headful of knowledge and facts that may never be used. This argument rests on the short-term economic gain that comes from employing non-professional staff. This is commonplace within the library sector, especially with the emphasis on encouraging volunteers to run public library services. Whilst this promotes the idea that information work is a low-level skill, the skills gap in information handling and technologies is often reported.

Those with an aptitude for lifelong-learning, and critical thinking are better placed to adapt, analyse, innovate and lead. These skills and abilities are those nurtured by a masters course, perhaps uniquely. Leadership, business acumen, teaching, marketing and other broad talents requested by employers, all stem from the attitudes, values and knowledge base instilled by the masters in LIS.

The economics however, are sometimes insurmountable, and the rising cost of a masters course means that many who want to study, and who would benefit from so doing, are unable to.

There is quite obviously scope for both academic nurturing and workplace experience however, and part-time study offers one way to address this. Shadowing, mentoring and secondments are also ways in which formal study can be integrated with work experience.

Academic study of any kind should not be seen as one-off achievement. There is always more to learn. It would seem sensible that formal academic study, workplace experience and CPD should be considered symbiotically, rather than a choice of one or the other.

Having said all this, there is also a case for vocational training and development for those for whom academic study may simply not appeal, or may not be feasible.

A collective effort to provide a comprehensive, connected approach to LIS education would benefit all of us within the domain, and help to attract, retain and develop a vibrant and successful workforce.

There is more information available now than at any other time in history, and it should be our priority as a sector to emphasise and facilitate the exciting possibilities and careers within this field, for those with either business or more altruistic ambitions.


Forum participants were asked to imagine the skills needed for the workforce in 2030 .. Photo by @lynrobinson cc-by


CILIP will use the outcomes from the event to inform current work on the Public Library Skills Strategy, and their wider work on a UK-wide Information Skills Strategy.

CityLIS is collaborating with colleagues from the health sector to encourage a connected approach to LIS education at all levels, and a further meeting with other LIS education providers, to address the development needs of healthcare knowledge workers, is planned.

This event was sponsored by Demco Interiors.

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.