Pursuing Fair, Just and Equitable Access to Information: UCLA Information Studies

UCLA's Department of Information Studies celebrates its 60th Anniversary.

Among other things, Ellen Pearlstein, a professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, studies bird feathers. Or more precisely, the conservation and curation of featherwork from Central and South America. She is an expert in the conservation of materials, and a scholar in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.

Her colleague, Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, studies online content, plumbing the practices of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Her work has brought to light the commercial content practices of major media companies in the Internet age and their impacts on workers in the industry.

On the surface, there would seem to be little connection between their scholarship. But if you scratch that surface, dig a little deeper, look a little closer, the connections begin to become apparent.

“The reality is that their work is tied to the same piece of string,” says Jonathan Furner, chair of the UCLA Department of Information Studies. “They are both information scientists studying the ways in which people collect, preserve and provide access to sources of information.”

Pearlstein and Roberts are just two of the faculty members in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, who together with graduate students and staff make up what may be one of the least understood academic departments on campus, and perhaps one of the most important.

“Our work is about understanding what gets kept, and who gets access to it, and how, and why,” says Furner. “We want to find out whether people have fair, equitable and just access to all the kinds of information that they need. And we want our students to ask the same kinds of questions when they graduate as professionally qualified librarians and archivists, as data curators and information managers—when they’re designing information services and systems, and when they’re making information policies, that have social as well as economic value.”

Jonathan Turner, Chair, UCLA Department of Information Studies

The UCLA Department of Information Studies was founded in 1958 as the School of Library Service. The first Dean was university librarian Lawrence Clark Powell, for whom UCLA’s main undergraduate library is named. The School initially offered a master’s degree in Library Science, adding in 1965 a Master of Science in Information Science (Documentation) that was discontinued in 1972. The School was renamed the Graduate School of Library and Information Science in 1975 and a Ph.D. program was launched in 1979. In 1994, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science merged with the Graduate School of Education to form the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The Master of Library Science degree was renamed Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) in the same year, and the Department of Library and Information Science became the Department of Information Studies in 1999.

Today, the UCLA Department of Information Studies is known as one of the top information schools in the world. In 2018, it was ranked number 10 globally by QS World University Rankings. Its programs provide students with a blend of conceptual and theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Students acquire a solid foundation in contemporary library, archival, and information management theory, information seeking and retrieval skills, and information technology expertise. The department trains dozens of graduate students each year who go on to work in the vast field of information science, joining entertainment companies like Disney, social media platforms such as Google and Facebook, government and academia, and yes, libraries.

“Our graduates get great jobs. But we are also very focused on diversity, equity and social justice,” Furner says. “We want our graduates not only to be extremely knowledgeable and highly skilled, but to share in and promote those values.”

The work of faculty and scholars in the department is broad and deep, ranging from the preservation of ancient documents, rare books and images, to the collection and preservation of records about migrants and refugees and data about climate change. Scholars are deeply engaged in the analysis of systems of access to information ranging from the study of classification systems that determine library content, privacy and access, the exploration and use of archives, the content moderation practices of social media platforms and the impact of policy issues such as net neutrality.

“We’re interested in such an amazing array of topics and issues. What they have in common is not that the content or format of the resources is similar, it’s not that the technologies being used are similar—it’s more that they all involve important questions about how resources get selected, how they get appraised, and how they get organized,” Furner says. “We’re interested less in the information itself, and more in what people do with it and to it. And questions of fairness, access and opportunity run all the way through the work.”

To read the full article on the Sudikoff Institute Public Forum website, click here.

To read this and other articles from UCLA Ed & IS Magazine, visit issu.com.