Friday, June 09, 2006

LIS As Displine And Profession

I recently encountered a fascinating article, "Symbolic interactionism as a theoretical perspective for multiple method research" in the Journal of Advanced Nursing by Benzies KM and Allen MN (2001). The article argues that the fundamental schism in nursing science as an academic discipline is the inability to integrate quantitative and qualitative research methods together. As a result, nursing has unfortunately always swayed more towards the side quantitative methods, and not surprisingly, too, since it is very much an empirically-centred scientific field. However, the authors argue that since nursing deals with human behaviours, there must be at least be some negotiation of qualitative methods into its studies. The author advocates for a middle ground called "Symbolic Interactionism."

On many levels, I see similarities between between Nursing and LIS. (Some similar comparisons has been made between Education and LIS, in particular, by Michael Lorenzen). What confuses and complicates the traditional scholarly world of academia is that LIS is both a profession and a discipline.

Why isn't LIS treated as seriously as other acdemic disciplines, such as History, Economics, Anthropology, or Physics? And at the other end of the spectrum, why is it not similarly respected as Law, Medicine, or Architecture? And then there are those that fall in between: Accounting, Finance, Engineering, and so on, which can be similarly compared to LIS. There are many theories to this -- usually centred on the reality of wage disparities among these professions).

My own theory is that the LIS discipline/profession has forever lacked of competing schools of thoughts. Crassly put, unlike history or economics, there simply are not enough thinkers in the field, unlike "historiography" or "microeconomics" that rouse scholars enough to foster theoretical factional warfare. True, there will always be the Michael Bucklands, Bjorg Hjorlands and Elaine Svenonius in the LIS academic sphere that gives the discipline weight, but not enough to propel the field of LIS to another level. (Moreover, such thinkers tend to lean towards bibliographic/classification theory).

Perhaps part of the reason lies in the breadth of LIS. Taking a page from Sun Yat-sen when he called China's multiethnic populace a "loose sheet of sand," I believe it is not too brash to use the same analogy for LIS. Simply put, when describing "Library AND Information Science," we are consolidating multiple sub-disciplines together and tying them to the venerable profession of Librarianship. Doing so is very much like tying together English and rest of the world's languages and calling it (EWLS - English and World Language Studies). If such were the case, it is quite likely that it would not be taken as seriously (or at least not as clearly defined as just "English" - which already have its own difficulties of balancing between "English Language" and "English Literature").

I find that one of the new "hot" items in the LIS world currently is "Information Seeking Behaviour." It is an interesting case study, particularly since it seems to cause problems for LIS. What exactly is it, and is it really "Library-related?" How often do Library professionals deal with the results of ISB in their day-to-dy activities? Of course, the answer always, for patrons seek information every moment that they are in the library. But on a practical and realistic level, librarians are more concerned about how many people are walking into their libraries and using the library's many services rather than how many hits on certain key strokes per search entry.

The closest any library/information professional has done in amalgamating the micro and macro worlds of LIS is S.R. Ranganathan. The Indian mathematician-turned-librarian in the early 20th century wrote tracts upon tracts of timeless pieces on the topic of librarianship and library science, establishing procedures from cataloguing to proper open and closing procedures. But not all working information professionals are priveleged and talented enough to establish the Five Laws of Library of Science and still be able to run a library, worrying about payroll and staff retainment.

In many ways, the current "core" of LIS programs typify the problems of the field. Most programs require students to take the core of: (1) Bibliographic control; (2) Info Technology; (3) Management; and (4) Reference Services. (Often, a Research Methods course is included for "research purposes" which is never clearly and satisfactorily explained). So there you go, each of these courses themselves comprise a major area of LIS. Put together, they are what information professionals do. (Collection management is always left out, but it should be the fifth. . .)

An information professional is thus expected to master these skills when they get the job; however, in most instances, real learning comes on the job (unfortunately). However, this is not unlike most other professions. Engineers, physicians, lawyers, do not learn everything in two years of schooling (usually more years are involved), so why should information professionals? However, most library and information professionals tend to discount this similarity, and argue that LIS school did not properly train them for their immediate positions post graduation. And when library tech programs churn out graduates which have mastered the MARC, it often makes the LIS with the graduate degree appear unworthy and perhaps haven't learned as much as she/he should from graduate school.

If such is the case, then the world of LIS is neither here nor there; it's a game of catch-22. It cannot win as a profession, nor as a discipline.

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