What is Library and Information Science, Anyway?

In many of our articles here on Career Librarian, we mention that to work as a librarian, it’s usually necessary to have a degree in library and information science. But this discipline isn’t exactly right up there with medicine, law, and business in the minds of most job-seekers. So what exactly does library and information science mean? This article will answer that question and explain why it’s such an important area today.

Library Science Roots

Library and Information Science (LIS) started with library science, a field which seeks to organize and provide access to collections of knowledge, which for centuries existed nearly exclusively in book and manuscript form. As such, library science dealt with classification systems, the best practices for cataloging print resources, and bibliographic history.

The first formal program in library science was established by Melvil Dewey (the creator of the Dewey Decimal System) in 1887 at Columbia University. It was known as the School of Library Economy.

Over the next few decades, more and more schools sprung up, and library science shifted to a more interdisciplinary field that applied quantitative social science methodologies. Library science scholars sought to answer important questions regarding society’s information needs and behavior, and they began to produce a large output of research.

Indian librarian and mathematician S.R. Ranganathan is often referred to as the “father of library science,” as he proposed the Five Laws of Library Science in 1931, a theory intended to govern library services. Its influence can still be seen today.

The Other Side: Information Science

Meanwhile, another field was developing, unrelated to library science at the start. In its simplest form, information science was concerned with information itself, and how it is represented, organized, stored and retrieved. It emerged as a result of advances in computing and involves mathematics and a more scientific orientation.

Much early research in information science concerned the vital questions of how to manage the exploding quantities of data being produced in the 20th century. Around the time of World War II, most research in information science was done for the government, but in the years following, it began to apply to society in general.

The Two Fields Come Together

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, research and library science and information science began to join forces. Libraries started to transform from archives housing large collections of print books to places that collect and make available a wide variety of print and electronic media in many different formats.

Another vital piece of the puzzle was the emergence of communications studies with respect to librarianship. Not only were librarians in charge of with conserving materials, but also engaging more deeply with their users and reacting to their needs.

Today, library and information science is an interdisciplinary field and can be hard to nail down concisely (read our article on diversity of librarian jobs), but Wikipedia does a pretty good job in calling LIS “the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and the political economy of information.” (sourceNow is it a good idea to trust Wikipedia for our definition of the field? That’s a great question for someone studying library and information science!

References: Library and Information Science. (Estabrook) Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science