Black addresses LIS historians at London celebration

Alistair Black
Alistair Black, Professor Emeritus

Professor Alistair Black addressed a gathering of historians in the Great Hall of historic Lambeth Palace in London on March 1. The event was held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the publication of Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland (CHLBI), a three-volume work published by Cambridge University Press. Black co-edited the third volume, covering the years 1850-2000.

The event was organized by the Library and Information History Group of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and many of the contributors to CHLBI were in attendance. A feature of the proceedings was the presentation of a festschrift, co-edited by Black, to Peter Hoare, the CHLBI’s general editor and a leading figure in library history in the UK over the last half-century. The festschrift forms a double issue (Parts 1 & 2, Volume 32, 2016) of the international journal, Library & Information History.

Black’s talk, “Library History and the Information Sciences,” explored the prospects for library history in the context of the changing world of education of library and information professionals.

“For a field to thrive and not simply exist,” Black told his audience, “it needs to be taught. Nowadays, however, much less library history is taught as a discrete subject. In today’s information-inflected curriculum, there is less call for library history than in the 1960s and 1970s when library-focused education was expanding.”

Summary: In the twenty-first century, librarianship—or library science, the parent of library history—is just one segment of an information sciences spectrum that ranges from the arts and humanities, through the social sciences, to the pure sciences. Moving across the spectrum, its major segments are comprised of library science, museum studies, bibliography, archival science, the sociology of information, records management, information management, information science, and information systems/informatics. Each of these areas has various sub-sciences, or sub-disciplines, their history being one of them. Arguably, these historical subfields of the information sciences can logically be gathered together under the rubric “information history.”

Over recent decades, a large number of information histories have been published. A high proportion of these have been authored by historians not attached to the information sciences. Although much of the extra-information sciences scholarship has been exceptional, because of its intellectual origin it has lacked an “information history” identity. This leaves the door open, therefore, for historians in the information sciences to take the lead in shaping an information history field that requires—not least because of the slippery nature of the concept of information itself—much more work to be done to arrive at a definition that can command legitimacy. The potential for history in the information sciences to flourish in the future is heightened by the fact that historical studies of the digital information revolution are likely to increase. This will possibly give a further boost to histories of the antecedents of this revolution, including libraries.  

Black has been a full professor at GSLIS since 2009. In 2014-2015 he was named GSLIS Centennial Scholar in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments and professional promise. He also was the recipient of the 2013 Library History Essay Award for his article, “Organizational Learning and Home-Grown Writing: The Library Staff Magazine in Britain in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” which appeared in Information & Culture, Volume 47, Number 4 (2012).

In addition to the third volume of CHLBI, Black is author of the following books: A New History of the English Public Library (1996) and The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000 (2000). His forthcoming book, Libraries of Light: British Public Library Design in the Long 1960s, is slated for publication in 2016. He is coauthor of Understanding Community Librarianship (1997); The Early Information Society in Britain, 1900-1960 (2007); and Books, Buildings and Social Engineering (2009), a socio-architectural history of early public libraries in Britain.

Black is a member of the governing committee of CILIP’s Library and Information History Group and former chair (1992-1999). He also has served as chair of the IFLA Section on Library History (2003-2007), editor of the international journal Library History (2004-2008), and North American editor of Library and Information History (2009-2013). He currently is the general editor of the journal Library Trends.

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