The Crucial Role of LIS in Information Schools Amid Technological and Societal Shifts

Laurie Robinson - April 2, 2024

How LIS research and scholarship can remain the lifeblood of Information Schools

Modern day library

Schools of library and information science (LIS) led the establishment of the Information School movement 20 years ago. These academic institutions emerged with a mission to advance the study of information and its function in society, uniting technology and people through a multidisciplinary approach. As Information Schools have grown and diversified, encompassing a range of disciplines and academic programs, they stand at a crossroads. The decisions these institutions make today are pivotal and will invariably shape the future of LIS and the library profession at large.

It is imperative that the essence of LIS remains at the heart of the Information School ethos, given its foundational role in fostering the movement. The integration of social and humanistic values, which are synonymous with librarianship, must continue to underpin the identity and mission of Information Schools. In an era marked by the burgeoning complexity of issues surrounding information, technology, and their societal impact on individuals and communities, a library-centric orientation within the Information School framework is essential to ensure these core values are upheld.

Libraries act as democratic society’s vital information infrastructure. To reimagine, grow, sustain, and enhance their multifaceted contributions in information access and literacy to their communities, there is tremendous potential for more reciprocity among LIS and the other research domains within Information Schools. 

 “I think one of the things that is unique about LIS researchers that needs to be celebrated within Information Schools is that we’re usually action researchers in the sense that we investigate issues as we’re trying to fix and address them,” says College of Information Studies (INFO) Assistant Professor Ana Ndumu. “So you investigate a shortcoming and then you help find some of the responses and interventions that might work to undo them or to improve systems and policies around them.” 

“Our questions are usually about communities, about justice and equity and not reducing people down to users, but seeing them as full members of society who have a right to unfettered access to the internet, library cards, or material, whether or not those items are considered controversial or out of bounds by some. Everyone, even those who are undocumented or incarcerated, has a right to library access. LIS research upholds and runs parallel to these ideals,” says Ndumu.

The Future of LIS Research

In recent years, libraries have transformed their traditional roles from print material lending to dynamic hubs serving wide-ranging community needs. 

“Our modern day libraries have evolved significantly from just being the provider of books,” says INFO Professor Mega Subramaniam. “The services that libraries offer to their communities are tailored and personalized for their communities.” Some libraries are lending wedding gowns in communities that express the demand. This initiative allows individuals to donate their old wedding gowns, which are then cleaned, maintained, and made available for community members to borrow.

Similarly, initiatives like the New York Public Library lending neckties and other attire for job interviews highlight how libraries are acting as crucial support systems that address not just educational but social and economic needs.

Despite this significant progress in library practices, Subramaniam notes that there is a palpable disconnect when it comes to some LIS research, which seems tethered to traditional paradigms that are anchored in book-based activities. While some research emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, the scope of inquiry often remains confined to assessing the equitability of programs that are still fundamentally book-centric. 

The core of the issue lies in the perceptual divergence between LIS practice and research. While library practitioners are increasingly focusing on how they can serve communities and tackle associated challenges, a subset of LIS research seems to be still centered on libraries as buildings and the materials inside the building. This perspective severely limits the ability of research to inform and enhance the evolving practices of libraries within communities.

“Traditionally we have this mindset of librarians as the expert,” says Subramaniam. “How do you see the storytime program run? There is a library staff in front of an audience with kids and parents. The librarians select the book. They read the book. Take summer programs, who decides what books to feature for the summer reading program and how the program will run? Oftentimes it is the librarian. But that is the legacy mindset that we have in the field—that we are the expert, and we know what the community wants. But these legacy services are evolving, librarians are already moving towards thinking about what the community wants and incorporating their voices into the design of their programs/services.”

As libraries continue to redefine their roles within communities, it is imperative for LIS research to evolve in tandem. By bridging this gap, LIS research can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of libraries, ensuring they remain vibrant, responsive, and indispensable assets to the communities they serve.

Advancing LIS 

As information tools, risks, and behaviors emerge, the LIS field is well-suited to provide answers and clarity. For hundreds of years, librarians across the U.S. have been front and center in information evolutions. Information Schools, as incubators of multidisciplinary scholarship, should continue to collaborate with other disciplines such as education, journalism, public policy, and communications. Through these intersections, insights and new perspectives can be forged that will directly benefit libraries and the communities they serve. Investing in a research-centric LIS approach within Information Schools will not only enrich LIS education but also ensure that libraries are equipped to meet the contemporary demands of society.

The challenge before Information Schools is significant: to balance their rigorous librarian development  while prioritizing the study of LIS as a philosophy, practice, and community. There is promise in embracing new LIS research questions and priorities, intertwining these with the social values of librarianship. Information Schools can realize a profound opportunity of dually honoring their roots and championing the enduring relevance of the library profession.