Information science and its core concepts: Levels of disagreement Birger Hjørland



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Information science and its core concepts:

Levels of disagreement

Birger Hjørland

Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen



Abstract One often encounters disagreements in information science (IS) (or library and information science, LIS), even disagreements about what might seem rather trivial questions. Such disagreements range from the designation of the field to questions such as whether IS is an academic discipline or not, what its aim is, what its core concepts are, what kinds of problems we try to solve, and what kinds of theories, metatheories, and related disciplines are the most important ones for us. Some people tend to regard IS as a branch of computer science or the cognitive sciences, while others tend to consider it as part of cultural studies or of science studies, and the different views are often reflected in the various names given to the field. These kinds of disagreement and their mutual dependencies are the focus in this chapter, with an emphasis on the different labels given for the field. “Poor terminological hygiene” may account for some of the disagreements, but basically the problem is seen as a lack of sufficient strong centripetal tendencies keeping the field together.

1 Introduction


This chapter is going to address some issues about information science (IS) or library and information science (LIS) as an academic field. The main purpose is to set up a number of interrelated dimensions or levels, which are perhaps often taken for granted, but are here considered to be in need for systematic consideration. Each level is discussed in a separate section:

  1. Is LIS an academic discipline?

  2. What are the various names given to the field? How do they reflect underlying conceptions of the field?

  3. What is the aim of LIS? What are we trying to achieve?
  4. What are the core concepts of information science?

  5. What are the most important metatheories and research traditions in the LIS?1


In Section 2 the question is raised whether LIS is an academic field – and whether it is a good idea to endeavor to institutionalize it as such or not.

Section 3 constitutes the longest part of the chapter. In it, the many names that have been used in relation to the field (or significant sectors thereof) are presented and discussed. An examination of these names is necessary, for, if one is to discuss the nature of the field, one needs to be in the clear whether the various names used in relation to it have the same reference or whether, in fact, they designate different things. Furthermore, a discussion of the ways in which the field has been designated demonstrates that names are not just neutral labels, but are connected with different underlying views and perspectives regarding the field.

Section 4 discusses disagreements about the aims of the field and Section 5 briefly considers different suggestions as to what its basic concepts are. Finally, Section 6 examines different metatheories and research traditions. These last sections are the most important ones from a theoretical point of view because the conceptual and (meta)theoretical perspectives constitute the level that determines the answer to many of the other questions.: for example, if you have chosen a cognitive perspective, then, by implication, the cognitive sciences are the most important related disciplines. Such metatheoretical perspectives also are instrumental in determining what is considered the aim of the field: If one considers the primary aim of IS to be to help people find relevant literature for a specific task, the discipline looks very different than it would to somebody who took its primary aim as contributing to the production of more user-friendly electronic devices.

This chapter shows the interrelatedness of all these dimensions or levels of disagreement. Most attention is here given to the problem of naming the field because such a systematic review has not been hitherto available in English. The question of metatheories (or “paradigms”) has been considered in a number of publications, including many by the present author (cf. Section 6, below), but is still in need of further clarification.



2. Is library and information science (LIS) an academic discipline?

In some ways it is rather evident that LIS is an academic discipline. We have schools or departments of LIS with professors, textbooks, study programs, and research activities all over the world. We have many academic journals dedicated to our field; the papers of these journals are indexed in bibliographic databases such as Library and Information Science Abstracts (LISA)2 and there is a category “Information Science & Library Science” in the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). Maps of the most influential researchers and research trends within LIS are often produced from citation indexes (e.g., White & McCain, 1998; Åstrøm, 2006). We also have many regular research conferences such as the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Information Science & Technology3, the biennial conferences of the International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO), and the biennial conferences on Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS), as well as encyclopedias summarizing the knowledge in our field such as the recent third edition of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences (Bates & Maack, 2010). In short, we fulfill all the formal, external criteria for being an academic discipline.

There are, however, two major challenges to the claim that LIS is an academic discipline. The first is that it is not a monodiscipline, but rather an interdisciplinary field. The second –and more serious challenge – is that LIS is not a scholarly or scientific, but rather a ”professional” field based on the teaching of some practical skills such as searching electronic databases and cataloging books according to certain norms, such as the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (see, section 3.1 on library economy belov and, for example, Hjørland 2000c). On this view, LIS (despite the term “science” in its name) is not a science or an academic discipline.

Is LIS synonymous with information science? With library science? Are they one, two, or more disciplines? To make things even more complicated, the plural "information sciences" is also sometimes used. Machlup and Mansfield (1983), for example, suggested that one should speak about "the information sciences", just as one speaks of the social sciences (the plural form was also chosen by, for example, Bates & Maack (2010), the editors of the most recent edition of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences). How many information sciences do we have (if any)? What should be included in LIS and what should be excluded? Internet Research, for example, is sometimes reported in information science journals, sometimes in computer science or communication studies journals, and sometimes in journals devoted to Internet studies, among other fields. Is it a part of information science, of computer science, of communication studies, of all, or is it becoming a new field of its own? When do we use different names for the same field, and when do we use the same name for different fields? How can we find out?

Besides conforming to the formal, external criteria of disciplinehood, there is another dimension to being an academic discipline: the existence of theories and a body of relatively accepted knowledge that is considered the common reference point in the discipline. Can we identify LIS by such a body of knowledge? Consider what Michael Buckland has written about introductions to IS:

One might have thought that, for so important a field, a general introduction would be easily written and redundant. This is not the case. Each different type of information system (online databases, libraries, etc.) has a massive and largely separate literature. Attention is almost always limited to one type of information system, is restricted by technology, usually to computer-based information systems, or is focused on one function, such as retrieval, disregarding the broader context. What is published is overwhelmingly specialized, technical, "how-to" writing with localized terminology and definitions. Writings on theory are usually very narrowly focused on logic, probability, and physical signals. This diversity has been compounded by confusion arising from inadequate recognition that the word information is used by different people to denote different things (Buckland 1991, p. xiii).

Cultural issues are often taught and researched at schools of LIS (in particular, in Europe, as is, for example, the case at the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Denmark, RSLIS). The researchers at such schools may be considered to be part of LIS, but many of them publish in other journals, attend non-LIS conferences, and so on. For many of these researchers, the formal, exterior apparatus of being an academic discipline that LIS possesses may not be relevant. What are today known as i-Schools, or LIS Schools, were once called library schools. This name signalled that their curricula were not based on any one scholarly discipline but rather consisted of a congeries of subjects supposed to be relevant for professional education. We may still have a mixture of fields rather than one coherent discipline. Some may even feel that the attempt to construe the field as a single discipline is not a good idea: We could say that there are not only centripetal4 currents within LIS, which are directed towards constituting the field as a single, more-or-less unified discipline, but also a centrifugal5 tendency, which relates the problems studied in the field to the context of other disciplines and so promotes intra-disciplinary dispersion rather than unity.6

Does that mean that LIS is an interdisciplinary field? The dynamics of specialties and disciplines are addressed by Tengström (1993, 12), who emphasizes that cross-disciplinary research is a process, not a state or structure. He differentiates three levels of ambition regarding cross-disciplinary research:

• The level of ”pluridisciplinarity” or ”multidisciplinarity”

• The genuine cross-disciplinary level of ”interdisciplinarity”

• The discipline-forming level of ”transdisciplinarity”

Tengström expresses the view that social fields are dynamic and changing. LIS, for example, can be viewed as a field that started as a multidisciplinary field based on literature, children's culture studies, psychology, sociology, management, computer science etc., which is developing towards a monodiscipline in its own right. Whether or not this happens depends on the relative strength of the centripetal and the centrifugal tendencies at play within the field. The same is the case in regard to the question of being scholarly at all: The development of LIS into a well-integrated scholarly field depends on a sufficient number of engaged people willing to do the job at a truly scholarly level. It is important not to believe that somebody else will do that for you.

In some institutions, such as the RSLIS, both information science and cultural communication are researched and taught (within the same educational program). Although, as Buckland (2012, 6) has recently noted, information science is 'incorrigibly cultural', it makes a big differenc whether cultural communication and LIS are considered to be two different disciplines or whether cultural studies are viewed as (part of) the foundation of LIS. To the degree that LIS and cultural communication are considered two distinct fields (but united in the same study program), the education and the research tends to become fragmented like a patchwork. The danger in this is that students are not developing a professional identity and professional competencies in either field.

The conclusion is therefore that it is important that we build a discipline and consider the best metatheoretical alternatives for doing so. In this regard, it is important to select metatheories that promote a centripetal self-understanding of the field. After all, as Blaise Cronin (2012) has recently noted, ”epistemic promiscuity comes at a price”.




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