A conversation about ‘the information professions’


The ‘deep’ background to this conversation was a discussion during 2010 on a LinkedIn list maintained by CILIP, the Chartered Institute ofLibrary and Information Professionals.

The discussion, subject ‘The Fragmentation Death of the Information Professions’, was initiated by Mark Field. It led to a series of meetings which explored collaboration between such organisations as CILIP, ISKO UK, IRMS, eIG, GLG, NetIKX, the British Computer Society, KIDMM… more. It has to be said that that conversation and those meetings didn’t achieve anything much. But the same issues keep cropping up…

The three of us ‘met virtually’ via that online conversation, and Sue later joined the KIDMM e-group. Sue formerly taught Library and Information Science at the University of South Australia and is the author, with Anna Maria Tammaro, of ‘Exploring Education for Digital Librarians: Meaning, Modes and Models’ (Chandos, 2013). Her 2016 summer holiday visit to London gave us the opportunity to meet each other face to face for the first time.

(File size 30.5 MB, duration 32 mins 21 sec)


Conrad:   Bob and I met Sue online; I can’t remember how many years ago it was that Mark Field started that discussion on the CILIP LinkedIn pages – five or six years ago? Mark was raising doom and gloom about the information professions, as he called them, going to hell in a hand-basket. I think there were 130 or 140 postings on that topic. [In fact, more than 190.].

Sue:   It was a very active conversation.

Conrad:   I was interested in your participation, Sue, and we then started corresponding off-list… you were finishing off your PhD at the time, were you not?

Sue:   No, I had already finished, and I was nearly finished with that book [Exploring Education for Digital Librarians] of which I sent you a copy. A lot of it was based on work I’ve done. In fact, it’s an expression of my whole life in the profession.

Conrad:   The thing is, you have been examining the nature of the education, the intellectual formation of people who work in… now, how would you describe it? In librarianship specifically? Or in the information system…?

Sue:   The phrase has very much become ‘Library and Information Science’, and I just use that phrase however non-descriptive and misleading it might be. I don’t believe there’s a library science and I don’t believe there’s an information science either! The information professions – I’ve come to like a phrase ‘information interventionist’. It’s not widely used, but that’s sums up better how I see the profession.

Conrad:   That’s an interesting umbrella term. What do you think, Bob?

Bob:   Yes indeed. My particular relationship to the ‘fragmentation of the profession’ discussion that Mark Field started – I stayed on the sidelines of that, because [of an earlier experience]. We have a colleague called Ed Mitchell; two years prior to Mark Field starting that discussion, he had set up a kind of community bulletin board system for CILIP, and he invited me to try it out. So I went on it, and I thought, what do I feel strongly about? And I said, I thought librarians and information people were selling themselves short by not bothering to peek beyond the library walls. I was trained as a librarian, I’m a Chartered Librarian, but I’ve worked all my professional life outside public libraries – in business and commerce and industry.

Immediately after library school I went straight to be a technical librarian. My first qualification was in industrial chemistry, so when I graduated from library school it seemed sensible that if I was going to do library work of any kinds, it would have a technical slant, because of my technical background in chemistry. So, for example, I have built up a technical library for a Canadian firm of consulting engineers. And I thought we were wasting a great opportunity in not trying to apply our skills outside the library. That was my contribution to that first edition of the CILIP bulletin board. And it was during that that I thought, why aren’t other people working outside the library with thse skills – I could see information in business and commerce and industry was crying out for organisation. So I contributed those thoughts to the bulletin board, and attracted one or two replies, and then – nothing!

Bob:  I was very pleased to see Mark Field start that discussion on LinkedIn a couple of years later, but I felt I didn’t have a lot more to contribute than Mark was doing. He really got the discussion going that I had wanted to a couple of years before, so I thought, I’m not going to steal any of his glory, I’ll just sit on the sidelines and be an observer.

Sue:   Well, I was drawn to this conversation from two major points of view. One was, that in my long and very intercontinental career in the field, I had either worked as or taught in a wide range of areas. I have taught cataloguing, I have taught systematic and analytical bibliography, I have taught information retrieval, records management, corporate information management, knowledge management… I designed a Masters programme and was programme director of a course in knowledge management, Internet communications strategy, business communication and technology… and I was constantly struck, even from my very early days as a neophyte librarian, by the similarities between the fields, which were artificially separated – largely by journal publication and by the professional associations, each of which had a vested interest in keeping the professions apart. And very few attempts at melding them have been successful, because of entrenched political interests.

An example I was going to use is [the relationship] between records management and archival science. In general, archivists are much better educated than records managers, who often have left school at year ten and been filing clerks, and gradually developed a more comprehensive understanding of documents and information flows within organisations. Whereas the archivist very frequently has a Master’s degree in history, or similar, and then did a Master’s degree in archival science, which was far more thorough and in-depth.

One point of view which is supported by research done in Australia, suggests records management is a continuum – the so-called continuum theory. This says that there is no distinct point at which a record that is the record of a business transaction ceases to be what it is. So you have records being created in organisations, and finally many of those that are considered to have significance and long-term cultural, social or historical value end up in archives. You can’t draw a distinction at any particular point. And I quite like that idea.

So that was one major thing that drew me into the LinkedIn conversation. The second was my own personal obsession with the notion – and this came to me the first year I ever studied in the field – that there was a lack of an operational definition of information for this field.

And this is what led to my PhD, which was called ‘Defining Information: a site of struggle’, because a lot of it is around vested interests, around capitalism, around technology, around the different professions and so on, however you define information, which as you may know is also often used synonymously with technology. Of course there are many definitions of information depending what field you happen to be in. If you are in physics, looking at black holes, information means one thing. But if you are in our field, you need something that works for the kind of work that we do.

And I ended up with perhaps a rather simplistic definition, which suggests that knowledge is individual and in everybody’s head, and is unique to that individual, and that’s generally agreed; that knowledge is constructed or created or produced in a whole variety of ways from the second we are conceived, genetically and through perhaps the diet of the parents, the sounds, and so on and so forth – the individual personalities, competencies, characteristics, all affect what information is taken on board and taken to heart, and provides some part of the structure of that knowledge in a person’s head.

After a child is born, there is the environment, there is direct experience, through what Aristotle claimed was the only was to get knowledge – the five senses – which as we know is the paradign for the scientific method and research in the natural sciences. But we know that there are also other kinds of knowledges: we are aware of spiritual knowledges, and knowledge of art and music and so on, that aren’t articulated in the scientific method. So we can disagree with Lord Kelvin, who said that if something can’t be measured then it isn’t knowledge.

So, to me, information then is that part of our knowledge that we choose to share with certain individuals in certain circumstances, and to represent it in certain ways; and of course the major way in which we represent information is in language, which is culturally defined sounds. The sounds that we make are purely symbolic… we all make different noises, and understand them if we can decode them. Language itself is a representation. And the alphabet of course is yet another representation: a representation of a representation. But it is one in which we can have recorded information, which helps if you with to overgome spatio-temporal constraints.

We have been marvellous in how we have developed language. Steven Pinker has suggested we all have that instinct, that capacity for developing language. Then there are various theories around linguistics and semiotics and so on that suggest ways in which our brains work in relation to the language we know, and how we are able to construct it [with] vocabularies, syntactics and semantics, and then [through writing] we are able to record it.

Our role as information professionals, in my opinion, has been in [working] among those records of information. But what we really do is not look after those records per se… Those records are a technology, a tool; but our job is to assist in the conversation between somebody who had those ideas, those ideas that have been expressed in some way – music, language, maths, whatever – that have been recorded, and then can be further communicated to somebody who will understand them. So it’s all to do with the idea-transmission from one head to another, and our role within that transmission.

Conrad:   If I can sum that up… I think all three of us around this table agree with that way of looking at things. That knowledge is something that is, if you like, in your head, and is acquired through experience; whereas information is the way in which you make it into a form for communication. Bob, am I right in thinking that this idea goes back to the very root of of the conversation through which the Aslib Information Resource Management Network was constructed? And that Liz Orna is one of the people who has propagated this idea of the relationship between knowledge anmd information?

Bob:   Yes, Liz Orna is; and I think I was explaining earlier on my viewpoint on this, that knowledge and information are inseparable, and one feeds upon the other in an interactive association. But, one of the things that the Aslib IRM Network tried to do was to agree some definitions. First of all what information resource management was, and secondly what information management was. Because these were relatively new terms at the time.

Just as background, I might say that Aslib IRM Network was formed out of the work of an American guy called Woody Horton – ‘Infomapping’ was the name of the approach he promoted. Several of those who had attended a seminar of his at Aslib, in 1991 I suspect, were so keen on the ideas he was putting forward that we decided to form a group. The Aslib IRM Network was formed I think in May 1992.

Conrad:   I should point out that Aslib IRM Network then transformed and re-transformed, and now NetIKX is carrying the flag – it’s a different animal now, but that’s the lineage.

Bob:   The IRM Network went on to about the year 2000, I think, and then it became KIMnet, the Knowledge and Information Management Network. That continued under the aegis of Aslib for several years, but at a certain point our membership decided that they wanted to be independent of Aslib, as a community of interest as we’d say now. So they made a inulateral declaration of independence, left Aslib and became NetIKX, the Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange. Same group of people, much the same topics, but independent of Aslib. That’s the potted history.

During all that, I played quite a role on the management committees of all three organisations. But it never entirely satisfied me, because I was interested more in the commercial use of information and knowledge, in business and commerce; and the techniques that come out of library and information science training – things like classifications, taxonomy, and the ontologies which support them – that is the sort of work I wanted to do. And I wasn’t getting a lot of that by being a member of KIMnet and NetIKX.

Now, let me go back a little bit further and say that when I graduated from library school I joined what was then the Library Association, which subsequently became CILIP. But again, it was public library oriented, and my interests were in technical librarianship, and I didn’t find a lot of support for that in the Library Association at the time. So I immediately joined the Institute of Information Scientists, who were predominantly practitioners working in the industrial and commercial sector.

I stayed with the IIS until it became unsupportable, about 2004 I think, and it amalgamated with the Library Association to become CILIP [CT Note: 2002 according to Wikipedia.]. I had great hopes, and my other colleagues who were members of the IIS at the time had great hopes that we’d flourish. But to be honest, it was years before we started to make an impact within CILIP and open other people’s eyes to the other uses, applications for what we do, outside of libraries. So in a way, we remained closet IIS members.

That was the reason why when the International Society for Knowledge Organization, ISKO, formed a UK chapter, I put my money on ISKO UK instead. I retained my membership of NetIKX for a while, but transferred all my activities to ISKO UK, which was doing exactly what I had wanted to do for years, focusing on knowledge organisation systems, classifications, taxonomies, thesauri.

Sue:   I know exactly where Bob’s coming from, because I found myself in the ridiculous position of belonging to seven or eight professional associations at one time. And of course the membership fees for all of them were pretty substantial.

I belonged to the American Society of Information Science, because I needed to have an international perspective, being from little old Australia, and previously, little old South Africa. And then I belonged to the Australian Library Association, which then became known as the Australian Library and Information Association, under the ruse that they were going to be the umbrella organisation, which has never actually transpired. Separately, I belonged to the Records Management Association of Australia, and the Archival Society of Australia, and the list goes on. I also belonged to an outfit in the States called the Information Resource Management Association (IRMA), and for a while I was still a member of SALIS, which was the South African one. Anyway, it just became quite ludricrous.

Bob:   Well, that illustrates perfectly the fragmentation of the profession, that there were so many associations you felt you had to be a member of!

Sue:   One of several things that emerged is the extent to which the American view of librarianship, public librarianship specifically, is a very dominant metaphor, not only in the USA, but also the UK and its colonies, the Commonwealth! This philosophy of the public library as a poor man’s university, and all that kind of stuff, is very much from the US. And there were the guild libraries that you had here, the penny libraries, but the notion of the tax-supported free public library was very much an American idea. An idea that reached Cape Town only in 1952, for example – quite late, post-Carnegie and so on.

So in my view, we have to recognise not only that synergy exists [between these specialisms]… but that there is a ‘metaprofession’ if you like. And one of the things that I tried to do within my career is to try to establish what the core curriculum would be for such a metaprofession, that could produce graduates who could work in any of the areas that we mentioned. They could become public librarians, special librarians, or work completely outside of library focus and work with information flows within organisations: both the documents and the informal stuff, which takes you into knowledge management and so on; and through to galleries, museology, archives, all of that kind of thing; because essentially you are dealing with information and the artefacts that record that information. And then, of course, the technology that helps to support and manage it all.

Now of course, a lot of librarianship thinking is very much orientated around the book as object. But that object is now dissolved, in the digital world. That has really exposed us completely. And especially in the new countries… When I come to Europe, every country has such a legacy of wonderful libraries with wonderful parchment manuscripts; there must still be people who need to learn how to read the calligraphy of the period. The need for that kind of thing doesn’t exist in Australia. We’d import an expert from somewhere to do that. But there are other skills and competencies that they do need.

My take on it ultimately was, that one of the most important things an ‘information interventionist’ needs to know is the processes by which knowledge is created. And for that, they need to examine how knowledge can be created, not only in the so-called creative industries, with inspiration and whatever, but also how it is constructed in each of the Aristotelian disciplines that we still abide by: the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and maths and so forth. Each of those has different methodologies; and we need to know those to be able to assess the information that we read as a result.

An example: not so long ago there was a case where one of the large pharmaceutical companies was selling a drug which they said worked particularly well on depressed male teenagers. And they reported this in one of the prestigious journals. But they had reported the statistics incorrectly. It gave the impression that the drug was super-effective, whereas in reality, it wasn’t. A friend and colleague of mine, who happens to be a paediatric psychiatrist, was asked to come in as an expert witness, to show that the drug didn’t have an effect, and that nearly 50% (or something dramatic) of the boys who took this ended up killing themselves. So it was a huge issue. But it was all to do with misconstruing or manipulation of the data.

So it’s very very important to know how data is collected, by whom, for what purpose, how it’s analysed, how it’s interpreted, and to understand all those if you are to get quality information – which is what we want.

Conrad:   Therefore requiring experience in the field, not just how to manage information; so if it’s about pharmaceutical matters, then you need the medical expertise as well?

Sue:   Yes and no. There’s no such thing as managing information. You can manage information products. If you want to manage the information, you need to understand that content, you need to understand the ideas, and you have to understand how the ideas are constructed. It doesn’t mean to say that you have to be a medical specialist.

Another example: my son-in-law is nearly finished his specialisation of opthalmology. I know nothing about the medical field of opthalmology! But Nick has often asked me to read through and copy-edit his research papers and his PhD and so on. And I can understand it, and I know exactly how and what and where, and I can understnd his stats, because I have studied how that works. I don’t understand the science itself, but I understand his procedure, and so I can make meaning out of it. And communication can only take place if you have made meaning.

Conrad:   If I can mix things up a bit, I come from a different perspective, more from a publishing background. And from what we call – another misnomer probably – ‘information design’, where we are looking at the way in which an information product is constructed, and how to do this is a manner which communicates most effectively. That’s actually the context in which I first met Liz Orna, when she came to speak to the Information Design Association.

The other thing was, having cut myself with scalpels and inhaled a lot of Cow Gum fumes as a graphic designer, in the mid 1980s I started to work with Macintosh computers in order to typeset and design publications; then along came things like the Web a few years later. That’s what pulled me into computing, or computer use rather (for me the computer is primarily a big practical pencil).

I joined the Electronic Publishing Specialist Group within the British Computer Society. Then I became interested in the way in which computers could manage data content, for example for database publishing (catalogues, etc). So I, and some of the other people within KIDMM such as David Penfold, come in from that [publishing] angle. And we are asking, whether the likes of you two would accept us as having a role to play within that definition of the information profession. (Though I have to say, information designers mostly hold themselves aloof.)

Sue:   Absolutely. Information presentation, information representation is absolutely fundamental.

Bob:   And it is important to get an understanding if you are going to make anything out of it, and information design aids that understanding.

Conrad:   Well, we could continue this conversation for hours; but do we have any interim conclusions about this business of moving forward with the information professions?

Sue:   The model that I have constructed in my mind is [shaped] like an inverted fan. But there is a core, and I think Bob has referred quite frequently to notions such as ontology, in other words people’s ontological cynosure, their understanding of their reality and their world, and the taxonomy – how it is going to be categorised, labelled and so on, which is what we have been doing since time began, and before Dewey (who is a devil, but that’s a topic for another conversation).

Out of that [core] come these various strands, of which information design is one, as is linguistics. Because one thing we have learned since Aristotle is that no problem can be solved only by looking at one discipline. Soft Systems Methodology and everything suggests that we have to borrow and blend with other disciplines. But we are so fundamentally dealing with ideas… that we have that overview and then can see where these things fit in, and their relationship to one another, and well outside of those disciplines too, like linguistics.

Bob:   I can’t really improve on what Sue said, but yes indeed, we need to take a holistic view here. I think we’ve been brainwashed to some extent by the traditional approaches in academia, in managing these disciplines as separate. And they are not; they interact. It’s like an ecological approach, if you like. A difference in one area has an impact in adjoining areas. I think that’s where our blind spot is nowadays.

We need to encourage further dialogue between the different fragmented groups in the profession, so that we each understand what our relationship is to the others.