Library and Information Studies Research (Library and Information Studies)

Defining discreet scholarly territories for all disciplines is problematic but it could be argued that Library and Information Studies (LIS) is more problematic than most when it comes to understanding the scope of its remit. It addresses issues relevant to every other academic subject and demands the engagement, to varying degrees, of almost everyone whose task it is to carry out research. Wherever information is aggregated on a scale that renders it difficult to navigate, retrieve, analyse, preserve or store that data, opportunities arise for librarians and information specialists to intervene. In addition to pan-disciplinary involvement, LIS also addresses the management of all types of data encompassing text, sound, still and moving images, resulting in a community of practitioners that work in an enormous variety of environments.

For the purposes of these wiki articles, Library and Information Studies should be understood as representative of a group of activities that are referred to by a number of different appellations. Whilst acknowledging that ‘information science’, ‘information systems’, ‘information management’, ‘information and library studies’, ‘librarianship’ (and many other combinations of terminology) all bring something different to the field, it is convenient in this context to homogenize this diversity. Whilst simplistic, it would seem to be the only concise way of beginning to tackle such a complex area of research.

This complexity is illustrated as soon as one contemplates the nature of the relationship between LIS research and the notion of ‘information’. On the one hand, there are many instances where research is very much focused on the divisible, categorical and meaningful interpretation of data. A common example of this is the construction or refinement of classification schemes and ontology models which is a routine activity within LIS. On the other hand, other areas of research are unconcerned with ‘meaning’ and are more focused on the formal properties of ‘information’. Taking this approach, questions might be asked such as: how does information flow?; where does it flow?; why doesn’t it go where it’s needed when it’s needed?; why is there so much of it?; do we need it all?; if we don’t, how do we get rid of it?; how do we choose what to get rid of?; and so on and so forth.

When contemplating the amount of discreet theory that is attributable to the discipline of information studies, Tom Stonier proposes a sample question, ‘How much information is contained within a steam engine?’ (cited by, Webber, S. (2003), ‘Information Science in 2003: a critique’, Journal of Information Science, 29 (4), pp. 311-330), which declares an intention to deal with information in a rigorous, scientific and quantitative way. As a position, it self-consciously puts distance between itself and branches of ‘soft’ LIS research that focus on qualitative analysis, e.g. reactions to interface design. This acknowledgement of the breadth and complexity of the discipline is an attempt to manage expectations in respect to the eclectic nature of the tools referred to by these series of wiki articles, and the very broad way in which some of those tools are dealt with.

Starting with the most obvious and publicly visible activity that relates to library work, it may be useful to acknowledge the pivotal role of digital tools in the realm where theory meets practice and where the user interacts with the information specialist, i.e. at the issue desk. The use of barcode scanning equipment and library management software such as Aleph, are a standard feature in almost all libraries and as such, are of enormous significance within the discipline. Whilst acknowledging initiatives such as the recent use of RFID (radio frequency identification) for the tagging of library objects, and the ongoing changes to the architecture of large and sophisticated library management systems, it might be useful to look beyond these well understood processes to focus momentarily on tools that address the demands of fetching and retrieving physical resources, before moving onto more influential and representative areas of LIS research.

The UJI Librarian Robot, developed by the Robotic Intelligence Lab at the Universitat Jaume I (UJI, Spain) is an attempt to automate the process of shelving and reshelving and uses sensors and robotic arms to identify and select bar-coded objects situated on library shelves. (see fig.1)

Fig. 1 The UJI Librarian RobotFig. 1 The UJI Librarian Robot

Whilst this system is a novel and rather marginal example of tools usage, the appropriation of knowledge and expertise from both robotics, engineering and artificial intelligence is very significant in terms of cross-disciplinary collaboration and is an area of research that could be applied using other programmable devices, for instance: conveyor belt technologies; automated moving stacks; mechanized provision of short loan items; etc.

The implementation of intelligent automation is clearly a sensible and desirable division of labour where machines can undertake repetitive manual tasks as well or more effectively than humans. Where this is possible to implement, information specialists are then free to devote time to the sort of intellectual processes that more accurately define library-related work, principal amongst which are:

  • the creation and application of organisational systems
  • the implementation of standards-based information management principles
  • the development of sophisticated information retrieval techniques
  • the application of measures to ensure usability and accessibility of materials
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