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Where are the Boundaries of the LIS Field? – An ATG Hot Topic

by | Jan 28, 2019 | 0 comments

Courtney McAllister

By Courtney McAllister


Eric Frierson’s insightful comments on the growing importance of data science skills for both librarians and vendors made me think a bit harder about limning the boundaries of LIS and imagining where new pathways and bridges might lead us. While many professions have permeable boundaries, it seems Library and Information Science is characterized by a uniquely multifaceted relationship to other disciplines.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of LIS. I struggle to define the field without referring to some other discipline – or invoking practices that are more commonly associated with other areas of study or practice. One might say any of the following in an attempt to define the principles and practices of LIS:

Information professionals…
  • Provide instruction and guidance on how to locate, interpret, and engage with information [Education]
  • Advocate for underserved or disenfranchised people and try to connect them to resources that can improve their quality of life [Social Work]
  • Establish, develop, and maintain collections of print, electronic, and media collections that will both serve immediate needs and contribute to the scholarly record [Curation, Data Management]
  • Conduct in-depth analyses of user expectations, expectations, and behaviors to try and align library activities with actual neds [Psychology, Data Science]
  • Design and implement advanced systems to structure discovery, access, and remote user services [Computer Science, Systems Management]
  • Bolster awareness of services and collections that could benefit their users [Graphic Design, Marketing]
  • Plan and execute complex projects, such as digitization, facility renovations, and system migrations [Project Management]
  • Negotiate and interpret licenses, educate users about copyright and fair use, and encourage responsible use of Intellectual Property [Law]

In some ways, a portrait or definition of LIS is an amalgam of many different concepts. But what harmonizes these disparate elements and keeps the portrait from becoming Surrealist or Grotesque?

I believe the profession’s overarching values and philosophy serve as connective tissue, keeping these eclectic influences from fragmenting the field’s identity. However, sometimes it feels like the allure of these disciplines can catalyze some uncomfortable reflections about the profession’s purpose and goals. Selecting shelving units that are less space efficient, but encourage browsing, can feel like a major deviation from the concept of a library and towards the model of a for-profit bookstore. But if the goal is to make the collection more enticing to increase usage, is that really incongruous with the library’s central purpose?

Recent conversations about context engines, AI, and predictive searching have led to some professional “soul searching” about which indexing systems and algorithms will best meet the needs of my library’s users. We want to be responsive to current needs, but are concerned about the long-term implications of today’s decisions. I personally worry that my grasp of these new systems is just not sophisticated enough to appreciate their benefits, or maybe I’m inadvertently clinging to systems I do understand and projecting my trust in them onto our users. While this internal monologue is probably uniquely neurotic, I think we all fret to some extent over the possibility that future generations might wonder why we resisted a new concept or didn’t immediately embrace a particular model.

In an era where adaptation is necessary, and often happens quite rapidly, our daily decision making can involve a lot of self-education and frantic Googling. This extends beyond day-to-day operations, as it becomes increasingly difficult to strategically develop professional skills and map a career trajectory that will be relevant in the future. Will I need a PMP certification to thrive in my job, or should I focus on developing my understanding of linked data? With so many potential areas for growth and exploration, it can be a tremendous challenge to identify which disciplines and topics are most important to LIS and one’s future in it.

There is always a surfeit of new skills to develop, unfamiliar acronyms to learn, and innovative or burgeoning approaches that might end up becoming the next big thing in LIS. It’s exciting to have a plethora of options for growth, but the Paradox of Choice can dampen one’s enthusiasm or lead to analysis paralysis. The interdisciplinary nature of LIS connects us to a lot of potential and growth. How do we leverage that potential without succumbing to its comorbidities? Perhaps more collaborative discussion of our future can be an asset. Maybe a shared vision can provide cohesion. There’s no clean answer, but I think it’s still a question worth asking.


Questions to consider
  • How do you decide which new skill or discourse might be relevant to your future or the needs of the field?
  • Have any fads or new discourses had unexpected staying power in LIS? If so, which ones?
  • Are certain areas incompatible with LIS? What disciplines might not belong in our field?


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