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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2018

4 - Basic concepts of information science


Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field.

Claude Shannon

Information is information, not matter or energy.

Norbert Wiener


In this chapter, we will consider some of the basic concepts of the information sciences: information and knowledge, documents and collections, relevance and ‘aboutness’, and information use and users.

It may seem strange to find that there is still debate about the nature of these very fundamental ideas: as strange, perhaps, as finding a doctor who had no idea what a ‘disease’ or a ‘treatment’ was, or an engineer who had no idea what was meant by ‘materials’ or ‘design’. That is not to say that there need be a perfect understanding of these concepts; doctors treated diseases, sometimes quite effectively, long before they had any realistic idea of what caused them. But most professions expect to have some understanding of the basic concepts with which they deal.

‘Information’, ‘knowledge’, ‘document’, and so on, are tricky concepts, which can have many different meanings, and can be understood in many different ways. These are not just academic matters; they can have a real effect on professional practice. What someone understands by ‘knowledge’, for example, and its relation to ‘information’, will determine how they go about the practical business of ‘knowledge management’. And what a librarian or information specialist understands by a ‘document’ will determine what sort of things they keep on their shelves or in their computer files.

We begin by looking at perhaps the most fundamental of concepts: information itself, and knowledge.

Information and knowledge

Shannon and Wiener and I

Have found it confusing to try

To measure sagacity

And channel capacity

By Ʃ pi log pi

Anonymous, Behavioural Science, 1962, 7 (July issue), 395

Information, argued John Feather and Paul Sturges in the 1997 Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Information and Library Science, is probably the most used, and the least precisely understood, term in the library and information world.

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