Started in the late 1990s by deans of three library schools in the United States, the iSchool movement has grown to include 16 European institutions. The expansion required revision of the original North American model, assumptions about academic positions and funding. Among the European schools, some differences exist in curricular focus, though funding needs may reinforce subject area overlap. As an example, the Berlin School of Library and Information Science offers multiple programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, with varying curricula focusing on practical librarianship, computer emphasis or extended research. The curricula at other European iSchools, their research pursuits and employment opportunities for bachelor’s and master’s program graduates vary widely. Most attaining a doctorate degree go into management since academic positions are limited. European iSchools collaborate through planning, exchange programs and a shared doctoral colloquium, and funding sources reward cooperative institutional efforts and geographic diversity.
information science education
The European iSchools
by Michael Seadle
The iSchools began in the United States in the late 1990s as a “gang of three” deans who headed schools with similar interests and had the word information in their names: Tony Carbo, Pittsburgh, Donald Marchand, Syracuse, and Richard Lytle, Drexel. The group grew to five in 2001 and to 10 by 2003. The schools were former library schools that wanted to grow their programs and the opportunities for their graduates beyond the constraints of the library name and the perceived shrinking market for librarians. Many of the schools belonged to elite institutions that measured success in terms of grant money. They recognized that cooperation mattered for grant applications and saw potential synergies among their schools. They also recognized that “information” was not an established field. If they were to succeed as information schools, they needed to create a discipline.
These deans saw the group as an opportunity to share information about research opportunities and common administrative problems and to discuss directions for future development. By 2008 the first schools outside the United States joined: the University of Toronto and Singapore Management University. Even though the orientation remained strongly North American, some members encouraged the first European schools to apply. The Berlin School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Royal School of Library and Information Science (now part of the University of Copenhagen) joined almost simultaneously in March 2009, followed closely by the School of Information at the University of Sheffield.
Despite these new additions, the North American model remained dominant in the minds of members. The heads of two of the international member schools had grown up in the United States, and the language of business at all except the two continental European schools was English. This led to assumptions about academic ranks, administrative structures and finances that often applied imperfectly to the European members. Nonetheless the iSchools made an explicit decision to grow. Members realized that the criteria needed modification in order to make sense in other countries. At one point the iSchools required applicants to have a million U.S. dollars in annual grant funding, but the way non-U.S. institutions calculated grant income varied greatly. The specific dollar amount was dropped and the criterion changed to requiring significant external research income. Likewise the earlier admissions criteria had required the title of “dean” so that all members were at the same administrative level, but the various administrative structures in different countries meant that this also had to change to the more general title, “head of school.”
The geography of the European iSchool region includes 16 schools in the European Union itself, plus Norway, Turkey and Israel. The northern group, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, the Scandinavian schools and the United Kingdom, have historic connections to library training programs and often still have government contracts to prepare students for library careers. The southern group, including France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, as well as the new members in Israel and Turkey, are more diverse, with a range of specialties that include telecommunications, business, computer science and digital humanities. The overlap between the groups is nonetheless significant, especially when it comes to EU funded projects.
Any characterization of the teaching of so diverse a group risks both overgeneralization and exclusion. This section will describe primarily the Berlin School, the author’s home institution, in order to provide specific examples.
The Berlin School offers two bachelor’s programs, three master’s programs and two doctoral programs. One of the bachelor’s programs offers a broad range of courses that can fit library careers, but are equally intended for those interested in digital publishing and the broad issues of information and society. These students must complete at least one required computing course. The second bachelor’s program is a joint program with computer science. These students take half of their courses from the computer science department and half together with the other Berlin School bachelor’s students. These students must have strong mathematics skills and be able to write complex programs. An especially broad range of job opportunities is open to them, which is one reason why the program is popular, even though it is quite new.
The basic master’s program builds on the basic bachelor’s in offering content that can be appropriate for a library career, but it is fundamentally for students who are research oriented. The initial required course is on research methods and a second covers digital information infrastructures. One goal is to prepare students for writing a doctoral dissertation, and many students think about pursuing this option. While most of the teaching for these classes takes place in German, at least three modules in the summer semester are taught in English to accommodate international exchange students and to give the German students an opportunity to practice their English.
A second master’s program is fundamentally practice oriented and specifically for librarians. It functions roughly the way U.S. executive education programs do, by training students who already have positions and want a further qualification to move up in the hierarchy. Also as in U.S. executive education, the employer often pays the fees, which by German standards are relatively high. Students come to Berlin once per month from all over Germany, as well as from Austria and Switzerland and occasionally other countries, to take part in two days of intensive “consultations” – which are a hybrid of lecture and seminar based on homework the students have done between sessions. This program is over 20years old and has graduates in high positions in many German libraries.
The third master’s program is a joint program with the department of digital humanities at King’s College London (KCL). It focuses on digital curation and the skills and knowledge that individuals need for this profession. Students come from all over the world. Classes are in English, and the program uses the tuition fee structure of KCL, which makes it expensive by European standards, even though European students receive a 50 percent discount. The students spend their first year in Berlin getting a background in technology and research methods. The second year is in London and has more of a digital humanities focus.
Berlin offers a traditional German doctoral program where students write their doctoral dissertations relatively independently, with only occasional contact with their advisors. This program is for students who have extensive research background and need no further formal training. Students in this program are generally self-funded, often with a job that competes for their time. An advantage of this program is that it offers an opportunity to professionals who have good research skills but cannot easily interrupt their careers to spend years taking courses.
A second doctoral program more closely resembles the U.S. model in which students go directly from the master’s to doctoral work. They spend two to four years working on research projects and taking or helping to teach courses in their areas of interest. There is no formal curriculum for doctoral students, as in U.S. programs, and the preparation is much more tailored to their specific interests. The oral defense of the doctoral dissertation takes place between the readers (advisors) and the candidate. This process is like the model in the United States and unlike the practice in the Scandinavian countries and the UK, where external examiners determine whether a candidate passes. A unique feature of the German doctorate is that the work is graded, although the grades are essentially meaningless outside of Germany.
Other European iSchools have similar and often very diverse programs. Copenhagen, for example, has a strong culture emphasis in addition to its information science courses. Tampere in Finland has a program on gaming. Telecom Bretagne in France offers telecommunication courses and has a strong emphasis on software engineering. And Nova in Portugal has strong business and statistics courses. Because of the European-wide Bologna program, most schools offer bachelor’s as well as master’s degrees, and it is not unusual for students to switch into or out of a program, though such changes are probably less common than in the United States, because of well-established traditions that have focused less on the liberal arts than on depth within a discipline.
The job market for bachelor’s and master’s graduates encompasses everything from high-tech firms like Google to one-person libraries and certainly includes publishers, media organizations, research institutes and various parts of the information industry. In percentage terms, libraries are probably still the largest single employer for schools with a historic library school background, but they are no longer the majority employer. Students may enroll initially with the idea of becoming librarians, but they discover new areas of interest, as is typical of students everywhere. There is also some trend in Germany for libraries to hire bachelor’s graduates rather than master’s graduates, because they are less expensive, and then to send them to an executive education program later.
The job market for doctoral students is significantly different in continental Europe than in North America, where the doctorate is primarily a qualification for becoming a professor. Traditionally in continental Europe universities have a very limited number of professorships. In North America it is not unusual for most of the permanent teaching staff to have some form of professor title, and it is not unusual for a department to have more full professors than assistants or associates. An assistant professor in North America can generally expect to rise in rank from assistant to associate to full professor based on merit, not on whether a full professor position comes open. In Europe a few countries have adopted the North American ranks, but not the merit-based progression to full professor, whose numbers are strictly limited. This means that most doctoral students cannot realistically expect to become professors in their home countries.
Nonetheless doctoral programs thrive in continental Europe because of a broad-based respect for the title. A person with a doctorate has a good chance at leadership positions in government and industry and certainly in cultural institutions. A doctorate does not exactly substitute for an MBA in Europe, but the MBA remains a relatively uncommon degree and a doctorate can open many of the same doors to management positions that an MBA would in North America.
As with teaching, the research activities across the European iSchools are difficult to characterize without invoking platitudes about the breadth of information science. Even the research methodologies range from computer science to history and cultural anthropology. Linguistics plays a role, but literary studies are rare. The natural sciences can be the subject of analysis, but play almost no methodological role, even when professors occasionally have a natural science background, such as the biologist Walter Umstätter in Berlin. Libraries appear as the object of research at some schools, but even then the focus is on metadata or search techniques or user studies in the broadest sense, not on older subjects like cataloging, reference or bibliographic instruction.
A few specific examples of research topics from Berlin include long-term digital archiving, not only for content from major publishers, but for the long tail of small discipline-specific publishers and for research data, especially in the social sciences. This area obviously involves libraries, but also computer centers, software developers and national policy issues. Another topic is cross-language searching in Europeana, which involves linguistic and cultural issues, as well the computing technology that integrates the contents of this large scale multi-national digital library. Other topics include research into gaming (at Tampere) and the behavioral side of human interactions with information as well as with computers. The research topics are more diverse than the course offerings, though generally related to them.
The European iSchools have a less formal organizational structure than the Asia-Pacific iSchools, but they do collaborate at multiple levels. The heads of the schools meet periodically in different cities. The topic of the last meeting was broad-scale involvement in an application for a European Union grant for curriculum development. Recently professors from multiple schools, including some newer members, came together to work on another proposal without any top-down pressure to do so.
Copenhagen and Berlin have a long-standing exchange program for master’s students. The Danish students come to Berlin in the German summer semester, which runs from April through July, and the German students go to Copenhagen in the Danish autumn semester, which runs from September through December. In both cases the courses must be in English, since the Danish students generally do not know German, and the German students know no Danish. This creates a link of equality for both the visitors and the locals, who are all working in a foreign language.
Berlin, Copenhagen and now Borås (Sweden) have a shared doctoral colloquium that takes place roughly once per semester via video conference. Faculty from all schools take part and give commentary to the participating doctoral student presenters. Again the language is necessarily English. This is a model that can easily be expanded, and other European iSchools have expressed an interest in joining. Thus far there has been no attempt to limit topics, with the result that the range is very broad.
The number of European iSchools has grown fast in the last few years, and it is not surprising that the original European iSchools caucus members, Berlin and Copenhagen, have a closer cooperation than the others. An incentive for cooperation is the substantial multi-partner grants from the European Commission, whose themes vary from time to time. Geographic diversity often plays a political role in these grants, and the iSchools have that diversity. As with the U.S. iSchools, many are associated with top-ranked research universities, which expect that their professors will bring in significant research money and which have the infrastructure to handle large grants. The European iSchools collaborate also with those in North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Wuhan in China and SKKU in Korea are in the process of developing closer ties with a few European iSchools.
Michael Seadle is director of the school and dean of the Faculty of Arts I at the Institut für Bibliotheks- und Informationswissenschaft. Humbolt Universität zu Berlin. He is the past-chair of the iCaucus. He can be reached at seadle<at>hu-berlin.de