Jumping off the Disintermediation Bandwagon: Reharmonizing LIS Education
for the Realities of the 21st Century
J. Stephen Downie,Visiting Lecturer
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Disintermediation, the act of bypassing information intermediaries in the
age of ubiquitous information retrieval systems, has profound implications
for the future status and professional opportunities of Library &
Information Science (LIS) practitioners. Not an isolated phenomenon,
disintermediation will affect all areas of practice including children’s
librarianship, reference services, technical services, information brokering,
special library services and database-searching, etc.; that is to say,
no aspect of LIS will be immune. More than a mere deskilling, disintermediation
implies the complete removal of professional information intermediaries
from key components of the information seeking processes of our clients.
It is obvious that LIS education must be reconfigured to reflect the realities
of disintermediation. Details of such a reconfiguration are open to debate;
however, it is becoming evident that the acquisition of expertise in the
theoretical underpinnings of information retrieval systems can no longer
be an optional component of LIS education.
This paper argues that the resounding victory of the “user-centered"
school of LIS in the ideological struggle between itself and
the “system-centered" school has essentially muted the voices of
the those expounding system-centered approaches to LIS. The overwhelming
predominance of the user-centered school within LIS education and practice
must be re- examined if we are to effectively remodel LIS education in
response to the threats implied by disintermediation. User-centered
approaches, while necessary, are no longer sufficient in themselves to
combat disintermediation. The theories and practices of the system-centered
school, particularly in regard to information retrieval systems, must be
relegitimized and reintegrated into LIS education. Unless the user-centered
and system-centered approaches are reharmonized, LIS education runs the
risk of producing professional intermediaries with very little to mediate.
The world of Library and Information Science (LIS) research, praxis, and
education, can be partitioned into two schools: the user-centered
school and the system-centered school. Some see the distinction
reflected in the division of Library Science (user-centered) from Information
Science (system-centered). Others see the two schools within our disciplinary
divisions. For example, within the discipline of Information Science (where
information retrieval (IR) is usually placed) user-centered researchers
focus upon human-computer interface issues (among other things) while system-centered
researchers typically examine the effectiveness of various retrieval algorithms
or indexing schemes. Providing precise definitions of the two schools is
difficult, for it is the common practice to define each as the antonym
of the other. However, it is possible to map out roughly the generally
perceived attributes, affects, associations, practices, and members of
each (Table 1).
The tendency of our MLIS students to bifurcate themselves into "librarian"
and "techy" groups (or into "Library Scientists" and "Information Scientists")
is strong phenomenological evidence of the presence of the two schools
in LIS education. LIS programmes have accommodated this division of identification
either explicitly through streaming or implicitly through freedom in elective
course selection. Until now this "schooling" of our students has not been
problematic for in the work-place there have been relatively independent
niches within which graduates of each school could practice. However, the
incipient ubiquity of information retrieval systems --including, but not
limited to, the World Wide Web search engines-- has radically altered the
necessary skill set of our graduates, regardless of their professional
orientation. Information retrieval systems are now found in the reference
library, the children's library, in workshops and coffee-shops, in office
towers and our bedrooms. Whether or not it is actually the case, there
is a growing perception amongst employers and the public at large, brought
about in no small part by corporate advertising campaigns, that the advent
of readily-accessible, low-cost IR systems heralds an age of unfettered
acquisition of knowledge: unfettered by location, unfettered by skill,
and most importantly, unfettered by the need to acquire information through
a human intermediary. This bypassing of intermediaries, a process known
as disintermediation, has profound implications for the future employment
opportunities and status of LIS professionals.
Through a series of select excerpts from the literature, this paper
will explicate some of the dangers posed by disintermediation. It will
argue that the subordination of the system-centered school in LIS education
must be redressed before we prepare our students to overcome the challenges
posed by disintermediation. It will conclude with suggestions on how a
reharmonized LIS program of study, one which balances the best attributes
of the user-centered and system-centered schools, can be created to ensure
the continued success of our graduates.
Table 1.--The user-centered and system-centered schools: a non-exclusive
list of attributes.
|Description of Paradigms
||heuristic; pragmatic; individualistic; situational; constructivist;
||algorithmic; universal; objective
|Typical Fields of Endeavour
||reference; readers' advisory; children's, youth and adult services;
||indexing; abstracting; information retrieval; cataloguing; library
|Exemplar IR Terms
||pertinence; query; open-ended questioning; query-negotiation; semantics
||relevance; search statement; algorithm; syntax
|Some Exemplar Authors
||Chatman; Dervin; Dewdney; Durrance; Kulthau; Ross; Taylor
||Craven; Garfield; Lancaster; Salton; Shaw; Tague-Sutcliffe
||ethnography; grounded theory; interviewing; participant observation;
||experimentation; modelling; simulation
||ALA; SLA; ACRL
||ASIS; ACM SIGIR; IEEE
|Principal Locus of Interaction
||Education; Humanities; Human Computer Interaction; Psychology; Social
Work; Social Science
||Artificial Intelligence; Computer Science; Engineering; Linguistics;
||access; education; fulfilment; satisfaction; survival
||accuracy; consistency; efficiency; precision; recall
Disintermediation: Context and Use
As a term, disintermediation is relatively novel. It appears
to have its origins in the financial sector where it was "...coined to
mean taking your money out of the bank and investing it yourself" (Dougherty
1996). ATMs, telephone banking, and commission-free Internet stock trading
are the most obvious manifestations of disintermediation in the financial
world. Within the financial sector, and later the business and governmental
domains, disintermediation has come to be seen primarily as an effective
means of cost-cutting and thus competitive advantage. For the purposes
of this paper the following definition of disintermediation is adequate:
Disintermediation is giving the user or the consumer direct access
to information that otherwise would require a mediator, such as a salesperson,
a librarian, or a lawyer. Observers of the Internet and the World Wide
Web note that these new technologies give users the power to look up medical,
legal information, travel, or comparative product data directly, in some
cases removing the need for the mediator (doctor, lawyer, salesperson)
or at the very least changing the relationship between the user and the
product or service provider (Thing 1997).
Within the LIS literature the earliest explicit use of disintermediation
found by the author so far is Crawford (1992) where, in the context of
increasing automation and declining budgets, he questions whether "'disintermediation'
is inherently a good thing." However, the concept of disintermediation
in LIS is hardly new. Buntrock (1998) suggests that Charles Meadow's 1979
"keys to the kingdom" paper, "Online Searching and Computer Programming:
Some Behavioral Similarities (or ...Why End Users Will Eventually Take
Over the Terminal" (Meadow 1979) is the "seminal" work prognosticating
a disintermediated future.
Over last 3 years, the term disintermediation has been appearing with
significant frequency in both the professional LIS (Excerpts 1-3) and the
general managerial literatures (Excerpts 4-5). The following five excerpts
are representative of the issues surrounding disintermediation and its
context of use:
The buzz word for the '90s is "disintermediation." Corporations have
begun firing all their librarians because "Everything is on the Web, and
all you have to do is type in a word to find out everything published about
it." Because amateurs believe that everything can be found on the Web reliably,
easily, quickly, and free, companies tend to discount the value-added mediation
that information professionals provide (McDermott 1997).
In the Before Web (BW) days, when push was selective dissemination
of information (SDI), these functions required more expertise than point-and-click.
The popular view of push technology is an example of disintermediation.
The experts who set up profiles with commercial hosts have been replaced
with software (Arnold 1997)
Disintermediation has been a buzzword in information circles since
at least 1994. The concept is that we are moving away from intermediaries
between the information and the information user. There has been much discussion
about the changing role of librarians, since there is the perception that
"everything you need to know is on the Net and it's free" (Bates 1998).
On an internal basis, the Internet will facilitate knowledge management
by creating a reduced need for middle managers and librarians. In short,
disintermediation will allow organizations and individuals to reduce both
direct costs and the time needed to perform activities (Gemini Consulting
The important point of disintermediation is that we must find ways
to eliminate a required intermediary. If a customer is required to go to
a clerk, librarian, or computer support person to do something, then review
of that activity needs to be a high priority, and ways must be found to
remove the requirement. We must constantly evaluate whether the function
of the intermediary is as a barrier or as a value-added service (Stahl
Notwithstanding the apparent general disdain for the term itself as a "buzzword"
(e.g., Excerpts 1 and 3; Willmot 1997; Clark 1996), disintermediation is
presented in the literature as:
1. having profound, irreversible effects on the future roles, status
and employment of information intermediaries, especially those working
as search intermediaries;
Intrinsic to any discussion of disintermediation is the notion of perception,
or rather, misperception. What end-users perceive as constituting a successful
search is not the same as that perceived by professional intermediaries.
Despite the fact that end-users consistently overlook potentially valuable
information that could have been retrieved without difficulty by intermediaries,
end-users seem satisfied with that which they do find (see Mann 1993 ad
passim). That end-user searchers are constantly being presented with
thousands of spam-ridden, porn-promoting, advertising-laden hits for most
of their WWW queries should be perceived as abject failure, but it rarely
is. Recent television advertising campaigns by IBM, America Online, Microsoft,
and snap.com, to name but a few, all add to the public's
perception that the only requisite information intermediary comes in the
form of a mouse. Apple Computer, a corporation recently reported to have
laid-off all of its corporate librarians (McDermott 1997), peddles its
latest operating system, OS 8.5, with the following ad copy:
2. being caused by the proliferation of digital information retrieval
3. being propelled forward by the explosive growth in access afforded
by the Internet; and,
4. being perceived by both end-users and budget-conscious administrators
alike as being inherently good.(1)
Leading the powerful new features in Mac OS 8.5 is Apple's revolutionary
Sherlock technology--your personal search detective. Sherlock searches
the World Wide Web or your own computer with lightning speed and amazing
ease, saving you hours of valuable time by quickly zeroing in on the exact
information you're looking for (Apple 1998).
For us information professionals, the growing perception that the Internet
contains, or shortly will contain, all the information anyone could possibly
want is laughably incorrect. However, perception, like beauty, is truly
in the eye of the beholder. In this case the beholders (i.e., the public,
many of our clients, and our employers) perceive the aforementioned misconceptions
to be true; furthermore, they are constructing a reality wherein they operate
as if they were true. Simply put, the misconceived reality they are constructing
is becoming the disintermediated reality within which our graduates and
ourselves will work --a disintermediated reality where the value of intermediation
is not perceived by those being asked to pay for it.
No value, no market. No market, no jobs.
The same body of literature that paints such a bleak future for information
professionals in an age of disintermediation also offers a beacon of hope.
Disintermediation, "the buzzword from Hell," has a companion term, equal
in trendy pomposity, that is making the rounds, reintermediation.
Negroponte (1997) suggests that erstwhile intermediaries should focus upon
the creation of personalized relationships with clients, for "... individualized
service is certainly one way to keep a step ahead of being disintermediated;
that is, to reintermediate." This sentiment is reinforced by Lynch (1997)
who predicts that the role of intermediaries viz. a viz. the Internet
will be played out through the creation of filtered information systems.
These systems or collections will draw upon the information available on
the Intermet but will be custom-selected by intermediaries. Intermediaries
will work for specific users or user-communities, and will add value through
the application of human-supplied evaluations, collocations, annotations,
navigation aids, cataloguing, abstracting and indexing:
Users willing to pay a fee to underwrite the work of authors, publishers,
indexers and reviewers can sustain the tradition of the library [i.e, intermediation]
. In cases where information is furnished without charge or is advertiser
supported, low-cost computer-based indexing will most likely dominate-[i.e.,
disintermediation]...[Brackets mine] (Lynch 1997).
Willingness to pay, however, presupposes two conditions, both necessary,
but neither sufficient in themselves: 1) something to pay for; and, 2)
someone to pay. The first condition that must be met is that the users
who are being ask to pay for the services of the intermediaries must perceive
that the value added by the intermediaries is greater than the cost of
employing the intermediaries. This is a difficult condition to meet given
the set of (mis)perceptions currently being promulgated throughout society.
To meet the second condition, there must exist intermediaries with the
requisite skill set to supply the value-added services; furthermore, these
services must be rendered at such a high level of expertise that the expertise
displayed obviously surpasses that which the users (mis)perceive
What comprises the requisite skill set? Can LIS education supply the
requisite skill set? Are we imparting this skill set upon our graduates?
If not, why not? If not, how?
Current Practice and Future Roles
Consideration of the following two excerpts from Lynch (1997) will assist
in determining an answer to the first two questions.
In short, the Net is not a digital library. But if it is to continue
to grow and thrive as a new means of communication, something very much
like traditional library services will be needed to organize, access and
preserve networked information. Even then, the Net will not resemble a
traditional library, because its contents are more widely dispersed than
a standard collection. Consequently, the librarian's classification and
selection skills must be complemented by the computer scientist's ability
to automate the task of indexing and storing information. Only a synthesis
of the differing perspectives brought by both professions will allow this
new medium to remain viable (Lynch 1997).
LIS educators should be heartened. Implied in the above excerpt (and all
throughout Lynch's thoughtful article) are descriptions of the areas of
expertise traditionally taught to LIS students. An incomplete listing of
subject areas includes:
1. collection development;
So, on the face of it, it appears that LIS education is well-positioned
to meet the needs of our graduates in the disintermediated future. However,
close attention must be paid to the importance of the interaction of LIS
professionals and computer scientists in the areas of automated indexing,
storage and retrieval of information. In Excerpt 8, above, Lynch might
appear to be saying that the field of information retrieval should be abandoned
to the computer scientists. This is not the case. In Excerpt 9, below,
Lynch demonstrates that automated indexing and retrieval systems have important
deficiencies that must be rectified through the intervention of human indexers,
abstractors, and cataloguers.
2. descriptive and analytic bibliography;
3. reference services;
4. descriptive cataloguing;
5. subject analysis and classification;
6. indexing and abstracting; and,
7. information retrieval.
... In contrast to human indexers, automated programs have difficulty
identifying characteristics of a document such as its overall theme or
its genre--whether it is a poem or a play, or even an advertisement. The
Web, moreover, still lacks standards that would facilitate automated indexing.
As a result, documents on the Web are not structured so that programs can
reliably extract the routine information that a human indexer might find
through a cursory inspection: author, date of publication, length of text
and subject matter. (This information is known as metadata.) (Lynch 1997).
Thus, instead of deprecating the future role of indexing, cataloguing,
and IR expertise, Lynch establishes a case where such expertise becomes
--if not central to the role of future intermediaries-- at least a fundamental
component of the intermediaries' skill set. Without such expertise, the
spectrum of roles we wish our graduates to perform (e.g., collection development,
reference services, and cataloguing services, etc.) will disappear, for
in the future all of these functions will be predicated on a deep-level
appreciation of where the automated (i.e., computer science) techniques
reach their limits and where the intervention of human experts is required.
In short, indexing, abstracting and IR expertise might not be sufficient
to ensure the future of LIS graduates, but it is, most
Are we currently preparing all of our graduates for a disintermediated
future? The evidence strongly suggests that we are not. If we accept that
expertise in IR, indexing, abstracting, and related areas, is a necessary
component of the skill set possessed by all future intermediaries, then
the absence of formal education in these areas makes it impossible to contend
that those not so educated have been properly prepared. The issue here
is not that our students could independently acquire these skills --they
can-- but whether we are requiring them to do so. If we do not make these
skills a requirement for attainment of the Master's degree then we are
explicitly stating that we do not consider such expertise to be fundamental
to their future professional practice.
The elective course enrollment data (Fall 1997-Fall 1998) from the Graduate
School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
provide some insight into the current state of LIS education (Table 2).
A quick glance at these selected data will illustrate two things. First,
it shows how relatively few students are currently enrolling in those "system-centered"
courses suggested by this paper as necessary. The one encouraging exception
to this is the continued high enrollment in LIS407 Cataloguing and Classification,
a system-centered, albeit, non-technological course. Second, it highlights
the predominance of the user-centered school. Reference services, arguably
the ground zero of the user-centered school, is the one subject
that appears to be universally studied. This universality of reference
enrollment also appears to apply to most, if not all, LIS programs (see
Marco 1994). However, the apparent strength of cataloguing at UIUC might
not be representative of LIS education in general (see Jeng 1993; Weinberg
1996). Thus, if one were pressed to quickly characterize the fundamental
pedagogical background, that is, the principal unifying paradigm under
which LIS students are being educated, one would have to state "user-centered."
Put another way, randomly select any group of recent LIS graduates and
ask them two questions:
1) What is the body of theory behind open-ended questioning?; and,
To the former, user-centered, question one is all but guaranteed a collection
of thoughtful, considered and accurate responses. To the latter, system-centered,
query one would be fortunate not to have to repeat or rephrase the question.
2) What is the body of theory behind automatic indexing?
The notion that the user-centered school and its paradigms predominate
LIS education is not a position unique to this author. Diane Nahl, a major
proponent of the user-centered school, has gone so far as to declare that
the "user-centered revolution in library and information science"...is..."the
new paradigm"..."for defining, measuring, and explaining the behavior
of library users, database searchers, and Internet navigators" (Nahl 1996;
italics mine). Weinberg reinforces this contention, and summarizes its
serious implications, when she writes about the growing mismatch between
LIS graduates and the need for human intervention in the indexing and cataloguing
of the Internet:
Advanced cataloging and indexing are generally optional courses in
library schools; these courses are selected by the minority of students
who do not believe that reference is cool and technical services is for
nerds (Robbins, 1991, p. 57). Thus, few librarians are trained to evaluate
and modify centralized cataloging, let alone implement a new complex system
Why We Are Missing the Mark
Weinberg's presentation of Robbins' "nerd" factor as the explanation for
the paucity of those endeavouring to become skilled indexers and cataloguers
(i.e., those most likely to avoid a disintermediated future) has certain
simplistic charms. However, the reasons behind this phenomenon are rather
complex. The interaction of external pressures, student backgrounds, and
the affects of the user-centered school is proffered here as the principal
reason why our programmes are not currently situated to meet the challenges
Table 2.-Partial enrollment data, GSLIS, UIUC Fall 1997-Fall
Over this past decade, fluctuating economic conditions have caused many
LIS programme committees to re-evaluate their definitions of the core LIS
subjects. These reworkings of the core have been done with an eye toward
streamlining curricula in order to meet the demand for one-year Master's
degrees. To allow for flexibility under the tighter time constraints, the
number of official core courses has dropped, and the number of elective
options enhanced. Two things co-occur in this situation: 1) pre-requisite
structures tend to be eliminated to facilitate the taking of courses when
they can be offered; and, 2) without pre-requisite structures students
have the ability to avoid courses. Students tend to avoid those courses
they perceive to be unnecessary, or for which they feel they do not have
the requisite background skills. One part of the system-centered
approach, being reliant as it is on quantitative data and analyses, involves
the use of mathematical skills. It is also strongly focussed upon the "soulless"
machinery of information systems. On the other hand, the user-centered
approach is primarily qualitative in nature. The user-centered school also
has the affect of being "helpful" and "making a difference" in the assistance
of users and their important information needs. Because LIS students traditionally
come from the qualitative, human-centered, language arts and humanities,
it is perfectly understandable that they would gravitate toward the user-centered
courses: their undergraduate training gives them a headstart in assimilating
the concepts and methods of the user-centered approach. Similarly, to embrace
the system-centered approach requires the students to commit to a substantial
intellectual retooling; a retooling that can be rather time consuming (e.g.,
revisiting high school math, learning a programming language, etc.) and
offers little of the positive social affirmation of the user-centered approaches
||Cataloguing and Classification
"Technical/System/Information Science" Courses
||Data Structures for LIS
|*Source: Curt McKay, Associate Dean, Graduate School of
Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
It is important to assert that there is no conspiracy to deprive our
students of the education that they will need. There is no secret cabal,
no 'smoking gun". What we have, however, is an unfortunate confluence of
factors, some of which, like external economic fluctuations and the educational
backgrounds of our students, are beyond our control.
Starting the Debate
Regardless of cause, and rather than affix blame, our time and effort are
best spent exploring how we can best ensure that our programmes properly
prepare our students. It is clear to this author that something should
be done. Should we set back the clock and re-expand the number of courses
defined as core? Perhaps, but such a solution would most likely reduce
the number of available time slots for other important courses because
there is little chance that the trend toward shorter programmes will reverse
itself. Similarly, for each proposed solution there will be an equally
strong drawback arguing against its implementation. This is not to suggest
that solutions should not be put forward --this paper has more than a few
to offer-- but it does imply that we must begin debating among ourselves
the implications of, and the solutions to, disintermediation. The
sooner the debate begins, the better, for solutions inevitably take considerable
time to implement
In a recent posting to JESSE, the electronic mailing-list devoted to
issues pertaining to LIS education, this author attempted to ascertain
whether the following two assertions had any merits (see Appendix I for
ASSERTION #1: It is currently possible to graduate with an MLIS
without formal training in:
To the above 17 JESSE participants submitted approximately 22 responses.(2)
Perhaps as an indication of the contentiousness of the assertions, 11 of
the 22 responses were not posted to the mailing list but were sent privately
to the author. It is interesting to note that 7 of the 17 respondents were,
or are, holders of the position of dean, director, or chair within well-respected
LIS programmes. From this corpus of correspondence the following three
major themes emerged:
a) indexing and abstracting (both manual and automated)
ASSERTION #2: Given that ASSERTION #1 is true, the preceding subjects
are not enforced as "core" for one or more of the following reasons:
b) thesaurus construction
c) the fundamentals of Information Retrieval (beyond simple Boolean
a) The above are seen as being too "technical" (i.e., computer/system-centric)
b) The above are seen as being too "theoretical" (i.e., having little
relevance to practice)
c) The "mathematical/computer science" aspects in the above are seen
by the student body as falling outside their abilities/interests
1. It is indeed possible to graduate with an MLIS without formal education
in the areas outlined in Assertion #1. Most respondents mentioned the case
at their home institutions. One, who had recently undertaken a review of
LIS curricula, commented that this was generally the case across the institutions
The following is an abridged excerpt from Professor Marcia Bate's JESSE
posting (Excerpt 11). It is entitled with the subject line, "Downie's fighting
words." This excerpt best represents the position of those opposed to this
author's original posting (see Appendix II for complete submission). After
objecting to the implied premises for the original assertions, Dr. Bates
expands upon her reasons for her emphatic --"TILT! I don't agree"-- rejection...(3)
2. Opinion was divided over whether the skills in items Assertion #1
were essential. The majority of private correspondence suggested that they
were essential (or their absence from core was at least lamentable). The
majority of publically-posted messages rejected the notion that their absence
posed any special problem because:
a) these skills could be picked up in passing;
3. Only four respondents expicitly addressed the questions raised by Asssertion
#2. Three commented that they perceived the lack of interest among students
in subjects listed in Assertion #1 as stemming from the "mathematical"
and "technological" aspects of those subjects. One reframed the proposition
by positing that students were not consciously "rejecting" system-centered
courses but instead were operating under the "benign belief" that they
could acquire the necessary skills in the so-called "traditional" library
b) these skills should not be "privileged" over the other skills that
LIS professionals require; and,
c) the premises for the assertions were unsound in that they were implicitly
system-centric. This system-centric grounding disregarded the important
roles LIS professionals will play in the future with the user-centered
skills that most would posses.
...Now, it will soon be the case that as many people will have internet
access as have telephones. Once they play around a bit with search engines,
they discover "easy" information seeking. But of course it is not easy,
because conceptualizing queries takes skill. (Which gets taught in reference
courses.) For the end user, finding that thing you are now interested in
that you wouldn't have bothered to pursue before discovering the Web turns
out to be hard. Where do you turn? To your friendly local library.
...Now, about the assertions. Yes,
students can study the things listed or, possibly, graduate without them
while getting an MLIS. If they do go without them at UCLA, however, it
is because they are busy studying digital archives, or user-centered design
of information systems, or multimedia design, or preservation, or children's
literature, or information policy...well, you get the point. The information
field is wider than ever. It's not clear what will settle out as the new
century progresses. I think the stated things should definitely be a part
of an MLS program and we may all disagree among ourselves just what part
of it should be required and what optional (Bates 1998a).
If one accepts the premise that indexing,
abstracting, and IR, etc. fall --for the most part-- within the domain
of the system-centered school and also that reference services (e.g., "conceptualizing
queries") fall within the purview of the user-centered school, then implicit
in Dr. Bates' argument is the assertion that the user-centered skill set
is both necessary, and sufficient, to meet the new challenges facing our
graduates. The assistance given to clients in "conceptualizing queries"
is indeed evidence that user-centered skills are necessary. However, as
a case in point, "conceptualizing queries" is definitely not sufficient
to meet the needs of those seeking reference services pertaining to, for
example, such electronic resources as the WWW search engines. Tague-Sutcliffe
(1992) makes an important distinction between a query ("...the
verbal expression of a user's information need") and a search statement
("...a single string, expressed in the language of the system, which triggers
a search of the database.."). It is the role of the intermediary to take
the query and successfully translate it into the appropriate search statement(s).
Search statements are, by definition, system dependent (i.e., system-centric).
They require an understanding of the system in use, that is, knowledge
of the system's indexing methods and retrieval algorithms. If the intermediary
cannot perform the translation of the former into the latter with a level
of expertise greater than that of the client, why would the client seek
the services of the intermediary in the first place?
Bates contends that those not studying
indexing, abstracting, and IR, etc. are being well-prepared for the future
because they are "busy studying digital archives", "user-centered design
of information systems", and "multimedia design". That it is considered
possible to study these three technology/system-intensive subjects "without"
a background in their system-centered components (e.g., retrieval mechanisms,
indexing structures, etc.) is a position not unique to Dr. Bates' posting.(4)
This stance is indicative of the predominance of the user-centered school
in LIS education. The user-centered school has a tendency to rhetorically
construct all non-human components of information systems as magical "black
boxes" with which users interact --usually unsuccessfully. In the "black
box" model, the onus is always on the system to somehow "understand" the
user and never that the user should understand the system. The "black box"
model of information systems removes responsibility for the success of
the interaction from the user onto the system; therefore, the use of information
systems ideally "should require no special skills" (Wallace 1984). The
problem here is that the principal effect of LIS education is the training
of (most) students to be users of specific information systems.
Since they are users, under the user-centered paradigm, students are absolved
of the need to understand the underlying mechanisms of the systems. Thus,
it is possible to study "user-centered design of information systems" without
being required to know how the information is actually stored and retrieved.
Finally, Bate's Internet scenario brings
to mind Weinberg's rejoinder (Excerpt 12). Weinber reminds us that we must
be very careful in our claims that we are educating our students for the
roles that we think we are.
...Nevertheless, there are frequent claims
in the literature, e.g., in journals such as American Libraries, that all
librarians have expertise in the organization of information and hence
are the logical people to manage the Internet. It has been suggested that
reference librarians be diverted to the creation of Internet "finding tools
and self-teaching aids that could be used online" (Scepanski, 1996, p.
43), but those who have skipped advanced technical services courses are
not prepared to do this work (Weinberg 1996).
Recommendations and Conclusion
The user-centered school has contributed greatly
to the past success of LIS practitioners everywhere. It will continue to
do so in the future. However, as necessary as the user-centered approaches
are to meet the challenges posed by disintermediation, they are not sufficient.
In light of disintermediation, we must re-evaluate the predominant role
the user-centered school has assumed in LIS education. System-centered
approaches must be re-incorporated, if not into the core, then at least
into the mainstream of LIS education. The system-centered school encompasses
a body of theory and praxis that are also necessary; but, they too, are
not sufficient. This being the case, we must strive to exploit the best
of what both schools have to offer. In short, the two schools must be brought
together into a reharmonized whole where the voice of neither drowns out
In the spirit of reharmonization, and to
ensure that LIS students can meet the challenges of disintermediation head-on,
the following four recommendations for LIS educational reform are offered:
1. LIS education must undertake a much
stronger commitment to imparting in all its students a deep-level understanding
of the complexities inherent in all types of information systems. The emphasis
here is on the depth of the understanding and must include much more rigorous
programmes of study in indexing languages, classification schemes, and
retrieval methods (e.g., algorithms, Boolean logic, ranking schemes, etc.).
Whether these things are taught as part of the "core" is irrelevant. It
matters not one jot whether they are taught in the context of a "digital
library" or "reference" course so long as they are taught.
2. The system-centered school must strive
to develop programmes of study that better reflect the backgrounds of our
incoming students. The challenge, which must be met, is to structure the
teaching of system-centered skills in such a way that it simultaneously
maintains rigour while taking seriously the student body's very real consternation
over the use of mathematics and computer technologies. Currently there
are very few teaching resources that meet these criteria. The onus is thus
on the members of the system-centered school to create the necessary materials.
One final thought. It is important not to
frame reharmonization as a proposition of "library" versus "technology."
Throughout this paper the author has been careful to avoid defining the
system-centered subjects solely in terms of technology. Indexing, abstracting
and cataloguing are all traditional library skills that are system-centered;
however, they pre-date, and exist independent of, computer technology.
The goal is not the creation of computer technologists; but, rather, the
education of information professionals who understand the strengths and
weaknesses of the technological solutions surrounding them --information
professionals equally knowledgeable about both systems and users. Such
information professionals will be immune to disintermediation.
3. User-centered praxis, research, and
education, particularly in the areas of automated information retrieval
services, should focus less on the goal of creating systems that "require
no special skills" (Wallace 1984). Instead, the user-center school should
devote more of their resources to developing better user-education programmes.
"Dumbing down" information systems has not helped anyone. Rather, we must
focus our attention on the "smartening up" of ourselves, our students,
and our users. We should embrace the goal of user-empowerment central to
the user-centered paradigm by truly empowering our students and our users
with new system-centered skills. For example, a programme of user-centered
bibliographic instruction based upon an in-depth understanding of system-centered
complexities would provide a marketable skill set that could withstand
any threat posed by disintermediation.
4. Both the user-centered and system-centered
schools must formally recognize the necessary skills imparted upon our
students by the body of theory and praxis of the other. A plenary
congress of LIS educators should be convened, the purpose of which would
be the explicit delineation of the theories and practices from both schools
that must be present in all LIS programmes leading to the Master's degree.
The present ALA Standards for Accreditation (ALA 1992) are dangerously
vague. It is this vagueness that allows LIS education the claim that the
Master's degree denotes expertise in its holders that they really do not
possess. Therefore, result of the congress should be the adoption of an
accreditation document that unambigously defines the areas of expertise
necessary for the awarding of the Master's degree.
Agre, Philip. Untitled posting. Red Rock Eater News Service Archive.
[Online version]. Available at http://www.tao.ca/wind/rre/0494.html
ALA. 1992. Standard for Accreditation of Master's Programs in Library
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Apple Computer. 1998. Mac OS 8.5: Faster, smarter, far more clever.
[Online version]. Available at http://www.apple.com/macos/index.html
Arnold, Stephen E. 1997. Push technology: Driving traditional online
into a corner. Database (August). [Online version]. Available at
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the Internet: Human, database, and domain factors. [working paper]. Available
Bates, Marcia J. 1998a. Downie's fighting words. Email posting to JESSE
electronic mailing list.
[Open Lib/Info Sci Education Forum JESSE@UTKVM1.UTK.EDU>]
Posted 22 November 1998.
Bates, Mary E. 1998. Are We Returning to Intermediation? Online
(May). [Online version]. Available at http://www.onlineinc.com/onlinemag/OL1998/bates5.html#1b
Buntrock, Robert E. 1998. Disintermediation: What's in it for me? Searcher
6 (5): 8-10.
Clark, Tim. 1996. You Say, 'D-i-s-i-n-t-e-r-m-e-d-i-a-t-i-o-n'; I Say
Don't Count On It. Inter@ctive Week (April 8). [Online version]. Available
Crawford, Walt. 1992. Two steps forward, one step back. The Public-Access
Computer Systems Review 3 (5): 31-32. [Online version]. Available at
Dougherty, Dale. 1996. Dissing disintermediation. Web Review
(22 March). [Online version]. Available at http://webreview.com/wr/pub/96/03/22/comment/index.html
Gemini Consulting. 1997. The Internet revolution. [Online version].
link now points to a commercial pornography site.
Lynch, Clifford. 1997. Searching the Internet. Scientific American (March).
[Online version]. Available at http://www.sciam.com/0397issue/0397lynch.html
Mann, Thomas. 1993. Library research models: A guide to classification,
cataloging, and computers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Marco, Guy A. 1994. The demise of the American core curriculum. Libri
44 (3): 176-189.
Meadow, Charles. 1979. Online searching and computer programming: Some
behavioral similarities (or...Why end users will eventually take over the
terminal). Online 3 (1): 49-52.
McDermott, Irene E. 1997. Searchers on the beachhead: The Internet Librarian
Conference at Monterey. Searcher 6 (2). [Online version]. Available
Nahl, Diane. 1996. The user-centered revolution: 1970-1995. In Encyclopedia
of Microcomputers Volume 19. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., pp. 143-199.
[Online version]. Available at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~nahl/articles/user/user1toend_toc.html
Negroponte, Nicholas. 1997. Reintermediated. Wired (Sept.). [Online
version]. Available at http://www.wired.com/wired/5.09/negroponte.html
Robbins, J. B. 1991. Fiction and reality in educating catalogers. In
S. S. Intner & J. S. Hill (Eds.), Cataloging: The professional development
cycle (pp. -62). New York: Greenwood Press. Cited by Weinberg,
Bella H. 1996. Complexity in indexing systems-abandonment and failure:
Implications for organizing the Internet. ASIS 1996 Annual Conference
Proceedings, October 19-24, 1996. [Online version].Available at http://www.asis.org/annual-96/ElectronicProceedings/weinberg.html
Scepanski, J.M. 1996. Public services in a telecommuting world. Information
Technology and Libraries 15: 41-43. Cited by Weinberg, Bella
H. 1996. Complexity in indexing systems-abandonment and failure: Implications
for organizing the Internet. ASIS 1996 Annual Conference Proceedings,
October 19-24, 1996. [Online version].Available at http://www.asis.org/annual-96/ElectronicProceedings/weinberg.html
Stahl, Bil. 1995. Trends and challenges for academic libraries and information
services. CAUSE/EFFECT 18 (1). [Online version]. Available at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/text/cem951a.txt
Sternberg, Sam. 1995. The business guide. [Online version]. Available
Tague-Sutcliffe, Jean. 1992. The pragmatics of information retrieval
experimentation, revisited. Information Processing and Management 28
Thing, Suzanne. . Disintermediation. Whatis.com . Available
Wallace, D.P. 1984. The user-friendliness of the library catalog. Occasional
Papers Vol. 163., W.C. Allen, ed., Urbana-Champaign: University of
Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, p. 42. Cited
by Nahl, Diane. 1996. The user-centered revolution: 1970-1995. In Encyclopedia
of Microcomputers Volume 19. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., pp. 143-199.
[Online version]. Available at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~nahl/articles/user/user1toend_toc.html
Weinberg, Bella H. 1996. Complexity in indexing systems-abandonment
and failure: Implications for organizing the Internet. ASIS 1996 Annual
Conference Proceedings, October 19-24, 1996. [Online version].Available
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Magazine (Sept.10). [Online version]. Available at http://search.zdnet.com/pcmag/insites/willmott/dw970910.htm
1. Not all the literature discussing disintermediation
is wholly negative in its outlook. Some authors see disintermediation as
being over-hyped (Dougherty 1996), misconceived (Clark 1996; Agre 1998),
or as representing an opportunity for positive change (Sternberg 1995).
However, there appears to be a consensus even among disintermediation's
detractors that something significant is being reflected
by the term. For example, consider this comment by a detractor, Don Willmott,
in an article entitled, "Disintermediation: The Buzzword from Hell" :
No matter which side of the debate you come down on, you'll end up
agreeing that disintermediation is worth talking about (Willmot 1997).
2. This value is approximate because, like many conversations
on email lists, the discussion prompted by the original submission devolved
into a discussion of general practice and readers' advisory. All but one
of the correspondents are known to the author as faculty members in LIS
3. This author wishes to affirm his deeply-held respect
for the work of Dr. Bates. This excerpt is presented, with Dr. Bate's consent,
in the spirit of academic debate. Its inclusion here is intended only as
a point of departure; the excerpt is under scrutiny, not Dr. Bates.
4. The key term here is "posting". It is evident
from Dr. Bates' publication record that she fully appreciates the system-centered
complexities inherent in information systems (e.g., Bates 1996).
Appendix I: Complete text of the author's JESSE posting
Feedback and comments invited
Send reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wed, 18 Nov 1998 13:40:01
I am working on a paper for presentation at ALISE '99. The topic under
consideration is "disintermediation" and its implications for LIS education.
In short, the paper is leaning toward a conclusion that those without
(i.e., theoretically bounded) training in indexing, abstracting and
retrieval, are at considerable risk for job loss through "disintermediation".
I am looking for feedback on the following two assertions. My "gut
that they are fundamentally correct; however, I would appreciate your
corrections, comments, suggestions and feedback on them.
ASSERTION #1: It is currently possible to graduate with an MLIS without
a) indexing and abstracting (both manual and automated)
b) thesaurus construction
c) the fundamentals of Information Retrieval (beyond
simple Boolean procedures):
--inverted files, tries,
--vector space, probablistic,
--term weighting schemes
--relevance feedback schemes
--evaluative measures (i.e.,
precision, recall, etc.)
ASSERTION #2: Given that ASSERTION #1 is true, the preceding subjects
are not enforced
as "core" for one or more of the following reasons:
a) The above are seen as being too "technical" (i.e.,
b) The above are seen as being too "theoretical"
(i.e., having little relevance
c) The "mathematical/computer science" aspects in
the above are seen by the
student body as falling outside their abilities/interests
Thanks, and see you at ALISE '99.
Appendix II: Complete text of Dr. Bates' reply to the author's JESSE postion
Sun, 22 Nov 1998 14:49:07 -0700
Send reply to: Open Lib/Info Sci Education Forum
"Marcia J. Bates" <email@example.com>
Downie's fighting words
Multiple recipients of list JESSE <JESSE@UTKVM1.UTK.EDU>
I object to, and am much
more interested in, Stephen's PREMISES for
his assertions. I.e., his most important premise (largely implied,)
see it, is that since users can get at information themselves, there
be jobs for librarians in reference, so the only thing left for the
is information organization work of various kinds. TILT!! I don't
Consider it this way:
Before now about 10 percent of the
population were regular users of libraries. Most everybody else
them for information searching because they didn't know how or found
difficult. Now, it will soon be the case that as many people
internet access as have telephones. Once they play around a bit
search engines, they discover "easy" information seeking. But
of course it
is not easy, because conceptualizing queries takes skill. (Which gets
taught in reference courses.) For the end user, finding that thing
now interested in that you wouldn't have bothered to pursue before
discovering the Web turns out to be hard. Where do you turn?
friendly local library. After a drought of some years, two BIG
measures have been passed in California to build and refurbish libraries.
The normally stingy-with-a-buck California public is not seeing libraries
and librarians to be no longer relevant in the age of disintermediation.
At UCLA we no longer call
our reference course "Reference,"
however, for a reason. It's now called information Access because
the new role of the librarian who works with users to be more
than mediator, in most cases. When people search themselves, they need
as more or more often as they did before, but now they are doing the
searching more often because it's "easier".
Now, about the assertions.
Yes, students can study the things
listed or, possibly, graduate without them while getting an MLIS.
do go without them at UCLA, however, it is because they are busy studying
digital archives, or user-centered design of information systems, or
multimedia design, or preservation, or children's literature, or
information policy...well, you get the point. The information
wider than ever. It's not clear what will settle out as the new
progresses. I think the stated things should definitely be a
part of an
MLS program and we may all disagree among ourselves just what part
should be required and what optional.
Marcia J. Bates
230 GSEIS Building
Dept. of Information Studies
Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)
405 Hilgard Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1520 USA
Telephone and Voicemail: 310-206-9353
SOME THINGS ARE REAL...