The importance of collaboration

XVI.2 March + April 2009
Page: 15
Digital Citation

TIMELINESThe information school phenomenon

Gary Olson, Jonathan Grudin

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The past 15 years have seen a remarkable movement in academic circles, the emergence of information schools, or iSchools for short (the moniker created by an organization of such schools). In this article we examine the iSchool movement, tracing its history, speculating on its longevity, and looking at its impact on human computer interaction (HCI) research and education.

The iSchools have an organization—the iSchools Caucus (—and hold an annual conference; as of this writing, 21 schools are members. Antecedents of the iSchool phenomenon emerged gradually in the late 20th century. The movement gathered momentum in the early 1990s and has already stirred several pots: the library world, computer science, design studies, to name a few.

Let's preface the history of the iSchools with a brief digression on the status of a school in a university. Although there are no formal definitions of what a university is, most universities consist of a collection of schools and colleges, which in turn oversee the programs of the various disciplines or departments. Universities themselves are fascinating organizations, evolving and reacting to changes in society around them. At many U.S. universities, a school or college is in a politically strong position. Their deans are powerful in the university's administrative structure, much more so than departments and department chairs [1].

So in the context of university life, it is significant that we are talking about iSchools. Most of the organizations under this banner are indeed schools or colleges; many can be found at leading research universities.

back to top  "Information" Becomes an Academic Focus, and Syracuse the First iSchool

The term "information" was gradually added to the names of departments and schools. In 1964 the Graduate Library School at the University of Pittsburgh became the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. In 1968, the new University of California Irvine campus established a "proto-school" called Information and Computer Science [2].

Then, in 1974, Syracuse University Dean Robert Taylor, noting the rise of telecommunications and computing, rechristened the School of Library Science as the School of Information Studies. He considered this "a way to fold the library science program's vision of enabling people to find and use information into an ever-broadening set of academic disciplines." It would be 20 years before another school selected a name in which information was the only discipline [3].

Library science has a central role in this account, so it is important to note that departments and schools of library science went through a very rough period during the 1970s and 1980s. More than 15 library schools closed, including several at leading research universities—Chicago, Minnesota, Columbia, and the University of Southern California. They were producing librarians but failed to meet the academic standards of leading research universities. In addition, librarianship was overshadowed in the eyes of many by the rapidly expanding, highly paid information technology profession [4].

It was in this period that many schools added the term "information" to their name, most often by shifting "library" to "library and information," although there were other combinations as well. Pressure continued into the 1990s as the spread of digital technologies raised questions about the future of libraries and publishing. Several schools with a major library focus rethought their missions. In 1996 the University of Pittsburgh rechristened its school as the School of Information Sciences, and the University of Michigan officially sanctioned the School of Information.

The dean of the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana wrote of the change at Michigan: "In 1996, the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan metamorphosed into the School of Information. A first. Used though we were to talking about schools of business, we found it devilishly difficult to insert a period after 'information.' We'd become accustomed to 'information' being coupled with a qualifying noun such as 'studies,' 'science,' or 'management.' It took a little time to get used to the new moniker, and snickering could be heard in certain quarters. Those who scoffed have since had to eat their words. Michigan's scholar-dean, diverse faculty and research accomplishments mark it out as a program of note, a benchmark for other aspiring I-schools [5]." Here, we describe the process at Michigan, in which one of us participated, in more detail.

back to top  The University of Michigan School of Information

In 1992 University of Michigan President James Duderstadt appointed computer scientist and innovator Dan Atkins to be dean of the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS). Duderstadt provided resources to support change and convinced the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to invest, over time, more than $15 million in the school and the information movement in general.

Atkins organized activities to explore possible directions. Under a Kellogg-funded initiative called CRISTAL-ED (Coalition on Reinventing Information Science, Technology, and Library Education;, he gathered leading educators and thinkers from the library field and the broader information world. Participants explored the nature and possible futures of library education. Atkins liked to point out that the advice he got from these conferences was to think and act radically.

At the same time, Atkins convened a group of University of Michigan faculty with diverse perspectives; many had participated with him in past interdisciplinary projects. Several were SILS faculty, but most were from other departments, such as psychology, political science, economics, business administration, and computer science. In parallel with the CRISTAL-ED efforts, this group considered for more than a year how to institutionalize their mutual interests. A key strategy, ultimately successful, that emerged was to use Atkins's role as dean of SILS to transform the school into something much broader. These efforts led to the establishment of the School of Information in 1996, the name being selected from a list of more than 100 possibilities in discussions led by George Furnas.

The initial set of professional programs reflected the new mission. In keeping with the U.S. tradition of the principal library science degree being at the master's level, a collection of master's of science in information (M.S.I.) specializations were created: library and information science (LIS), archives and record management (ARM), human computer interaction (HCI), information economics management and policy (IEMP), and a tailored option. LIS, HCI, and the customized program were initially the most popular, although the other specializations grew over time. Subsequently, the school expanded to nine MSI specializations. Interestingly, when SI went to the American Library Association (ALA) for accreditation, ALA accredited the entire MSI program, not just the LIS portion.

A concomitant change was a huge increase in sponsored research. It grew from a few hundred thousand dollars per annum to more than $10 million within a decade, radically changing the culture of the school.

back to top  Alternative Paths to Schoolhood: Berkeley, Indiana, and Penn State

Another high-profile university, the University of California at Berkeley, found its small library science school beleaguered. In 1992 it suspended its Ph.D. program and considered closing the school altogether. An external committee recommended shifting the focus to information. In 1994 Berkeley recruited Hal Varian from Michigan, where he had been active in the School of Information discussions, to be dean of the new School of Information Management and Systems. ALA accreditation was abandoned, a clear break from the past. In 2006 UCB adopted the name School of Information, joining Michigan and Texas.

Indiana and Pennsylvania State University adopted pure startup models, both in 1999. Indiana's School of Informatics was independent of its School of Library and Information Science; Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology stood alongside its Department of Computer Science. Penn State hosted the first iSchool conference.

During the mid- to late-1990s, other schools enlarged their missions in different ways. Some changed their names, others retained older names while broadening disciplinary coverage—the University of Illinois is a strong example of the latter.

back to top  Multiple Disciplines

What were these changes about? The core vision is that information, technology, and people are considered to interact and to be of roughly equal significance. Launching this required a decidedly interdisciplinary approach, with experts in each area sharing insights into meaningful syntheses of the three components. The information component was populated from the fields of library science, archives, and information retrieval. Technology came mostly from computer science, but could include a range of information appliances, such as telephones, handhelds, and embedded systems. People were initially represented by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and management specialists. How to meld this interdisciplinary mix became a central energizing thrust at the early iSchools.

Of the 21 schools in the iSchool organization, 15 have library science in their genes, but other developments were also significant. Some computer science schools have broader missions, notably those at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and UC Irvine. Of these Georgia Tech and Irvine have joined the iSchool caucus—Carnegie Mellon participates via the School of Information Systems and Management. All three represent movement toward the iSchool vision by computer scientists. In contrast, Syracuse and Pittsburgh have more alignment with information systems, UCLA with education, and Rutgers with communication.

So, from diverse origins, a collection of schools emerged with highly overlapping visions. This convergence suggests an academic movement with considerable traction. Its presence in several high-profile universities suggests that it is lodged under the academic skin. For sure, many top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Virginia, have nothing in the area, but additional universities were in the Wikipedia iSchool list at the time of this writing, some of which are considering joining the iCaucus.

To anticipate how this might evolve, we can examine parallels. Interdisciplinary fields such as public policy and neuroscience succeeded first at a few pioneering universities, after which other major players created similar programs and eventually formed schools. Cognitive science had a similar multidisciplinary formation in the late 1970s, but growth has been slower, with several departments but no major schools. It is too early to confidently forecast the evolution of the information focus, but with so many schools already in place, it appears to have reached a critical mass.

back to top  The iConferences

A sense of common purpose and identity was forged by meetings of iSchool deans that evolved into the iConference series. In 1988 Dean Toni Carbo of Pittsburgh initiated semiannual gatherings with the Syracuse and Drexel deans, soon joined by Rutgers, at which they met privately and with the faculty of the host university to discuss a range of organizational, curricular, and research issues. This practice waned but was resumed by Carbo in 2001 with the inclusion of the University of Michigan, where the transformation of a leading library school had legitimized the effort in many eyes, and the University of Washington. In 2003 the number of participating Schools doubled [6].

Shared interests and common understanding were amplified by movements of faculty that somewhat resemble court marriages in feudal Europe. As noted, Hal Varian left Michigan to become the dean at Berkeley. In addition John King left UC Irvine to become Atkins's successor as the dean at Michigan, and Mike Eisenberg left Syracuse to become the founding dean of the Information School at the University of Washington. Social and intellectual networks grew dense.

The iCaucus formed, and the iConference series was initiated as part of the now annual gathering of deans. Participation in the iConference program has been restricted to faculty and graduate students of participating iSchools, but attendance is open.

The first iConference, held at Penn State in 2005, engendered a lively discussion of the iSchool vision. The second, at Michigan in 2006, focused more on research. The third, held in early 2008 at UCLA, introduced a broad range of venues: peer-reviewed papers, panels, posters, and roundtables, where everyone sat down and joined in discussing a topic. The next two are scheduled for North Carolina this year and Illinois in 2010. These meetings have attracted some curiosity-driven participation from outside the iSchools. Attendance has been healthy: The two-day UCLA meeting drew more than 100 students and 160 faculty, with nine non-academic participants. Although there were some plenary events, sessions typically had 10 parallel activities, each of which attracted a small interactive group. Many deans and senior faculty attended, but it was a youthful crowd overall, with even gender representation.

Between the first and the third iConference, the iSchools hired many new assistant professors. They came from different home disciplines, but their first job is in information, they strongly identify with it, and they attract good, enthusiastic grad students. The first faculty worked out pidgin languages to speak across disciplinary boundaries; by analogy to linguistic creolization, these younger researchers seem to be creating new complete languages and cultures.

To focus more narrowly, what are the implications for the field of HCI? In a word, enormous. Most iSchools have an HCI component, and in many cases it is the most vibrant HCI activity at their university. There is a natural fit between the core of HCI and the iSchool's charter of considering people, information, and technology in more fruitful ways. To be sure, often HCI also exists organizationally elsewhere in iSchool universities: in computer science, engineering, social or behavioral sciences, business schools, and in programs like communication studies and technical communication. But in many of these schools and departments, HCI is marginalized or a fringe activity, and much HCI education and research may gravitate to iSchools in the future.

back to top  Whither iSchools?

Sustainable, or a passing fad? Considering the staggering growth in our ability to inexpensively collect, transmit, transform, visualize, and store information, the study of information is probably in its infancy. It seems to us that this is an appropriate blend of intellectual traditions that fits with what's happening in the broader culture. Most iSchools have a reasonable mix of basic and applied research, occupying Donald Stokes's "Pasteur's Quadrant" [7]. In all academic evolutions, there are legacy organizations and there is some resistance to change, but the gathering momentum and energy in the iSchool movement cannot be denied. Graduates of iSchools are faring well in the job market, landing a variety of kinds of jobs in academics, nonprofits, government, and industry. iSchool faculty are contributing research that is respected in their home disciplines as well as in the information sphere. Our advice is, watch this space!

back to top  A Tip of the Hat...

Many people assisted us with this, especially in constructing the timeline. We are especially indebted to Toni Carbo, Don Marchand, John King, Ron Larsen, Mike Eisenberg, Harry Bruce, Jenny Preece, Herman Totten, Bob Allen, Diane Barlow, Judy Olson, Kevin Crowston, Margaret Spillett, Christine Borgman, Anne Gilliland, Bob Frost, C. Olivia Frost, Blaise Cronin, and Michael Buckland.

back to top  References

1. Some universities apply the terms school and college to somewhat different organizational entities, but we follow the convention used by most, whereby they are essentially equivalent.

2. We call this a "proto-school" because while it was a department, not a school, it was not part of any other school, and reported to the vice chancellor.

3. The quotation is from T. Didomenico, "Three Decades as an Information Leader," Home Page 7, no. 1 (2004). <>. Interpreting the word "information" in a title is complicated by the use of "information systems" as a synonym for computer hardware and software systems in the management field. We consider "information systems" to be a tightly defining term, not an expansive term, so do not include it as a variant of information. In contrast, "Informatics" as used at Indiana has a social, multidisciplinary focus. Our incomplete canvas found an M.S. in information science at Drexel in 1963, thus far the earliest iDegree of which we are aware.

4. Ostler, L.J., T.C. Dahlin, and J.D. Willardson. The Closing of American Library Schools: Problems and Opportunities. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

5. Cronin, B. "An Identity crisis? The information schools movement." International Journal of Information Management, 25 (2005): 363–365.

6. This history draws on a November 26, 2008 personal communication from John King and on Ron Larsen: "The iSchools." In The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Edited by M. Bates, London: Taylor & Francis, in press.

7. Stokes, D.E, Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 1997. Stokes criticizes the traditional linear model of the relationship between basic and applied research, and instead we should conceptualize these as two independent dimensions. To him, Pasteur represents an instance of being high on both the search for fundamental knowledge (basic) and the solving of practical problems (applied). In other words, these two dimensions are not in conflict.

back to top  Authors

After spending 33 years at the University of Michigan, Gary Olson recently moved to the University of California, Irvine, where he is Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences. His interests are in computer supported cooperative work, with a focus on what makes some geographically distributed teams effective. He recently co-edited Scientific Research on the Internet, published in 2008 by MIT Press.

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research. His Web page is

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Sidebar: The iSchools Caucus

University of California, Berkeley
School of Information

University of California, Irvine
The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences

University of California, Los Angeles
Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

Carnegie Mellon University
School of Information Systems and Management, Heinz College

Drexel University
College of Information Science and Technology

Florida State University
College of Information

Georgia Institute of Technology
College of Computing

University of Illinois
Graduate School of Library and Information Science

Indiana University
School of Informatics

Indiana University
School of Library and Information Science

University of Maryland
College of Information Studies

University of Michigan
The School of Information

University of North Carolina
School of Information and Library Science

The Pennsylvania State University
College of Information Sciences and Technology

University of Pittsburgh
School of Information Sciences

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies

Singapore Management University
School of Information Systems

Syracuse University
School of Information Studies

University of Texas, Austin
School of Information

University of Toronto
Faculty of Information

University of Washington
Information School

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