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


Fanfiction in the Library

LR:LP title slide #fsn2016

Image of title slide, created by @ludiprice

Here is a brief synopsis of the paper which @ludiprice and I presented at the Fan Studies Network Conference, University of East Anglia, 25th-26th June 2016. We are hoping to publish the full paper in the conference proceedings. Further information about the conference can be found on the Fanstudies Network site, and on Twitter #fsn2016 .

In our 20 min session, we outlined and discussed the results of a small study that aimed to take a snapshot of the extent to which libraries within the UK collect fanfiction, and to gain some insight into the reasons behind this.

The study is part of a wider investigation into the information behaviour of cult-media fans. The first two stages of this three-part research project are described in:

Price L  and Robinson L (2016). “Being in a knowledge space”: information behaviour of cult media fan communities. Journal of Information Science (in press).


The question of fanfiction in the library arose from a somewhat anecdotal feeling that general knowledge of, and interest in, fanworks has increased significantly over the past five years. This time period is notable to us as the timeframe during which we have discussed and collaborated on communication of fanworks. Over this time, there has been an increase in reporting of fanwork related news and issues in the media, doubtless fuelled by the encroaching of a previously niche domain into mainstream concerns including copyright and publishing, media industry interest, education, and policy development.

Additionally, conversations with Library School masters students over the years revealed increasing awareness of, and active participation in fandom, although we have no hard data to enable us to compare cohort awareness and involvement over the past 5 years.

Despite the expanding reportage, discussion and engagement with fanworks, collections and collection policies for fanfiction, perhaps the most notable subset of fanworks, within memory institutions in the UK seemed scant, although we were aware of  notable zine collections in the US, and the zine/fanzine collections at the London College of Communication, and at the British Library.

In order to gather some empirical evidence about the extent to which fanfiction is considered by the library and information (LIS) sector, we carried out a small investigation comprising a literature review, examination of a sample of collection policies, and a survey of members of our Library School cohort.


Our survey of both the LIS and fanstudies literature found very little on the generic concepts of collecting fanfiction, confirming our view that formal collection of fanfiction, let alone fanworks, is somehow overlooked by the mainstream LIS sector, and that there is little dialog between the LIS discipline and the community associated with fanworks. We did find some papers concerned with the specific zine collections that we were aware of, (Sandy Hereld, University of Iowa) and we also encountered reference to the ‘anti-collection’, where archives and collections are maintained by those outside the main memory institutions; in this case, the fans themselves. Indeed, fans do an excellent job of collecting and organising fanworks; some collections, such as Archive of Our Own rival professional digital archives. Nonetheless, most such collections rely on ad hoc funding and resources, often personal, and can disappear overnight.

The literature gave us several indications as to why fanfiction is largely ignored by libraries:

  • Not proper books
  • Does not fit library processes
    • No ISBN
    • No standard metadata
    • Not available through standard acquisition processes
  • Concerns about intellectual property

Nonetheless, despite the lack of representation of fanfiction collecting or collections in either the LIS or fanstudies literature, there was evidence that libraries are showing an increasing interest in catering for fans as library users: recommending sources and examples of fanfiction, using fanfiction as literary instruction, and running in-house fan events.

Examination of a representative sample of of UK library collection policy documents confirmed what we found from the literature, that fanfiction is not formally collected. The main fan-related collections in libraries are fanzines.

In order to understand the reasons behind this paradoxical situation, where there is a noticeable body of work and interest in fanfiction, and yet a limited interest from the LIS community, we invited our current library school students, and alumni to complete a short, online questionnaire. The idea here being that our cohort represents the next generation of library and information professionals, and their views on fanfiction would therefore be likely to be representative of future collection policy.

The survey showed that although 88% of the 25 respondents had heard of fanfiction before joining the course, and 59% read or had read fanfiction, only 52% felt that memory institutions such as libraries should collect fanfiction.

Thus, despite a high awareness and engagement with fanfiction, opinion on its value as cultural heritage was mixed. Reasons for this correlated with the reasons ascertained from the literature review. One participant suggested:

 I’m torn on the subject. On the one hand it is an important cultural institution at this point, and provides wonderful insight for those studying fanworks, feminism, LGBT issues among other subjects. On the other hand, part of the reason fanfiction is so diverse and weird and sprawling is its inherent illegality and not-for-profit status.


There are no national plans or policies for the collection of fanfiction within the UK. At institutional level, some collections of fanzines exist, but the limited collection, indexing, archiving and preservation of a wider selection of works leaves a black hole in our cultural heritage. Fanfiction, and indeed all fanworks, instantiate a significant body of creative talent across a wide variety of disciplines including art, creating writing, poetry and music. The technical skills needed to create fanworks can be considerable, involving sound, video, animation and a high degree of internet, web and social media savvy. It is perhaps worth considering whether more should be done to comprehend the scope of fanworks, and to at least understand what we are not collecting.

The issues associated with collection of fanfiction and fanworks are inarguably complex. The body of work is enormous, and institutions are pressed for resources. Funding for this type of research and practice is minimal to non-existent. There are not just digital works to consider, many works exist only in printed, analogue format, often in limited quantities.

Two main areas for further investigation arise from this study.

First is the set of questions regarding copyright and publishing. Although fanworks are challenging restrictive limitations on creativity, distribution, and commercial activity, little seems to be changing in reality, and the issues surrounding the rights of canonical authors are important and valid.

Secondly, is the question of how we define documents. Although memory institutions include analogue and digital media, such as images, audio and video, in addition to printed documents in their collections, the rapid escalation of digital resource formats is challenging how we define a ‘document’, and hence what we collect. Many fanworks are multimodal texts, and others can include art installations, performance art and performances. The increasing availability of technologies associated with virtual and augmented reality offer yet more possible media formats for fanworks. The question is not only should we collect and preserve these works, but how.

The initial question of fanfiction in libraries is deceptively simple, and not one which will be answered by either the LIS or fanstudies disciplines alone. We suggest that it is a conversation that we should have together.


Photos by @lynrobinson cc-by




Waving Not Drowning

lyn's tweet feed from 29/03/16Unusually, libraries have been making the news this week. The publicity surrounding the BBC’s investigation into public library closures has generated much controversy about the – admittedly not new – phenomenon of the alleged decline of libraries and librarians.

Two responses come naturally to a provider of library/information education, concerned at the implication that we are educating students for a terminally declining profession. We can rebuke the sloppy journalism that writes of the decline of ‘libraries’ and ‘librarians’, when what is meant is the much more limited, though still important, context of the public library service in the UK. We can deplore the shallow voices that proclaim, as they have been doing for nearly two decades now, that we don’t need libraries any more, now that we have Google/Wikipedia/smartphones.

This though, isn’t really enough. Complain though we might about the limitations of reporting, and the ignorance of some commentators, we cannot ignore the dramatically changing library/information landscape, and we need to be continually reconsidering what we offer to meet changing demands. Not that we haven’t already been doing so; a post I wrote almost a year ago [Time for the Blue Whale] outlined our thinking of that time about the way library/information education needed to adapt. But, in view of the current bruhaha, it’s worth setting out how #citylis sees itself adapting to meet the challenges.

The five points here are really an elaboration of the ideas in my earlier post, not a replacement for them.

Wide horizons

We support public libraries, of course we do, and we object strongly to many of the more stupid attitudes being expressed at the moment. We cover public library issues on our courses, and will continue to do so. But only a minority of students will ever be professionally active in the public library sector. Along with many others commenting on the current controversy, we remind ourselves that the library/information sector is much bigger than this one aspect. Even if all public libraries in the country went out of business, which is unthinkable, there would still be a vibrant library profession, and a need for library education.

Wider horizons

As I pointed out in my earlier post, and as many others have reiterated, library/information skills are relevant, indeed increasingly relevant, way beyond the wider bounds of any conception of the library/information sector. Our subject is the whole communication chain of information recorded in documents. We will continue to emphasise these wider implications in our courses; both to cater for the increasing proportion of our students who do not see themselves as library/information professionals, and to help those who do prepare to support this wider application of our perspectives and skills.

We’ve been here before, but it’s different now

While it is idiotic to say that library are obsolescent because of Google and smartphones, we cannot, and do not, ignore the changes brought about by technology. We are unashamedly digital, and want all of our students to leave with a good appreciation of the possibilities of technology. For those who want it, we will be offering more opportunities for gaining skills in metadata, coding, data analysis, social media, and the like. But this has to be balanced by a continued interest in the historical core, and development of our subject; if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we can’t really understand where we are, still less where we’re going. New technologies and resources often do not bring new issues and behaviours; just a new variant on what’s gone before.

Making friends

Another thing that we have said before, but which is very relevant in thinking how library/information education can flourish in difficult times, is that we are a meta-discipline. Our concern is information and documents, but that gives us an overlap with several other disciplines. It is well-known that LIS has no unique place within the academic landscape, shown by the varied range of faculties in which the subject is placed in different universities. In our case, we overlap City University’s Schools of Technology and of Arts/Social Sciences. This could be seen a weakness, but we intend to turn it into a strength in our course provision, by involving the whole range of information interests, from performance art to robots, and from philosophy to cult media fans. Information is central to many conversations and domains.

Theory and practice

Something else we have emphasised in the past, but which will stand statement, is that we try to strike a balance between theory and practice in LIS education. If we were focused just on training our students for immediate practice, then we would rightly be concerned about the ‘decline of a profession’ headlines that we are now seeing (inaccurate though they may be). But we don’t do that. On the contrary, we focus very firmly on the body of theory, concepts and principles that will allow our students to thrive in the future information environment, however it develops and changes. That doesn’t mean that we neglect skills; on the contrary we are putting more emphasis on directly linking conceptual and skills-based materials, partly though curriculum changes and partly through addition of more optional workshops, seminars, etc.

So, it would be tempting to simply rail against those who wrongly report that all libraries are in decline, and that library/information professionals are no longer needed. But we prefer to acknowledge that, wrong-headed as many of their pronouncements are, there is a sea-change in the sector taking place. #citylis will change, and is changing, to meet the need for graduates with a thorough understanding of the world of information, and an ability to impact it. And the need for those people is increasing, not declining.