Featured Paper #3: The Invisible Substrate of Information Science by Marcia J. Bates (1999)
Marcia J. Bates (b. 1942--Indiana) received a masters of library science in 1967 and then a doctorate from the School of Librarianship at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972. There, she was exposed to the same multidisciplinary perspective on the emerging field of information studies as her peer Howard D. White. Her early focus was on library systems analysis with a sensitivity to the user’s perspective and she helped to establish the research specialty of information seeking behavior. Bates’ career in LIS includes important contributions to the areas of information system search strategy, user-centered design of information retrieval systems, and the organization of knowledge. Visually and conceptually striking models and a rigorous yet colloquial writing style are hallmarks of her work. Bates
is the recipient of many professional commendations (Bates, 2005) and is a “canonical” information science author (White & McCain, 1995) responsible for three of the 20 most highly cited library and information science papers of all time.
“The Invisible Substrate of Information Science” (Bates, 1999) or “Invisible Substrate” (for short) appeared in a special double issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication in 1999, alongside other papers on the history and foundations of the field. It describes information science as a paradigm in a Kuhnian sense that she models as having ‘above the water line’and ‘below the water line’ characteristics. The former features are familiar in the definition of the field as, “the study of the gathering, organizing, storing, retrieving, and dissemination of information” (p. 1044). Her objective in the paper is to illuminate for initiates the more ambiguous invisible substrate of information science that “lurks below the water line, largely unconscious and unarticulated” (p. 1043). Using “Invisible Substrate” as a springboard, an educator at an LIS orientation program might say:
Welcome to library and information science.
You are entering an academic discipline that is uniquely located in the university. We are not a discipline in a conventional sense, but rather a meta-discipline that cuts across other fields. Library and information science focuses on the knowledge that is produced by all other academic and popular domains and then facilitates its dissemination to society.
This enterprise entails a certain mental framework focused on the representation, organization and structure of information. An ‘information perspective’ is not innate but is learned during the first months of education or training. Some of the tools for this work are databases, metadata, indexes, catalogues, and thesauri. Our expertise with information is often invisible to outsiders and challenging to explain to family and friends. While there are differences between the ‘library’ and ‘information’ sides of our community, we share this special outlook and primary concern for information representation, organization, and structure.
Library and information science can be compared to acting. Great actors represent the key features of human personalities so that they are meaningful to an audience. Similarly, we represent the critical features of information collections for people to access and use. Just as well trained actors do not require lived experience of the roles they portray in order to convey them powerfully, we do not need deep knowledge of a topic to represent it to others. While some familiarity with a subject may be helpful, it is not the crux of the matter – strong expertise in information is what counts.
At the heart of library and information science are three big questions. There is a physical question: What are the features and laws of the recorded information universe? There is a social question: How do people relate to seek, or use information? And there is a design question: How can access to recorded information be made most rapid and effective? To answer these questions, we draw from the social sciences and engineering sciences and a wide variety of research methods and professional practices. Multi-talented personalities who are comfortable with information, people, and technology tend to thrive here.
Deeply held values guide this enterprise and are one point of difference between information science and librarianship. When focused on the design of information systems to access collections, we aim for an objective neutrality in order to serve users in an egalitarian manner. Differently, librarianship entails a stronger sense of public service and empowerment and champions social justice, especially for populations perceived as marginalized.
The idea of the ‘invisible substrate’ of LIS may ring true for many students who have faced (and perhaps fumbled) the daunting task of explaining their career choice to family and friends. In my own classes lively discussions have ensued when people share their stories of such attempts. Perhaps the most creative and controversial point of this article is Bates’ use of acting as a metaphor for information work and her associated stance against the need for subject expertise (in direct opposition to Shera, who favors strong domain knowledge.) A class could discuss: Is library and information science similar to acting? Or, put another way: What is the role of subject expertise in library and information science?
Strengths and Weaknesses
As a teaching tool, “Invisible Substrate” (Bates, 1999) has many winning qualities; it is right-sized and organized into logically related subtopics. Bates’ friendly and direct style makes a welcoming impression. There are jokes embedded in the article (concerning the mysterious Lewellyn C. Puppybreath) to pique students’ curiosity. And, LIS cohorts are predominantly made up of women who may appreciate Bates as a female authority and role model; educators can refer admirers to her feminist statements elsewhere in the literature (Bates, 2004, 2005). A potential shortcoming of “Invisible Substrate”is its favoritism of an information science perspective that could leave those partial to librarianship cold. The article is accessible through electronic journal subscriptions of most university libraries and also available in full text on Bates’ personal academic website.
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