Library and Information Science “Transition from information to knowledge”

Librarian in a library
Librarian in a library | Photo (detail): © Colourbox

Library and information science is far from being an established discipline at German universities. But it appears to have good chances of success in the field of interdisciplinary research.

Despite the rapid pace at which the information society is developing, library and information science leads a somewhat shadowy existence at German universities, with only a very modest number of institutions here offering the subject at all.

Nine German universities run courses in library and information science at relatively small institutes. One is a conventional university – Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – while the other eight are universities of applied sciences: Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Cologne University of Applied Sciences, Leipzig University of Applied Sciences, the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration and Legal Affairs in Bavaria in Munich, Potsdam University of Applied Sciences and Stuttgart Media University.

Long tradition, yet lacking an established place

The term “library science” was first used in 1808 when monastery librarian Martin Schrettinger brought out his work entitled Towards a Complete Textbook of Library Science. The first opportunity to study the subject came about when a chair in librarian ancillary science was established at the University of Göttingen in 1886, though it remained in place for only 35 years. In Germany, the longest tradition of library science can be found at the institute in Leipzig, which has been training librarians without interruption since 1914.

“Since time immemorial, library and information science has played a fairly minor role in Germany – as compared, for instance, with the very well established subjects of library and information sciences in the USA”, explains Stefan Gradmann, professor at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt-Universität. “The subject finds itself in a difficult situation because it needs to set itself apart in several different directions at once: from information technology on the one hand and from the institutional interests of libraries and their associations on the other.”

Professional training and research

“Librarian training and library science should not be separated from one another in Germany”, believes Gerhard Hacker, professor of library and information science at Leipzig University of Applied Sciences (HTWK). Universities of applied sciences in particular provide a very practical training and in the past ten years have hugely raised the profile of their degree courses. This practical relevance is also reflected in the research projects: “As a rule, we address concrete questions with which libraries and other partners in the information industry come to us.”

The situation is somewhat different at a conventional university: “We cannot really allow ourselves to be restricted so narrowly to training people for the job of librarian. We see ourselves as a scientific institute at which one can also acquire skills relevant in a professional context”, says Stefan Gradmann. His institute at Humboldt-Universität is a member of “iSchools”, an international group of library and information science institutes which perceive themselves as excellent.

Current areas of research focus

While library and information science had a strong historical orientation in nineteenth century Germany, the subject has meanwhile developed in two main directions. Since the dawn of digitization and networking in the nineteen eighties, there has been a strong link to information technology.

Stefan Gradmann regards the “transition from information to knowledge” as being a very important current focus of research here: “It is all about how information can be contextualized so that it is translated into knowledge. Ultimately, that concerns everything to do with the Semantic Web and Linked Data.”

Furthermore, the subject is moving noticeably into the area of social scientific research, exploring issues such as the teaching of information literacy and the usability of media.

Web science and digital humanities

One thing on which experts do agree is that the future of library and information science lies in interdisciplinary cooperation. “It is a fact that in 50 years we will have no decent means of raw data management to cope with increasingly large volumes of data – no matter in which discipline – without expertise in the field of library and information science”, believes Gerhard Hacker. “I think our institutes can influence their neighbouring disciplines to a much greater extent than they have done in the past – and thus become as indispensable as libraries are as suppliers of information to universities.”

Stefan Gradmann is certain that the future of information science lies partly in the field of “digital humanities”, which is all about understanding and interpretation in the digital context. “What is more, I believe it is a specific part of the current trend towards Web Science. If we manage to jump on the bandwagon here, the subject will once again become much more visible than it was in the past.”