The ‘L’ Word Versus the ‘I’ Word

August 22, 2008

By Intner, Sheila S

I consider myself a word lover, a person for whom words have major appeal. Besides owning numerous dictionaries and thesauri (and being known to get lost for hours on end occasionally when I delve into one of them), doing crossword puzzles and double-crostics regularly, and playing nightly games of Scrabble with my husband, I’ve written columns about the implications of naming technical services departments using various words, such as “support services,”"database management services,” and the like. Not long ago, Technicalities editor Peggy Johnson sent me an article written by Ellen Detlefsen, the medical library education column editor, which examined the results of a study of the I-schools: schools that prepare people to do what we do.1 The author asked, “What’s the difference between The Information School’ and ‘The Original Information School?’ What’s an MSI degree? What’s happening to ‘library schools?’ What ever happened to the L-word?” This column will try to analyze Dr. Detlefsen’s questions a bit further and pose more questions for your consideration. What’s the Significance of ‘Original’?

This question is never answered specifically in the article I read, so, in my ignorance, I’m going to propose one: An “original” information school is one that didn’t start out as a library school. If this answer is in the right ballpark, even if not directly on the mark, it begs an important question: Can unoriginal I-schools find happiness in the world they share with the originals? The short answer to that question, in my opinion, is “No.” Like converts to a different religion, they carry a mark of their former creed, as it is said, unto the last generation. In matters of faith, experience reveals those marks can rear up in ugly ways long after the conversions have been forgotten, making belonging, essentially, an eternally unobtainable prize for outsiders.

Similarly, I believe, the I-schools that used to be library schools carry a stigma of traditionalism that no infusion of science or technology can erase completely, and it is not without some small basis in reality. Most of the library schools that became !-schools in recent years have continued to offer their traditional library- related courses and degrees. They have been unwilling, even in the short run, to give up what constitutes their bread and butter for the promise of an elusive information science plum pudding that they might achieve at some point in the unknowable future.

The compromise of the 1980s and beyond has been to change “library science” to “library and information science” (LIS) in the names of the schools and, accordingly, in the names of the degrees they bestowed – master of library science or master of library and information science. In some instances, the division was highlighted by the addition of an “s” to “science,” emphasizing that there were two sciences here, not one discipline with two aspects. Sometimes (though not always), the name change was accompanied by substantial changes in the curriculum and the initiation of new degrees to reflect the changes. But, in a not insignificant number of instances, the only differences in a school’s curriculum were cosmetic, mainly, the introduction of computerized methodologies and operations for traditional functions, with very little alteration in fundamental principles, concepts, or theoretical underpinnings.

Author Detlefsen points out that 14 of the 19 I-schools she studied are in the compromise category just described, originating as plain old library schools and continuing to offer degrees accredited by the American Library Association. That makes their degrees library degrees, doesn’t it? Of the 14, four still have the word “library” in their names (Indiana University-Bloomington, Rutgers University, University of Illinois, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Some I-school converts that deleted “library” from their names have not given up on libraries altogether, hanging on to a library “track” or degree of one kind or another. For example, the acronym of the University of Maryland’s School of Information Studies remains “CLIS” despite the absence of an “L” word in its name and it offers a track labeled “LBSC.”

What about the “originals”? Presumably, the five remaining schools in the study of 19 I-schools provide the relevant model. Four in this group began as schools of computer science at Georgia Tech, Indiana University, Penn State, and the University of California-Irvine. The fifth, at the University of California- Berkeley, was originally a traditional library school. It transformed its focus to computer/information science with a radical libraryectomy in the 1980s, much to the dismay of its peers. The school did more than revise its curriculum. It also denied tenure to deserving junior faculty and renounced its ALA accreditation. Nevertheless, longtime observers have not forgotten it once was a library school. Its 14 former library school peers may think of it as a radical, but I wonder if the schools that never had ties to the world of libraries and librarianship hold the same opinion.

Before the 1960s, there was no such thing as a school of computer science (Wikipedia puts the first formal school by that name at Purdue in 1962), although study in the field began decades earlier in schools of engineering or mathematics. Schools of librarianship began in the previous century with MeIvil Dewey’s school of library service at Columbia University, with curriculum deriving almost entirely from practice. Thus, the distinction between L-schools and I-schools seems clear enough and somewhat justified, even though overlaps and commonalities are also obvious.

MS Versus MA

Is what we do a science or an art? Should the degree we award say “Master of Arts” or “Master of Science”? What’s the difference, and who cares? No less an intellect than Stephen Jay Gould, writing with his wife Rhonda Roland Shearer, says the division is arbitrary and, possibly, due more to a human propensity to think in dichotomies than in any real differences in subject matter and evaluative criteria.2 In the opposing camp, Lewis Wolpert claimed it was just those subject and differences in judgment that determine whether a discipline is an art or a science.3 The long-revered dichotomy between reason and emotion, hard data and aesthetics, are reflected in Wolpert’s arguments.

This columnist used to think that information science was the part of library and information science (no “s”!) providing the “science” – that is, the recorded evidence and evidence-based theory – on which professional “art” rested. If the hard data showed methods used in practice did not produce appropriate results, it was reason to change the practice so more desirable outcomes could be realized. The problem was obtaining enough hard data in studies that moved beyond the “how we do it good in our library” stage. Perhaps, like history, which is sometimes classified in the humanities and sometimes in the social sciences, library/information science is too multifaceted to categorize.

For better or worse, names have not seemed to matter much when it comes to reckoning up our deeds. Some librarians have been great researchers, experimenting with full rigor and following hallowed scientific methods to the letter. Some information scientists, despite the designation, did not do much science at all, but merely functioned outside of traditional libraries, either in corporate information centers more respectful of science than of art or in the abstract world of teaching.

In the real world, however, the bottom line on this issue resides with institutional governing bodies that decide where schools of library or information science are located – arts or sciences – and, therefore, what kinds of degrees they can offer. Like other matters decided unilaterally by individual institutions, the decisions are arbitrary and do not clarify the issue, but, instead, to further muddy the waters.

Science Versus Studies?

The difference that most bugs this columnist and always has is the one between library/information “science” and library/ information “studies.” Is the choice based solely on rejecting librarianship as a science? Or, is there more to these semantics than meets the eye? It seems appropriate that if institutional leaders reject librarianship as a science, they would naturally be opposed to calling their schools or departments by the phrase “Library Science.” On the other hand, the coupling of “information” with “science” seems well established and readily accepted, giving no basis for rejecting the name “Information Science.” Is it possible that in choosing “Information Studies” instead of “Information Science,” members of the I-school group are consciously rejecting the notion that what they do is any kind of science? One can only speculate.

An alternative explanation is that “Information Studies” implies more than doing information work as a scientific endeavor, and allows for pursuing it as an art, as well. “Studies” is a broader, more inclusive kind of word, eliminating the perpetual requirement to demonstrate always being truly scientific.

In the early 1980s, when the now-defunct library school at Emory University was contemplating a name change, they found a third choice: Management. Teaching information management seemed like a viable option tethered neither to science nor art. Management maintained a pragmatic focus on what library/information practitioners actually do: planning, budgeting, staffing, directing, and evaluating information. That seemed like a better fit than either “science” or “studies.” The problem with adding Management to library/information is that it meant changing the old acronyms, which is more difficult to do than one would think. It did not save Emory’s program from being closed by the university’s institutional governing body, so perhaps it was not such a good choice. Similarly, the phrase library or information “service” was attractive because it emphasized the benefits to clients of library/information agencies. “Service” was attached to some of the original graduate programs formed after the Williamson Report on library education recommended master’s degrees replace baccalaureates in the field. (Are we coming full circle now with many graduate schools recommending initiating undergraduate units?) The problem was “library service” sounded extremely passe in the late 20th century. Professional schools at the University of Chicago and Columbia University were called “School of Library Service” and, unfortunately, neither made it into the 21st century.


“Graduate School of Library and Information [Something]” is a mouthful and the acronym is hard to say (guissliss? jiss-liss?). Any school that wants to abbreviate such a moniker should be encouraged, even if it means debating the wisdom of retaining the word “Library” in the final choice. Once one aims at brevity, “School of Information” sounds clearly superior to “School of Library.” (Actually, “School of Librarianship” may be preferable.) Emulating the traditional appellations such as “School of Medicine,”"School of Law,”"School of Business,” etc., “School of Information” does not preclude encompassing both the arts of librarianship and the sciences of information.

Contrary to what some of the more forward-looking I-school-nee- library schools are doing, though, I recommend keeping the library track and insisting the “original” I-schools add them. Not only would this provide their scientists with ready-made research populations in the form of communities of libraries to be studied, but it would furnish the opportunity to obtain more tuition income from larger and more diverse student bodies.

Of the 19 I-schools mentioned in Detlefsen’s study, five have adopted plain old “Information,” without further adornment: Florida State University-Tallahassee, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Texas-Austin; University of Washington, Seattle, and the University of California-Berkeley. Perhaps, they should be emulated regarding their choices of names while, simultaneously, strengthening the recruiting, curriculum, and support for their library track.


1. Ellen G. Detlefsen, “What’s in a Name?: The I-Schools Project,.” Medical Library Association News 397, no. 1 22 (Sept. 2007): 22.

2. Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould, “Essay on Science and Society: Of Two Minds and One Nature,” Science 286, no. 5442 (Nov. 5 1999): 1093-1094.

3. Lewis Wolpert, “Science: Arts vs. Science: The Critical Difference,” The Independent (London) (Feb. 25, 2000), http:// fmdarticles.com/p/articles/mi_ qn4158/is_20000225/ai_n14292327.

Sheila S. Intner is professor emerita, Simmons College GSLIS at Mount Holyoke College; she can be reached at shemat@aol.com.

Copyright Media Periodicals Division, Trozzolo Resources, Inc. May/ Jun 2008

(c) 2008 Technicalities. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

comments powered by Disqus