Documenting Performance: the backstory

This post first appeared on on October 16th 2016. It describes the background to the symposium held on 31st October 2016, at City, University of London: “The Future of Documents: documenting performance

The Twitter hashtag relating to this event is #docperform.

Cross-posted here for reference.


There are now just two weeks to go until ‘Documenting Performance’, our exploratory, interdisciplinary symposium on the concept of performance as a document, and the ideas, theories and practices around the documentation of performance. We are hoping that our initial event will spark further interest to form a longer term project, which we are calling DocPerform.

My initial feelings are positive, as for this event, both the response to our call for papers (27 abstracts, and I had to turn another couple away after the deadline) and the number of registered attendees (75) has been stunning. The event is now sold out, but we are running a wait-list so please email me [] if you would like to come but have been unable to secure a ticket. If you are holding a ticket that you know you will not use, please cancel via Eventbrite, so someone else can join us.

We would like to say a very big ‘thank you!’ to everyone who has sent us ideas, and registered for the event. It was hard to make a choice about which papers to include, but I hope that everyone will agree that our Programme, showing the range of approaches to how we currently understand performance as a document, is pretty good! We are very excited about the day, and look forward to meeting new colleagues interested in documents and documentation.

My original idea was to host a series of seminars within our research centre, (Centre for Information Science) to examine how the conceptual view of the document is developing in the 21st century. The question of what is / is not a document is considered in work of Otlet, La Fontaine, Briet, Buckland, Lund, Latham, Gorichanaz, Robinson and other writers within the field of library and information science, with the earliest papers having been  written at the start of the 20th century.  The obvious and fascinating question would be ‘what next’? I subsequently felt, however, that it would be helpful to take a step back, and to consider whether any unifying perspective could be applied to the increasing number of entities already extant upon the documentary landscape. Such a framework would be valuable to any discipline concerned with the organisation and preservation of its domain output, and could also be used to help formulate understanding of future document types, real or conceptual.

My working draft of such a framework is shown at the end of this post. Several colleagues contributed to my ideas, and I would like to mention them briefly as part of the background to our forthcoming event.

When my friend and colleague Prof Adrian Cheok joined City a few years ago, I was inspired by his work on the multisensory internet, (transmitting the sensations of taste, smell and touch in addition to sound and vision via the network), and this, plus developments in pervasive computing, wearable technology, human-computer interfaces and virtual reality, brought to mind the idea of the library as the ‘Experience Parlour’. I came across this idea in The Library of the Future, a book by Bruce Shuman, written in 1989. In his series of scenarios for the future library, he suggested one where reading a good book meant actually living, or experiencing it. I wondered if this form of immersive document was one possible future for documents, and consequently for libraries and other cultural, collection orientated institutions.

Whilst science fiction provides us with many depictions of immersive documents, (for example the holosuite in the Star Trek universe), at the present time fully-immersive documents, wherein the reader perceives a scripted unreality as reality, do not exist. However, many of the entities to which we refer as documents offer the reader a partially-immersive, or complex, experience. These documents provide the reader (broadly interpreted to include related terms player, participant, viewer, audience member) with a compelling and realistic world, but one which is delineated to varying extents from actual reality. The reader knows that they, and the document with which they are engaging, are a part of the real world (for want of a better phrase). This is in contrast to the experience delivered by fully immersive-document (as yet theoretical) where the reader cannot distinguish between the unreality and reality, and the interface between human and computer is invisible and frictionless.

A series of encounters over the past 3 years provided insight for developing a framework to help us understand what partially-immersive documents might be, and how they could relate to other documents.


In June 2014, Adrian invited me to a seminar on the history of video games at the Daiwa Foundation. The enthusiasm with which players spoke of their interaction with early games indicated how strongly they identified with and enjoyed the ‘unreal’ worlds of the game. Whilst some games offered realistic environments, others offered clearly computer-generated spaces, yet the players still engaged time after time. Video games are an example of partially-immersive documents. They provide the ‘reader’ with a compelling world, but one which is clearly separate from reality. Even the most enthusiastic player knows the game world is constructed.

The playing of historical games was not the only point for consideration during the seminar; the issue of preservation was paramount, and discussion turned towards which characteristics of the games needed to be preserved. The list went beyond saving a copy of the software (computer program), conservation of its associated hardware or simulations of now-extinct computer operating environments, to ensuring that feelings, such as elation, despair, desire to win, anxiety, happiness or nostalgia, all possibly experienced by the player during the game, could also be guaranteed. The question then became more complex; are we attempting to preserve an historical game to be played afresh in a contemporary time, or are we attempting to preserve something more, by including something of the past environment, and even the experience/feelings of the player or players?

So, if we intend to record and preserve ‘experience or feelings’, do we mean that we are attempting to ensure that (re)playing the preserved game will generate the same sorts of feelings that were invoked generally in previous times, or are we attempting to reconstruct individual experiences of a game, exactly as they happened on a previous occasion, so that somehow the players or readers feel exactly the same as they did during a previous, specific occasion (for example the excitment of completing a level, or of a winning goal). If this latter reconstruction were technologically possible, it should also be possible to experience a game from the viewpoint of someone else, by replaying (and experiencing) their memory track, alongside the game timeline.

Experience is hard to define, and even harder to code for access and reuse. This level of enhancement to partially-immersive documents remains theoretical, but it is possible to imagine that a layer of ‘experience’, general or personal,  could be added to complex, or partially-immersive document formats. The concept of adding experience or feelings to a document, or record of a document (documentation), introduces the need for us to consider who the document or documentation is for. Whose point of view are we recording? In theory, a record could be made of every individual experience of every individual document, including the perspective creator(s) or author(s).

These concepts are reflected in recent developments in journalism, where 360 degree recording is used to film documentaries. The realistic, ‘immersive’ nature of these films enhances emphathy from the viewer, evoking feelings similar to those felt by those present at the time the recorded events took place.  See: Virtual Reality, 360 Video and the Future of Immersive Journalism, by Zillah Watson, 1st July 2015.

At this stage then, we have the concept that video games, or simple copies of video games are partially-immersive documents,  but that copies or recordings could also offer an additional layer of general ambience/sentiment, or personally specific thoughts and feelings. These enhanced copies, also partially-immersive documents, would be considered new documents in their own right, although associated with the original video game.

Interactive Narratives

At around the same time that I encountered the video games enthusiasts, I became aware of the convergence of video games with interactive fiction. These latter digital documents, which increased in popularity and number with the ready availability of consumer technologies such as smart phones and tablets, attempt to engage the reader by allowing input to or participation in the script. They offer interactive engagement across a range of platforms, and can reach out to the reader via texts, emails and phone-calls. Innovative software such as that which reads emotion from facial expressions can be used to tailor interactive fiction to the individual reader. The difference between an interactive fiction and a game is hard to specify, although one distinction I came across suggested that although many games have a narrative aspect to them, this is not required.

Interactive fictions are also partially-immersive documents, proferring experiences which are distinguishable from reality, yet which offer varying degrees of participation and immersion in compelling, unreal worlds. Like the worlds of video games, interactive narratives could be recorded with the intent to evoke time or context specific feelings, or indeed the feelings or experiences from a given player at a given instance.


Technologies which underpin partially-immersive (and perhaps eventually fully-immersive) documents such as video games and interactive fictions, can also be used to record and preserve them. The most straightforward way to think of this is when making a copy of the software. In some ways, identical copies of video games or interactive fictions can be considered documents which are the same as the originals; compare with FRBR‘s ‘manifestation’ level for books, where the copies differ only at ‘item’ level. If we are thinking, however, also to record the ‘experience’ of the player or ‘readers’, then in adding layers of information to the original computer programs we are creating further new documents. Documents which contain a level of immersion, (experience, feelings) associated with a given reader, player, or creator.

Video games and interactive narratives can also be considered to possess temporality. They arguably exist only whils they are being ‘read’ or ‘played’. Whilst the concept of a book or paper may be considered to exist as long as its physical form is extant, there is the question of whether the video game or the interactive narrative exists as its computer program on some kind of storage media, or whether it only exists when being played. Similary, we could suppose a book only exists either in print or electronic format whilst it is being read, and that the ‘bookness’ is separate from its representative media. This is not a usual interpretation however. The concept of analogue documents, in contrast to digital, partially-immersive and immersive documents is important, and forms the basis of the draft framework suggested below.

Immersive Theatre

The increasing popularity in London and other cities for immersive and participatory theatre added performance to the mix of partially-immersive documents.

Performances, displaying some parallels with video games and interactive narratives, only exist for a given amount of time, and unless one counts their documentary containers, such as the written script, or computer programme and data records, they are intangible forms of document. Like video games and interactive narratives, a performance can offer varying degrees of participation, and feelings of immersion.

Several of my students were/are fans of immersive theatre, attending shows such as Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’ and Thomas Otway’s ‘Venice Preserv’d’ several times over. I was invited to go along to a performance of Venice Preserv’d’ where I witnessed first hand the desire of the audience to participate in the show; they readily and willingly suspended reality to a significant extent. Again I thought of documentation, and how a performance could be regarded as a document being ‘read’ by the audience. To some extent, all performance is interactive/participatory, as the audience is reacting internally to the show even if they are sitting as passive observers. Some performance, however, offers the audience higher levels of interactivity, from singing along with the cast, to joining the actors for part of the show, and participating in the performance. Varying degrees  of participation in temporal events, also offered by video games and interactive fiction, are traits of partial-immersion, and a performance could therefore also be considered as a partially-immersive document. The boundaries of ‘what is a performance’ is a valuable discussion, but left for another occasion.

In the case of  performance, this raises the (unoriginal) question, that if the performance itself is a document, is documentation (recording) of a performance yet another document? And a further, also unoriginal question, does the documentation intended to reconstruct a performance actually create yet another performance? Would it be possible to recreat exactly a performance from the viewpoint of a ‘reader’ or audience member, in the same way as for recreating the exact experience of playing a video game at a particular time and place? We can consider too, the recording of a performance from the perspective of the creator, or of a performer.

When preserving or recording a performance then, are we documenting just the performance per se, or also the thoughts, feelings, and interactions of members of the audience? Should we attempt to garner something from the actors in each performance to improve the validity of the record? A performance is clearly more than something that can be represented by a script, photographs or a video recording. It is necessary, when documenting performance, to say something about temporality and participation (new to me, but of course unoriginal from other disciplinary viewpoints). We must distinguish between a record of somthing which is intended to be experienced for the first time by a reader, and a record which includes something of how it felt to have participated on a previous occasion. The embedding of thoughts and feelings within any sort of document has yet to be fully explored concpetually, as well as technologically.


In September 2013, Ludi Price joined the Centre for Information Science as my research student, beginning her PhD on the information behaviour of cult media fans. Our work lead me to appreciate and consider the art of cosplay as a kind of performance, and thus a form of partially-immersive document. Clearly, there are links between cosplay and participatory theatre, and the question of should anything of this be documented, and if so how, appeared again.


Adrian invited Ludi and I to a talk he had arranged by the artist Choi Ka Fai, who was interested in recording patterns of the electrical signals which generate muscle contractions (is the body itself the apparatus for remembering cultural processes?). His idea was to attempt to record the movement of dancers, and to play them back on another dancer, to see if movement could be recorded and transmitted. If this is ever possible, it would allow one person to almost become another, experiencing not just a recording of a performance, but what it felt like to be part of it. This could in theory be one of the experiential layers added to the concept of the immersive or complex document, but the work so far remains experimental.

Immersive Documents

By this time, I had published two short papers on the concept of the multisensory, immersive document. Sarah Rubidge, Professor Emerita (Dance) at University of Chichester, came across these papers and subsequently contacted me. Sarah had been developing immersive, choreographic installations for two decades, and was interested in how to document such participatory experiential works beyond using words and photographs. Sarah’s ideas of using 360 degree camera recording or virtual reality to represent these forms of performance art were similar to my own ideas; that technologies such as VR, together with multisensory rather than merely multimedia recording, might allow us to more accurately document the experiential nature of performance and related works for future scholars, students and historians.

For the moment however, the work remains conceptual, as although 360 degree recording improves the visual experience of the record, multisensory recording, especially that related to the sensation of movement, is in its infancy.

Clearly if we could make a complete, multisensory recording of a performance, the recorded document could be read either to experience the work for the first time, or to experience it again as either yourself on a previous occasion, or as someone else.

Sarah also suggested that I attend the Digital Echoes Symposium at C-DaRE, the dance research group at Coventry University. Here I met several dancers and researchers, who were interested in the documentation and archiving of dance. One of these participants was PhD researcher Rebecca Stancliffe, who introduced me to a project called Synchronous Objects, where dance movements were converted into data, then into other objects for visual representation. Rebecca had found the work of Paul Otlet, and was working on the concept of what is a document from the discipline of dance, totally unrelated to LIS. The day was fascinating, and I learnt about new things to document, such as body memory, in addition to audience recollections and dancer insights. The way dancers perceive a performance, their work, is totally different from how traditional documentalists think of it.

Performance Art

Over the summer of 2016, I attended a course at the Tate Modern on Framing the Performance, led by Georgina Guy. Georgina led the class for four, weekly sessions, in which a group of us considered how Tate had displayed and documented a range of performance art installations. We were invited as a class to consider what we needed to know about a work, in order to store, archive, preserve, access, use and ultimately understand it. A fascinating field.


My most recent encounter with partially-immersive documents came as I was preparing for one of my own classes, a session for a module called Digital Information Technologies and Applications. The theme was data. In thinking about how to demonstrate data, I came across several artists whose work used a data input to bring into being a constantly changing visual artwork. See for example: . Participation then, does not only imply human input, but also that of data.


Alongside all of this, I undertook some further literature reviews, looking for work relating to documents, and documentation of performance, but from outside the LIS discipline. There was plenty. Performance artists from all fields, theatre, dance, music, performance art, were all represented in the literature on documenting performance. All these previously unimagined colleagues working on documents and documentation from a completely different background to LIS. I started to think about an event to bring the two cohorts together. On mentioning my interest to a friend, Tia Siddiqui, she put me in touch with a colleague of hers, from Rose Bruford college, Joseph Dunne, who had a background in performance, but who was also interested in documentation. I told Joe my idea of a symposium for both LIS and Theatre and Performance advocates, to share ideas on how performance can be regarded as a document, and how we can best record and preserve such partially-immersive entities for reuse if and whenever necessary.

Joe agreed to work with me on the idea, and our first collaborative outcome is this symposium ‘Documenting Performance’. The event sits within the wider consideration of the document by researchers at the Centre for Information Science, and specifically considers performance, although that is not to say video games, interactive fiction and other examples of partially-immersive documents such as performance art or information art do not warrant attention, but perhaps for another day.

Pulling all of these threads together, I think we can understand a partially-immersive document as one which affords the reader a compelling and engaging environment, for which the boundaries between reality and the imaginery, scripted world are blurred. Such documents present in varied media formats, and some of their characteristics may overlap with those of fully-immersive documents. Partially-immersive documents are interesting, because they already exist, and because of the questions they raise in respect of description and indexing, recording, access, preservation and use. They push at the boundaries of traditional documentation and demand that we reconsider our definition of documents in the age of VR, AR and mixed reality. Documentalists need to embrace the characteristics of participation and experience in our work, if we wish to fully maintain the 21st century record of humanity.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of performance as a document is the capture and recording of the thoughts and feelings of those participating, whether as reader, (audience member), performer or creator, alongside the more usual physical representations such as a script, or a video. Understanding and rendering of this participatory layer is arguably what will allow us to move forward in the documentation of performance, in that it will move us closer to the construct of an acutal performance from a given viewpoint, so that we can offer a reader a more perfect copy of an original experience.

A (Draft) Unifying Perspective for Documents

It is perhaps helpful at this stage to construct a unifying perspective which includes all documents, encompassing also those which are neither partially- nor fully-immersive. I think we need two further categories: physical/analogue documents, and digital documents. The latter category being comprised of counterparts to the physical entities, and also of born-digital works.

As a starting point for discussion, we now have a unifying framework comprising four categories of documents:





Exact definitions of these categories, and the identification of any overlaps or non-sensical implications needs further work. It is likely that the definitive placement of a given type of document within any given category will be problematic, as the interpretation of a document type will suject to context and viewpoint.

At first glance, the main categories seem self-evident. We can, for example, notice two main, straightforward ways in which physical or digital documents may be differentiated from paritally-immersive or immersive works.

Firstly, they are documents which do not change. That is, that a physical book remains the same book over time, as does a digital text, or artwork. No input or participation from the reader is anticipated, or even possible, so the work remains as it was originally created, unaffected by input or participative interaction.

Secondly, physcial/analogue or digital documents do not possess temporal characteristics, apart from those associated with the natural decay which affects all material objects. In contrast to a performance or an exhibition for example, which reach an end point beyond which, arguably, they no longer exist.

The straightforward delineation between the categories of documents becomes subtly problematic however, if we think more closely about the concepts implied by the axes of characterisation. Although the book (physical or digital) demands no active participation, are we not participating by the mere act of reading and construction of the bookish world in our minds? When we refer to a document as a physical entity, are we not implying the container, in contrast to the idea, the informational content, or the ‘bookness’?

Consider also temporality. Is it possible, for example, that the interpretation of a text changes as the reader ages? Is the document or painting encountered as a child the same as that encountered by the same person, but in adult life?

Whilst further thought is necessary, we can suggest that within each of the four categories of documents,  further characterisation can be made by placing every document at a point along each of four axes:

temporality: the document exists for a limited time

tangibility: the extent to which the document has a material form

degree of input or participation required: the extent to which interaction is afforded

immersion: the extent to which reality is suspended

The exact understanding of, and the scale or values for these axes are as yet undefined. How does participation relate to immersion? One can surely be immersed in a document, whilst remaining un-participative. There is unquesionably more work to be done to understand the nature of documents and the processes of documentation, and the draft framework above is suggested as a tool with which we can  elucidate and explore concepts at a more specific level.


This symposium, focusing on performance, is a part of this work. It is the first of the documentation events at City, although it has grown into a collaborative event, somewhat larger than I originally envisaged.

The symposium is divided into three sessions. Firstly, we look at some existing projects in key memory institutions. Secondly, we examine less traditional aspects of performance which we could try to document, and finally we consider some newer types of performance and ways to understand what we should be documenting. We hope that you enjoy the day, and that it will encourage learning and cooperation from both fields of LIS and Theatre and Performance.

Note: This post was updated on 9/1/17 by LR


Are the Digital Humanities and Library & Information Science the same thing?

LIS=DH? 2015

@lynrobinson cc-by

The following is a summary and further discussion around the presentation which I gave in May at ISI 2015, held at the University of Zadar, Croatia. The original paper, written with Ernesto Priego and David Bawden, was part of the stream on exploring the disciplinary boundaries of library & information science, and is published as: Robinson L, Priego E and Bawden D (2015). Library and information science and digital humanities: two disciplines, joint future? In: Pehar F, Schlögl C and Wolff C (eds.) Re-inventing information science in the networked society. Glückstadt: Verlag Werner Hülsbusch, 2015, pp 44-54. 

LIS:DH on GoogleThere is much talk of the relationship between digital humanities (DH) and library & information Science (LIS) these days. We know this, because a quick and dirty Google search throws up some links to serious thoughts on how the two disciplines are interrelated.

A more detailed search of the current literature further reveals an increasing number of papers within the LIS domain which discuss how the concerns of DH are linked to the traditional concerns of the LIS discipline, and to the core competencies of librarianship. This, added to the increasing focus on digital collections of major LIS players such as the British Library and the Wellcome Library, suggest it is timely for those of us involved with teaching and practice to examine the close relationship our discipline has with DH. Further encouragement can be gained from noticing the prominence in London of DH centres and courses, the transition to digital scholarship, and the critical mass of social media datasets available for analytics and visualisations.

LIS has always been described as a broad discipline (see Bawden and Robinson 2012). This has often been seen in a negative light, as its components are readily appropriated by related subject fields, such as computer science, linguistics, psychology, human computer interaction, management and publishing. However, if we focus on the fact that LIS is centred on the topic of information, instantiated as documents, we can see that LIS is about all the processes of the information communication chain (Robinson 2009). No other discipline is interested in documentation in this way. Further, it is noteworthy to consider how many members of related disciplines are, in reality, thinking and practicing LIS.

So to digital humanities. The following three questions present themselves:

  • How is DH linked to LIS as a discipline?
  • Can this be modeled?
  • How should evolving DH content be integrated into LIS masters courses?

In order to answer these questions, an analysis of a selection of the literature was carried out. Relevant articles were identified by searching for LIS and DH terms in the title, abstract and descriptor fields of Web of Science, LISA, LISTA and Google Scholar. As papers of this nature are relatively recent, no time limits were applied. The articles were then carefully read to elicit themes, models and suggestions for LIS curriculae. References at the end of each paper were scanned for further insight.

Links between DH and LIS disciplines

The following six themes emerged from  twenty two relevant papers. It is not suggested that these themes are definitive, they are however, indicative of the ways in which DH and LIS are related.

1) Place

  • DH research is often sited within collections institutions: libraries, archives, record centres, museums
  • Institutionally, LIS and DH are often located together in academic units

2) Documentation

  • LIS and DH are associated with the academic use of recorded information
  • The focus of DH and LIS is on documents, where the term is understood in the broadest sense, including datasets
  • The literature describes the categories of interest in documents for both LIS and DH as: resource creation, dissemination, search and retrieval, (digital libraries and archives), metadata and resource description, open access, linked data, collection management and curation, portals and repositories, preservation, interactivity and user experience to name but a few
  • There is a tension in both fields between the status as an academic discipline, and that of a support service

3) Education

  • Educational programmes in LIS are increasingly including DH material and vice versa. This is reflected in the requirements for skills and competencies from LIS accrediting and professional bodies

4) Journal Literature

  • Although DH has its own journals, and papers may appear in the literature of the humanities or computer science, DH research is often reported in journals primarily regarded as LIS resources
  • Sula (2013) showed a steady increase in DH related publications in the LIS sources in the LISTA database between 2005 and 2012.
  • A search for the phrase ‘digital humanites’ in the title, abstract or index terms in the Web of Science and LISTA databases, carried out in January 2015 for papers published in 2013 and 2014, found DH papers in a wide variety of LIS journals, emphasizing the continued relationship between the two disciplines

5) Pedagogy

  • LIS and DH have embedded pedagogical practice; LIS instantiated as information literacy and DH as champions of education for the use/development of related methods, tools and technologies (DH literacy).

6) Challenges

  • Considering the background and nature of LIS and DH, both are broad disciplines, focusing on information or recorded knowledge, instantiated as documents
  • Both disciplines lack agreed definition
  • Both disciplines face contested futures


Cultural Informatics Model  for Digital Humanities and Libraries, Sula 2013

Cultural Informatics Model for Digital Humanities and Libraries, Sula 2013

One model showing the relationships between LIS and DH was found, Sula’s conceptual model (2013), based on a cultural informatics framework. This model shows the ways in which LIS and DH interlink across the dual spectrums of first-order to second-order content, and human to computer driven tasks. From this picture, we can see a close relationship between the activities comprising the two disciplines. However, the information communication model (Robinson, 2009), offered as a basis for LIS, could also represent the concerns of DH at a more fundamental level.

Information Communication Chain Model, Robinson 2009

Information Communication Chain Model, Robinson 2009

DH Content in LIS masters courses (and vice versa)

A look at the content of LIS and DH courses in the UK/US reveals crossover of content such as web content design and development, resource creation, organization, preservation, publishing and dissemination, metadata, data analytics and visualization, literacy and pedagogy, digital culture and policy. Again, we can see a close connection between the disciplines.


The original paper concluded with support for the well documented similarity between the two disciplines, and in anticipation of closer convergence in the near future, especially with regard to the content development for masters courses in LIS.

However, on putting together the slides for the verbal presentation, a stronger question emerged, asking whether DH and LIS could, in fact, be the same thing. This suggestion, understandably, provoked some further discussion amongst the delegates, and it seems worthwhile to record some aspects of the debate here.

Are the Digital Humanities and Library & Information Science the same thing? 

This is not a question that can be answered definitively in a single presentation, nor in a follow-up blog posting. But, on reflection, it is probable that the answer to the question is ‘sometimes’, depending upon the context.

Let us consider first, that LIS can be understood as a meta-discipline, one which can be applied to any subject or field (reflexively including itself). It is about the communication chain of information (instantiated as documents) within that field. LIS supports and underpins all disciplines in the act of collecting, indexing, disseminating, storing, preserving and sharing of knowledge, for the ultimate purpose of promoting understanding. It is arguable that without LIS, there would be no understanding, nor hence progress, in any discipline beyond that which can be carried within the mind of an individual.

A medical subject expert, physicist, mathematician or engineer, can subsequently take an interest in the communication aspects of their discipline, either with a desire to work as an information professional, or increasingly to function more adequately as a subject specialist. Likewise, experts and practitioners from the arts and humanities disciplines can also acquire the additional skills and understanding of the communication of documents within their field.

This traditional understanding of roles allows us to separate subject specialist expertise from the activities associated with the practice of LIS. Although the two are certainly complementary, an engineer is not necessarily an engineering information specialist, and a specialist in engineering information is not necessarily an engineer. The same argument goes for other subjects, including the humanities. (See Hjorland 2002).

This traditional, and often reassuring, distinction between subject specialism and LIS is now however, rather more blurry.

The definition of a document has evolved over the past 50 years to include digital media files, but perhaps it has changed most significantly over the last 10 years, with the advent of Web 2.0, where the separation of form from digital content spearheaded the creation of a myriad new resources. Additionally, the emergence of e-science resulted in new documents in the form of digital datasets, and most recently we are working with the move towards digital scholarship, recording not just data/metadata, but also process and methods, across all disciplines, not just in STEM subjects.

Accompanying this change has been a shift in the scope of LIS, to accommodate not only the handling of a more diverse spectrum of documents, but also to embrace an increasing emphasis on analysis, interpretation and explanation of document contents. Increasingly, LIS practitioners offer support to researchers in curation, understanding and interpretation of research data sets, often across disciplines. This may be seen as an extension of their longstanding role as champions of information literacy, potentially with echoes of support for evidence based medicine, and embedded librarianship. On the flip side, researchers too, are becoming more aware of the importance of LIS skills and techniques to record and facilitate their work, so that the boundary between subject specialist and LIS expert becomes less distinct. Consider bioinformatics, chemoinformatics and social informatics.

Indeed, LIS practitioners are themselves increasingly the creators of new documents, for example, in digitizing and disseminating local holdings. Driven by the digital, there is a need for all of us to be information literate in the 21st century.

Before moving to the relationship of LIS to the digital humanities, it is important to highlight that there is a difference between the practice of LIS, (librarianship, archival work, records management, information management) and the academic discipline of LIS, which has not been explicitly referred to thus far. In as much as discipline and practice are most helpfully regarded as symbiotic, this should not matter, but when we examine the aims, theories and research methods in order to look at how LIS compares and contrasts with DH, it is prudent to acknowledge the distinction.

The difference between academic research and professional practice seems harder to draw out in DH than in LIS, but this may be a subjective view, writing from a personal background in LIS, rather than DH. It is perhaps in what is considered practice, that there is most similarity between the two disciplines. Aspects such as the creation, curation, indexing, dissemination, and preservation, of documents, understood in the broadest sense, are common to both LIS and DH practice. Likewise the involvement of practitioners from both disciplines in teaching and learning, promoting the skills and understanding of tools to find, augment, analyze and share resources.

The point of department comes when we consider each discipline as an academic subject. Whereas the focus of LIS research is to examine the processes comprising the information communication chain in its entirety, the focus of digital humanities research is to further research in the humanities.

What is Library and Information Science?

Library and information science (LIS) is a long-standing academic discipline, with its own set of theories and perspectives. It focuses on the study of the communication chain of recorded information, and supports the practice of librarianship, information management, archiving and records management and other collection professions.

Although it makes full use of technology, LIS is rooted in the humanities and social sciences. Its origins are in bibliography, the attempt over several centuries to make published information organized and accessible, and in the documentation and special libraries movements of the early twentieth century, which sought to make specialised knowledge retrievable at a detailed level. It is therefore centred around an understanding of documents and the ways in which they are managed; particularly the new forms of digital and immersive documents now becoming available. City University London, 2015

MA Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities is a discipline born from the intersection of humanities scholarship and computational technologies. Its key purpose is to investigate how digital methodologies can be used to enhance research in disciplines such as History, Literature, Languages, Art History, Music, Cultural Studies and many others. Digital Humanities has a very strong practical component as it includes the concrete creation of digital resources for the study of specific disciplines, while at the same time having a strongly theoretical basis. King’s College London, 2015

The theories, methods and tools of the digital humanities, which are still evolving, are doubtless readily claimed by members of both the DH and LIS communites to differ from those of LIS. However, whilst LIS is considered by many to be a social science, it has clear connections to the humanities, deriving from its origins in bibliography and documentation.

This is not the only connection; the topic of book history is often found within LIS departments and syllabi. Book history can be studied from two main angles, both based in the humanities; the UK/US approach rooted within English Literature, and the Franco/European approach, growing from historical analysis and socio-cultural theory. LIS is a broad discipline, and it can accommodate and enjoy an equally broad scope in methods and tools.

It may thus be appropriate to acknowledge that contemporary times bring complications to the easy conclusion that LIS and DH differ from the starting point of theories, methods and tools. It seems likely that both disciplines investigate, and can themselves be investigated, by methods from both sides. It may be valid, for example, to study aspects of LIS (e.g. texts, Twitter datasets), using the methods and tools more usually associated with DH.

A next stage endeavor to this conversation, would be to identify, compare and contrast the theories and methods of LIS with those of DH, and the humanities in general. With the convergence of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector activities, driven by born digital documents and digitization programmes, the disciplinary and sector boundaries of just ten years ago are being erased, and although this is most evident in practice, it is clear that our academic silos are fading, and we find ourselves within an era of interdisciplinarity, where digital data doesn’t care whether the theories and tools belong to LIS, DH or any other discipline.

LIS and DH may not be identical twins, but they are often seen wearing the same outfits.


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Robinson L, Priego E and Bawden D (2015). Library and information science and digital humanities: two disciplines, joint future? In: Pehar F, Schlögl C and Wolff C (eds.) Re-inventing information science in the networked society. Glückstadt: Verlag Werner Hülsbusch, 2015, pp 44-54.

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

Sula C A (2013). Digital Humanities and Libraries: A Conceptual Model. Journal of Library Administration, 53, pp 10-26.