What’s In a Name? A Vision for a New Department

Over the past year, the School of Information Sciences (SIS) has been immersed in discussions to merge with the Computer Science department to form a new School of Computing and Informatics (final name yet to be determined). It is anticipated that the new school will start operations on July 1, 2017, pending approval by the Provost and Chancellor. In the meantime the existing four programs of SIS were formed into two new departments. The Library and Information Science program was morphed into the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship. This department will officially start operations on July 1, 2016. I was elected Chair of this new department. What follows are notes I prepared for a presentation to the All Faculty meeting at SIS on February 19th? My comments at this meeting were informal, but what follows is a more formal statement, one that is my own personal vision.

We live in interesting times, the emerging Digital Era in which the computer has impacted everything and is ubiquitous and essential to nearly every aspect of our work and lives. Yet, we recognize that with this new change come many challenges requiring a rethinking of what we do. There are new professions, new ways of conducting research, and new ways of teaching. The computer is, after all, both within our society and a shaper of it. Such issues have long characterized much of the orientation of the old Library and Information Science program, and they explain the new name for the Department, Information Culture and Data Stewardship.

There are four key words in the new department name: Information, Data, Culture, and Stewardship. All of these have multiple meanings, but let me explain how we are viewing them. Information has been the mainstay of our school for half a century. Data has emerged as a more recent aspect of our society and this school, reflecting the growing role of computing across society. Both have affected and are affecting traditional libraries and archives, and we acknowledge this, addressing the need for new educational programs to prepare new kinds of information professionals and researchers.

The more important words are Society and Stewardship. Using Information Culture, we are communicating that what we are about is not just building and using tools but in understanding the implications and often unintended consequences of computing. The phrase has often been used to indicate how information is used within any given organization (behavior, norms, and values), but we see this in a much broader way. In this, we are emphasizing the computer’s functioning in society – its ethical, legal, political, privacy, and other implications.

We can get a glimpse of what this is about by examining the expanded scope of the journal Information & Culture: A Journal of History published by the University of Texas at Austin. The journal covers the “interactions of people, organizations, and societies with information and technologies,” examining the “social and cultural context of information and information technology, viewed from an historical perspective.” Of course, we also recognize that there is a long tradition of writing about the place of computer in society from within the information disciplines, by individuals such as Arnold Pacey (The Culture of Technology) and Thomas Landauer (The Trouble with Computers). Research monographs, social commentaries, reports, and essays have continued to pour forth, indicating the important role computing plays in our lives, both good and bad

Now, what do we mean by data stewardship? Historically, libraries have functioned as repositories of human knowledge. Archives are even older and have been the focal point of maintaining critically important information for the benefit of humankind, for purposes of memory, accountability, and evidence of past activity. The shift to computing as the means for creating and using information and data challenges the normal means by which such archival and stewardship roles have been carried out. This is why we have appropriated the word stewardship, managing data and information in a way (content, metadata, and policy,) that ensures that we will not lose material (now generally digital rather than analog) that is essential to organizations, government, and citizens. Embracing this and the notion of information culture gives us, we believe, an essential and somewhat unique role within the new School of Computing and Informatics. It is a role we are quite excited to develop and lead in.

At this point we are developing what we call “pathways” to refocus our curriculum. We have two primary pathways, Librarianship (pulling together many specializations in traditional librarianship (academic, public, and school libraries, for example) and Archives are the two current ones. In both of these well-established areas we see them more as functions rather than places, although the latter may be a substantial barrier to better recruiting of a more diversified student body. However, what we are doing is reflecting the changing nature of these fields in the Digital Era. A recent sidebar article in the March 2016 Atlantic (Deborah Fallows, “The Library Card”) rejects the stereotyped images of libraries and librarians in favor of them as “bustling civic centers,” emphasizing their roles as providing computers and Internet connections, supporting education, and building community. So much for libraries as just places to store books or to offer quiet study rooms.

We are intending to finalize a new pathway in Data Stewardship by the end of this term. We also intending to begin developing new undergraduate courses reflecting these three and serving as feeders to our masters program; how this works out, depends on how the undergraduate area is organized within the new School. Next year we intend to revisit the idea of a Professional Institute, something discussed during the merger discussions but never clarified in a satisfactory matter. We do not see this as a place to put teaching faculty, but rather we see it as a central aspect of our commitment to supporting professions with critically important roles in our society. Given that data is at the heart of new industries, disciplines, and governance, it is essential that we have experts who will ensure that the right data is identified for long-term retention and use.

We recognize that we face some daunting tasks. We must rebuild our faculty to reflect and support the Digital Age. We must rebuild our enrollment. It is at the lowest levels we have ever experienced, reflecting downward trends in other similar programs. Developing unique new features in our curriculum and revitalizing our recruitment approaches will change this. We must strengthen our research output and research funding. While we have faculty engaged in research and publishing, we need to diversity and expand into new collaborative and interdisciplinary avenues. We must develop an array of revenue streams in order to support our Department and build for the future. We must, ourselves, be driven by data about enrollment and revenue to make appropriate strategic decisions for the future. In this, we must recognize that we have to work in different ways than we have been accustomed to doing.

I see my role as a leader and facilitator, not only as a manager. I am working on an approach that will have us spend less time in meetings and focused more on getting things done. Talk is important, but action is essential. I am now discussing with faculty about how they see their roles in the new Department and how they will assume some service responsibility. I am not a micro-manager. I will use what resources we have at this point to support important strategic aims.

The challenges are, indeed, immense. But the opportunities are unlimited with this new Department and new School.


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