CAIS Sessions, 2015

As a follow up to our workshop at the 2014 iConference in Berlin, we organized two SSI-themed contributions to the 2015 meeting of the Canadian Association for Information Science in Ottawa. These showcased the potential for interdisciplinary work in SSI to enrich two areas: information history and media studies. Our aim was to interest Canadian colleagues in the SSI approach.

Thomas Haigh, Nadine Kozak, and Maria Haigh.Making Time for the Past:
Historical Scholarship in the Information School”

Abstract: The institutional transition from “library school” to “information school” has tended to marginalize historical teaching and scholarship. Building on recent interest in “information history” we explore the potential of the information school as interdisciplinary space in which historical research methods and insights can be integrated with concepts taken from other traditions within the social science and humanities. We explore the methodological aspects of several ongoing research projects as examples of historically informed approaches to what, by analogy with the “social studies of science,” we term the “social studies of information.” This, we argue, provides one vision for the future of history within the information school.

Professional schools have traditionally made a place for history within their curricula and within the ranks of their faculty. This was true of library history within the library school, and of business history, legal history, and the history of medicine within other schools.[1] This was driven in part by the professionalization process itself. Studying the history of the profession was an opportunity to celebrate its heritage and document its ongoing importance, telling stories that reinforced the socialization of students into professional culture. History also bolstered the intellectual respectability of such schools within universities dominated by liberal arts education, demonstrating that a professional education was more than just vocational.

Times change. Professional schools of all kinds have been deemphasizing history. Liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular are dwindling on most campuses[2] and are no longer useful in demonstrating intellectual seriousness. Faculty are increasingly emphasizing quantitative research and statistical rigor, while students demand practical and relevant training. The change has been particularly noticeable within schools of the library and information science world, as many institutions have been deemphasizing librarianship and shifting resources to education and research in information technology.

Unlike the library school the information school is a professional school without a corresponding profession, at least in the classic sense of a group reflected by a single professional association whose members share a strong identity. A session on “History in the iSchools” at the 2014 iConference in Berlin revealed a few schools in which history is a central part of the curriculum, but suggested that most credentialed historians employed within in information schools had little opportunity to teach history and had been hired primarily for other skills.[3]

How to safeguard the place of history in the future of the information school One problem, recognized by scholars such as Alistair Black, is that the relevant historical scholarship has been scattered among many subfields such as library history, communication history, media history, and the history of computing.[4] Integrating the perspectives and insights from those fields, into a broader study of “information history,” would match the breadth of the information school itself. Indeed, the perspectives of historians might be crucial in understanding why these things were once thought of separate and how they came to be subsumed under the banner of “information.”

We do not, however, believe that the unification of information history will be enough to guarantee the future of history in this environment. One of the challenges of a truly interdisciplinary school, in which faculty are drawn from a variety of backgrounds, is the risk that faculty feel that their interests and perspectives are shared by only a handful of colleagues or students. The situation is not unique to historians, but to one degree or another is felt by many of those working on information policy, information ethics, anthropological or ethnographic studies, or other areas seen as “fuzzy” or non-technical. In some of these areas a response has been to align with higher-status areas such as computer science, providing social-scientific input to interdisciplinary projects exploring “socio-technical systems” or “information infrastructure.” Such alliances are less welcoming to history. The discourse of IT has always been written in the future tense, and so the new rhetoric of “iSchools” has tended to reinforce what science studies scholars have called “rupture talk,” the idea that new technology is opening a division between future and past so fundamental that history can no longer be a useful guide.[5] In a field fixated on the future, why would anybody care about things that already happened?[6]

In other areas, however, historical scholarship and perspectives are productively integrated with other perspectives. This has often been true in the field of science studies, as represented by the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) or in the landmark Social Construction of Technological Systems volume.[7] In the humanities, meanwhile, there is a long tradition of interdisciplinary dialog based on a shared commitment to argument and narrative. Historical perspectives have been integrated into landmark work in economic sociology, environmental studies, and gender studies in a way that has not been true in information studies.[8]

Pragmatic and intellectual motivations both suggest, therefore, that the best prospects for securing the future of history within the information school lie with the building of connections with other research traditions informed by the humanities and social sciences. Within our own institution, and via a recent workshop within the iSchool world more generally, we have proposed the Social Studies of Information as an identity within which this integration might be pursued. Between them the authors of this paper have graduate degrees in information studies, history, computer science, science studies, and communication.

We offer two short case studies drawn from our own ongoing research projects as examples of the contribution that this integration of historical and non-historical perspectives can provide to iSchool research. The first of these explores history of what is now called the Chernivci University Library in Chernivci, Ukraine. Since its founding in 1852 as the first public library in Bukovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it has been in succession part of independent Romania, the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, Nazi-allied Romania, the Soviet Republic of Ukraine again, and independent Ukraine. These transitions had profound influence on its collections, staffing, mission, and the broader institutions of which it was part. Library history approaches have traditionally focused rather narrowly on the institution itself. We argue that by broadening our focus to consider the library as an information institution involved in the project of nation-building we can build productive questions with ideas from sociology and political science. The idea of nations as “imagined communities,” introduced in the work of Benedict Anderson, is particularly important here.[9]

The second concerns the construction of a fiber optic network in a remote Wyoming town, several years before public adoption of the Internet and without any obvious immediate application. This is a story about information infrastructure and policy in the recent past, making sense of it required the integration of tools from science studies, and in particular the concept of a “technological imaginaire”[10] as a collective vision of a technological future that exerts a powerful influence on the adoption of new technology.

Our conclusion is that historical research methods and perspectives can and should occupy a prominent place within information schools, but that this is only likely to happen if historians are able to make common ground with other disciplinary traditions drawn from the humanities and qualitative social sciences. We believe that the concept of the “social studies of information,” chosen by analogy with the success of fields such as the social studies of science, provides a productive framework for such dialog

[1] Peter F. McNally, Readings in Canadian Library History, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1986); Peter F. McNally, Readings in Canadian Library History, vol. 2 (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1996); Geertje Boschma, Faculty of Nursing on the Move: Nursing at the University of Calgary, 1969-2004 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005).

[2] Mary Godwyn, “Can the Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship Work Together?,” American Association of University Professors (January-February 2009), accessed 5 February 2015,

[3] Bonnie Mak, Alistair Black, and Dan Schiller, “History in the iSchools,” in iConference 2014 Proceedings, 1196-1198. doi:10.9776/14203

[4] Alistair Black, “Information History,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 40 (2006): 441-473.

[5] Gabrielle Hecht, “Rupture-Talk in the Nuclear age: Conjugating Colonial Power in Africa, Social Studies of Science 32, 6 (December 2002).

[6] The physical form of historical research products, particularly articles, poses an additional challenge. Even for qualitative work, iSchools increasingly value a more formal social science approach with explicit literature reviews, hypotheses, discussion of research methods chosen, and the like. Historians, in contrast, are taught to get quickly to the narrative and to introduce the work of others only as needed to support specific points. Explicit discussion of method is usually consigned to a footnote, such as this one.

[7] Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), 1987.

[8] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1991); Viviana A. Zelizner, Pricing the ‘Priceless’ Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1987).

[9] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, 1983).

[10] Patrice Flichy, The Internet Imaginaire (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).

Maria Haigh, Nadine Kozak, and Thomas Haigh. “The Social Study of Information Work: and Ukraine’s Online War with Russia.”

Introduction: After a popular revolt unseated pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych in February 2014 Russia responded quickly. Its military seized the Crimean Peninsula, which was abruptly annexed following a vote of the Russian Parliament. In the months the followed, Russia channeled arms, volunteers, intelligence operatives, and eventually active duty troops into Eastern Ukraine where they fomented a civil war. The narrative above, while backed by a great deal of supporting evidence, has no resemblance to reality as reported inside Russia. Its leaders have themselves described their campaign in Ukraine as a new kind of “hybrid warfare” or “postmodern warfare” in which military actions, propaganda, political activity, and online campaigns are seamlessly and unpredictably combined.

Our paper presents work in progress on the part played in this hybrid warfare by a new kind of information organization. was founded in March 2014 by a several young Ukrainian journalists. It works primarily to combat the plethora of Russian generated disinformation, though on occasion the group has debunked Ukrainian government claims. received recognition in Ukraine and in the West, including coverage in the mainstream press as well as academic journalism.[1] Work is coordinated by a rotating core of twelve people in Kiev, including journalistic, editorial, and technical staff. A larger international network of online volunteers submits propaganda for evaluation, provides translation services, and works collaboratively to locate counter evidence. This work takes place via email and social media. One example of the group’s work was to show that a picture allegedly showing a young woman who martyred herself as a rebel suicide bomber to destroy a Ukrainian tank was actually taken from the Facebook page of a Russian who remains alive and well.[2] On another occasion the group proved that reports blaming the shelling of a particular town had been circulated online before the shelling in question actually occurred, raising questions about the coordination of rebel action and propaganda.[3]

Background: To win the hearts and minds of its audience, propaganda creates a mythic world; one that draws on and strengthens people’s presuppositions and speaks to their desires. Propagandists believe they are educating the public about hidden forces that drive visible events. They then suggest corrective measures to construct a world in line with the mythic reality they cherish. In the case of Nazi Germany, according to Jeffrey Herf in The Jewish Enemy, propagandists created a mythical Jewish enemy that was threatening the German homeland and needed to be corrected by both military intervention and also genocide.[4]

Much of the propaganda is designed for international audiences. The state owned Russia Today channel, carried widely in Western countries thanks to subsidies provided by Moscow to cable and satellite operators, mimics the form of conventional news channels such as CNN or BBC World News while immersing its viewers in a parallel world where Western standards of journalistic practice have no place. For example, the channel provided saturation coverage to entirely bogus claims that the Ukrainian army, composed of anti-Christian fascists, had crucified a small child after assembling the entire town in Lenin Square to watch. The child’s mother was then allegedly dragged to her death behind a tank. Additionally, Russia has adopted newer technologies, including the creation of in late 2014, which reports in 13 languages and argues it “points the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions.”[5] The Russian government employs large numbers of Internet trolls, who post the Kremlin’s talking points on social media, discussion forums, and in the comments sections of articles on Ukraine posted by Western media sites such as The Guardian.[6] This crowds out reasoned discussion, and research[7] has shown that online comments play a crucial role in determining the response of readers to online stories.

The propaganda effort relies in part on the reluctance of Western journalists to be seen as taking sides[8] without overwhelming evidence that one side in a dispute is lying. Thus reports of the presence of thousands of Russian troops inside Ukraine, confirmed by NATO, satellite images, and the direct observations of Western reporters, are invariably balanced by the Russian disclaimers that no invasion has taken place. Recently, Timothy Snyder observed that Russian propaganda about the Ukrainian crisis has employed two effective themes, first that the Ukrainian revolutionaries were fascists and second that the Ukrainian crisis was a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the United States (for example, Ukraine’s army has repeatedly been referred to as a “foreign legion” by Russian President Vladimir Putin). In the current crisis, Snyder maintains, Russian propaganda has been successful in Western Europe for four reasons. First because it was released very quickly, when people were surprised and confused about the events in Crimea. Second, the propaganda slows action by confusing people, leaving them uncertain about what to do. Third, by employing the sensitive trope of a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the US, it has left Europeans divided on whether to intervene. Fourth, Western journalists follow the value of objectivity where they seek to report two sides to every story. Finally, Russian propaganda was successful early in the Ukrainian crisis because news outlets did not have reporters on the ground.[9] In the West at least, the object of the campaign has been as much to create the appearance of uncertainty as to convince its targets of the complete truth of the Russian narrative.

Argument: The information work carried out by the StopFake network is, in many respects, a unique product of the digital age. While Russia’s propaganda campaign has followed the classic effort to shape public opinion, culture, and perceived reality within the confines of a nation state[10] it has also, thanks to the Internet, been easily observable from outside those boundaries and been aggressively projected by Russia into the Western media sphere. Online tools make it possible to located counter-evidence, for example the original context of pictures mislabeled in propaganda posts. The activities of StopFake show the power, and the constraints, of grass-roots activism against this well organized state machine. The organization relies on the work of volunteers, but thanks to the Internet it can harness a network of supporters scattered across the world who have the language skills, time, and inclination to evaluate claims made in Russian propaganda and provide convincing links to evidence undercutting them. This is a classic example of the ability of virtual internet communities to distribute work that would once have required a centralized, and well financed, team. The success of StopFake in disseminating counter narratives has also relied on the power of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to spread its work and bring it to the attention of journalists who might themselves lack the time, language skills, or specialist knowledge needed to definitively rebut Russian claims before filing their stories.

Placing the conflict in historical context helps us to understand what is, and what is not, truly novel about these new information practices. The backgrounds of the authors, in information science, history, and communications exemplify the intentions of the social studies of information to integrate disciplinary perspectives around the study of particular aspects of information. In this case, our historical perspective allows us to place both the broader conflict around Ukraine, at the heart of Europe’s twentieth century “Bloodlands,”[11] and the particular media practices involved into revealing juxtaposition with the pre-Internet age. While Russia has expanded the technologies it employs to disseminate propaganda, the propaganda shares historical similarities with older Soviet programs. Likewise, our expertise in communication and media studies provides us with both an understanding of the theory of propaganda as well as knowledge of the crucial role of the media, both traditional and new media, as content producers engaged in soft power to extend their domination and control.

Evidence & Method: This research is based on online observation of the StopFake website and work processes, coupled with extended face-to-face interviews with two of the site’s key founders. They will give us access to internal materials and statistics. We also plan to conduct online interviews with Canadian volunteers, exploring the specific information practices and sources they bring to their participation in the network. As well as the methods used to evaluate claims, we are interested in the process by which the selects the specific stories chosen for investigation and the methods used to recruit and motivate volunteers.

[1] Yannick Van der Schueren, “Les Médias dans l’Arsenal du Kremlin,” Tribune de Genève, accessed 5 February 2015,; Chiponda Chimbelu, “Fake news can ruin lives, says founder,” Deutsche Welle (5 June 2014), accessed 5 February 2015,; Lydia Tomkiw, “A Ukrainian Fact-Checking Site is Trying to Spot Fake Photos in Social Media—and Building Audience,” NiemanLab (2 June 2014), accessed 5 February 2015,



[4] Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).

[5] “About Us,”, accessed 5 February, 2015,

[6] See Max Seddon, “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America,” BuzzFeedNews, accessed 5 February 2015,

[7] Ioannis Kareklas, Darrel D. Muehling, and TJ Weber, “Reexamining Health Messages in the Digital Age: A Fresh Look at Source Credibility Effects,” Journal of Advertising (Forthcoming) cited in Betsy Woodruff, “Online Comments can Influence What People Think about Vaccines,” (27 January 2015), accessed 5 February 2015,

[8] Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, 25th Anniversary edition (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004), 183.

[9] Timothy Snyder, “Ukrainian Crisis is Not about Ukraine, It’s about Europe,”, accessed 5 February 2015,

[10] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Random House, 1973); Herf, The Jewish Enemy; Frederick Barghoorn, Soviet Foreign Propaganda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).

[11] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).