Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


March 2004

Vol VIII Issue III

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Information School
University of Washington
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Stirring the pot: rancorous ruminations to provoke discussion

By Tom Dobrowolsky
Were you to survey Library and Information Science literature, you might find many of our colleagues pointing out the distinct lack of theory in the LIS field. Our field seems to possess somewhat anorexic bodies of theory and knowledge compared to other fields. I'm interested in knowing why this is the case, especially given our particular MLIS program. Other LIS programs in the country are far more vocational, dedicated to training librarians for their respective region. On the other hand, our Information School prides itself on flying on the leading edge of Library and Information Science. I happily turned down my acceptance to the former institution when I heard from the iSchool.

Yet, as is often the case, the gulf between propaganda -- aka "marketing" -- and practice runs wide and deep. In our classes, we discuss fascinating and esoteric theories with discussions often bordering on fisticuffs. Yet, when we graduate, the beautiful rancor of discussing theory and the impetus to research it further seems to get left behind in the classroom. What makes us any better, then, than the scores of vocational programs which herd their students through the black box and out into the market?

Perhaps an answer lies in the general attitude toward student research. Does our nebulously defined status as a "professional" program lend itself psychologically to discouraging research by those who have opened themselves up and discovered its charms?

In my personal experience, I had attempted to go through official channels. Predictably, I was given helpful information regarding the process of writing a thesis. But rather than excitement at the possibility that a student would be considering adding to the body knowledge in the field, I was given a clever and very subtle elbow gently nudging me toward the idea that I didn't want to write a thesis. Perhaps the reaction to my idea was correct; at the time I didn't have a clear idea of my research topic.

So I left the idea on the back burner for a while, letting it simmer.

Then, in my research for a class this quarter, I was pointed to a Masters thesis written by a student in the UW Department of Communication. I have now read two theses from that department. Our neighbors to the north publish some fine, timely, and poignant academic writing. I was jealous. If you are a research junky who takes twisted pleasure in reading the writings of your fellow graduate students, I highly recommend that you check out the work of those Communicators. In fact, I spoke with a few faculty members in that department regarding courses there that I may want to take which would help me in my own thesis. They were more than happy to bounce ideas around with me.

Perhaps the Communications people should be responsible for producing theories about communication and the flow of information, while LIS folk should be trained to perform the service-industry aspects of the field? Lest you think I’m gratuitously stirring the pot just to vent my winter quarter angst, I encourage you to pay close attention to the differences in graduate programs at Rutgers' School of Communication, Library and Information Studies. Don't get me wrong; I like this program a lot. And for that reason it is time to put some theoretical and academic muscle behind our fists when we throw down the gauntlets in front of those who quip, "oh, iSchool... the school built on hype and marketing?"

Since my initial out-of-department research, I have talked to at least two other colleagues in our program who have unfortunately decided against writing theses for lack of support. Luckily, after several fruitless attempts, I found wonderful support. There definitely are faculty in the School who are willing to listen to your research ideas, who are excited by the prospect that someone would want to do this voluntarily, and, most importantly, who are willing to thump you on the skull, thus forcing you to re-evaluate the feasibility of your research and refine your research questions. And they do this not with the aim of cleverly talking you out of pursuing a thesis, but rather because they want you to succeed and produce something that reflects stellarly on all those involved in the process.

You'll get nothing from this school, or this university for that matter, unless you want it badly enough, you are active in pursuing it, and you are willing to push your convictions and butt heads, metaphysically speaking. Talk to people; talk to lots of people. Find faculty who are willing to listen to you non-dismissively and who ask the tough questions in order to give you the clarity and the focus you'll need. And then go research the hell out of something, write a thesis, and put some muscle onto our body of knowledge.