Opening Keynote

LIS DREaM Launch Conference

Blaise Cronin (left) in discussion with David Haynes, Charles Oppenheim, Dylan Evans and Dr Sandra Ward

Professor Blaise Cronin, Rudy Professor of Information Science, Indiana University, US, presented the DREaM Project Launch Conference opening keynote entitled:

“… And into the zone of quasi-rationality”



Session Description:

In his keynote presentation, Professor Cronin provided a brief historical overview of LIS research before critically reviewing competence and practice in the field. He identified a number of deficiencies, including lack of cumulation, “narcissism of minor differences,” false antinomies, failure to scale, and redundancy. At the same time, he highlighted several trends that may (or may not) be seen as having potentially positive downstream effects: growth in the number of faculty from disciplines other than LIS populating LIS departments, increasing rigour and diversity of LIS research programs, quantifiable growth in the export of ideas from LIS to other disciplines, greater receptivity of LIS research to outsider literature. He considered social media both as a means of fostering research collaboration and as a subject warranting significant research attention in its own right. He concluded by considering a few domains in which LIS researchers may be able to establish a stronger presence.



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Session Summary:

Cronin opened by explaining that he had been asked to discuss what is wrong with Library and Information Science research, but he didn’t feel that was a terrible civilized or polite thing to do, so he came up with the title which is largely “a load of tosh,” but allowed him to emphasise that what your gut can tell you is often most important.

Cronin took us back to 1933, describing Pierce Bulter’s book: An Introduction to Library Science, which sold 20,000 copies. The book is a manifesto which stresses the importance of a scientific knowledge base in the field, and the need for sociological principles and investigative methods. Butler described library practice as “a secular priesthood, administering a sacrament of cultural communion to individual souls.” However, later in his career he abandoned these ideas and decided it was important to root librarianship in humanistic values.

In surveying the landscape, Cronin quoted the UGC and National Advisory Board on Higher Education’s 1986 report, which scathingly commented that “too much [LIS] research is of marginal interest… an interesting hobby rather than rigorous pursuit of new insights”. He drew parallels between this and Charles Oppenheim’s 2010 comment that LIS research is “often poorly funded, poorly conducted, poorly recognised.” This is a terribly depressing and familiar refrain.

Cronin tried to identify the golden years of the field, observing that between 1965 and 1990, OSTI and the British Library funded around £30 million worth of research, which helped to create a culture and an appreciation of research in the field. However, this does not appear to have cohered to create a credible body of research findings that are both useful to the field and impact on other fields.

From his own experience of reading thousands of manuscripts in his capacity as a journal editor, Cronin described a theoretical bricolage: by which he means that there are an awful lots of little bits lying around. There is a desperate search for theoretical underpinnings in the field. He observed that the field also lacks rigorous meta analysis. Many of the papers he sees appear breathlessly unaware of other literature in the field or outside of the field. He suggested that this may be a legacy of the cultural wars within departments of humanities and softer sciences.

Cronin also observed that many of the research studies one reads are formulaic: they are “cookie cutter studies”. However, he said we need to step back and generalise what we have learnt about information seeking behaviour from all of these countless studies. We need cumulation to move forward and an accepted corpus of knowledge.

Cronin argued that information behaviour work should be of interest to a wide range of other fields. However, Fisher and Julien conducted a citation analysis for ARIST in 2009, which found that the vast majority of studies conducted in the field is ignored by the rest of the world. He also discussed Elisabeth Davenport’s critical work of “confessional methods”, which demonstrates that there are problems with the way we conduct research in the field, resulting in criticism from reviewers outside the field.

He moved on to look at how far research diffuses into other communities to help gauge it’s impact. He quoted his own research looking into who cites the work included in the body of literature identified as “the field” (comprised of 275 journals). He noted that up until 1997 most of the citations were internal within the field, but this changes after 1997, when the majority of citations to LIS research started to come from outside the field. The major consumers of ideas from LIS research include computer science, business and management. He asked what has brought this, very heartening, change about?

In examining future trends, Cronin observed a tendency towards greater collaboration in authorship of research papers, he noting that the lone author is now a thing of the past. He also looked at trends in primary PhD supervisors in the US, which increasingly show that supervisors of doctoral students in the field, have themselves degrees from some other field. This will inevitably be increasing the receptivity of the field to ideas from outside, and may as a result change the direction of the field. We are broadening and depleting the meme-pool of the library and information science field.

To bring all of this together in conclusion, Cronin observed that the world is now very different, and asked what the invariants are in this much more diverse, porous, fast moving environment? What capabilities within the field can be applied to the new contexts and new media that define the new zeitgeist. He wondered what kind of lessons we can learn from web 2.0 innovations like the OpenWetWare project and asked how we might get to LIS 2.0?

Finally, he noted that whilst there is a great deal of alluding to virtuality, we are creatures of place and propinquity. Locus is important even in a digital world. We need to consider how to engineer networks that ensure people collide and collaborate in the most effective areas to move the field forward.

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