Challenges and developments in library and information science

In two years from now, library and information science education in Norway will celebrate its 70th anniversary. It is therefore natural to reflect upon both the past and the road towards the future in a rapidly changing environment.

For the first 55-56 years of its history, the Norwegian School of Library and Information Science – since 1994 the Faculty of Library and Information studies at Oslo University College – was the only one in its field in Norway.

More recently programmes in the field have been developed at Tromsø University (documentation science) and at the Norwegian University for Technology and Natural Science. Agder University also offers courses in school librarianship. There can be no doubt, however, that the programme at Oslo University College (OUC) still dominates. With an academic staff varying between 25 and 30 faculty members, 5 PhD-students, approximately 50 students in the Master programme and 350 students in the Bachelor programme, the vast majority of the physical, human and intellectual resources invested in Norwegian LIS education and research are located in OUC. In this article, therefore, I will focus upon developments and challenges as seen from the perspective of that institution. I do believe, however, that my reflections are valid for educational programmes in the field at a general level.

Two perspectives in LIS education: discipline versus profession

When comparing international developments in LIS education and research over the last decades, two trends can be identified. One is common to most schools, whereas some schools have chosen differently with regard to the other. The common developmental trend is towards academization. LIS is seen as an academic field studying the communication process between producers of information and users of information and channels and institutions aimed at facilitating that communication. Libraries represent only one such institution, albeit one of vital importance. Libraries integrate the professional field in the same way as courts of law integrate the field of jurisprudence, although most candidates from law schools work in other contexts.

The march towards Academia has also characterized development here at OUC. From being an institution that gave its students a diploma in librarianship but not an academic degree, it is now integrated into the structure of academic degrees, offering BAs and MAs. In 1996 none of our faculty members held a doctoral degree. Now, 10 years later, almost half of our staff do so. The process towards building up this formal academic competence has been challenging and from time to time painful. It has been somewhat like lifting ourselves by the hair.With a substantial proportion of the staff engaged in doctoral programmes, the workload on the remaining staff members has naturally increased. Our achievements in this respect have been made possible by the collective efforts of the staff. Now we are in a new situation where we can recruit fresh PhD-students. We have built the competency necessary to supervise them.

Along this road towards Academia, however, two paths can be identified. We can call them the discipline-oriented and the profession-oriented. Proponents of the disciplinary approach strive to develop LIS as a discipline such as chemistry, history and sociology, placing the emphasis on the core subjects of Information Retrieval (IR) and IR-systems. Links to the professional field of librarianship are loosened or to some extent cut off. Departments are renamed. Programmes in library and information science become programmes in information science alone. In a Nordic context Tampere University in Finland represents a successful development in this direction, employing a number of researchers with a high international reputation in research on information retrieval and information-seeking behaviour.

The other path we could call the profession- oriented. Here the model is not so much one of academic disciplines as of an academic profession, for example medicine. A person wishing to qualify as a professional in the field of medicine cannot shop around and collect credit points at university departments by studying the relevant disciplines, such as psychology, biology, pharmacy,physiology etc. These subjects have to be studied in an integrated manner at faculties of medicine. The library and information science education at OUC is rooted in that professional tradition. Our educational programme, therefore, is divided into three subject groups, one focusing upon the traditional core subjects of knowledge organization and retrieval, one focusing upon the content of that which is to be mediated and the process of mediation and reading promotion, whereas the third deals with the management of library and information institutions and their social and political role.

All three subject groups are also represented in our Master programme.

Some milestones

Milestones in the development of LIS education at OUC since the millennium include the following:

• Whereas students earlier had to study LIS for three years to achieve a diploma, they can now choose two paths to acquiring a BA. The traditional path of three years comprehensive study still remains, but they also have the option of leaving the LIS programme after two years, and if they already have or later acquire a further year of higher studies, then they have a BA in LIS.

• Our Master programme has expanded both in content and in the number of students.Whereas when we entered the 21st century, we only focused upon knowledge organization and retrieval, we now have courses in all the subject groups mentioned above. 20 full-time students are admitted each year, which means 30 persons, since there are some part-timers. Last year we had more than 60 applicants to the programme.

• We have developed new programmes in archival science and museology.

• Research activities have increased, a development reflected in the high proportion of the staff with a doctoral degree, our involvement in international research projects such as INEX and an increase in external financing. Last year the Norwegian Research Council granted NOK 6 million for a project to research the potential of public libraries in promoting social cohesion and citizenship in a multicultural context.


But results and achievements create new challenges.What then of the challenges we are facing?

Challenge 1: Striking the balance between independence from the field of practice and links to the field of practice

As institutions of higher education, it is our role to produce candidates with the critical competencies necessary for developing and transcending present practices, not just repeating them. That presupposes distance and independence from the field of practice. At the same time we cannot fulfil our role if we cut ourselves loose from the field of practical librarianship. A teacher training education that declares its disinterest in schools is meaningless. Although learning processes take place everywhere in society; any programme of education in the medical profession which declared a disinterest in health institutions and health practice would quickly become irrelevant. The same goes for LIS education. Striking that balance is difficult. One of the reasons why many LIS schools have recruit- ment problems might be that they have gone too far in cutting these links and therefore appear to prospective applicants as lacking in context and floating aimlessly.

Challenge 2: Deepening the professional approach: from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity

A library or any other information system or system for mediating and providing knowledge and culture, is simultaneously a retrieval system, an arena for human behaviour, communication and cooperation and a textual system. It cannot be reduced to just either one of them. This calls for interdisciplinary research and an interdisciplinary approach in our educational programme.We still have some way to go along this road towards true interdisciplinarity and meeting this challenge adequately will be a demanding undertaking. Giving priority to a common LIS project means that many of us will have to put aside those intellectual hobbyhorses which we often bring with us from our mother disciplines, be they the social sciences, computer science or the literary sciences.

Challenge 3: Meeting the ALM perspective without falling back into institutionspecific education

In the professional field, approaches aimed at integrating libraries, archives and museums have been fashionable for some years. Being a research-based academic discipline defining itself as the general study of communication between information providers and information users, this is a natural development seen from our perspective. Working with issues relevant to museums and archives is nothing new to us. Several of our MA students, for example, have written their Master thesis on such issues. Due to institution- specific demands, however, and also the fact that archives and museums have weaker academic traditions than the library and information field, OUC has developed programmes in archival science and museology parallel to our LIS programme. On the basis of how we define LIS as an academic undertaking this is perhaps somewhat illogical. There could be a danger of our falling back into three institutionspecific programmes with negative effects on the results that have been achieved in building an academic basis for the professional field. Living up to new demands while simultaneously avoiding this danger constitutes another major challenge.

Challenge 4: securing recruitment

Many LIS schools face a decline in the recruitment of students. The Royal School of Library and Information Science in Denmark, which in many ways can be described as the flagship of Nordic LIS, is facing acute problems in that respect at the moment. Given the development of the information and knowledge society, these problems are paradoxical. In that society the whole world can be perceived as a library. If any profession in such a society represents a profession for the future, it is the LIS profession. Meeting that challenge is a responsibility for the whole field, not only for the educational institutions. One precondition for doing that adequately is for us to stop behaving like flagellants, first and foremost preoccupied with the so-called low status and poor image of librarians in society. Instead we should proudly declare: In the multicultural and digital knowledge society, the world becomes a library. Library and information science offers the competence you need in order to master and conquer that world.

Challenge 5: Meeting the challenges of rapid and profound technological changes without giving our students ephemeral knowledge

In our efforts to be modern and meet the challenges of the digital society, there is a danger that the educational institutions focus too strongly on a hands-on approach aimed at enabling the students to master the latest systems and technologies. That might result in an ephemeral competence. If one thing is certain, it is that today’s systems and technologies will be outdated ten years from now. The handson skills which, based on the technology of that time, we gave our students when I started in this business around 1980, are of course hopelessly outdated today.With regard to indexing theory, however, the knowledge and understanding we gave them are as valid now as then.What future professionals need is robust knowledge that enables them to handle new and unforeseen changes.

Challenge 6: developing a PhD-programme

The majority of our doctoral candidates so far have been forced to take their degrees at university departments lacking expertise in LIS. This is negative for our school as far as utilising our doctoral students to build a thriving research environment in LIS is concerned. Furthermore it is a barrier to creating that interdisciplinary approach I have referred to above. Developing a PhD-programme in LIS is therefore a pressing priority for the coming years.

Ragnar Andreas Audunson
Oslo University College

Ragnar.Audunson AT

Professor Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences