Core concepts of information science

In the fourth chapter of a new introductory textbook to information science, Bawden & Robinson (2012) discuss the “basic concepts of information science”, among which they include:


  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Documents
  • Collections
  • Relevance
  • Aboutness
  • Information use and users


The following concepts, however, were not included:

  • Domain
  • Sign, language, special language
  • Memory institutions (libraries, archives, museums, database hosts, etc.)
  • Communication, media, genre, literature
  • Concepts, conceptual systems, classifications, theories, paradigms


The list is not exhaustive and the omission of such concepts is strange considering, for example, that Bawden & Robinson (2012) devote a chapter to domain analysis, but do not include “domain” among the basic terms. The point of view I wish to put forward is that the basic concepts of LIS are dependent on the paradigm from which you consider the field. The basic concepts are not given.  It is not even given that “information” is among the core concepts: Buckland (1991), Hjørland (2000a), Lund (2004), Ørom (2007), and others have argued that the concept of document is the most fruitful one to consider as the core concept in LIS. The concept of document is understood as “any concrete or symbolic indication, preserved or recorded, for reconstructing or for proving a phenomenon, whether physical or mental” (Briet 1951/2006, 7; here quoted from Buckland 1991, 47). Recent additions to this view are Frohmann (2004), Furner (2004), and White (2010). Furner (2004) argues that all the problems we need to consider in information studies can be dealt with without having recourse to a concept of information. He suggests that to understand information as relevance is currently the most productive approach for theoretical information studies. All of the aforementioned authors assume that the concept of document is a more precise description of the objects that information science is about, but they see documents as part of a larger universe of informative objects. White (2010, 4499) writes: ”When IS [information science] is defined as the study of literature-based answering, much else falls into place.”


It is not just the case that each paradigm in LIS produces (or implies) its own set of basic concepts (with possible overlaps). It is also the case that each basic concept is understood differently by researchers in different traditions. In the tradition deriving from Shannon, “information” may be understood as bits; in the cognitive tradition, information is understood according to Brookes’ “fundamental equation of information science”, as “extra-physical entities which exist only in cognitive [mental or information] spaces” (Brookes 1980). Finally, in the domain-analytic tradition, information is understood as “a difference that makes a difference”[1] (implying that different theoretical perspectives do not emphasize the same differences and thus consider different things informative and information). A similar analysis can be made regarding other basic concepts, for example “aboutness” or “subject” (e.g., Hjørland 1997), relevance (e.g., Hjørland 2010), etc.

[1] This definition origins from Bateson (1972, 453) but is used in domain analysis in not quite the individualistic sense that he used it.

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