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

3 - Philosophies and paradigms of information science


Librarians know very well how to do what they do, but they never concern themselves with why they do it. They understand the Können but the Wissen has escaped them. Their discipline is a vast accumulation of technical details rather than a body of organized abstract principles that can be applied in concrete situations – a body of knowledge known and understood by all members of the guild and one that librarians have themselves created.

Jesse Shera (1973, 262)

There is nothing so practical as a good theory

Kurt Lewin, German-American psychologist


In this chapter we will consider some of the overarching approaches to the study of information, and of information science. Specific theories – of informationrelated behaviour, and of Shannon's mathematical theory of communication, for example – will be covered in their appropriate chapters. Here, we will look at the general ways in which we can understand the discipline and practice of information science; these may be termed philosophies, paradigms or metatheories, or may be said to be the asking of ‘meta-questions’, or the examination of the presuppositions on which the field is based; for more discussion and examples of these terms, see Vickery (1997), Hjørland (1998) and Bates (2005).

Consideration of these theoretical foundations are as important for practice as for academic study. As the quote from Jesse Shera, above, reminds us, the information disciplines have for too long been concerned with the detail of practical activities – technical and organizational – without a proper understanding of what is being done, and why. As Hjørland (1998, 606) puts it, philosophies and meta-theories

have a fundamental impact on theories about users, their cognition and information seeking behaviour, on subject analysis, and on classification. They have also fundamental impact on information retrieval, on the understanding of ‘information’, on the view of documents and their role in communication, on information selection, on theories about the functions of information systems and on the role of information professionals.

Shera was writing specifically of library science, but concerns about the lack of a coherent body of disciplinary theory as the basis for study and practice have also been made for the other information sciences. Hjørland (1998) comments that it is difficult to give even one good example of an explicit theory in information; what we have are theories taken from other fields, and some ‘unconscious attitudes’ guiding research and practice.

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