Dr. Juan D. Machin-Mastromatteo
What skills does one need to understand and study Information Science?
Traditional information science skills such as cataloging, classification and providing reference services are still relevant nowadays, although they must be complemented by skills mostly related to digital technologies, which augment information scientists’ work. There are also other important skills that are not necessarily associated with our profession that have been getting more attention, as they conform competitive advantages for us and allow us to redefine our roles with activities such as video and podcast production, which allow us to gain a broader outreach; being involved in and providing advice to journals and scientific publications (not necessarily of our discipline), managing research and scientific production in knowledge institutions, and training students, researchers and other professionals. User education or bibliographic instruction has morphed into information literacy, which may include diverse topics as using the library, information resources and research tools; academic writing; and how to publish and handle research indicators. Information Science is relatively young as a discipline, but it is very dynamic, and we can find work and collaboration opportunities in many diverse roles.
What skills and knowledge are over emphasized and are not necessary while working within the discipline?
We have such a wide variety of challenges and opportunities that I believe that there are no unnecessary skills for us, as we can turn them into strengths and pave our own careers around them. However, Information Science education is also diverse, some schools would center more on classic ‘librarian’ skills and services, others focus more on administration and management, while a few train students on state-of-the-art technologies and processes. I think that a good Information Science curriculum will balance these three perspectives as best as possible and would help enhance soft skills (mainly social and communication skills), as well as providing specialized training on research and on teaching people to improve their information as well as their research practices. Training and information literacy for individuals at different educational levels are, at least for me, among the most relevant areas in which we are being increasingly required.
In your eyes, what are the major hurdles that inhibit people from pursuing the study of Information Science?
Our discipline might have some of the strongest stereotypes of all disciplines, around the career itself and ourselves as professionals. Phrases such as: “Librarian? Information Scientist? Oh, you must read a lot”, or worse yet: “Do you have to study for that?” are among the most common clichés. Moreover, in some countries you will find that in our “natural” habitat (libraries) there are few professional information scientists leading them; there might not be a single professional there. All of this is sadly caused by a general social misunderstanding of our importance and of all the areas in which we can successfully work, together with the issue that we tend to not explain properly “what we do”, and perhaps we can double our efforts in promoting it. Perhaps our biggest asset and at the same time our largest drawback is that we specialize in working with certain things that some people struggle to grasp their real value (libraries, information, knowledge, scientific production), as their value is quite intangible and returns on investments are much harder to see than with other resources. So, with this heavy baggage, some people might prefer not to choose to study Information Science.
What parts of Information Science give you the most joy and enable you to continue this work?
As a librarian, perhaps most obvious answer would be to aid users with their information needs and then to see them get their “a-ha moment” when they realize how they can solve a particular information problem; this is because I am convinced that among the most important things we should aim for when providing training or advice is to develop independent information users. I also enjoy training sessions, which turned out to be among my main activities, and one of the reasons why I switched to an academic and research position; leaving libraries behind but teaching at least one course per semester on an Information Science bachelor program. Moreover, I integrate my know-how (including an extensive use of information resources and technologies) into any program I teach in (which also includes a master and a PhD on education) and I also conduct research on our topics and their intersections with other disciplines, mainly with education. Currently, what I mostly enjoy are delivering lectures, supervising graduate students, conducting research and publishing my findings.
How has the pandemic of COVID-19 changed how you interpret and see your work?
Educational institutions in Mexico have been in lockdown for almost a year now and that has brought many challenges and issues. For professors, workload has increased significantly and as we do not have to go to our workplaces, working hours have been an overly complex and ambiguous concept to grasp, as they have multiplied during the whole week; these issues demand for a high degree of resilience, which we manage well as long as we can transmit it to our students (and users). We must be stronger than ever to better support others that are depending on us. Past year has been the year in which I have been the most active with lecturing, conferences and webinars, guest lectures and publications. Among increased productivity, working online has favored stronger collaborations with colleagues around the world and has allowed us to widen our reach, for which technological skills and past online experiences have been paramount to succeed at these times. Fortunately, Information Science does not depend on the availability of labs as other disciplines to advance and conduct research, but even so, it has been particularly challenging to apply instruments such as surveys, so we must rely on networks of colleagues and even social media to push them. Finally, as in many other fields, I feel that information scientists have also been “all hands-on deck” regarding the study of the pandemic and providing solutions and alternatives to the issues it has been causing; from our perspectives and endeavors, obviously.
Have you witnessed any noticeable shifts within the greater Information Science community at this time?
I have been genuinely concerned with the moment when we will reopen libraries and this long period before that, because if the professionals behind them have not been busy with providing alternatives for their regular services, we will have a scenario where libraries might lose the relatively low importance they have and hence, someone could say: “if we did not need them during lockdown, perhaps they are not so necessary anyway”. That is a troublesome thought. However, with the pandemic we have seen that some barriers (often institutional) have been torn down, specifically those preventing professionals and their libraries to have an active presence on social media to engage and serve their users, to reposition libraries within their institutions, to enhance their support of other areas, and to strengthen the library community through online activities, special portals, and new online services. However, some institutions are still inflexible regarding their stance on this subject. Perhaps these will most likely not be missed, as they “were not there”; these will be the case of other institutions that were awfully slow to react and just now they are realizing that they have to provide remote access to digital resources and provide assistance and training to ensure they are being used. Nevertheless, there have been wonderful initiatives that have responded to the pandemic in our field, for instance, there has been an explosion of online courses, tutorials, podcasts, conferences, and webinars led by libraries and information professionals. Moreover, document delivery services have been crucial for ensuring that students have access to the specialized literature required in their academic programs, but some of it is not even available digitally, at least officially. This issue will perhaps allow us to critically reexamine how the bibliography supporting the curriculum is selected and to strengthen the debates surrounding copyright. Publishing dynamics during the pandemic have also highlighted some important challenges and opportunities for us, as the production of preprints have increased as well as the importance of repositories and the issues surrounding peer-review, both pre- and post-publication.