Buckland was born and grew up in England. He entered library work as a trainee at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford after studying history at that university. After taking his professional qualification in librarianship from the University of Sheffield in 1965, he joined the staff at the Lancaster University Library in 1965, one year after it was founded. From 1967 to 1972 he was responsible on a day-to-day basis for the University of Lancaster Library Research Unit where a series of studies were undertaken concerning book usage, book availability, and library management games. In the meanwhile he received his PhD from Sheffield University. His doctoral dissertation was published as Book Availability and the Library User (Pergamon, 1975).
In 1972 he moved to the United States to Purdue University Libraries, where he was assistant director of libraries for Technical Services, before becoming dean of the School of Library and Information Studies at Berkeley, 1976–84. From 1983 to 1987 he served as assistant vice president for library plans and policies for the nine campuses of the University of California. He has been a visiting professor in Austria and in Australia.
His writings include Library Services in Theory and Context (Pergamon, 1983; 2nd ed. 1988, ISBN 0-08-035754-7), Information and Information Systems (Praeger, 1991, ISBN 0-275-93851-4), Redesigning Library Services (American Library Association, 1992, ISBN 0-8389-0590-0), and Emanuel Goldberg and his Knowledge machine (Libraries Unlimited, 2006, ISBN 0-313-31332-6).
Buckland's interests include library services, information retrieval, cultural heritages, and the historical development of information management. He is co-director of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative and is the principal investigator, with Fredric Gey and Ray Larson, of three funded projects Search Support for Unfamiliar Metadata Vocabularies, a three-year project to make the searching of subject indexes easier and more reliable; Translingual Information Management Using Domain Ontologies, for improved translingual search support, and Seamless Searching of Numeric and Textual Resources, to facilitate searching across different kinds of databases. He was president of the American Society for Information Science and Technology in 1998.