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?”


“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:


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.

About Diane Rasmussen Pennington

Dr. Diane Rasmussen Pennington is, among other things, the Social Media Manager of the Association for Information Science and Technology.
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