“So what do you study exactly?” Part 2: Library and Information Science

This post is the second of a two-part series on how, why, and when I explain this degree to others. Check out last month’s Part 1: Online Education.

Imagine the scene: You are talking to someone about your graduate degree, and you have just finished the sometimes-exhausting process of telling them about (and convincing them of the validity of) the non-traditional aspects of its delivery. Just when you think you’re in the clear, they ask the dreaded question:

“So what is library and information science, anyway?”

Let’s start with the “library” part of that question.

With librarians, iSchool folks, and others with experience in the library world, I almost never need to answer this question. They know my degree, they know of my school, and they likely know several of my instructors and professors in the small LIS world. More importantly, they respect it.

Recently, I even had a conversation with a PhD candidate in computer science about how the “library” in “library and information science” implies fundamental values of activism, advocacy, and public service. “Otherwise,” he said to me, “it’s just another trendy info degree.”

The “library” part does not go over so well with others. I have no doubt that you have your own stories of frustration and misunderstanding. Among my peers, one said, “The problem I’ve had is people thinking that all I want to do is stamp and shelve books all day long.” Another said, “I do still get the ‘You need a degree for that…?’”

What I actually do

Just like with our online and remote degrees, this can be a good chance to represent our field of study and explain a misunderstood profession to friends, family, and colleagues. Plenty will understand, think it’s normal and practical, and support the valuable institutions it represents. Others, even if they are not as familiar with the library world, will no doubt be proud and supportive of the pursuit of an advanced degree.

For me, as a student who hopes to work outside traditional library settings, I often drop the “L” out of “MLIS” altogether, especially when talking to those who do not hail from Library Land. This results in me saying I am studying “information science,” which tends to vaguely impress friends, family, and some academics.

But if I am talking to academics and practitioners from related technical fields—especially computer science, economics, or statistics—I get some bemused, intimidating questions. What is information science? What methods are you using? What programming languages are you learning? What will you do with that degree?

Approaching the end of my first year in the degree, I still do not have particularly good answers!

One way to relate to people from other fields is to point out the extensive overlap among “information science” broadly defined and other fields like computer science, economics, statistics, information management, anthropology, and communications. You could even make a similar argument for “data science“and its extensive overlap with other fields. To make these relationships a little more concrete, I often rattle off the fields from which my professors came—just about none of which are limited to “information science.” This field, and the information schools that house it, are still so new that our leaders and instructors come overwhelmingly from other areas of practice and academy.

In addition to establishing information science as interdisciplinary and new, I also sometimes describe the range of professions my peers and I will pursue. Sometimes I take this range for granted, but talking about it with other people always reminds me just how exciting our field is. From information architects to children’s librarians to data scientists, we are all grounded in the same fundamental values and theory.

When all else fails, I say something along the lines of, “Well, the field is interdisciplinary, new, and wide-ranging, but here’s what I’m doing…” and take the opportunity to practice explaining my own work in practical, easy-to-understand terms. Then I can also juxtapose my work—which is more on the social science, research-driven side of things—with other corners of library and information science.

Every possible field of study has its stereotypes and seemingly stupid questions. We in the LIS world get to address and answer perhaps more than our fair share of them. This process of explaining and re-explaining can take a lot of energy, but has ultimately helped me reflect on the degree, the field, and my place in it—and how I want others to see and understand it in the future.

4 replies

  1. Well said. No, we don’t stamp books all day. Yes, you need a degree for this. Yes, we like to read, but we don’t get to read the books in our libraries all day. How many times have we answered these damn questions?!

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  2. What you say about “information science” is pretty true about “Library and Information Science,” but information science per se is actually pretty clearly defined and outside of what most librarians actually study in their MLIS programs.

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  3. Great post about our fabulous discipline! One view is that library & information science is a single discipline, concerned with all aspects of the information communication chain: creation->dissemination->management->indexing/retrieval->use. Library science vs information science is just a question of where on the chain your interest sits. The UK view and history of IS is a bit different from the more comp sci orientation in the US. #citylis

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