The "liberal arts" of Library and Information Science and the research university environment.

Published in: Second International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Integration in Perspective, 1996. Proceedings. Ed: P. Ingwersen, N. O. Pors. Copenhagen: Royal School of Librarianship, 1996, pp. 75-84.

- Либеральные искусства» библиотечных и информационных наук и исследований университета окружающей среды. Russian translation by Viktoria Parnak, 2015.
- Ліберальни мистецтва» бібліотечних та інформаційних наук і досліджень університету навколишнього середовища. Ukrainian translation by Viktoria Parnak, 2015.

Michael Buckland
School of Information Management and Systems,
University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA 94720-4600

Short abstract   Longer abstract
Higher education in the USA
Liberal arts and Bildung
Identity as a useful academic department
LIS for everyone who is interested?
LIS were simply interesting
Experience at Berkeley
LIS in general
Comment: Introductions to LIS
Many LIS liberal arts topics
Impact on LIS of liberal arts approaches
Comment: "Interdisciplinary" is a bad word
A challenge, a fantasy

Short abstract.   In the USA a "liberal arts" education is focussed on the subject matter itself, in contrast to "professional" or technical education which focussed on acquiring useful skills. A "liberal arts" conception of LIS is presented in which LIS is studied for itself rather than for professional education. LIS schools provide a good foundation for the study of "the information society". A "liberal arts" approach could have some significant intellectual and political advantages for LIS schools in research universities. Professional LIS education should be situated within the framework of a liberal arts conception of LIS.   (Longer abstract).


Each different conception of LIS can be expected to have its advantages and disadvantages. The choice of conception that is adopted can have substantial consequences, both beneficial and detrimental. The conception adopted by the famous Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago can be seen in retrospect as having had both positive and negative long-term consequences, which were amplified by the enormous influence of that school (Buckland, 1996).

This paper examines a "liberal arts" conception of Library and Information Science and considers this conception of LIS in relation to the research university environment. This discussion uses the terminology and situation of research universities in the United States, but it is likely to be of wider interest. By "research university" we mean universities that expect and emphasize doctoral and faculty research. A broad view of LIS as library-and-information-science is assumed. However, the arguments presented here seem little affected by different choices of emphasis within LIS, e.g., by institution (library science), on technology (information systems), on technique (information management), or broadly comprehensive (information studies.).

Higher education in the USA

Higher education in each country has its own unique form. This discussion is based on my own experience in the USA where universities have been heavily influenced by three European sources: The traditional English concept of a college, of a community; The economical Scottish approach of large lectures; and, in the nineteenth century, two German traditions: reverence for research and a differentiation between "technical" higher education and "academic" higher education.

This last distinction is evident in Germany in the traditional, separate existence of a "university" and a "technical university" in the same city. The same distinction can be seen in large US universities where it has been common practice to organize a university in two divisions: a "college of letters and sciences" and "the professional schools". In European terminology one might call these separate "faculties": One very large faculty of traditional academic subjects ("Letters and science") and, separately, several smaller faculties for law, medicine, business administration, engineering, and so on. A department of library and information science is usually a small, separate professional school ("faculty") outside the College of Letter and Sciences.

Liberal arts and Bildung

"Liberal arts" is a traditional collective name in the USA for academic subjects that are not professional, technical programs. "Liberal arts", therefore, includes all the natural and physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, but not professional schools. Chemistry, economics, and anthropology are included in the liberal arts, but not chemical engineering, business administration, law, or medicine. Professional schools are intended to be useful. "Liberal arts" are perceived as educational in some purer sense. They are expected to be intellectually interesting, whether or not they may also be -- accidentally, one might say -- of some practical usefulness. But something more than merely interesting is expected, because a well-educated person will have insights derived from the liberal arts. To use a German word, an element of Bildung, of culture and enlightenment, is expected.

Even outside the USA, where the distinction between "liberal arts" and technical, professional education may be absent or differently expressed, schools of LIS are universally expected to provide a useful, professional education. Schools of LIS are not funded to be interesting or to provide Bildung, but to produce technically competent, useful professional employees. The purpose of this paper is to challenge that conception of LIS schools.

Identity as a useful academic department

Teaching what would be technically useful for professionals can establish the identity of a school of LIS as being useful. But, when a school of LIS is also an academic department, what does the teaching of useful professional technical skills do for it as an academic department?

One does not have to look far for a view of LIS that focusses narrowly and exclusively on teaching what would be useful for LIS professionals: Change and Challenge in Library and Information Science Education, by Margaret F. Stieg (American Library Association, 1992) provides a conception of LIS (primarily library science) that emphasizes the teaching of professional and technical skills. There is no interest in teaching anything else. It is a conception of LIS that lacks exploration of what might be intellectually interesting. Stieg's book is not the place to look for constructive discussion of what research the faculty might do or what kind of doctoral dissertation research could be done. LIS research is viewed skeptically and Stieg eventually proposes that research should not be done in schools of LIS (p. 177). Professionally useful instruction constitutes the conception of LIS presented in this book. Ordinary academic inquiry is absent. For this reason any school of LIS in a research university that held the conception of LIS of this book ought to be closed or, at least, moved out of the research university. For anyone who is sympathetic to the idea of having at least some LIS programs in research universities, it is discouraging that this book was published by the American Library Association, which might be viewed as implying official approval of its message. What is worse, and difficult to accept, is the number and stature of individuals in LIS who wrote positive reviews of it. (For a critical review see Wilson (1993)).

One likely consequence of concentrating on what is professionally useful is that the full attention of the school -- in effect of the faculty -- is likely to be focussed on the students enrolled in the school's professional education program. This means that the faculty's energies will be concentrated in a student population with a-typical characteristics: (i) They constitute a very small fraction of the total student population, in recent years at Berkeley some 180 out of 27,000, less than 1%; (ii) Their studies are largely concentrated within the School; and (iii) Unlike other students, these students are unusual in being knowledgeable about and committed to a career in LIS.

Exclusive concentration on the 180 LIS students rather than the general population of 27,000 would be a very effective strategy if the objective were to maximize and sustain ignorance within the university concerning the contemporary scope of LIS. Nature abhors a vacuum and so minds lacking knowledge of contemporary LIS will be filled instead with other, limited and outdated images of LIS.

LIS for everyone who is interested?

Teaching LIS for other than professional education is usually assumed to be classes for technicians and paraprofessionals for library and information services. But there is a different, larger possibility. What about LIS for people who have no intention of LIS employment? Until recently, Berkeley's School of Education, as is typical for professional schools, concentrated its instructional efforts on its own students, on those who were taking professional education to become school teachers or school administrators. Yet almost everybody has some interest in education, as actual or prospective parents, as potential future employers, as anyone who cares about the social and intellectual development of the young. People who have no intention of becoming teachers themselves do commonly have an interest in how people learn, in how schools operate, and in educational policies. A few years ago Berkeley's School of Education started to offer classes on educational topics designed as electives for the large number of students who were majoring in subjects other than Education. The result has been dramatic. Enrollment in these classes exceeded 2,200 in the Fall 1995 semester and could be much greater if the School of Education were willing and able to offer more such classes.

Schools of LIS in the USA have historically avoided offering courses for other departments' students, with some narrow, utilitarian exceptions: service courses in children's literature for education students and, occasionally, courses of bibliographic instruction. Why has there been such a narrow, limited perspective? Because the conception of LIS has been limited to professional education and one can never have enough professional education for the LIS students. There are always demands for more and more specialized professional courses. Another reason in the USA is widespread concern among librarians that undergraduate LIS instruction might lead to the production of less-expensive, less-qualified "librarians". (This last reason is a curious one for a university: It implies that one should not impart knowledge that might be useful and put to use. It also ignores experience in other countries.)

If LIS were simply interesting

In universities it is normal for students to select classes that are interesting. The idea that a school of LIS might offer classes that are simply interesting for the general student population has been remarkably absent. In a program entirely dedicated to professional education there is no place for the idea that LIS faculty might share their enthusiasms through intrinsically interesting courses for anyone who wishes to learn. Yet what faculty-member in LIS does not have some knowledge of some topic that could well be intrinsically interesting to at least some of that very large percentage of the university student population that is not already preparing for a career in LIS? What of the "liberal arts" of LIS, topics explored for their intrinsic interest rather than their practical utility. There seems no better way to foster understanding of the nature and contemporary concerns of LIS than to share them with those who wish to know. If thousands of non-education students are interested enough in aspects of education to take elective, non-professional classes about education topics, might there not also be a significant number of non-LIS students who would enjoy and benefit from elective "liberal arts" courses on LIS topics? One does not have to be committed to becoming a professional politician to find political science interesting and one does not have to intend a career as an LIS professional in order to have an interest in such information policy topics such as privacy, censorship, the "information superhighway, and freedom of access to government records.

There is an additional motivation. As Peter Lyman has explained, contemporary liberal arts education in the USA is generally weak and obsolete in its treatment of the nature and role of technology, of information technology, and, indeed, of information itself. "Liberal education is incomplete if it does not prepare educated people to address the presence of technology -- and more importantly, th epresence of the information products of technology in the modern world -- in an informed and critical way." (Lyman, 1995, 4). Schools of LIS are, or ought to be, exceptionally qualified to remedy this defect.

Experience at Berkeley

For many years, the Berkeley's School of Library and Information Studies (in May 1995 renamed School of Information Management and Systems) offered some general interest courses on some very traditional specialties, primarily bibliographic instruction and surveys of children's literature and of the history of the book. They were usually not taught by the regular, permanent LIS faculty. In the mid-1990s these courses were discontinued and the idea of "liberal arts" classes aimed at undergraduates majoring in other subject areas was considered. The idea of an undergraduate, non-professional minor in LIS was discussed. (At Berkeley, a "minor" requires at least five different courses.) One proposal was to have two complementary classes as twin foundations for a liberal arts undergraduate LIS minor. One, moderately technical, exploring ideas about "information" and "information systems"; the other examining the role, control, and flow of information in society. Additional classes, it was thought, could be flexibly supplied, depending on the interests and availability of LIS faculty. Other factors have diverted attention from this program, but our experience may well be of interest.

LIS in general

A course entitled Information systems was developed as one of the two foundations for an undergraduate liberal arts minor in LIS. The class explores what various notions of "information" and "information system" might include, the social, political and economic aspects of information management and information technology; and so on. Privacy issues and the discovery that information systems have a cultural basis and bias consistently arouse interest. Students are surprised by how widely the meaning of the word "information" varies from one context to another. Exploration of the characteristics of retrieval systems includes exercises that do result in useful skills, but utility is not the primary intent. (Some of the course materials are temporarily available at

Students have very little basis for knowing what to expect of such a course. Most expect a utilitarian class that will teach them how to search in online retrieval systems. Others expect a narrowly focussed introduction to library science techniques about which they have vague, limited, and old-fashioned expectations. At the same time, widespread rhetoric about "the information society" has created an awareness that there may be something to be studied. However, the idea that there already is a rich, complex and interesting field to be explored concerning information, how it is managed, and how it influences daily life, is ordinarily absent. In part, this low level of awareness is to be expected. How could they know, given the long-term public silence of inward-looking LIS programs preoccupied with the students already in their own professional programs? There is a substantial latent demand for a liberal arts (read "interesting") introduction to topics in LIS.

Comment: Introductions to LIS

Hundreds of books have been published on LIS or aspects of it, mostly "how-to" books, as is to be expected. But books that provide a general introduction to scope and nature of LIS are not common. How many can you identify since Pierce Butler's thin polemic Introduction to Library Science published back in 1933? If your university president (or Rector or Vice-Chancellor) decided to re-assess the resources currently allocated to LIS and asked to read an introduction to the field, what would you supply?

I suggest that the general emphasis on professionally useful education discourages interest in the field of LIS itself, in the nature of information and information technology, and in the intellectual history of LIS because there are always more apparently useful agenda. The history of libraries is developed, but the emphasis is on biographies of persons and on the historical development of institutions, rather than on ideas or even techniques. Information Science has been notoriously a-historical, at best mythic, until quite recently. We should recognize the CoLIS 1 conference in Tampere in 1991 for its exceptional inclusion of humanistic and historical perspectives. Also in 1991 the annual program on the history of information science at the Annual Meetings of the American Society for Information Science started. The Annual Review of Information Science and Technology did not have a chapter fully devoted to the literature on the history of information science until its thirtieth volume, in 1995.

This collective amnesia has at least two disadvantages. First, as a practical matter, interesting ideas that lack immediate perceived utility are likely to be forgotten. Second, there is a continuing loss of identity. LIS, under variations of the name, has had the curious property of perennially being regarded as "a new and emerging discipline", even a century after the founding of the International Federation for Information and Documentation by Otlet and Lafontaine in 1895. Anything will be regarded as new if it has no known history. "No documents, no history", wrote the historian Fustel de Coulanges. If a field does not document its past, it will lack a history and an identity. We should expect it to be perennially regarded as "new and emerging".

Many LIS liberal arts topics

We discussed above a general, liberal arts introduction to LIS, but clearly there are many different ways in which information and information management have an impact individuals and on society. Economic, political, social, legal, and cultural issues are abundant and prominent in so many ways that the opportunities for liberal arts LIS courses far exceed the resources of any school to provide them. (The breadth of this range was discussed at another recent Nordic conference (Wilson, 1996)).

I will comment on only one example, a class which examined information management and information policies in relation to cultural knowledge. Entitled Access to American cultural heritages, it explores ways in which knowledge of cultural heritages and of ethnic identities is formed or influenced by a variety of interpretative sources including encyclopedias, library classifications, indexing terminology, school textbooks, historic site interpretation, and so on. (Some course materials are at ). The subject matter is of lively general interest in a world preoccupied with the ethnicity and the politics of identity.

The course is derived, in part, from some components of the graduate professional program in LIS, e.g. the handling of socially sensitive topics in indexes and encyclopedias. Professors of LIS are unlikely to find the contents or the approach in this class to be more than a rearrangement and extension of existing material. What is more radical is that the class is for non-LIS students. It is not intended as professional education. And, therefore, it is not what one would expect in a serious, practical, professional school. The reaction of professors in other departments has been exactly the opposite. They assume that an academic department would want to attract the attention of a wide range of undergraduate students. They usually think that the contents and approach of the class are highly original and they are surprised by the idea of LIS as the source of a class with such a content.

Impact on LIS of liberal arts approaches

With this course and, I expect, in any such class, there is an additional dimension: the potential impact on conceptions of LIS itself. Access to knowledge of cultural heritage, I believe, currently constitutes a important intellectual frontier for LIS itself because cultural knowledge differs from the application areas in what might be called "classical information science", concerned with access to scientific, technical, and business knowledge and with an emphasis on mechanization. Access to cultural knowledge, what one knows about one's own and others' cultural heritage, differs from and, thereby, calls into question the adequacy of the norms of classical information science.

Good scholarship requires the search for evidence that may challenge or refute accepted assumptions and orthodoxies. The creation, dissemination, and use of cultural knowledge provides such a challenge. The outcomes and values of the dissemination of cultural knowledge are political and social, as much as economic, so any approach to "information in society" that is primarily based on economic analysis can be seen to be too limited. The information (messages) touching cultural issues are clearly very subjectively construed, which demonstrates that any view of information as formal, true, or objective, has limited and localized validity. Meaning is clearly constructed by the "subject", a situation that is inconvenient for approaches that adopt the conventional sender - channel - receiver model of information flow or that seek to formalize or mechanize "information systems" intended to communicate knowledge. Words -- as character-strings so central to classical information science -- are unstable in their signification, and more, perhaps, in what they connote than in what they denote. Conventional assumptions concerning what a document is "about" are of limited help when how a statement is made and how it is used can be perceived as being as significant as what the statement ostensibly states. It becomes clear that knowledge systems are culturally based. International or inter-cultural controversies provide plentiful examples of contrasting representations of events and individuals. The notion of "document" (information-as-thing) acquires an expansive character. The phenomena that disseminate cultural knowledge are clearly more extensive than textual artifacts: All conventional media and more, e.g. ceremonies, are brought into use and play roles as "documents" in the sense of phenomena that (in)form the knowledge of those that perceive them. (This was understood among pre-World War II European documentalists but has had little or no place in post World War II information science (Buckland, 1997))

These comments should not surprise anyone with a knowledge of rhetoric or of the history of science or of other humanistic or cultural social science disciplines. Yet they challenge classical approaches to Information Science and the idea that Information Science could be "scientific" in the normative sense of a formal science. Exploring the creation, dissemination, and use of cultural knowledge poses a challenge to the adequacy of what is taught or thought about, say, chemical knowledge. How are we to resolve the differences? Are we to assert that the creation, dissemination, and use of knowledge in Chemistry is different in kind, implying that any principles derived from chemical documentation will have limited applicability? Are we to admit that the assumptions underlying modern information science are radical simplifications, useful in practice but untenable as general propositions?

I have used one example as an illustration. As I have stressed above, there is a very wide range of social, political, technical, legal, cultural and ethical topics that could be used in a liberal arts conception of LIS. I suggest that each of them is also likely to contribute productively to the intellectual breadth, depth, and coherence of LIS.

Comment: "Interdisciplinary" is a bad word

Mention of the many possible LIS liberal arts topics raises the question of the relationship of departments of LIS to other academic departments. It is common to use the term "interdisciplinary" in a positive sense, as if it were a sign of strength. I suggest that this is often not the case, for rhetorical and political reasons.

Consider the rhetoric effect. "Interdisciplinary" implies something inbetween disciplines. For me it evokes the image of an old Greek temple, where there are some solid columns (disciplines) and inbetween them is mere only space.

Power in universities tends to be based on balances between academic departments, especially departments that are traditional disciplines, which are often areas of study constructed to meet political and technological needs in the 19th century. This situation masks the reality that academic departments tend to be either problem-centered or discipline-based (i.e. tool-centered). Professional schools tend to be in the former category: Schools of Business Administration address the industrial and commercial problems of the private sector. One does not, and should not, speak of Business Administration as being "a discipline". A variety of tools are (or should be) deployed as needed. The same is true of Schools of Education, of Social Welfare, and of LIS. Each such field should be defined by its problem area and care should be taken to bring an adequately diversified range of tools to work on it. A problem-based school will decay if it neglects the renewal of its range of tools. In contrast, a discipline-based department is likely to decay if it does not bring new problems to test and to improve its disciplinary tools. For this reason one can speak of LIS and other, problem-defined schools, as multidisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, or interdisciplinary. But to do so tends to be unwise because it can move attention away from the proper basis for the conception of the program, away from its problem area.

An emphasis in being "interdisciplinary" creates a discussion of status within a framework of disciplines in a competitive environment in which discipline-based departments have power. For a department defined by a problem area to compete with methodology-based disciplines in disciplinary terms is to adopt a position of weakness. Better to contend, if one must, with the claims of discipline-based departments in a rhetoric of problems and of the importance of these problems.

The consequence of adopting a liberal arts conception of LIS should not be seen as moving LIS into a more interdisciplinary framework. Rather, it should be to allow the problem area of LIS to be examined more freely, without the constraints imposed by a restriction to what is necessary for the education of LIS professionals.

A challenge, a fantasy

Consider the rhetoric about how society is being transformed as we move into an "Information Age". If only a fraction of these claims are true, dramatic changes to contemporary society are happening, developments of the greatest importance to us all. And if these developments are important, then they deserve a lot of attention and they should be of interest to large numbers of students. Many different academic departments have interests in one or more aspects of information and these interests are to be encouraged. But if this matter is so important, it deserves an academic department that has this area as its primary problem area. It needs an academic department whose central concern is the study of information and the production, distribution, and utilization of information in society. What academic department could be better positioned for this undertaking than a school of LIS?

Let us imagine that the President (or Rector or Vice Chancellor) of a university believed that we are moving into an Information Society and wanted to invest some of the university's resources into the study of this phenomenon. It is a quite plausible scenario. Now let us imagine that this university president were to mandate that an existing LIS school, with or without a new name, should undertake this one role, but with one condition: The school would discontinue professional education because the priorities and resources required for professional education would interfere with this new objective.

In US terminology, the school would become a liberal arts department because the topics to be studied would be studied in their own right. In the USA it would be located in the College of Arts and Sciences, presumably in the Social Sciences division. It is assumed that its classes would be of widespread interest to students. The importance of teaching the best that can be said concerning the Information Society provides the element of Bildung that distinguishes the interesting-and-worthwhile from the interesting-but-trivial.

Would a liberal arts department of LIS be possible? I suggest that any view of LIS is incomplete and lacking in coherence if it could not include a liberal arts program. Would a liberal arts approach be economically viable? Probably, in any university in which resources follow instructional workload.

The real reason not to create a liberal arts department of LIS is not that it is not a good idea in itself, but that there is an even more powerful option at hand: A conception of LIS in which professional education in LIS is positioned within a liberal arts conception of LIS. Here one could combine all the advantages of both. And, by having both, the school would have the basis for being a much larger with the additional advantages of economies of scale and economies of scope. Such a development would not appear to be difficult. What would be required is simple and two-fold: That there be a liberal arts conception of LIS; and that advancing the liberal arts conception of LIS would be one of the conscious strategic objectives of the school.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. The helpful comments of Patrick Wilson are gratefully acknowledged.


Buckland, M.K. 1996. Documentation, information science, and library science in the U.S.A. Information Processing and Management 32: 63-76.

Buckland, M. K. 1977. What is a "document"? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48: 804-809.

Lyman, P. 1995. What is computer literacy and what is its place in liberal education? Liberal Education 81, no. 3: 4-15. Also in Rethinking Liberal Education, ed. By N. Farnham & A. Yarmolinsky. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Stieg, M. F. 1992. Change and challenge in Library and Information Science education. Chicago: American Library Association.

Wilson, P. 1993. [Review of M. F. Stieg, Change and challenge in Library and Information Science education. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1992.)] College & Research Libraries 54: 275-276.

Wilson, P. 1996. The future of research in our field. In: Olaisen, J., E. Munch-Petersen & P. Wilson, eds. Information Science; From the development of the discipline to social interaction. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 319-324.