Bulletin, December 2006/January 2007


Content, Reflections and Curricular Questions

by Leif Lørring

Leif Lørring is rector, Royal School of Library and Information Science, Denmark. He can be reached at leif<at>db.dk

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has had a major impact on the relations and the interactions among European LIS educational institutions. A range of new states in Europe has emerged, and the European Union (EU) has been extended to include, among others, many of the former Eastern block countries. As recently as 2004 the EU incorporated 10 new member countries: The Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. 

Within higher education and research in Europe, collaborative projects encompassing the new EU member states existed before formal European integration started. Today cooperation in the field of higher education and joint research programs stretches well beyond the new EU’s 25 member states and includes – by virtue of the Bologna Process – a number of European countries that are not (yet?) members. In fact, today, 40 European countries are formally involved in the process, which began with the “Bologna Declaration” in June 1999. That declaration resulted from a meeting of 29 European ministers in charge of higher education who met in Bologna to lay the basis for establishing a European Higher Education Area by 2010 and promoting the European system of higher education worldwide. Later meetings in Prague and Berlin widened the Bologna perspective. The overall intention is to harmonize the architecture of the European higher education system. In more detail, some of the Bologna intentions are as follows:

  • Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees

  • Adoption of a system with two main cycles (undergraduate/graduate)

  • Establishment of a system of credits

  • Promotion of mobility for students and academic and administrative staff

  • Promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance

  • Promotion of European dimensions in higher education

  • Promotion of closer links as regards doctoral studies and the synergy between the European higher education area and the European research area

As far as LIS programs are concerned, this European development process has intensified the traditional forms of cooperation relied on before the launch of Bologna. The previously separate national educational and research systems in Europe (East and West) have initiated a close dialogue and entered into a close collaboration with each other. Thus, within LIS education, the creation of EUCLID (the European Association for Library and Information Education and Research) in 1991 can be viewed as a very early and progressive initiative in this overarching higher education process. 

Similarly, the joint European LIS Curriculum Project, whose results are described in this paper, should be seen as a natural outcome of these broadly based economic, political and educational development trends in the European arena. Directly underlying the emergence of the project are discussions conducted at several EUCLID conferences and deliberations between EUCLID’s board and representatives (Leif Kajberg and Leif Lørring) of the Royal School of Library and Information Science (RSLIS). The IFLA pre-conference arranged jointly by EUCLID and ALISE together with and at the Fachhochschule conference in Potsdam in 2003 provided further inspiration in defining the effort. This history probably accounts for why a few LIS colleagues from the United States have participated in the virtual phase of our curriculum analysis project even if, right from the start, the curriculum project was basically defined as a purely European undertaking. A more detailed account of the rationale, aims and objectives, methods and history of the project can be found in Leif Kajberg’s article in this special section of the Bulletin

Differences Between the European and North American Higher Educational Systems
To understand this project, readers should be aware of essential differences between the European and the American higher educational systems. First, in Europe, most educational institutions – schools, colleges, universities, etc. – are governmentally funded and their activities are regulated by legislation and departmental orders. That is, the financing and the general content of the educational programs offered are mainly decided directly by the national parliaments and governments. Thus, typically, European higher education programs are not offered on a private, non-governmental basis, and in many European countries, there are no tuition fees collected from students either. Further, in several European countries, and this makes a clear difference as well, all students are recipients of scholarships paid by the governments, that is, from the public purse. In that sense, there is often no financial discrimination and no major gaps in students’ levels of individual income. Therefore, while many European academic institutions are allowed a say in defining the overarching course contents and structures, they cannot make such decisions completely on their own. However, they also receive financial support, wholly or partly, from governmental sources. 

Another characteristic difference between European and North American systems is that the particular aims and organizational frameworks mentioned above, determined as they are by legislation and departmental orders, serve to set the targets and objectives against which the programs and research activities of LIS schools are to be assessed. And because the educational and cultural traditions maintained by national governments in many different European countries have defined different requirements and frameworks, the basic aims and philosophy of European LIS programs will, by nature, be more heterogeneous than those encountered in the United States. This heterogeneous and complex nature of the LIS programs across countries has made it particularly relevant to implement the Bologna Process for LIS education. The joint European LIS Curriculum Project discussed here is indeed a pioneering activity, which is probably the reason why EU’s SOCRATES program decided to sponsor it fully as a European community endeavor. 

The Content of European LIS Curricula and What Is Considered to Be Core – A Short Analysis
From a small-scale questionnaire-based survey it is possible to compare the subject areas which actually form part of the schools’ curricula with those themes the schools consider should be included as core areas in a LIS curriculum. This questionnaire-based survey, described in Chapter 13 of European Curriculum Reflections on Library and Information Science, p. 236-245, (available at biblis.db.dk/uhtbin/hyperion.exe/db.leikaj05), was carried out by a second-year RSLIS masters student, Jeannie Borup Larsen. The questionnaire was distributed in English only, which is probably why only 50 schools in Europe responded. (We learned that only 60-70 out of about 200 European LIS schools had a home page in English.) Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, not least because it seems reasonable to assume that the respondents are to be found amongst the larger and more internationally oriented schools, that is, those LIS schools, which participate most actively in European cooperation in our field and are probably also the most active members of EUCLID.

Table 1 summarizes responses to questions about subject areas included in the curricula of responding institutions. Information seeking and information retrieval are represented in the curriculum of all schools. More than three fourths of the schools responding to the questionnaire offer courses on library management and promotion, knowledge management and knowledge organization in the context of their curriculum. 
Table 1. Percentage of LIS schools that said the surveyed subject areas were in their curriculum.

 

Table 1

Percentage of LIS schools that said the surveyed subject areas were in their curriculum.

Information seeking and information retrieval 100%
Library management and promotion 96%
Knowledge management 86%
Knowledge organization 82%
Information literacy and learning 76%
Library and society in a historical perspective 66%
The information society: Barriers to the free access to information 64%
Cultural heritage and digitization of the cultural heritage 62%
The library in the multi-cultural information society: International and intercultural communication 42%
Mediation of culture in a special European context 26%

 

It is hard to draw conclusions from these data, especially if you take into consideration that, in several cases, knowledge organization is taught as a field integrated with information seeking and information retrieval. This integration is evident from discussions in the project report. A similar observation relates to the subject area of knowledge management, which emerges as a fairly diffuse and ambiguous subject area. Further, course offerings in this field in the various LIS schools include a broad range of very heterogeneous sub-themes, which are more or less taught within the realm of other course areas mentioned here. (The format of the report, the subject matter of the individual chapters and the collaborative effort that compiled them is detailed in Leif Kajberg’s article with some brief further discussion below.)

It is food for thought that less than two thirds of the schools sending back questionnaires indicated that they teach the ethical foundations of the library profession as a curricular area in its own right. These library-oriented ethical issues include, for instance, aspects of democracy and the FAIFE (IFLA Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) core problem areas covering the barriers to free access to information and freedom of expression. One gets the impression that in several LIS schools located in countries representing the old European democracies the free access to information and freedom of expression issues are more or less taken for granted, and I must confess that my own school, RSLIS, seems to belong to that group. But another explanation could be that in several places in Europe the ethical basis of the profession is considered a required problem area implicit in the course content of a variety of other LIS study themes. Maybe the ethical issues are only dealt with – in an explicit sense – in classroom contexts when they appear to be relevant to the syllabus themes being explored in lectures and seminars. 

The item listed as “Mediation of culture” requires a special explanation. The findings of the analysis project seem to indicate that there is a characteristic difference between LIS curricula in the United Kingdom on the one hand and, on the other, programs offered by schools in smaller nations located more geographically in the outer circles of Europe such as Slovenia, Hungary, Denmark and Norway. In these countries, libraries and LIS programs have supported the national culture and identity in the development of the societies as democracies and nation states. Typically, libraries in these countries are considered important – perhaps even the most important – cultural institutions, institutions that are actively communicating or mediating national and local culture. For that same reason quite a few LIS schools fall under the national ministries of culture and not, as tends to be the more typical pattern, under the ministries of education or research/science. 

Answers to the question “which subjects are considered as core subjects?” (Table 2) indicate that information seeking and retrieval, library management and knowledge organization are regarded as belonging to the core area of LIS in all or most of the LIS schools. It is necessary to remind ourselves, however, that subsequent discussion among project participants showed that many schools include knowledge organization in their curriculum under the heading of information seeking and retrieval. 

 

Table 2

Percentage of LIS schools choosing the listed subject areas as belonging to the LIS curriculum core.

Information seeking and information retrieval 100%
Library management and promotion 81%
Knowledge organization 66%
Knowledge management 49%
Information literacy and learning 45%
The information society: Barriers to the free access to information 45%
Library and society in a historical perspective 38%
Cultural heritage and digitization of the cultural heritage 19%
The library in the multi-cultural information society: International and intercultural communication 13%
Mediation of culture in a special European context 6%

 

There are very few surprises in these observations, but it may in fact be surprising that topics such as “The library in the multi-cultural information society,” “Mediation of culture” and “Cultural heritage and digitization of the cultural heritage” are regarded as part of a core curriculum in less than a fifth of the LIS schools. Of interest is the characteristic difference that appears from the percentages shown in Table 1. When talking about the core in the field of LIS, it seems that the use of that concept only makes sense if the core characterizes what is unique to the LIS field. And when talking about uniqueness in the LIS field, knowledge organization combined with information seeking and retrieval fundamentally and historically constitutes the academic field where LIS worldwide has been and still is primary. Knowledge organization combined with information seeking is the librarian’s unique and special way of thinking – like thinking mathematically as a mathematician or scientist or thinking geographically as a geographer. Such uniqueness is not so much the case when it comes to mediation of culture, multiculturalism and digitization of the cultural heritage.

The Content of Library and Information Science Curriculum in a European Perspective – A Few Short Examples
The survey described above constitutes only a part of the project information and one chapter of the subsequent report. Unfortunately, it is impossible to give a full description of the other 12 chapters in so brief an article, although Leif Kajberg lists their topics. Therefore, I will confine myself to pointing out a few observations on my own behalf and leave the rest of the e-book’s content to the reader.

The first chapter – Library and Information Science Curriculum in a European Perspective – is essential because it reflects the overall composition and structure of LIS programs in the light of the Bologna Process and a recent IFLA survey on quality assurance systems. The authors define the LIS field as the study of communication channels between authors of documents and their users. They further note that one of the largest differences among European LIS schools is determined by the presence and the understanding of the word information in the name “LIS” and by the content of the programs offered. In that sense, the discussion in Europe seems to the current American discussion and its critical examination of curricular contents and the relationship between the “L” and the “I” in LIS. 

My impression is that the discussion in Europe seems to be a little more relaxed than the American one – mainly, I think, because quite a few European LIS colleagues consider the difference between L and I to be maybe more a “natural” element in a historical process that is continuing. And probably a little more as a matter of form – the way communication takes place through different media – than a question of fundamentally different ways of thinking. Of course, technological development has changed the society and new post-modern paradigms have emerged. However, experience from some of the European countries seems to show that what actually matters here is the emphasis put on continuously developing and refining the librarian’s basic thinking in a theoretical, analytical and practical sense. This development is what is needed on the part of library professionals in libraries as well as in public sector institutions and private enterprises, when, as is the case in Denmark, more than half of the students graduating as masters in library and information science obtain well-paid jobs outside the traditional library sector.

The authors who produced Chapter 1 also stress that LIS programs are not limited to librarians, but should aim at educating archivists, documentalists, record managers, Web editors and, with some hesitations, publishers and museologists as well. In considering information professionals, the authors focus on their role as mediators between authors and users. They locate the information professional activities at the bachelor level; assign preparation for engaging in research to the master’s level and place research activities at the PhD level. They also identify three subfields characterizing LIS education programs in tradition:

  • The study of documents

  • Knowledge organization and information retrieval

  • Organization and management – cultural and information policy and legislation

Let me mention another interesting area of observation: the chapter about Knowledge Management/Information Management. The chapter is, in my opinion, written with a bit of humor. It sets out to tackle the main problem of finding out about the content of knowledge management as a concept. The authors did a content analysis of information management and knowledge management programs in August 2005. The study results revealed that both information management and knowledge management modules integrate a very broad spectrum of fields of study. The analysis of the knowledge management program descriptions generated 64 different topics with almost no overlaps between the programs examined, which means that knowledge management is covering nearly everything or nothing. 

On the other hand, the concept of information management boasts a 50-year-old history in the LIS field and makes more sense. The chapter authors suggest that information management education within the sphere of LIS shall be defined as including mainly aspects of information/knowledge creation, acquisition, organization, storage (technology), seeking, accessing, dissemination, use, sharing and learning in a complete circle. In my opinion, if one takes into account the different level of generalization, this view of the field of information management brings it close to the shorter definition of the LIS field in general presented in Chapter 1. In this area the traditional librarians’ thinking about their core issues remains a solid and still useful theoretical knowledge base for the discipline, even when the "I" in LIS is the curricular point of departure.

Let me end this short selection of issues and views from the European curriculum reflections by mentioning Chapter 11 covering Practice and Theory: Placement as Part of the Curriculum. I find one of the opening statements of this contribution very thought-provoking. Placements, the level at which various topics should be taught and the appropriate orientation of the curriculum, have been essential parts of nearly all LIS curriculum discussions throughout the history of LIS education. Nevertheless, the authors of the chapter state that remarkably little has been written about practical training in recent professional LIS literature, although the need for structured research is obvious. For instance, there is a need to develop a model for the integration of the assessment of student learning outcomes and practical training effectiveness. I think that the work presented in this chapter might constitute one of the best answers in the field to the placement problem while we await research to be conducted on LIS-relevant placements. Now, more than ever, we need a body of thorough and deep theory about placements in the context of LIS programs, not least in the light of the growing international research interest in the development of the concept of profession. Maybe the explanation for the absence of research findings in this area is that placements have been regarded solely as a practical matter and appear less prestigious in terms of research than other subject fields. 

Reflections and Questions
After reading the book, it struck me that we, the European LIS academic community – and maybe also LIS academics in a broader international context – have a general and basic problem or at least an interesting challenge in the view of some of my European colleagues. This problem or challenge is terminology – the different ways we use concepts within our discipline. Maybe, to a certain degree, it is a special European problem – a question of translation into English from the many European languages. Only the British in Europe have English as their mother tongue. But I don’t think the translation problem is the entire explanation because it appears from the book that the same words have different meanings and contents, and different words have the same meaning and contents. 

For instance, as mentioned, knowledge management as a curricular concept seems to cover nearly everything or nothing. But it is, or was, a “cool” word with a modern sound or touch added to it. My personal opinion, at least after reading Chapter 6 on knowledge management/information management, is that we should join the authors’ opinion and go back to the concept of information management. But even information management stands for a bouquet of different meanings. Of course, subjects and their content are developing, and there are conflicting paradigms at times, but I think that we have a common job to do in the field of LIS in reflecting on the concepts we use and their contents. Maybe quite a few contradictions will disappear when we better know what we are talking about when communicating and discussing the curricular contents of our field.

Referring to Chapter 1, another question to face is, “To what degree should the mix of themes included in LIS curricula allow students to learn about the content of the information or the domains of knowledge in the documents they manage?” Or should this issue just be ignored? For instance, do students enrolled in LIS programs need to know about the writings of famous national poets or about the national cultural heritage? As mentioned above, it is my impression that aspects of literature, culture or domain-specific areas seem to be covered in LIS curricula in the smaller (nation) states in at least the periphery of continental Europe. For instance, we have, more or less, a long tradition for including that kind of content in the Scandinavian countries. Users of public libraries expect the librarians to be quite well informed about the books authored by national and foreign poets. But, if we recognize information retrieval as a discipline dominated by universal and generalized models of retrieval processes covering all kinds of content it might seem unnecessary. On the other hand, if we view knowledge organization as based on different knowledge domains as the central perspective of information retrieval I think that students have to learn at least something about the content of information domains so as to enable them to enhance and refine their information-seeking competences.

Maybe this discussion is part of the long and general discussion about where to place the emphasis within LIS – on library or on information. The lesson from my involvement in the European LIS Curriculum Project with more than 100 participating and writing European colleagues is that while some of the contradictions between us as scholars in the field of LIS education are more about the way we argue and the way we use the same and different terms and vocabularies, others are of a more fundamental character. But my general impression from the project is that we in the LIS educational world have much more in common than it often appears. And this should be emphasized in order to develop and strengthen our discipline and profession in a knowledge society since the need for the theoretical thinking of librarians seems to be greater than ever.