In an interview with the special section guest editors, Ronald L. Larsen, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences and chair of the iCaucus, discussed the origins and goals of the iSchool movement, starting in 2005. Larsen explained key differences from traditional information science programs as institutional interest and doctoral programs that reflect intense academic research, paired with core values and expertise to support evolving demands in an increasingly digital world. Criteria for recognition as an iSchool or school of information include expertise or a solid foundation in all forms of information, its use and users and information technology applications. Multidisciplinarity is a strong attraction for many faculty and students. As of early 2016, 65 iSchools existed, over half being outside North America. The iSchools consortium sponsors annual iConferences and has been formalized as a corporate entity dedicated to global recognition, educating information professionals and exploring the effects of information and information technologies.
information science education
information science history
colleges and universities
Overview of the iSchool Movement
An Interview with Ronald L. Larsen, iCaucus Chair
Editor’s Note: The following is an email interview conducted with Ronald Larsen by Koraljka Golub, Joacim Hansson and Lars Selden, the guest editors for this special section on iSchools. The three editors are in the Department of Library and Information Science, School of Cultural Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden.
- What are the main objectives of the iSchools organization and the concept of iSchools?
Drawing from descriptive material at www.ischools.org, “[t]he iSchools organization was founded in 2005 by a collective of Information Schools dedicated to advancing the information field in the 21st Century. These schools, colleges, and departments have been newly created or are evolving from programs formerly focused on specific tracks such as information technology, library science, informatics, and information science. While each individual iSchool has its own strengths and specializations, together they share a fundamental interest in the relationships between information, people, and technology.”
The organization is managed by “[t]he iSchool Caucus [that] seeks to maximize the visibility and influence of its member schools, and their interdisciplinary approaches to harnessing the power of information and technology, and maximizing the potential of humans. We envision a future in which the iSchool Movement has spread around the world, and the information field is widely recognized for creating innovative systems and designing information solutions that benefit individuals, organizations, and society. iSchool graduates will fill the personnel and leadership needs of organizations of all types and sizes; and our areas of research and inquiry will attract strong support and have profound impacts on society and on the formulation of policy from local to international levels.”
The goals of the iSchools consortium are to:
- Lead and promote the information field.Member schools are committed to collective efforts that will shape the information field, communicate its purpose and value and enhance its visibility.
- Create effective responses to strategic research and academic opportunities. Member schools work together to enhance academic initiatives and to leverage funding for important research challenges in the information field.
- Provide support for, and solutions to shared challenges.Member schools provide one another with mutual support and a collective identity, helping constituent schools respond to local challenges and advance the information field.
- Provide informed perspectives on matters of public policy as they affect the collection, organization, dissemination, use, and preservation of information.
The “iSchools promote an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the opportunities and challenges of information management, with a core commitment to concepts like universal access and user-centered organization of information. The field is concerned broadly with questions of design and preservation across information spaces, from digital and virtual spaces such as online communities, social networking, the World Wide Web, and databases to physical spaces such as libraries, museums, collections, and other repositories.”
- What is the main difference between ALA-accredited iSchools and ALA accredited non-iSchools, in particular regarding curricula?
In North America, 23 iSchools host graduate programs that are accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), and 21 of these offer Ph.D. programs; 36 ALA-accredited schools are not members of the iSchool consortium, of which seven offer Ph.D. programs run completely by faculty in the school. Another four ALA-accredited “non-iSchools” collaborate on interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs that are offered by other units on campus, and one more operates a Ph.D. program built on collaboration with another university entirely. Twenty four of the ALA-accredited institutions do not grant Ph.D. degrees.
Drawing again from the iSchools’ website, “[d]egree programs at iSchools include course offerings in areas such as information architecture, design, policy, and economics; knowledge management, user experience design, and usability; preservation and conservation; librarianship and library administration; the sociology of information; and human-computer interaction and computer science.” Most, if not all, of these courses offerings can be found at all of the ALA-accredited schools, so the distinction between those who are members of the iSchools consortium is less one of curricula than it is one of institutional interest and research intensity as evidenced by active Ph.D. programs.
- Why would you advise a library and information science school to join the iSchools organization?
Library and information science is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary as the record of human accomplishment expands to include an ever-growing array of both digital and analog media. Digital technologies have had a particularly transformative impact, yielding vastly expanded access to information resources while concurrently placing much of the digital record at risk to long-term preservation. We have all heard the assertion that libraries may be irrelevant in a digital age, but the reality is that the core values and expertise represented by the library are essential to a global information network where issues of accessibility, provenance, validity, censorship and privacy (to name only a few) are unsettled and challenged. Library and information science schools have a long-held tradition of educating professionals to protect these values, albeit largely in an analog world. But these schools are adapting and evolving, and they are beginning to understand the changing role of library and information professionals to support a highly dynamic and challenging information landscape.
A number of schools situated in research universities that were individually wrestling with these issues 10 years ago conceived the iSchools organization as a means of sharing understanding and strategies and building a visible community to address them. The international groundswell of interest that followed reinforced the need for such an organization. We remain a fledgling organization, but one that has high ambitions and expectations to work together to preserve the historic values of librarianship and to extend them throughout a digital world. Schools that share this ambition would be joining an international consortium through which they could refine, focus, magnify and leverage their individual efforts.
- What are general requirements to join the iSchool organization? Are there any expectations of the applying library and information science school to adjust its curriculum?
The iSchools website documents the requirements and expectations for membership. “The iSchools take it as given that expertise in all forms of information is required for progress in science, business, education and culture. This expertise must include understanding of the uses and users of information, the nature of information itself, as well as information technologies and their applications. The iSchools have organized under this charter to pursue common objectives with a collective commitment of resources.
“Criteria for being recognized as an iSchool are not rigid, but schools are expected to have substantial sponsored research activity, engagement in the training of future researchers (usually through an active, research-oriented doctoral program) and a commitment to progress in the information field. In other parts of the world, a determination will be based on local circumstances, such as the reporting structure within the country and within the institution.
“Schools that share these purposes and can provide evidence they meet the baseline characteristics described above are encouraged to complete this application form. If your organization is accepted, your school will be listed on our website as an iSchool. You will also be assessed a modest annual administrative fee (currently $500). Once that fee is paid, you may contribute a brief description of your students, faculty, research and academic programs for the various parts of the iSchools organization website. . . . and you may tag RSS-based news items to be picked up by the ischools.org newsfeed aggregator.”
- Are there any special requirements for library and information science schools from outside the United States who would like to join?
At its inception, the iSchools membership was composed of 10 North American institutions, and it benefitted from a rather simple and consistent set of parameters that could be applied uniformly in considering membership. Among these, for example, were requirements that the chief academic officer (typically a dean) report to the provost, that the school was active in research, offered a Ph.D. program and attracted at least a million dollars of external funding per year to support its research. As the membership extended beyond North America, it became clear that these criteria needed to be adapted to accommodate different academic structures and research funding strategies. As an organization, we strive to apply meaningful and uniform criteria worldwide; hence, the organization currently has a relatively flexible application process that seeks evidence from the applicant that provides the basis for subsequent consideration, discussion and resolution.
- Have any library and information science schools been rejected and for what reasons?
Occasionally, an applying school lacks a demonstrable record or priority for active engagement in research. Others have explored an affiliation with the iSchools without demonstrating institutional commitment to the organization’s mission; this might occur, for example, when a school’s disciplinary focus is only peripherally related to the information professions. The application process is primarily designed to detect a mismatch between the applicant’s and the iSchools’ objectives and expectations. As a relatively new organization, we are getting better at expressing the organization’s expectations for membership and anticipate that this will continue to improve as we grow and mature. Outright rejections are rare, however, as we welcome schools with aspirations that are consistent with the iSchools’ goals and plans.
- When recruiting students, is the iSchool concept presented as something specific, as an asset? Does the iSchool concept bring any advantages in faculty recruitment?
Many iSchools portray their identity as the place on campus where the convergence of people, information and technology provides the intellectual focus. As such, iSchools are among the most multidisciplinary academic units within our universities. Faculty typically include (but are not limited to) computer and information scientists, librarians, historians, cognitive psychologists, archivists, electrical engineers, mathematicians and social scientists. Many iSchools feature this multidisciplinarity in recruiting both students and faculty and treat it as a distinguishing and defining asset. This feature attracts both students and faculty with wide-ranging and far-reaching interests. We encourage our students to explore the landscape of information, including not only the quantitative, analytic and technical dimensions, but also the qualitative, social and cultural. Graduates are expected to demonstrate relevant technological expertise as well as grounding in the legal, economic and ethical dimensions of their professions. We seek to establish an emerging field of information that is recognized and studied as a distinct academic discipline. This goal presents both opportunities and challenges for new faculty. We welcome (and need) diverse perspectives in developing such a discipline and also recognize that academic success (for example, promotion and tenure) may require adaptation of institutional policies. Many such issues have already been successfully addressed by a number of iSchools.
- What is the significance of using the term iSchool or School of Information in the name of the school as some schools seem to have kept their previous names?
One of the original goals of the iSchools organization was to foster recognition of information as a distinct field of scholarly study. Membership includes schools with histories and traditions in librarianship, information science, computer science and telecommunications that are finding their curricula and research interests increasingly overlapping and largely centering on the relationships of people, information and technology. Recent widespread interest in big data and social media, for example, provides evidence of this overlap. The management, analysis and interpretation of large volumes of data are computationally intensive activities that have very substantial implications for individuals, organizations and society. These are issues of profound interest to many in academia, and our objective is to aggregate and organize the population of schools exploring such interests under the brand of information schools, or iSchools. Some schools have chosen to reflect such an identity in their official name; others have not. These are, in every case, local decisions based on local considerations. Members are encouraged, however, to include the iSchools logo () in their websites and promotional materials.
- How do you see the development of iSchools outside the United States?
At the present time, the iSchools membership numbers 65 institutions: 30 in North America, 23 in Europe, eight in Asia, three in Australia, and one in Africa. The number of iSchools outside the United States now exceeds the number within the United States. It is a truly international consortium of institutions that share the organization’s ideals. Our more recent additions to the membership include Makerere University in Uganda, extending the organization’s reach into Africa. We look forward to similarly welcoming new members in South America, establishing a stronger global representation. Regional aggregations of iSchools (North America, Europe and Asia) have recently been organized to foster greater interaction, collaboration and coordination among schools located on the same continent. Each year, selected member institutions host the iConference, “an annual gathering of a broad spectrum of scholars and researchers from around the world who share a common concern about critical information issues in contemporary society” (from www.ischools.org). The first iConference was hosted by Penn State University in 2005. The University of Toronto hosted the first iConference outside of the United States in 2012, and Humboldt University in Berlin hosted the first iConference outside of North America in 2012. Wuhan University, China, and Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea, will host the 2017 iConference in Wuhan, China, bringing the conference to Asia for the first time.
- How do you see the future of the iSchool movement?
The consortium has recently incorporated in Washington, DC, and applied for 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit educational organization. Its membership continues to grow, and as it does, we strive to build a portfolio of resources, events and activities that serves the members’ interests and advances the information field as an academic discipline. An executive director was added to the professional staff in 2015 to bring professional management discipline and rigor to the growing and maturing organization, which up to this point has largely relied on volunteer leadership. The consortium’s future will continue to evolve and respond to the strategic interests and aspirations of its membership, which includes schools, colleges and universities designing innovative systems, exploring the impact of information and information technologies and educating a new generation of information professionals. The iSchools consortium intends to be the global resource for education and research at the nexus of information, people and technology. As mentioned on the organization’s website, “[w]e envision a future in which the iSchool Movement has spread around the world, and the information field is widely recognized for creating innovative systems and designing information solutions that benefit individuals, organizations, and society.”
Ronald L. Larsen is dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburg and chair of the iCaucus. He can be reached at rlarsen<at>sis.pitt.edu or on Twitter: @ronlarsen.