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Coverage of ASIS 1997 Annual Meeting

Theories in Information Science

ASIS Annual Meeting Technical Session sponsored by SIGs/ HFIS and ED November 3, 1997

Thomas J. Froehlich, Professor, School of Library and Information Science, Kent State University

Session Abstract: There are intermittent complaints that Information Science lacks theory. In this fourth annual session on Theory in Information Science, three theoretical papers were presented by David Levy, Michael Buckland and W. Boyd Rayward.

What Are Documents -- and Why Does it Matter?

David M. Levy
Systems and Practices Laboratory
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
Palo Alto CA

Summary: How useful is a notion of documents in the digital age? For some people, the word conjures up written materials on paper; it simply doesn't apply to digital materials. Others have noted, however, that the word is gaining currency as a broad covering term, and is increasingly being used to designate Web pages and multimedia presentations, as well as more traditional forms on paper. Can such a broad use be considered coherent, or as one writer in Wired magazine recently put it, has the word been "stretched to the point of meaninglessness"?

In my presentation, I argued that there is a coherent notion of documents big enough to encompass materials on paper as well as many digital forms. Indeed, I suggested that defining documents according to medium, or with respect to any particular technology, is misleading. Documents are essentially talking things, bits of the material world we've imbued with the ability to speak. Their function is to stabilize talk -- to fix it or make it repeatable -- and in by doing to help create stable human practices and institutions. Seeing documents in this way, I suggest, can help us make sense of the anxiety many of us are feeling today, for when our documents are unstable, so are we.

Practices of Scholarly Communication in the Print and the Electronic Worlds: Historical Perspectives

Dr. W. Boyd Rayward
George A. Miller Visiting Professor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Graduate School of Library and Information Science

Summary: This paper considers how the penetration of information technology into the contemporary scholarly world is shaping practices of scholarly communication and the "symbolic and communal meaning," with which they are invested, what we may call cultures of communication. Focusing on the world of humanistic scholarship, I suggest that scholarly communication in the print as well as the electronic environment falls into three broad areas: 1) communication that involves the identification and interrogation of text and data; 2) informal communication with colleagues; 3) communication of an impersonal kind that in the final analysis is directed at posterity or at least to Popper's World 3 - formal publication.

With regard to the first area, I discuss a number of historical examples of the creation of special access mechanisms, often based on what was once a new card-and-cabinet technology, for bibliographical resources. I also discuss the publication in print and microform of large textual corpora. I suggest that these developments represent attempts to overcome limitations inherent in print as a medium of scholarly communication. Web-based developments recapitulate and extend the functionality that was sought largely unsuccessfully in the print-based world. However, especially with regard to scholarly corpora they also introduce a range of new problems related to selection, authority, access and stability both of texts and contexts that may shape scholarly practices in unexpected ways.

In the second area I discuss the democratic, participative Republic of Letters of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. Eventually as the modern system of scholarly publishing emerged with its journals, news and review media, bibliographical, indexing, and abstracting services, it gradually absorbed most of the functions carried out by the circulation of letters and the information dissemination practices built around them. The Republic of Letters may be considered, however, to be a precursor to the informal processes of communication, especially as represented in what have been designated Invisible Colleges, that since the early 1960s have been studied as important aspects of the modern communication system particularly of science. These modern informal communications processes involve a different dynamic from that of the Republic of Letters, especially in their relation to print. However, informal communication by means of electronic mail, Bulletin Boards, LISTSERVs, discussion groups and so on not only recapitulates the functionality of these processes but extends them in ways that may be interpreted as re-introducing values and practices into the system of communication once characteristic of the Republic of Letters.

Finally, formal web-based publishing attempts to recapitulate and extend in a variety of interesting ways the functionality of print-based equivalents. Many of the electronic journals now appearing with or without print versions in addition to refereed articles are complex sites in which layered access to text and data is provided, feedback mechanisms are available and links to a variety of external sources included.

In the electronic world the boundaries between informal dissemination and formal publication often become blurred. There is a range of problems associated with hypermedia linkages, apparent textual permeability, fugitive or disappearing sites and what I think of as increasingly troublesome cyberspace debris. For all of the extended functionality that electronic communications provides, for these and no doubt other reasons they are perceived to be - and often are - unsafe for formal publication.

Continuing resistance within parts of the scholarly community to electronic publication, despite the innovative practices that it enables, suggests that there are questions yet to be fully answered about the social dynamics of print and the extent to which levels or kinds of functionality typical of the print world are still not available in the electronic world. Particularly important here is the nature of the artifactuality or physical embodiment of text and the sense of order, control, stability and permanence that physical manifestation in print encourages. Thus it my be that we have yet to achieve a full understanding of the nature and extent of functional complementarity between the print and electronic media in the system of formal publication.

Vocabulary as a central concept in information retrieval.

Michael Buckland
School of Information Management & Systems,
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-4600
(510) 642 3159 buckland@sims.berkeley.edu


In information retrieval the word "vocabulary" usually refers to the stylized adaptation of natural language to form indexes and thesauri. "Vocabulary" as in "Natural Language vocabulary" or "Controlled vocabulary" hardly seems to have been naturalized as an information retrieval term. If we were to develop a definition of "vocabulary" in the context of information retrieval, what would be? It is proposed that "vocabulary" be used to denote the range (or repertoire) of values (or types) for any given field of metadata.

The characteristics of words in language were discussed. A central feature of the use of vocabulary is to define differences, thereby identity. This feature of vocabulary carries over into the use of words in indexing and categorization, making the defining of differences and, thereby, of identity, a central feature of information science.