What do we study in Library and Information Science?

Library and Information Science (LIS) owes a considerable portion of its genesis to the concept of the document and to the process of organizing these unwieldy creatures.  The relationship between a document and the concept of information (the all-knowing “I” within “LIS”) is difficult to fully articulate.  Philosophers, such as Mikel Dufrenne have tried to distinguish between aesthetic objects and signifying objects, with signifying objects, first and foremost, responsible for dispensing knowledge, even if they “engage us in an activity” (Buckland, 1997, p. 807).  It seems that this definition could be combined with the semiotic understanding of signs as artificial constructs with the result being that our designation and understanding of a document depends both on a process of social construction (framing the object as a document and arranging it within a context of other objects), and on the whole range of its evidence-bearing properties (text, watermarks, images, etc.) relevant to the mode of inquiry.  What is at stake with this definitional argument is not just the scope of “acceptable” phenomena of study within this field, but by extension, the other human activities that are appropriate areas for LIS-brand inquisition.  For instance, if deer tracks could be considered a document, then it would be quite appropriate to study the information seeking activities and cognitive processes that allow a hunter to track an animal.  I imagine few hunters would be impressed by the results of this study, but given a broad definition of document, our discipline could extrapolate from these results additional insights into human information behavior, generally speaking.  In this sense, our fundamental assumptions about the types of phenomena to be studied helps to determine the possible avenues of research that we might consider as researchers within the field of Library and Information Science.

One of the important lessons to be learned from this discussion is that understanding a discipline’s initial assumptions is critical to understanding what one is, in fact, studying, and why scholars make the decisions that they do when select topics and methodologies.  Indeed, it becomes ever clearer that the LIS field cannot be completely unified, theoretically or methodologically, because a plethora of different types of researchers are coming to the field with very different metatheoretical assumptions.  Considering the field’s multidisciplinary pedigree (ranging from linguistics, to cognitive science, to computer science, to psychology, to the humanities, and on and on), it is not surprising that scholars working in LIS are carrying a diverse array of metatheoretical assumptions.  Thus, within the methods of this field, we should really not be that surprised to see an eclectic mix of quantitative, qualitative and interpretive approaches at work.

Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a “document”? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(9), 804-809.

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