ASIS&T’s new website is up!

It’s a soft launch in beta, but it’s up! Check it out at http://root.asist.org!!!

This website is the culmination of over four years of work for me. When Linda Smith was president, she asked me to chair the Webinar Task Force, which was charged with investigating our new webinar program and making recommendations for future webinars. One of our recommendations was to consider formats of online professional development other than webinars, so we became the Online Education Task Force under Diane Sonnenwald’s presidency. During our work, we realized that we needed to make our online presence in general more unified and updated. Andrew Dillon directed the formation of the Web Presence Task Force, and this Task Force has continued under Harry’s leadership. All Task Forces have sought frequent and wide-ranging input from the membership through online surveys, focus groups, and we’ve written Bulletin articles to update everyone about our processes and findings.

After making the decision to redesign the website, a few Board members drafted a call for proposals, which we distributed widely in the spring. Harry wanted us to unveil a new site at the annual meeting, so we had to work quickly. The Task Force reviewed all proposals, and earlier this year, we unanimously chose Seven Heads Design to create a new visual identity, identify personas that exemplify our diverse membership, write web-friendly content, and develop a WordPress site with custom templates. Kevin Hoffman, founder of Seven Heads, chaired the IA Summit in 2013, so he had already worked closely with Dick Hill and ASIS&T.

We had a kickoff meeting this summer in Baltimore in which a constituency of ASIS&T members and staff worked with the Seven Heads team to think about possible designs that would present content on the home page and develop a visual appearance that would exemplify us. We also had a persona workshop at ASIS&T Headquarters with content specialists to help us focus our message and determine who our audiences are. Dick and I have met weekly with Seven Heads. I’ve posted certain elements of the new site, such as logo options and site organization issues, here on this blog.

The Task Force has been amazing! When we received drafts of deliverables, they worked quickly to provide detailed and thoughtful comments. I would like to recognize my Task Force members: Joseph Busch, Andrew Dillon, Kate Dillon, Beth Lawton, Adam Worrall, and from the staff, Jan Hatzakos, and Dick Hill.

The site is still in beta. Not all pages are fully functional and not all pages exist. We will finish everything up as soon as possible, but we also wanted you to be able to give us comments, and the practicalities behind hard launching a new site right when the meeting is happening seemed overwhelming for the task force and the staff. Check it out.

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Get to Know SIG CON – an exclusive interview with Dr. Puppybreath himself!

While the “Get to Know” series started with our post on SIG HFIS was not intended to continue until after the upcoming Annual Meeting, your intrepid ASIS&T Social Media Contributors were lucky enough to receive a lead one day on contacting the distinguished and illustrious Dr. Llewellyn C. Puppybreath III, perhaps ASIS&T’s most famous member and the permanent and perpetual chair of SIG CON. Tasked with following this lead and with help from Candy Schwartz of Simmons College and Gary Burnett of Florida State University (this year’s SIG CON Program Chair), I was able to have a small number of questions sent to Dr. Puppybreath and, a couple of days later, received an encrypted e-mail from what appeared to be a throwaway Gmail account, presumed to be from the man himself. Unfortunately the password for decryption was unknown, but I figured this was the doctor testing us. Setting to work with the other contributors, it took only four hours to realize that the correct password was blindingly obvious to anyone familiar with Dr. Puppybreath’s extensive oeuvre in information racketeering (as we of course were) and thus decrypt the e-mail to reveal a set of answers.

Having solved the encryption, we are happy to present an exclusive interview with Dr. Puppybreath himself, permanent chair of SIG CON. New or prospective ASIS&T members may not know of the special role that SIG CON plays in the Association, be aware of the areas its sessions and activities cover, the benefits of attendance at and participation in these activities, and how the SIG engages with its members. Even well-established ASIS&T members may find something that engages them in the following interview. We certainly hope that this interview helps everyone to get to know SIG CON, and strongly recommend everyone in Seattle for the 2014 Annual Meeting attends this year’s 40th Annual SIG CON Session on Tuesday, November 4th at 8:30pm!

About SIG CON

Adam: Dr. Puppybreath, I hope you are willing to answer our questions so that new and prospective ASIS&T members are able to learn about SIG CON. Perhaps you could start by explaining SIG CON’s special role and history in the Association, and the topics and areas that it covers.

Dr. Puppybreath (we presume): I am certainly willing to espouse the tenets and traditions of SIG CON to those who may have not be familiar with it, although it is, nevertheless, one of those things you simply have to experience to grasp completely. We have been on the very cutting edge of research areas across all areas of information science since our inception, and continue to be so; we are the only SIG that considers almost anything to be within the special interest of our group. In past years we were perhaps best known for advancing the important theories of baloonean logic and titular colonicity, with more recent forays into knowledge mis-management, the murky history of ASIS&T, the secret life of information — not to be confused with the social life of information, which we also discussed well before those social informatics folks came along — and the metaphorical meaning of snowmen.

But we started with the help of Brian Aveney, Sue Martin, and Hank Epstein, and with a focus in the coterminous operation of neo-nodes. Neo-nodes, of course, were the data science of early 1975. Unfortunately, unlike the present example neo-nodes did not trend for very long, and we quickly moved onto concurrently obsolete nomenclature (which remains popular today; we’re now an Association but still retain the A and the S in our acronym!) and conservation of nutmeats (less popular, sadly) for our first session on October 29th, 1975 in Boston. Between now and then we have had many ASIS&T firsts — to say nothing of world firsts, of course — present in the published and unpublished proceedings of SIG CON sessions. I was particularly proud of our 20th session in 1994, the year in which we received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the SIG of the Year Award Jury. Sadly I was not able to make it to Virginia due to, shall we say “legalities”… but welcomed the support offered by attendees and the Jury to SIG CON and for my own troubles. And I apologize yet again to Ralf Shaw. Continue reading

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Place-as-information: Lessons from The Big Easy

#asist2014 is almost here! I can’t wait to see everyone!

But first, I had to go to a conference before the conference, which perhaps gives new meaning to the term “pre-conference.” I’m writing this from a coffee shop in New Orleans. I’m here for the AACE E-Learn conference. I presented a paper called “What does it mean to learn in an online classroom? A phenomenographical analysis of first semester students.” The paper seemed to be received well, and I’ve attended some really informative sessions about the use of social media in education, e-health in education, and other topics of interest to me.

The conference is at the Sheraton on Canal St., right across the street from the Marriott that was the site of #asist2011. I keep looking at the Marriott and thinking about when we had a kazoo-playing contest at SIG CON. It concerns me that I remember SIG CON more than anything else at the conference, but you just don’t forget playing the Imperial March on kazoo with some of your favorite colleagues. You just don’t.

This is my third conference in New Orleans. My first conference here was the American Library Association conference in 2006. It was the first major conference held here post-Katrina. I had reservations about going, but I was so glad I did. It took a long time to get dinner, and you couldn’t get coffee past noon, because there simply weren’t enough people here to meet the demands of so many hungry and thirsty librarians. But I was happy to spend my money here in a tiny effort toward helping this wonderful city recover.

At ALA, I went to the necessary sessions, but I did spend time trying to understand what had happened here in that 2005 hurricane season. I had just defended my dissertation in March 2006, which investigated the image retrieval needs and desires of photojournalism professionals. Some of the photographers who participated in my research covered Katrina and Rita, and the stories they told me were just unbelievable. Seeing the city in person was the only way for me to make the stories slightly more real: The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was still being cleaned post-disaster; opaque paper covered the glass doors to the non-cleaned sections. (What was behind that paper?) The bus tour I took of the devastation, with the water lines and the spray painted number of corpses found on each house, was unforgettable. The tour guide drove us past libraries that had been destroyed in the flood; he said that while organizations had been donating books, the libraries had no shelves to hold the books. I took my first visit to Bourbon St.; the tacky places and the bars were open, which was somehow relieving to see. I had a conversation with a drunk guy on Bourbon St. that went something like this:

“Are you one of the librarians?”

“Yes.”

“That’s great! I’m a librarian from Paris, France!”

(At which point my friend thankfully pulled me away from him…)

During my wanderings at ALA, I found an outdoor elevator somewhere in the Riverwalk Mall/Convention Center area. It was not operational. I took a picture of it. It stood out to me because the buttons were rusty, and there was a dirty coating all over the door. To me, it was symbolic of what this city had once been, juxtaposed with what it was at that point. I spent a long time looking at it.

When I came back here for #asist2011, I made sure to find that elevator again. I took another picture of it. The rust and dirt had been cleaned up, and it was working. For me, it still held the symbol of a city that will likely forever be in recovery.

Yesterday, I went for a walk in the Riverwalk Mall area yet again. I wanted to find the elevator. I was certain I could find it. But I never found it. Over the last three years, the mall had become an outlet mall, and the outside of the Convention Center looked like it had been renovated again. Turns out I was right. I took this picture as I was approaching the Convention Center:

morial

Wooot! Renovations! It’s thrilling to see progress in this city with which I’ve developed an interesting bond, but I want to know what happened to that elevator. Did they tear it down as part of the renovations? Did it look too different for me to recognize it? Did I remember the location incorrectly? I have no idea. I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

While looking for the elevator, a term came to mind: place-as-information. Let me explain.

Many of us are familiar with Michael Buckland’s classic “Information as thing” JASIS article. In the paper, information-as-thing is any kind of information that an information retrieval system can store and retrieve. The other two types of information mentioned in the paper are information-as-process (what you know changes when you learn something) and information-as-knowledge (the stuff that is communicated).

And, also, consider a concept that I’ve been pondering since graduate school that comes from one of Marcia Bates’ papers: “it is not unreasonable to guess that we absorb perhaps 80 percent of all our knowledge through simply being aware.”

In our field, we like to say “information is everywhere.” I interpret this very broadly. My three trips to New Orleans, for example, have afforded me the act of gathering information about this place by simply being aware of what is here and what is happening here. The surroundings provided me with information about the state of the place. Place-as-information is certainly subject to individual interpretation. Watching Katrina news coverage in 2005 and then interviewing photojournalists who covered it influenced my interpretation greatly, but being in this place has given me so much more information.

I never visited New Orleans before Katrina, so I’ll never know what it felt like to be here before the disaster happened. Today, it feels to me like a city that is filled primarily with visitors and people who serve the visitors. I don’t see people downtown who are working in offices or running errands. Was it like this before Katrina? I don’t know. I wasn’t able to gather information in this place at that time to find out.

Place-as-information must be contextual and situational because the place will change based on context and situation. Certainly not every place changes as drastically over nine years as New Orleans has, but it happens everywhere. My current hometown of St. Louis changed the moment the Ferguson situation happened, and it continues to change in Ferguson’s aftermath. It will be different yet again when we’re in St. Louis for #asist2015. I hope you will take the time to notice what information can be gathered from the Gateway to the West when you’re there. You will learn more than you might expect.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re about to head to Seattle for #asist2014. Pay attention to what information the place gives you. What does Pike Place Market tell you about food? What wisdom does Mount Rainier hold for you? How is the city different with hundreds of information scientists invading its center? Take in the conference, but take in the place too. Yes, this will require leaving the hotel, but if you do it, you will learn something other than what you’d learn attending yet one more session. Read the proceedings paper instead. Be in the place. See what it tells you.

And help me find that elevator.

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Ghosts in the System: LIS and the Unexplained

Introduction

As we approach the midpoint of Autumn, which signals the end of harvest season (at least in certain northern latitudes) and the impending approach of winter, it’s hard not to think of a holiday that’s a particular favorite of mine. Building upon its historical antecedents, Hallowe’en allows us to engage in revelries and conceal ourselves within disguises that reveal additional dimensions we usually hide from others.

quote-man-is-least-himself-when-he-talks-in-his-own-person-give-him-a-mask-and-he-will-tell-you-the-oscar-wilde-198035As always, Oscar says it better.

It also provides an opportunity to turn our thoughts to things we don’t see in our everyday lives. Whether or not one believes in their existence, it’s difficult to deny the attraction that stories about ghosts and other “paranormal” phenomena have for many of us. Even those who swear by the rigors of science, rather than the vagueries of wishful thinking and admonishments to “just believe,” sometimes can’t resist the draw of horror, science fiction, fantasy, or other genres that take us into realms that offer extraordinary possibilities.

quote-i-can-believe-anything-provided-that-it-is-quite-incredible-oscar-wilde-288227Oscar does it again…

In the spirit of the holiday, and thinking about the near universal appeal of such stories, this posting is a thought piece about how those of us in LIS might consider the needs of people who wish to find purportedly true accounts about unexplained phenomena, as well as the challenges they face in doing so. Indeed, regardless of what one might personally believe, the degree of uncertainty and debate about the veracity of various unexplained phenomena (and stories thereof) can act as a metaphor writ large for many “down-to-earth” information-seeking problems.

“Information Action” and the Paranormal

At least within LIS, the University of Tampere’s Jarkko Kari has done the most research into unexplained phenomena. His 2001 dissertation, a follow-up to his 1996 Master’s thesis, focuses on “the process of information action in the context of interest in paranormal phenomena” [3].

For the purposes of his study, he considers “process” in dynamic terms, rather than in a fixed or static sense. Brenda Dervin’s Theory of Sense-Making acts as a foundational model for his study, although Kari makes some concrete modifications for a more substantive and testable theory related to his topical focus.

Sense-Making

Rather than definitively saying whether or not unexplained phenomena exist, whether broadly or specifically, Kari discusses what emerged from interviews with 20 respondents who either subscribed to the Finnish paranormal magazine Ultra or attended Ultrapäivät, a Finnish paranormal seminar. Given Kari’s recruitment pool, his respondents were already quite keen on the paranormal, with a number of them reporting a range of paranormal situations that drove a series of information actions.

Based on the data yielded from his sample, Kari proposes five stages to information action in relation to the paranormal: situation, information need, information source, the information acquired, and information outcome. Given the relatively high level of belief in the paranormal by Kari’s respondents, a fair number of them reported situations with some kind of paranormal aspect or impetus. Furthermore, possible resources may include not just anything “about” the paranormal in a variety of media (which I’ll discuss later), but also purportedly paranormal ones for obtaining such information. In fact, the latter act as a primary focus of subsequent articles by Kari (2011, 2009), and he identifies the information source stage as the point where respondents were most likely to face barriers.

Given that Kari’s study primarily focuses on people for whom the paranormal is an integral, even normal, part of their lives, it seems suitable to consider as well what might drive such an information need for those with a keen but casual interest in the unexplained. Whether believers or skeptics, perhaps they stumble upon purportedly true stories about unexplained phenomena, and then try to suss out which accounts seem reasonably likely to be true and which ones aren’t.

ItchyScratchyDepending, of course, on their respective agendas.

More broadly, Kari gives some justifications for taking such research seriously, including advocacy for more openness to exploring new ideas, the historical and current persistence of belief and interest in unexplained phenomena, and understanding how we think.

Controversial Knowledge (001.9)

Beyond Kari’s work, the topic of information pertaining to unexplained phenomena remains virtually unexplored within LIS. As Kari mentions in his dissertation, this is likely due to the lack of sufficiently compelling evidence within current conceptualizations of science. When scientists study such phenomena, they typically find relatively prosaic explanations to account for unusual experiences. Just to name one example, sleep paralysis has been proffered as an explanation for accounts of alien abduction.

There have been some exceptions among scientists, too. The late John E. Mack, a psychiatrist who taught at Harvard Medical School, came to believe in the veracity of alien abduction accounts. In a different field of study, biological anthropologist Jeff Meldrum examines the possibility that certain cryptozoological creatures, most especially the mythical creature commonly known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, actually exist. Furthermore, a handful of universities have sanctioned research focusing on such phenomena as extrasensory perception (ESP) and, to a lesser degree, spirit activity. In the case of the former, the primary impetus typically derived from its potentially practical (military and intelligence-gathering) uses, such as remote viewing.

GoatsThe basis for a movie starring Goat!

One is more likely to find unexplained phenomena discussed within the humanities and social sciences. Rather than focusing on whether or not such things exist, however, these fields typically look into the ways they’re symptomatic of the hopes and fears of people within a variety of sociocultural contexts. That in itself is fascinating, whatever one believes, as those kinds of approaches enable us to consider (1) how our “filters” influence our conceptualizations of such phenomena, (2) how people decide that certain unexplained phenomena seem like more compelling possibilities than others, or (3) why certain people are considered sufficiently authoritative and credible within their respective communities centering on unexplained phenomena.

The Unexplained and LIS

Cognitive Authority

It isn’t much of a stretch to think about concepts from LIS in relation to the needs and behaviors of those seeking information about various aspects of the unknown. Given the sharp divide that exists between hardcore skeptics and those who believe in the existence of unusual things (albeit in a variety of configurations), Patrick Wilson’s theory of cognitive authority seems suitable to consider. After all, in whom does one invest authority about the unexplained, or specific domains thereof? What makes that person seem credible? Does one trust the skeptic who relies on current science, or might that person have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo… which might make someone who believes in the unknown (whether based on personal experience or not) seem more compelling… even if such belief might, in a worst case scenario, contribute to bringing about an age of ignorance akin to our worst imaginings about the Middle Ages… which might make more rational explanations for unexplained phenomena seem more compelling yet again?

Categorization

As mentioned above, persons who believe in the existence of unexplained phenomena have their own ways of conceptualizing that particular domain of knowledge. It seems little surprise, then, that formal categorization practices surrounding them can also have some inconsistencies, which reflect the sociocultural contexts in which they emerge.

On its own, the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system’s treatment of unexplained phenomena provides some interesting examples. (For non-LIS folks, or LIS folks who would like a refresher, here’s a DDC guide from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s library.) From my time working in a public library in the late 1990s, I remember seeing a 1967 book about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) shelved someplace in the 629 section (Other Branches of Engineering). I forget which subsection, but I’m guessing Astronautics (629.4). For what it’s worth, here are the subsections for the “other” branches:

 629.04 Transportation engineering
 629.1 Aerospace engineering
 629.2 Motor land vehicles, cycles
 629.3 Air-cushion vehicles (Ground-effect machines, Hovercraft)
 629.8 Automatic control engineering

Interestingly, the book was published just a few decades after the post-World War II UFO / alien mythology had begun to take off. (The idea of considering the mythological aspects of the UFO phenomenon is the central point of Keith Thompson’s even-handed 1991 book Angels and Aliens.) I’m also guessing that the 629 section offered the “best fit” for the time, at least within a classification system that has always reflected a late 19th century Anglo-American zeitgeist, and that has difficulty accommodating areas of knowledge and understanding that don’t evenly fill out the DDC’s neat partitioning of classes, divisions, and sections.

What made the 1967 UFO book stand out was its physical and conceptual distance from other similar ones, which were right near the circulation desk. As was the case then, one can find a number of relatively newer books about unexplained phenomena in the Generalities class (000), near the very beginning of a DDC-based collection. Books within the 001.9 subsection (Controversial Knowledge) relate to the following sub-subsections:

 001.94 Mysteries (with further divisions for extraterrestrials, cryptozoology, etc.)
 001.95 Deceptions and hoaxes
 001.96 Errors, delusions, superstitions

But that isn’t the only place one can find items about unexplained phenomena. There’s also the Parapsychology and Occultism division (130), with the 133 section (Specific Topics in Parapsychology and Occultism) typically dominating that area. Even individual subsections within 133 are likely to outnumber other whole sections within the 130 division. One example of the latter is the now roundly discredited field of Phrenology (139), which was perceived as legitimate around the time the DDC was created.

Below is a listing of the subsections for 133:

133.1 Apparitions
133.2 Parapsychological and occult aspects of specific things
133.3 Divinatory arts
133.4 Demonology and witchcraft
133.5 Astrology
133.6 Palmistry
133.8 Psychic phenomena
133.9 Spiritualism

For anyone who’s wondering about 133.4, Janet Tapper has written about the presumptions of DDC regarding the “place” of Wicca (now under sub-subsection 299.94), as well as DDC’s lopsided divisions favoring Christianity within the Religion class (200).

Some of the aforementioned phenomena from DDC subsection 001.9 and section 133 reappear in other areas, primarily within the Folklore (398) section of the Social Science class (300):

398.2 Folk literature
398.3 Real phenomena as subjects of folklore
398.4 Paranatural and legendary phenomena as subjects of folklore

Along with some “controversial knowledge” and parapsychological / occult topics, the 398 subsections can also encompass such things as fairies, elves, Arthurian legends, mythical places like Atlantis, and so on. Related to the academic approaches mentioned earlier, the treatment is more likely to contextualize such topics. Also within the 300 class, the 366 section within the Social Problems and Social Services division (360) encompasses works about Secret Associations and Societies. Although not necessarily pertaining to unknown or unexplained phenomena, the 366 section is divided into subsections for specific orders, some of which have been associated with arcane knowledge, rituals, and conspiracies:

366.09 History, geographic treatment, biography
366.1 Freemasonry
366.2 Knights of Pythias
366.3 Independent Order of Odd Fellows
366.5 Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks

This is worth mentioning because some people associate such societies directly with other unexplained phenomena, and can somehow connect Freemasons with (for instance) aliens, demonic rituals, or both.

Declassification

Even without the kind of conspiracy scenario mentioned above, such phenomena (or perceptions thereof) could be considered fluid after all. Put another way, whatever one believes, the reifications of these categories actually reflect the sociocultural contexts in which they emerged. Or, in the case of the conspiracy scenario above, the reified categories can be smashed together to formulate accounts of malevolent secret doings. In a similar vein, thanks to a pastiche of ideas popularized by sketchy character Erich von Däniken in the 1960s, the “heavenly visitors” from various belief systems throughout the world have occasionally been retrofitted with the kinds of things one might find in the 629 section of DDC.

giorgio_tsoukalos_aliensErich taught Giorgio everything he knows.

Conversely, as pointed out in Thompson’s book about the mythological aspects of the modern UFO phenomenon and related to the fluidity of categories suggested above, stories about elves, fairies, and other magical creatures of yore share some similarities with popular perceptions of extraterrestrials in contemporary times. This idea was initially espoused by computer scientist and astrophysicist Jacques Vallée, whose interest in UFOs stemmed from an incident that occurred one evening while he was working with the French Satellite Tracking Program in the early 1960s, and which prompted his supervisor to order the destruction of the relevant data.

yourenotmysupervisorIf only Cheryl / Carol were there…

Rather than approaching the topic of UFOs as a conventional believer or skeptic, Vallée found it more suitable to analyze the phenomenon from a broader anthropological and historical perspective. However, his approach differed from von Däniken’s heavy-handed ideas regarding the appearance of “nuts-and-bolts” extraterrestrial spacecraft in our past. Rather, Vallée took a more subtle approach, which focused on commonalities among:

… religious visions, mystical raptures, appearances by supernatural creatures, and flying saucers… all sharing similar characteristics and effects on the human observer, depending on the predominant belief structure of a given culture (Thompson 1991, p. 101).

It also challenged this assumption:

… that the mere cataloging of sighting reports would… bring about a definitive resolution to the UFO phenomenon (Thompson 1991, p. 102).

Broader Implications for LIS

Given the challenges mentioned above with categorizing unexplained phenomena, as well as the ways that cognitive authority seems to play a role in considering their veracity, Thompson’s usage of a term typically associated with LIS (“cataloging”) seems quite apt. How can we really categorize something, whether UFOs or other unexplained phenomena, whose nature remains elusive and whose likelihood of existing defies current science? Especially when perceptions of them are tempered by sociocultural and historical lenses, and when persons vested with formal authority tend to downplay them publicly?

More broadly, one could even consider the issues discussed above as sharing parallels with, or acting as broader metaphors for, information-seeking in more “normal” contexts. One example is lay health information, where cognitive authority can be very important, as patients may utilize blogs and discussion forums written by and for persons with the same illness (Neal & McKenzie, 2011), but which might be at odds with (or act as complements to) content from more formally-recognized resources like medical databases.

Conclusions

Whether with regard to unexplained phenomena or more down-to-earth matters, we need to consider more closely how to enable people to find information that’s most useful to meeting their various needs. They include the extent to which:

  • we should guide people to resources with varying kinds (if not levels) of authority, even if we might be personally skeptical of some of them,
  • we can achieve an appropriate balance among such resources, and
  • we can enable people to find the “best” second-hand information possible, which they can synthesize with their firsthand experiences, as well as second-hand information they’ve already acquired.

As well, we should consider the ways sociocultural constructs, including forms of categorization, might be driving perceptions of such needs.

Considering the central topic of this posting and its metaphorical aspects, it seems no wonder that the library as an institution (and, I suppose by extension, IS) has often been portrayed in the broader media as a place that can invoke a number of fears, ranging from the Kafkaesque to the downright spooky. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s thoughts regarding discourse, Gary and Marie Radford (2001) discuss this idea in an article that’s also worth a read.

With all that, I wish all of you a Happy Hallowe’en!

Now to start looking for the hidden projector that keeps flashing at me an image of a librarian in Victorian clothing…

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A new service just for ILS doctoral students!

As a part of ASIS&T’s increased efforts to reach and provide services to the membership through social media, we are proud to introduce a new service for doctoral student members that compliments the doctoral seminar and doctoral student-focused panels at the Annual Meeting. This new service—Ask Dr. Laura—is a place where doctoral students can go to get answers to questions about a variety of issues related to surviving the doctoral program and preparing for a faculty or research position after graduation. We encourage doctoral students to send in your questions! The website is located at: http://www.asis.org/askdrlaura. Enjoy!

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Help Shape the Future of ASIS&T!

Posted on behalf of Sandy Hirsh. –Diane Rasmussen Pennington, Social Media Manager

As incoming ASIS&T President, one of my major initiatives this year is strategic planning for the association. With the ongoing changes to our field, the range of choices that people have to engage professionally, and the importance of charting a clear future for the association, it is critical that ASIS&T develop an actionable strategic plan that is in strong alignment with member interests and needs.

To build this shared future vision for ASIS&T and to ensure that ASIS&T is meeting your needs, we need your ideas and participation in the strategic planning process. This is your opportunity to help shape the future of the association – and I hope you will make your voice heard. We are kicking off the strategic planning process in a couple of weeks at the 2014 ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Seattle, and there will be opportunities to participate virtually in the process after the meeting as well.

Strategic Planning Activities at the 2014 Annual Meeting

There are two ways you can participate in the strategic planning process at the ASIS&T Annual Meeting. We hope you will engage in at least one of these – if not both!

1) Participate in a focus group interview session – Thank you to those of you who have already signed up to participate in one of the focus group interview sessions! We are holding six focus group interview sessions at the Annual Meeting – each one focused on a particular type of member (see below).

We are still hoping to find some additional participants for the focus group interview sessions. We have a few spaces available in each session. Please check your schedules and let us know as soon as possible if you match the criteria and can fit one of these sessions into your schedule. All sessions will be 90 minutes. And, food will be provided!

Here is the schedule of focus group interview sessions at the Annual Meeting:

  • Sunday 9:30am Practitioners (Member 0-5 years)
  • Sunday 11:30am Practitioners (Member 6+ years)
  • Sunday 5:00pm Academics/Faculty (Member 0-5 years)
  • Monday 9:00am Leaders (Current/former board, SIG and Chapter Reps)
  • Monday 12:00pm Students (Masters and Doctoral)
  • Tuesday 9:00am Academics/Faculty (Member 6+ years)

Please contact Maric Kramer to let her know if you can participate! Her email is: MKramer@wheelock.edu

2) Share your ideas on a poster board – When you are attending the annual meeting, you will see a few poster boards located around the main conference areas that have questions printed on them. We want to collect your responses to these questions as inputs to the strategic planning process.   There will be post-it notes and pens provided at each poster board so you can record your responses. We hope you will take a few minutes to share your ideas, thoughts, and suggestions!

Participation Opportunities After the 2014 Annual Meeting

If you are attending the Annual Meeting in Seattle, we hope that you will participate in one or both of the activities above. But we know that people’s schedules are busy during the conference, and the timing might not work out to participate when you are there. We also know that not all ASIS&T members are able to attend the annual meeting. We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the strategic planning process if they want to. We hope to engage the full spectrum of ASIS&T members, including our student, international, and practitioner members, in the strategic planning process.

So, after the Annual Meeting, we will be sending more information about virtual opportunities for participating in the strategic planning process. Specifically, there will be virtual focus group interview sessions (similar to the sessions we are holding at the Annual Meeting but these will be held online), as well as virtual town hall meetings where we will review and discuss draft versions of the strategic plan.

What Strategic Planning Means for ASIS&T

ASIS&T currently does not have a strategic plan. Our goal is to complete the strategic plan by the 2015 Annual Meeting. Of course, strategic planning doesn’t end with the creation of the plan. The strategic plan will be a living document and will be regularly reviewed, revised, and reported on after it is created. Strategic planning will:

  • provide strategic direction for the association, thus setting the association up for long-term success;
  • review ASIS&T’s mission, vision, and goals and translate these into clear actions that can be reported on;
  • allow the association to better align resources with strategic goals; and
  • ensure the association is meeting membership needs and being more transparent.

I look forward to seeing many of you very soon in Seattle!

Sandy Hirsh, ASIS&T President-Elect

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Get to Know SIG HFIS: History and Foundations of Information Science

We’re starting a new monthly series on the ASIS&T Blog this week: “Get to Know a SIG / Get to Know a Chapter.” This new series will help existing and prospective ASIS&T members learn more about the groups that are an integral and essential part of the broader association. These include Special Interest Groups (or SIGs), which cover particular topics and specialties of interest to researchers and practitioners; Student Chapters, which provide student members of ASIS&T at universities across the world a local organization and special activities and programs; and Regional Chapters, which foster communication, interaction, and events among ASIS&T members in geographically-defined areas. All three group types will be covered by this “Get to Know” series.

SIG HFIS

SIG HFIS Logo
(Artist credit: Molly Dolan)

Our first featured SIG is SIG HFIS, History and Foundations of Information Science. I interviewed Lai Ma, the current chair of SIG HFIS and a Lecturer at the University College Dublin School of Information and Library Studies, and Sarah A. Buchanan, immediate past chair and current webmaster for the SIG and a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. We discussed the areas SIG HFIS covers, the activities they engage in, the benefits of becoming a member and volunteering as an officer of the SIG, and how they engage with their members online, among other questions. We hope that this interview helps you get to know SIG HFIS better, and perhaps become interested in joining and contributing to their activities and efforts! (The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)

About SIG HFIS

Adam: How long have each of you been a member of ASIS&T, and how long have you been a member of SIG HFIS?

Lai: I have to count, wait! [laughs] I think I have been a member since 2008, so six years. I think since then I have been a member of SIG HFIS.

Sarah: I joined in early 2008, in my first year of my master’s program at UCLA. I joined SIG HFIS shortly after. I think my ASIS&T story would probably start with the UCLA Student Chapter, and I was a member of that for two years in my master’s program. And immediately after that I joined the local Los Angeles chapter, LACASIST. I was the secretary of the chapter, and when we were aware that our 50th anniversary was approaching, I volunteered to take the lead in planning a program to celebrate that. And so that program was held in June 2011, and I also served as the chair of the Los Angeles chapter in 2011-2012.

Adam: And that sort of historical involvement led you to join SIG HFIS?

Sarah: Yes, as part of our celebratory year, I was interested in our history as a chapter. And, I was hoping to visit the archive—I knew we had an archive of historical documents—mainly in terms of putting together a nice event and possibly showing off some of our history, as a chapter. It grew into a full-fledged research project, where I actually wrote a paper on the history of the chapter. I submitted it to the ASIS&T History Fund, and through that I got involved in SIG HFIS.

Adam: What topics does the SIG focus on?

Lai Ma

Lai Ma
(Photo credit: UCD School of Information and Library Studies)

Lai: HFIS is concerned with the history of information science; I think that’s pretty straightforward. And then also we’re interested in the theoretical development of the field. So it involves and we are particularly interested in historical work, including oral histories, to document what happens in the field. And that’s actually pretty broad, and that will include stories of chapters—like what Sarah has talked about—the history of particular chapters, the history of a particular SIG, and any history of a broader topic in information science. And in terms of theoretical development, I think that anything that deals with concepts or theories in any area of information science, we will be interested in.

Adam: Would you say it’s mostly a focus on research, on practice, a combination, on theory? Where would you say the primary focus ends up sitting?

Lai: I think some of the things will be interrelated. So in the upcoming Annual Meeting we have a panel on the “Pluri-, Multi- Trans- Meta- and Interdisciplinary Nature of LIS,” Tuesday at 8:30. And that type of topic is both theoretical and historical, so I think it’s not like one or another, but—sometimes it will be more historical and sometimes it will be more theoretical, but there are also topics where the two things will be very much interrelated.

Adam: And some topics are focused on research, and sometimes it’s more focused in the practice of the field, is the impression I get?

Sarah: Yes. Continue reading

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Web Redesign Update: Groups and SIGs and Chapters, oh my!

Hello ASIS&T! Once again, the Web Redesign Task Force needs your input.

Those of us who have been involved with ASIS&T for a while might recognize that we have a bit of an “alphabet soup” when it comes to our individual groups within the association. Arguably, our biggest groups are:

  • Regional Chapters, which are defined by geographic locale, such as the Taipei Chapter and the New England Chapter
  • Student Chapters, which serve student members, such as the Simmons College Student Chapter and the University of Denver Student Chapter
  • Special Interest Groups, or SIGs, which address specific ares of information such as Digital Libraries (SIG DL) and Visualization, Images, and Sound (SIG VIS)

These structures can be confusing to prospective and new members, and may even be confusing to longtime members as well!

With the redesign, we’re trying to address ways to make these groups more accessible so that all members can find their chapters and SIGs more easily without having to worry too much about all the alphabet soup stuff. To that end, we’re looking at a few different options for organizing the structure of these categories so that it’s easier to understand for everyone.

Below you’ll see three different options for organizing this section of the new website. Which structure makes the most sense to you, and why? Or do you have a different structure to suggest? Please let us know in the comments. In addition to your own perception, try to “think like a new member” as well, because we’re really interested in not confusing new people.

sitemap options

Your ongoing input is very much appreciated. Have a great one!

Diane

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Web Presence Update: Do you favor a favicon?

The Web Presence Task Force is really excited about the work that @SevenHeadsDesign continues to do for our website redesign! We’re still on track to launch the new site design at the Annual Meeting in November, but we’ll post some bits and pieces here on the blog before then. You could say we’re trying to get some buzz going.

One topic of intense debate in the Task Force’s discussions has been the favicon, also known as the tiny image that you see in the browser tabs. You can see several recognizable favicons in the following screenshot from my Firefox tabs:

favs

So, from left to right, I have Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, The ASIS&T Blog, and YouTube pinned. The Weather Channel and CNN are not pinned, but their favicons are still present.

The favicon may seem like an overlooked element, but we also subconsciously internalize them as part of a website’s brand. This is why we’d love to hear your opinions on a few potential favicon designs. Which one do you like and why? For the sake of discussion, we’ll call them #1, #2, #3, and #4, from top to bottom:

favicons-options

Please share your opinions by replying in the comments sections of this post before Monday, September 15. The Annual Meeting is approaching quickly, and we want to have a fabulous new site to share with you there. See you then!

Sincerely,
On behalf of your Web Presence Task Force,
Diane

Posted in Web Redesign | 10 Comments

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Solutionism?

Summary

Who doesn’t like to think that all problems should have some kind of solution? While no one is immune to this desire, solving problems can also bring about new ones. Many of us may know this, whether from personal experience or “the lessons of history.” Nonetheless, there remains a tendency to emphasize the positive results that can emerge from “innovations” or “revolutions” in many areas, and with relatively little critique. Certainly within the context of the “Information Age,” this has implications for research and practice in library and information science. Insights from other fields, along with an understanding of the intricate strands of history, can help with figuring out what those implications might be, and perhaps even with considering and addressing them.

What I’d Like to Solve… and Why It Might be a Problem

Nearly a month ago, I wrote a posting on my doctoral research regarding perceptions of musical similarity. Although my actual methodology will entail asking people about this topic, with responses that may or may not pertain to genre, I’m quite keen on the idea of music listeners’ pre-existing musical tastes being used as an entrée for finding music from an unfamiliar genre. The conceit behind this idea is that certain musical and extramusical facets or traits, tempered by variations in one’s emotional state or overall mood, might account for (1) musical tastes that don’t fit traditional genre categories and (2) not liking all music from one’s preferred genres. That, along with my own personal experience, was the initial impetus for my research.

On the other hand, I’ve also considered the concern that such a sophisticated recommender tool might create unintended problems. More specifically, while it could broaden musical tastes laterally, and not in the sense of “cultural uplift,” the hypothetical system could potentially become “totalizing.” (That is, if it were sufficiently scalable.) This was pointed out to me after I gave a presentation related to my topic, wherein a respondent mentioned such a possibility. Basically, while such a system might give people the freedom to explore music in ways that traditional systems do not, it might become too finely-tuned to the more intricate (and even intimate) factors that define our musical tastes. In other words, greater freedom to explore music might also mean less privacy, especially if one has a registered account. A kind of Pandora’s Box, rather than a souped-up Pandora.

Getting with the Programs

Those of us who have haunted academia long enough are aware of the idiosyncratic structures of departments, faculties, programs, schools, and other terms used to identify and consolidate a variety of disciplines. In my case, I’m a Library and Information Science (LIS) doctoral student in the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), which encompasses programs that essentially relate to information and communications. LIS exists alongside Journalism and a variety of programs related to media, including Media Studies (MS).

Essentially, MS examines how various forms of media operate within economic, political, and sociocultural contexts. (And as you might have guessed, the person who mentioned the potentially totalizing nature of the hypothetical recommender system was associated with that program.) To aid with such analyses, MS draws upon a whole host of approaches that fall under the umbrella of “critical theory.” While not comprehensive, below is a brief encapsulation of (1) why you might have shuddered upon seeing the term “critical theory” and (2) what critical theory attempts to do.

Definitions of the scope of critical theory may vary, but essentially its various manifestations critique mainstream power structures and ideologies. Of course, a brief description belies the complexities of critical theory, including the intellectual lineages among various thinkers whose ideas more or less trace back to Marx (with dashes of Freud), as well as the different approaches, agendas, and backgrounds among critical theorists themselves. Admittedly, though, unless one is inclined to study them specifically, such writings can be rather thick to comprehend, and names difficult to keep straight. Since many of the big-name critical theorists tend to come from continental Europe, especially Germany and France, translations provide an additional challenge with which to contend, as well as concepts understood by a narrow intended audience within specific historical contexts. At least to outsiders, some writings can even come perilously close to reading like self-parody, or even glorified tinfoil hattery (except with fancier terminology and without mention of shape-shifters from Alpha Draconis). Nonetheless, critical perspectives are useful for considering how certain mainstream ideologies are embedded (to varying degrees of subtlety, anyway) in the media, ranging from different forms of news and entertainment to the design of information systems.

Although MS is steeped in critical theory, while LIS still tends to shy away from it, some LIS folks work with such perspectives as well, and even teach courses on the topic. An emeritus faculty from my program also co-edited a compilation of fairly accessible essays by other LIS scholars about critical theory, with each one describing how the ideas of various theorists could be applied to LIS. Parts of it, including an introduction that does a better job of explaining things than my brief encapsulation, are available on Google Books.

I also had an opportunity to work last academic year as a teaching assistant (TA) in a first-year course about information and social contexts. This was for the faculty’s Media, Information, and Technoculture (MIT) program, which employs TAs from both LIS and MS. During one of the two terms I TA’d, it was taught by an MS PhD student who took a broad historical approach to information and related media throughout history, from cuneiform to computers. The course was also divided almost evenly between pre- and post-World War II periods. While it didn’t go into great detail about specific big name critical theorists, this is where I first heard (at least to my knowledge) the term “solutionism.” Coined by Evgeny Morozov, solutionism pertains to the primarily market-driven impulse to provide technological solutions to practically any problem, including some that might not be “real” problems at all. After describing a futurist’s hypothetical “smart contact lenses” that could make homeless people invisible to its wearers, Morozov states in his New York Times op-ed piece The Perils of Perfection:

All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become “problems” simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.

As pointed out in the course I TA’d, and not much of a surprise given my background in history, none of this is really new. Going back many years, we’ve wanted to find ways to improve our lot in life. Various technologies, including those related to information and communications, have indeed enabled us to do just that. However, especially when various media tout “revolutionary” or “game changing” technology, we all too often focus unquestioningly on the positive outcomes of any new technological advance, and not so much on some of their more concerning aspects. This is certainly true if it suits the ideological stances of interests who already hold power, and who want to keep it that way.

A Brief History of Progress

As my TA’ing experience made me realize more keenly, the dilemmas we face today with regard to information and the emergence of various technologies aren’t really that new. At least within a “Western” context, one can find some affinities with trends that emerged throughout the 19th century. By that time, we had generally placed more faith in ourselves and our observations, rather than in the infinite wisdom of a distant omnipotent superbeing. Of course, religious belief didn’t go away; it just wasn’t quite as central as before. One can easily trace such tendencies back to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The big difference is that the 19th century saw nations developing in earnest their own forms of omnipotence… bureaucracies accumulating the appropriate data, in order to build national ideologies and define various domains of knowledge for usage by the state. As pointed out in one of the course readings:

Between the middle of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth centuries, there arose a new kind of empiricism, no longer bound by the scale of the human body. The state became a knower; bureaucracy its senses; statistics its information (Peters, p. 14).

Also tied with the aforementioned information trends, industrialization (and consequently urbanization) was also taking off at that time, along with science. And it seemed that, with enough effort, we could solve practically any problem and explain practically anything with correctly-applied techniques… even as the world was figuratively becoming bigger, and we had to figure out ways to get a handle on it! Certainly, it seemed a more appealing option than (1) putting faith in a distant omnipotent deity who likely didn’t exist or (2) getting killed for not believing “correctly.” And how could one go back to a “simpler” time, anyway?

In the 20th century, however, it became more readily apparent that an uncritical faith in progress had its own share of problems as well. The sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic in 1912 was perhaps the first well-publicized and fabled example of this counter-perspective. Furthermore, mass production techniques facilitated the manufacture of machines for mass killing, science could be misused and manipulated to “prove” the superiority (and inferiority) of certain groups, and (courtesy of IBM) efficient systems of tabulation could be used to register people and divide them into categories. All three of these factors are intricately related to the Holocaust and, upon further reflection, the notion of the banality of evil. That horrible things happen when people are “just following orders,” or even when “good people do nothing.” It isn’t always some ur-Satan, evil genius, or “mad scientist” plotting them.

Usually, anyway.

archer-gang-15

In the course I TA’d, Nazi Germany was presented as “case study” of how our faith in progress and seemingly neutral information can go horribly wrong. Of course, it’s far from being the only example. Under Stalin’s reign, the Soviet Union placed quantifiable “progress” above human lives as well. This was the case with an artificially-created famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, after a number of them had resisted collectivized state-run agriculture schemes. No surprise, given that the Man of Steel himself is supposed to have said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

Such faith in bureaucratization, efficiency, calculation, and technology in a broad sense wasn’t exclusively the provenance of obviously brutal dictatorships. Just to name a few examples from the United States, there was Frederick Taylor’s research into improving efficiency within industrial contexts, as well as innovations in the efficient manufacture of automobiles by Ford Motor Company (which Stalin himself admired greatly; wrong ideology, right technique). And it continued into the post-World War II era, with trying to get a handle on the exponential growth of “information” or “data” (typically related to science and technology) that had emerged during the war, and which had implications for the Cold War arms race. As well, coming to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s was the notion that we would enter a “post-industrial” society, where information would become a more important commodity than manufactured goods.

And that time seems to have arrived.

We’ve been told it plenty of times.

Conclusion

If one thinks about it, and as made sense from the course I TA’d (of whose content I only skimmed the surface here), the threads of bureaucracy and efficiency somehow run quite smoothly from the industrial age to the post-industrial / information age (depending on how one perceives chronological guideposts). And some concerns remain relevant as well, even if the technologies have changed quite a bit. For starters, what information is being gathered about us and why? Why do we have difficulty seeing the ideologies that underlie seemingly “neutral” systems and “neutral” calculations? Why do the positive aspects of new technologies receive more attention than their potential drawbacks… or, why aren’t they at least tempered with a sense of perspective to counter more readily available media hype?

And, of course, for those of us who work with information, what professional duty is implicit in considering all of these concerns? From what other fields might we draw ideas? How do we solve the problem of solutionism, or at least work our way through the related dilemmas and temptations that emerge? Put another way, how can we eat our apple, and have it, too?

Well, the comments section below seems a good place to start. The wonders of technology…

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