of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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Social Informatics and Information Retrieval Systems

by Xiaoya Tang

Before I came to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, I worked in a university library in China. One of our duties was to perform online information retrieval (IR) for faculty and graduate students. As librarians, we were well acquainted with IR systems, but knew little about research needs and practices in specific academic fields. On the other hand, patrons knew their research fields well, but knew little about IR systems. In such a situation, IR was a complicated task that was completed by collaborative efforts of both the librarians and patrons. The effectiveness of IR depended not only on how well librarians performed the search, but also on how successfully librarians and patrons communicated. This made me think about what influences the effectiveness of IR system use. I had an opportunity to develop such thoughts in Bishop's seminar, where we examined critically a number of social informatics studies. Our reading and discussion provided me with a more integrative framework for considering social aspects of IR system design and evaluation.

Social Informatics Approach to IR System Design and Use

One key idea of social informatics is that social context plays a significant role in influencing the ways that people use information and technologies and thus the consequences of use. So, from a social informatics perspective, users' social context and relationships should be considered in the design and evaluation of IR systems. Nardi and O'Day (1999) proposed the concept of an "information ecology," which defines work settings as systems of people, technologies, practices and values. They argue that the metaphor of technology as tool nonetheless has an appropriate place; it encourages us to consider how information technologies are matched to tasks and situations and employed by users with different levels of skills.

To apply a social informatics approach to IR system design and use studies, appropriate methodologies are needed. One such methodology is participatory design, in which users play a critical role in design process. Participatory design suggests that system design should be a collaborative process in which both design team members from different fields and potential users take an active role. Also, ethnographic studies of work practice can be employed to get a good understanding of how people actually use IR systems in work settings. Study methodologies typically include such data gathering techniques as semi-structured interviews in workplace settings, observations of work and system use in real settings and workplace ethnographies.

Although studies of information needs and uses are not new, it is only more recently that socially grounded constructs are gaining ground in IR system design and evaluation. Several constructs worth noting are a user-centered concept of relevance, collaborative information retrieval and classification as social practice.

Traditionally, the fundamental criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of an IR system are precision and recall, both of which are based on relevance. In a general sense, relevance is concerned with the extent to which a query matches the topic of a document. This system-oriented definition of relevance is not able to represent users' real information needs and practices fully. Saracevic and Schamber are among the LIS researchers who have proposed a more user- and use-centered concept of relevance. The user is recognized as integral to the dynamic process of relevance feedback, and relevance is described broadly in terms of conceptual relatedness, usefulness, pertinence or satisfaction. Thus, a relevance judgment is recognized as a multidimensional, dynamic and situational process. Relevance judgments are affected by a variety of factors, such as the type of document being judged; the information problem; and the judge's experience and background, skills and attitude. A relevance judgment is meaningful only at a given moment in time, for a particular user, in a given use situation, with a particular information need, and according to the documents he or she examines at that time.

While IR has been traditionally viewed as an individual activity, it is often performed in certain group, organizational and social contexts, and interactions may occur among the individuals in such contexts. As Michael Twidale and his colleagues have shown, social interaction may occur among patrons, as well as between patrons and library staff. Information searching may be undertaken jointly by members of a particular work group. IR, in other words, is actually a collaborative process. A need exists to understand the social practices that govern collaborative IR in order to design IR systems that better reflect and support the way people seek and use information. This new way of thinking about information retrieval as collaboration leads to evolutionary conceptions of IR systems, from single-user systems to multi-user, networked and computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) systems. Such systems should support interactions that may occur during the searching process, such as the sharing of the search products and search strategies. (For pointers to particular papers, see Twidale's list of publications at http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/~twidale/pubs/.)

Raya Fidel and her colleagues are currently undertaking a research project on collaborative IR that focuses on collaborative activities among members of a work group. (See the project Website at http://www.ischool.washington.edu/cir/). Previous research on collaborative IR, such as the study of organizational memory, has focused on methods for effectively creating and sharing information among individuals within large organizations. However, this current project takes into account the work team and organization's goals and priorities, as well as individuals' personal and collective procedures and routines. Such research will help develop technologies that support, facilitate and enhance teamwork.

Classification and indexing are important aspects of IR system design, and they are both socially and culturally bound. Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker contend that the act of classification embodies social relationships and values and may be politically motivated. Further, IR system creators and users employ different kinds of classification schemes. While IR systems employ formal, often topical, classification schemes, users' "folk" classifications may be subconscious and intuitive. Thus, indexing techniques that are more suited to the way people categorize and name things should be investigated for their potential application to IR system design. For example, based on ethnographic study of how people really try to find books they want, Anneliese Pejtersen designed an IR system that facilitates non-topical retrieval queries. Users can retrieve books categorized by author's intention, the frame or setting of the book and accessibility characteristics.

Implications for IR Systems

The emergence of social informatics within LIS provides IR researchers with an integrated framework for learning about social aspects of information-seeking and use behavior and applying that knowledge to the design, development and evaluation of systems. I hope the quick glimpse of socially grounded IR constructs provided in this paper highlights both the manner and benefits of making social context and interactions more evident in IR design methodologies, effectiveness measures, knowledge structures and system features and functionality.

Further Reading

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pejtersen, A. M. (1992). New model for multimedia interfaces to online public access catalogues. The Electronic Library, 10 (6), 359-366.

Saracevic, Tefko. (1975). Relevance: A Review of and Framework for Thinking on the Notion in Information Science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 26 (6), 321-343.

Schamber, Linda, Eisenberg, Michael B., Nilan, Michael S. (1990). A Re-examination of Relevance: Toward a Dynamic, Situational Definition. Information Processing & Management. 26 (5), 755-76.

Xiaoya Tang, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, can be reached by e-mail at xtang1@uiuc.edu

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