New Academic Year 16/17 at CityLIS London Library School


Image by @ludiprice cc-by

Thoughts around my talk planned for Induction this year. For reference, as I most likely won’t stick to the script.


Library & Information Science

I am delighted to welcome our new and returning students to the #citylis London Library School, as we start the academic year for 16/17. This year we are celebrating joining the University of London to become City, University of London. This new association will bring many benefits, including access to new resources, wider perspectives, and a higher profile for the work we do, and for our students and alumni.

Library and information science (LIS) addresses the questions arising from documentation of the human record. We explain this by saying that LIS research and practice focuses on the categories of activity comprising the information communication chain, shown below:


Information Communication Chain – @lynrobinson cc-by

The processes of the information communication chain are often associated with information literacy, and information professionals practice, share and promote the skills and abilities which facilitate information literacy, and more recently, digital literacies.

Another way to consider the goals of library and information science is from the perspective of scholarly communication. That is, the examination of the ways in which knowledge is created, accessed, developed, communicated, validated, preserved and re-used. The processes of scholarly communication are related to those of the broader information communication chain, and our course content will highlight issues (e.g. scholarly publishing and open access) drawn from these related perspectives.

Whilst we often use the term ‘scholarly’ in LIS discussion, our focus on understanding (see recent work by Bawden and Robinson) is intended to be inclusive, that is, of relevance to anyone from any sector of society, not solely those associated with the academy.

Changes and developments in the processes of the communication chain and in scholarly communication occur as a result of several factors. These are referred to as drivers or agents for change. The principle change agent is technology. The move within scholarly communication to digital processes has had a significant impact on the work of the LIS sector, especially in higher education and the research lifecycle, but technological changes also impact information processes within the wider community.

Whilst many definitions of LIS refer to keeping the record of humanity, it may be that we now need to expand our model, to consider documentation of the machine record, in light of contemporary developments in technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, resulting in an autonomous ability to create text, art, music etc.

Our core module DITA (Digital Information Technologies and Architecture)* sets out and explores the technological landscape as it relates to LIS. We are, however, mindful that in technology perhaps more than other subjects, today’s news is tomorrow’s recycled notepaper. Our learning ambitions look towards sustainability; we seek the ‘i’ in ‘data’, rather than the latest device. Although #citylis students have the option to take more specific computing modules as their elective, if this is of interest, our core computing content is carefully weighted towards the use of technology in helping us to answer the globally significant questions of documentation, which include:

  • how to understand the nature of documents
  • how to record and organise documents
  • how to facilitate and promote access to information
  • how to ensure equality in access to information
  • how to preserve documents
  • how to choose what to preserve
  • the ethics of documentation, including preservation, access and use
  • how to analyse documents to create new knowledge
  • how to use what we know to promote understanding

Google search for peace, love, understanding. Screenshot by @lynrobinson on 18/09/16 cc-by

Technology is often compelling, but other drivers for change must be appreciated, including politics, economics and social trends. We shall consider all of these factors as we progress through our course material.

Additionally, we will examine the role philosophy plays in providing a framework of guidance for LIS research and practice. We will look specifically at the philosophy of information as authored by Luciano Floridi, but the work of other philosophers and theorists in relation to information, documentation and communication will be introduced.

A related thread, running across the whole course, is ethics. Library and information professionals have long been engaged with ethical behaviour, in respect of issues of censurship, privacy, and equality of access. Our contemporary society, within which we cannot help but leave a digital footprint, requires us to re-examine what is meant by privacy, and to establish and understand the consequences for what we give away, perhaps unknowingly, when we use digital network services.

Manifestations of ‘ethics in action’ then, include questions posed to the scholarly community by open access, open data, and open educational resources, but also societal questions posed by access to network services, use of the internet and social media, and the impact of big data. Library and information professionals have a responsibility not only to promote ethical information behaviour, but to contribute to its definition and evolution.

Whilst core LIS material including information history, information resources, retrieval, management and use, is still very much prevalent and emphasized within our syllabus, I would like to introduce more of our new content. LIS is a broad discipline, and there is always more material than we can cover within the timescale of our masters programme. Course content is selected primarily according to the expertise, interests and understanding of our #citylis teaching team, benefiting further from the significant input of external colleagues, practitioners, alumni and current students.

One of the most noticeable areas rising to prominence for the LIS professional is data management. Within the academic and research sector, this is often written and talked about in respect of research data management, but the wider phrase, ‘data curation’, invites a broader audience from LIS workers within the social, cultural and heritage sectors to consider issues of documentation (Robinson 2016). Alongside data management, where we can envisage a data file as a document, there is the need for data metadata, i.e. data about the data. Standards in this area are just starting to emerge, as are repositories for data, directories of data repositories, data papers, and journals about data.

The increasing availability of APIs allows datasets to be searched, analysed, re-used, remixed and reimagined. APIs govern the data we can access from the massive collections accrued by social media, scientific, commercial and government bodies. Of course data collectors may not share willingly, and the contrast within our society between the increasingly visible open access/data movement, and closed data capture systems is striking. Knowledge is power, and keeping closed datasets has potential benefits for some, yet disadvantages for others.

We will also consider analysis of data. Analytics, counting things, affects us all. We have witnessed recently a striking duality in LIS, between qualitiative, informational analysis, and the contrasting quantitative approach.

These practices are already significant informational activities in disciplines from science to the humanities, and the library and information science community is ideally placed to comment on, facilitate and contribute.

Returning to more familiar territory, we are also introducing a focus on libraries, librarianship and library spaces, in relation to the current socio-political climate, and as considered alongside the historical use of space in the library, and public spaces in general.

On a more conceptual level, we will be pushing the boundaries of our discipline to consider the future of documents, the relevance and meaning of understanding, and the ways in which philosophical insight can contribute to practice within the sector.

Social Media and Communication

In addition to its forward-looking socio-technical focus, #citylis is also known for the promotion of communication and networking skills. These skills are commonly referred to within the mixed bag of ‘soft skills’, which are highly regarded by employers in all sectors. Whilst this umbrella phrase is somewhat unappealing, good communication skills have long-lasting appeal. They work even when the technological systems we use have returned to plastic dust. It will come as no surprise to anyone joining our cohort, that students and staff are encouraged to engage with and beyond their cohort via social media, as well as via more traditional scholarly output mechanisms. Our course actively promotes professional writing skills, and we consider reflective learning, practice and research throughout the year. We realise that not everyone is comfortable posting their own original material to a public forum, but we do everything we can to ensure a supportive environment, and we do require all our students to be aware of the nature, functions and advantages of social media from the LIS perspective.

We use blogs and Twitter to promote and discuss our course material, to share resources, research ideas, practice tips, to start discussions on current issues, highlight events, and to create a community of past, current and future students beyond the physical classroom, and the constraints of the course timescale. Further, we use social media tools to engage with the wider profession, and others who may not have encountered LIS before.

We are also aware of the negative side of social media engagement, and we hope to equip all our students with the skills to identify, be resilient to, and to avoid contributing to social media’s dark side. This includes online obsession, trolling, abusive or passive-aggressive posts, boast-posts, oversharing, and posting whilst drunk, otherwise intoxicated or merely very angry (!).

Whilst for resource reasons we stick to blogs and Twitter, we encourage any of our students to engage with other social media platforms in a professional capacity. Social media applications, especially those handling multimedia, are key communication mediums in the 21st century. They are always evolving however, and before investing large amounts of time and energy in an application, it is always wise to consider the long-term (say, over 5 years) future of the content.

Modus Operandi

Our courses are delivered face-to-face, and although we are a postgraduate school we do ask that everyone attends the taught sessions. All students take 8 modules, 7 core plus one elective. There is then the individual dissertation. Detailed course materials can be found on the Moodle e-learning system for registered students, but public information about indicative content can be found on our course web pages, (LS, IS). Our courses can be studied full-time for 1 year, or part-time for 2 years.

Although some course materials are available on the e-learning system, this is not intended to suggest that attending the face-to-face sessions is unnessessary. Course participants are also encouraged to engage with out-of-hours activities and social media. A greater understanding of the concepts presented throughout the course will be gained from engagement with the course cohort, and wider professional networks.

As the Programmes Office may communicate official news to students via the UK postal system, do please ensure that we have a reliable home address.

Keeping up-to-date is hard, and for many of us the amount of reading and current awareness seems almost overwhelming. It does get a little better with time, as we learn to filter out the signal from the noise, but we live in a society where there is always more to pay attention to than we have time for. We all derive our own coping strategies, which invariably includes selection, and the ability to decide what to pay attention to. This ability is one of the key skills for contemporary society.

We will provide extensive, structured lists of resources during the academic year. We aim to provide students with a fair representation of the literature, but do remember that you do not have to read everything.

We work very hard on the content of, and interconnection between, our modules. However, new ideas, references, practices, organisations and methods arise all the time, and so material encountered during the formal course time will often be superceded fairly quickly. The #citylis teaching team members act as guides through what is undoubtedly a widespread, pervasive, and rapidly changing discipline, in the hope that the frameworks and concepts we communicate will be worthwhile, and that our students will be empowered with skills for life-long learning. Hold tight as we tell the stories, check, challenge and ask questions about everything.

Enjoy the show!



Robinson L (2016). Between the deluge and the dark age; perspectives on data curation. Alexandria, 26(2), 73-76. DOI:

*From 17/18 DITA has been renamed Data, Information, Technologies and Applications

“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.


Ackoff, R. (1989) From data to wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis 16(1), 3-9.

Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. (2015) Information and the gaining of understanding. Journal of Information Science, online first area, DOI 10.1177/0165551515621691.

de Ridder, J, (2014) Epistemic dependence and collective scientific knowledge. Synthese 191(1) 37-53.

Deutsch, D. (1997). The fabric of reality. London: Penguin.

Floridi, L. (2010), Information – a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Floridi, L. (2011), The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Floridi, L. (2012) Semantic information and the network theory of account. Synthese 184(3), 431-454.

Frické, M. (2009) The knowledge pyramid: a critique of the DIKW hierarchy. Journal of Information Science, 35(2), 131-142.

Furner, J. (2002) Shera’s social epistemology recast as psychological bibliology. Social Epistemology 16(1), 5-22.

Gadamer, H.G. (2008) Philosophical Hermeneutics (2nd revised edition). Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

Gadamer, H.G. (2013) Truth and method (Bloomsbury revelations), London Bloomsbury.

Kelp, C. (2015) Understanding phenomena. Synthese. 192(12), 3799-3816.

Kvanvig, J. L. (2003). The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ma, L. (2013) Meanings of information: the assumptions and research consequences of three foundational LIS theories. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63(4), 716-723.

Popper, K.R. (1979), Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach (revised edition), Oxford: Clarendon Press

Shera, J. (1970) Sociological foundations of librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Stock, W.G., & Stock, M. (2013). Handbook of information science. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 50-57.

Rowley, J. (2007) The wisdom hierarchy: representations of the DIKW hierarchy. Journal of Information Science, 33(2), 163-180.

Yu, L. (2015) Back to the fundamentals again: a redefinition of information and associated LIS concepts following a deductive approach. Journal of Documentation, 71(4), 795-816.

Winograd, T. & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Norwood NJ: Ablex.

Zimmermann, J. (2015). Hermeneutics: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The British Origins of Information Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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