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

By John McDonald

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 FURNER 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.”


“Critical to Democracy”
Sarah T. Roberts, Assistant Professor
UCLA Department of Information Studies

There is perhaps a common perception in popular culture, or maybe more accurately a misperception, of libraries and librarians as quiet, unassuming places and people. Marion the Librarian never made any trouble. At least not in the movie “The Music Man.”

But the reality is that libraries and librarians have long been tremendously important places central to the collection and preservation of knowledge, with people doing challenging work that has shaped civilization and societies. The Library of Alexandria was established in the third century B.C., in Egypt, by King Ptolemy, the successor to Alexander the Great. In his treatise, “The Library of Alexandria,” researcher Roy MacLeod writes that the Library was in charge of collecting all the world’s knowledge. At the height of its powers, the Library may have had as many as 400,000 scrolls and it served as an international center for scholars.

But the holdings of the Library of Alexandria were reserved only for learned noblemen and scholars. Libraries today still serve as central places for the collection and preservation of information and knowledge, but many believe their holdings should provide access for all. The American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights reads, in part, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community.”

Preparing leaders for libraries remains at the core of the MLIS program at UCLA. For students interested in Library Studies as an area of specialization, the program offers the opportunity to learn about the functional activities associated with the profession of librarianship, such as collection development, public services, cataloging and classification, service to children and young adults, and outreach to underserved populations. And course offerings help them to prepare for work in a range of library settings in both the public and private sectors. Perhaps more importantly, the program engages students in an exploration of the values of professional librarianship and issues of social justice.

“Our students learn the practice and pedagogy of librarianship, the skills, but that is just a beginning,” says Professor Roberts, who has taught classes in the Library Studies specialization. “It is our commitment to social justice that they come here seeking; they are hungry for it. It is that commitment that sets us apart.”

Combining the skills and values of professional librarianship together with the focus on social justice, the Library Studies specialization places great emphasis on access, confidentiality, privacy, intellectual freedom and other core values of the profession as defined by the American Library Association. Students also explore a range of historical and contemporary issues in librarianship, such as race and racism in librarianship, examining the relationships between public libraries and people of color. In the process they consider a broad array of topics confronting librarians in the communities they serve and the context of those communities. For example, in the spring of 2018, students delved into the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity, and the implications for librarianship. Other students looked at the challenges confronting undocumented community members or their families, and the implications for libraries and librarians. Students pushed to explore questions like “What if you host a seminar on paths to citizenship and ICE shows up at the library; what do you do?”

“I don’t believe you can be successful as an information intermediary if you are not steeped deeply in the social, economic and political context of where you are practicing,” Roberts says. “That means you need to know something about the community you serve—who are the people, what are the issues they face, what’s changing in their lives and communities? You need to understand the lens of the political climate we are in and the economic challenges faced by library institutions and the communities they serve. Preparing students to protect the principles and values of librarianship that have historically stood, especially when they are being threatened as they are now, is a really tall order. But libraries and librarians are more important than ever. They have a critical role to play in democracy.”


“Archivists, wherever they work and however they are positioned, are subject to the call of and for justice. For the archive can never be a quiet retreat for professionals and scholars and craftspersons. It is a crucible of human experience, a battleground for meaning and significance …”

Verne Harris
“The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory and Archives in South Africa”

In the UCLA Department of Information Studies, the research and work reaches far beyond the library doors. From the collection and preservation of rare documents to the creation, gathering, and safekeeping of digital data and sound and visual materials, students and faculty are learning and striving to preserve evidence and ensure access to it. In the process they are engaged in a wide spectrum of archival studies and the practices and values that guide a rapidly changing and expanding field. Archival studies is first and foremost about records. Not the kind you play, but records that reveal and document activity across space and time. A record does not have to be a paper-based document, or photograph or even physical material. A record can be a dance, a song, the telling of a story. It can be a cassette tape or a digital file or even a phonographic record. What is key is that it is created, and that it persists as evidence of an activity that happened. Archivists are fundamentally interested in records as evidence.

Archival studies are also about context, about how, why and by whom records were generated, kept and gathered, and how they were and will be used. At UCLA, archivists are not only interested in how records can be used to preserve the past or inform the future, but also about how they can be used now and what they may mean to people whose lives may be touched by them.

“It’s important to preserve records with legal adjudication in mind, and for future research, to be used by journalists and government officials. But we should also develop archival sensitivity about access, description, and context when those records are being viewed,” says Michelle Caswell, an associate professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies.

“It’s not just about the stuff. There are a lot of political and ethical issues to consider that add a new layer of meaning to the work. We have to ask, is someone going to use these materials to cause harm, to incite violence against someone? We need to focus on people and relationships and the larger issues of power and how we show our care for people and communities.”

At UCLA, students specializing in archival studies learn the practical skills of collecting and preserving “the stuff” and making it accessible. Students and faculty explore the full spectrum of archival materials including paper and electronic records, manuscripts, still and moving images, oral history and other forms of records. They study the theories and ethics that underlie recordkeeping, archival policy development, and memory-making. And they examine the historical roles that recordkeeping, archives, and documentary evidence play in an increasingly diverse and global society. Advanced seminars and internship opportunities prepare students to play leadership roles in archival fields.

But they are also deeply engaged in an exploration of a conceptual understanding of the issues and challenges that confront the field.

“I think theory is everything. Every practical act, every act of practice, has a whole host of theories behind it,” Caswell says. “It’s something we embrace as a department. We are always thinking and encouraging our students to think critically about what is unjust, what is wrong with the current state of practice, and how can we do it better.”

“We want our students to get practical skills and get jobs, but we are preparing them to be thinkers and leaders in the field,” Caswell says. “We really want them to think critically about the practices, the histories and ideologies of the practices they are learning, and to identify where those practices may not be adequate and may not serve marginalized or vulnerable people. And we want them to be able to think and develop practices that are more just.”

“To me that means it’s important to understand that every element of archival practice is political and every decision we make is influenced by our own political context, our own bias and position. And that shapes what stories get told and whose stories get told, who gets to speak for the record and who doesn’t, who gets left out. Those are central questions for me.”

The Archival Studies specialization at UCLA is not just about preserving the past or informing the future, but also has applications for the challenges of today.

One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the work of the Center for Information as Evidence, which is led by Anne J. Gilliland, professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and director of the Archival Studies specialization. The center addresses the ways in which records and archives and other information objects and systems are created, used, and preserved as legal, administrative, scientific, social, cultural and historical evidence. The Center emphasizes the preservation and use of recorded evidence and archives in support of human rights, social justice and community empowerment.

Given the millions of displaced persons around the world today, not to mention the thousands of children and families recently separated at the U.S.-Mexico border while seeking asylum in the United States, the center’s work is especially relevant to current challenges.

“The question is, with 67 million displaced persons around the world, who really need to be able to escape, to obtain asylum and to survive and thrive in their afterlives, how do records and other forms of documentation play into their ability to achieve those things?” Gilliland says. “Is how we are creating, preserving and using data really stacking the deck against them? There are an enormous number of people who fall through the cracks in recordkeeping and are increasingly demonized by language about counter-terrorism and national security risks. And so, when hundreds of thousands of people have to flee en masse and they cannot get across a border because the documents they carry are deemed to be invalid for so many different reasons, what humanitarian help can archivists provide?”

To address these issues, the Center is home to the Refugee Rights in Records (R3) Project, co-directed by Gilliland and James Lowry of the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS). The project aims to understand, identify and make visible the ways in which official records (including bio-records), bureaucratic practices and other more “irregular” forms and uses of records play crucial roles in the lives of displaced people. The project also seeks to identify and understand the roles and implications of information communications technology for the creation, movement, preservation and accessing of records.

“There is a tremendous amount that is happening among government and international organizations that are deploying technology to ratchet up ways to secure borders, and secure nations,” Gilliland says. “High-powered technology, including drones, infrared sensing and satellite surveillance, is being used internationally, and biometric data and DNA samples are being taken now from refugees as well as migrants along the U.S. southern border.”

“For refugees and other migrants who hand over or have their DNA or their biometrics taken from them, who is looking after their rights to ensure that private information about them, about their children, is not used against them now or later on in life when they realistically don’t have the choice about contributing that kind of information?” Gilliland asks.

The R3 Project is making a big push to build awareness of these challenges. In collaboration with a project based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, R3 is working to get the United Nations to develop a declaration on personal rights in and to records held by others about oneself. In January 2018, the Center and LUCAS organized a Rights in Records for Refugees symposium jointly with the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at Central European University, and another in August hosted by the Department of History at University College Dublin. Further symposia will take place at UCLA in October 2018. The center is also identifying ways professionals and agencies involved in archives and recordkeeping in affected countries can contribute and collaborate, as well as to identify potential policy recommendations supporting specific refugee rights in records.

“Part of our problem is that archival practices are still largely set up to facilitate historical scholarship, they are not set up to facilitate human rights’ work,” Gilliland says.

“We are challenged by an extremely complex and contingent set of problems. In terms of equity and power issues, so much work and so much money is being deployed on securing borders. There is an increasing imbalance and growing impossibility with addressing the genuine humanitarian concerns involved. And records and new deployments of information technology are facilitating that imbalance. It’s becoming easier and easier to use documents as reasons to turn away cases for asylum, and to be able to say that inadequate or irregular documentation makes someone a security risk without investigating the recordkeeping and human circumstances that might explain the documentary situation.”


As with the records of refugees, archivists at UCLA and elsewhere are increasingly concerned with global challenges such as climate change and looking at the roles that records and documentation and the work of archivist can play in addressing them. In 2017, students and faculty in the UCLA Department of Information Studies hosted a workshop and teach-in to further efforts to secure, preserve and protect climate change data on the EPA website and other Climate Science resources.


ARCHIVAL STUDIES explores the full spectrum of archival materials, the theory that underlies recordkeeping, archival policy as well as the historical roles that recordkeeping, archives, and documentary evidence play in a diverse and increasingly global society.

INFORMATICS equips students to design modern information services, including digital libraries, data repositories, metadata services, and search engines, in a wide variety of institutional contexts such as community archives, cultural heritage, e-commerce, electronic publishing, and government.

LIBRARY STUDIES teaches the functional activities associated with the profession of librarianship and stresses the core values of the profession as articulated by the American Library Association, as well as an understanding of the dynamic nature of the field that will enable students to develop as leaders for the profession.

MEDIA ARCHIVAL STUDIES focuses on the full range of historical, contemporary, and emergent media-making contexts and formats and the unique challenges they pose, from 19th-century optical devices through classical Hollywood cinema and the emerging sound, image, and video formats of today. Opportunities for practicum and internship experiences at world-class archives, major motion picture studios, and technical service providers in Los Angeles and beyond are a hallmark of this specialization.

RARE BOOKS / PRINT AND VISUAL CULTURE provides a foundation in the history of literacy technologies, from early writing and manuscript culture through print and digital format, and addresses contemporary challenges for thinking about digital scholarship and special collections.


“Just as you can drown from two tablespoons of water in your lungs, you can drown in small amounts of data if you don’t have the tools and skills to handle them.”

Christine Borgman, Distinguished Professor and Presidential Chair UCLA Department of Information Studies

At its most basic elements, the work of the UCLA Department of Information Studies is about data. As the science fiction writer Daniel Keys Moran says, “You can have data without information, but you cannot have information without data.”

Understanding data, what it is, how it is created, collected, measured, verified, and analyzed, and understanding how the social, technical and political aspects shape the use and communications of data, is central to information studies.

“It’s hard to think about anything in information that is not somehow about data in one way or another,” says Christine Borgman, distinguished professor and presidential chair in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. “And it crosses over so many fields.”

In the UCLA Department of Information Studies, the focus on data science is largely the domain of The Center for Knowledge Infrastructures. Led by Borgman, the center conducts research on scientific data practices and policy, scholarly communication, and socio-technical systems. The center also mentors students, post-doctoral fellows, and visiting scholars in these areas. Their latest project, “If Data Sharing is the Answer, What is the Question,” funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is studying data practices, policy, and the infrastructure of multiple distributed scientific collaborations, exploring methods of data collection and management, innovations in scaling and workflows, and multidisciplinary approaches to complex problems. In cooperation with DANS, the Data Archiving and Networked Services Institute in the Netherlands, the center is also studying the uses and users of digital data archives. The CKI team continues to publish findings from a previous three-year Sloan Foundation project, “The Transformation of Knowledge, Culture, and Practice in Data-Driven Science: A Knowledge Infrastructures Perspective.” The Center also works closely with other UCLA Schools, departments and programs, such as the Galactic Center Group in the UCLA Division of Astronomy and Astrophysics, as well as universities and organizations across the nation and globe.

In what has come to be known as an era of big data, data scientist has been called the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” Data have become valuable products to be captured, shared, re-used, and managed for the long term, and also have become contentious intellectual property to be protected. At the same time, public policy encourages open access to and sharing of research data, but rarely provides the public investment necessary to sustain access. Data practices are local, varying from field to field, individual to individual, and country to country. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for big data is obscuring the complexity and diversity of data in scholarship and the challenges for stewardship.

“These are very difficult challenges, very deeply human problems,” Borgman says, “but the opportunities are huge. To take advantage of those opportunities, we need to bring together a mixture of people, technologies, organizations, training, and arrangements that make all these pieces work.”

Graduate students in the UCLA Department of Information Studies have the opportunity to learn and think about these challenges as preparation for careers in data-centric fields. Coursework explores data management, practices, services, and policy across fields and sectors, focusing primarily on scholarly applications. Students learn about national and international data policy, the management of data by research teams, data centers, libraries, and archives, and data curation, preservation, and stewardship. Seminars engage students from across campus in the challenges of the use and reuse of research data. Students engage in hands-on projects such as the analysis of data archives, work in teams on real world problems with UCLA researchers, and make classroom presentations.

“We’re trying to get students who come to study libraries or archives, to think beyond those institutions—archives with somebody’s papers, libraries with books or journals, or museums with artifacts—to explore how data is a fundamental construct that spans the contexts of information use,” Borgman says.

“We challenge them to think about data in terms of technology, policy, sociology, and behavior, and to see what we can learn about those institutions, about policy, about direction. We give them real hands-on field experience, let them be on the ground where research is being done, where knowledge is being created, to get them to think about the whole knowledge chain in a very different way.”


One of the nation’s first large computers, the Standards Western Automatic Computer was built at UCLA in 1950. Housed in a building on the north end of campus, near where Dickson Art Center is now, it took up a whole room. Powered by 2,300 vacuum tubes, it was at the time the fastest computer in the world. Today, the ubiquitous phones carried around by students at UCLA are faster and more powerful.

Contrary to some popular perceptions, information studies is not primarily about computers and technology. It does however dig deeply into the changes that computers, smartphones and other technologies have wrought in information, and the implications for how it is collected, shared and communicated.

As digital technologies spread to every continent of the world, the UCLA Department of Information Studies examines the implications for education, politics, labor, identity, and the economy. The Center for Global Digital Cultures, led by Ramesh Srinivasan, associate professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, brings together top scholars across the University of California system to pioneer innovative interdisciplinary research and advocate for best practices that further understanding of how technologies can support diverse cultures and societies worldwide. Crossing the globe, Srinivasan leads research examining the implications of technology for power and revolution, studying how they shape media and journalism, and in the course, impact demonstrations and protest for those without Internet access, as well as how technologies are impacting communications between activists in their communities, and across the globe. The research also examines the implications for how communications technology can support democracy and economic development, shining a light on the need to listen to and develop technologies and strategies that reflect and support the voices, objectives and concerns of the diverse peoples and communities. The work also explores the need for and possibilities of designing technologies not driven or shaped by the Western world, but that serve a wider and more diverse range of cultures and communities across the globe. Closer to home, Srinivasan and colleagues at Information Studies have played a leading role in the battle to pre- serve net neutrality.

While the Internet may have been invented at UCLA, as visionary as its pioneers may have been, it is doubtful that they could have envisioned the changes it has brought to information and communication.

Professor Sarah T. Roberts convened a seminal discussion on commercial content moderation at UCLA in 2017, “All Things in Moderation,” with international participants from throughout academia, technology, social media, and journalism.

Professor Sarah T. Roberts is plumbing the practices of Internet content providers and the implications for information and communications. A 2018 Carnegie Fellow, Roberts focuses her research on the practices and policies social media and technology companies use to manage online content. Her work has drilled into the commercial content moderation practices of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and their impact on workers engaged in efforts to moderate or remove objectionable content from social media or websites. Examining the thin line of defense against the digital age horrors, her groundbreaking research details on the labor conditions of and mental health impacts on the thousands of workers who toil to remove the obscene, violent and criminal content on the internet. Roberts has also explored social media privacy issues and the implications of Internet governance and policy. In 2017, she developed and convened what is believed to be the first national research conference on commercial content moderation, “All Things in Moderation,” at UCLA.

From preserving the ancient to understanding the future, the work of the UCLA Department of Information Studies follows an interesting if challenging arc. Faculty and students examine and encourage the design of information systems and services for individuals, communities, cultures, disciplines, and literacies. The Department also encourages access by promoting libraries and archives as social, cultural, educational, and intellectual centers in our society.

“It is this idea of access—that access should be for all, access should be equitable, should be fair, should be just—it’s this idea that’s at the core of our work,” concludes Furner.


“Rare books are a necessary luxury.” Lawrence Clark Powell

Lawrence Clark Powell, for whom the main library at UCLA is named, was an advocate for the collection of rare books. In a 1939 essay, “The Functions of Rare Books,” Powell wrote that “because of their historical significance, their intrinsic value, their beauty, and sentimental associations, rare books, when intelligently grouped, have power to excite the imagination and stimulate the intellectual curiosity of the student. A rare book collection, no matter how modest, can be made by alert librarians to play an educational role, and to enliven the library, increase its prestige.” Powell believed librarians had a critical role to play in the collection and preservation of rare books, writing in the same essay that “whether or not a small library should seek and care for gifts of rare books depends upon the intelligence of its librarian and his associates.” Citing concerns of book collectors reluctant to give rare books to librarians “not well trained in the treatment of unusual books,” he suggested library schools train librarians about collectors and collections of rare books.

At UCLA, we like to think that Powell, who was the first dean of the UCLA Library School, would be pleased with the Rare Books / Print and Visual Culture specialization in the Department of Information Studies. From the collection and preservation of rare books and manuscripts, to the collection, preservation and use of digital documents and images, the specialization provides students with the knowledge and skills they need to work with rare books and other materials. The specialization provides a foundation in the history of literacy technologies, addresses contemporary challenges for thinking about digital scholarship and special collections, and explores the implications of legacy collections and diversity initiatives in expanding horizons for scholarship and research. Drawing on archival science, bibliography, digital humanities, and librarianship, courses explore the professional and historical aspects of activities in rare books, print history, and visual resources. The specialization is enriched by courses taught by the California Rare Book School, a continuing education program dedicated to providing the knowledge and skills required by professionals working in all aspects of the rare book community, and the rich resources of special collections in the Southern California area.

“Special collections librarianship is a multi-dimensional job with complex responsibilities,” says Johanna Drucker, a professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and the inaugural Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliography at UCLA. “The professional skills required to deal with rare materials are many, and special collections librarians need the ability to assess, acquire, and manage collections. Management often requires the provision of technical and public services, digitization, and the preservation and conservation of rare materials. Special collections librarians need knowledge and skills across these areas, not to mention knowledge of fundraising and donor cultivation strategies. Our coursework at UCLA in Special Collections Librarianship offers students exposure to these issues and an introduction to the many facets of the profession.”

In courses like “History of the Book and Literacy Technologies,” students are exposed to basic frameworks for thinking about historical issues such as technological changes, the emergence of institutions like private and public libraries, political periods and style. The class also provides some basic knowledge of printing methods, manuscripts, document types, bibliographical work and the opportunity to engage directly with rare materials and create a digital exhibit about the work.

“We are integrating special collection materials into the education of MLIS students. It’s an incredible privilege and pleasure, and opens their eyes to the complex legacy of the past,” Drucker says.

The UCLA Department of Information Studies is one of only 13 accredited master’s level programs in the nation that offer specialized studies in rare books, special collections or print history.