Ghosts in the System: LIS and the Unexplained


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.


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?


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.


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.


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…

Posted in Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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: Enjoy!

Posted in Admin | Tagged | 3 Comments

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:

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

Posted in Admin, Strategic Planning | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.


(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.)


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

Posted in Get to Know, Special Interest Groups | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

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!


Posted in Web Redesign | Leave a comment

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:


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:


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!

On behalf of your Web Presence Task Force,

Posted in Web Redesign | 10 Comments

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Solutionism?


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.


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.


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…

Posted in Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Web Presence Update: Logos, Personas, and Pillars

ASIS&T’s staff members and the Web Presence Task Force remain very busy on the Web redesign front. As chair, I wanted to share some updates and get some feedback from our members and readers. I’ll start with our two visual options, and proceed to the content workshop we completed on August 1.

Our visual design options (or, the part of a website that we all love to debate!)

Val Head has been hard at work developing a new visual identity for ASIS&T. Now that we’ve been through a couple of design iterations, I’m thrilled to present our two options to you! Below, you’ll find two options. Each option includes a logo, a typeface, favicons, and an associated color palette.

Please share your thoughts about the two designs in the comments section.

Direction 1: “An academic tone with friendly open spacing and an energetic palette” direction 1


direction 2

Direction 2: “Connected letters for an inclusive feel with a hint at handwriting and warm but limited palette”


What do you think? Do you prefer Direction 1? Direction 2? Some combination of the two? Neither one? Both? Let us know in the comments. We need to make this decision soon, so please share your thoughts as quickly as possible!

August 1 workshop: Content strategy

On August 1, I joined ASIS&T staff members Dick Hill, Jan Hatzakos, and Vanessa Foss at the ASIS&T Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a content strategy workshop.  Project lead Kevin M. Hoffman of Seven Heads Design as well as Ahava Liebtag and Talia Eisen from the Aha Media Group were there to guide us. It was a busy day filled with hard work and insight. It was also something of a pilgrimage for me as a hopelessly devoted ASIS&T member. I took this photo upon entering the building:

hq sign

I spent a night in downtown Silver Spring. It has a relatively lively atmosphere, or at least it has a nice selection of places to eat and drink. I hung out with Kevin and some of his friends at a tapas bar, which is when I met Thomas Vander Wal for the first time. Meeting Thomas was worth the trip alone, speaking as someone whose PhD research involved tagging!

But I digress. This is a website update post, not a travelogue. As I was saying, the content workshop was productive. Here is visual proof of our productivity, courtesy of @7headsdesign:

content workshop

The purpose of the content strategy workshop, in a nutshell, was to determine our audience and our most important messages in order to determine the best way to deliver Web content to current and potential members.

In the morning, we completed a “persona” exercise, in which we identified important types of people for our site. We came up with librarian, academic, IA professional, student, and industry professional. Then each of us had to construct that person by answering questions about our assigned persona and cutting out pictures in magazines that represented that persona. For example, I created a persona of a female professor and director of her school’s PhD  program in information science. She is divorced, has two grown children, shops at Trader Joe’s and local farmers’ markets, uses her laptop rather than her phone or Kindle for most of her digital needs, and so on. Here is my visual representation of Barbara:


Ahava and Talia are using these personas to construct a picture of our forthcoming site’s visitors.

In the afternoon, we completed the identity pillars workshop. In this exercise, we talked about ASIS&T’s “brand” – the pillars of how our association is perceived now as well as how we would like it to be perceived in the future. After several iterations led by Ahava, we emerged with the following. Here you can see the final result – the current pillars are on the left, and the future pillars appear on the right:


The identity pillar exercise was a somewhat exhausting, but also a clarifying, exercise for me. Personally, I’m happy about the amount of insight we produced about our members and our important messages in a day, and I’m optimistic that Ahava and Talia’s work will help us focus our message and our content in ways that will keep current members virtually engaged with ASIS&T as well as attract new members.

I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, please share your thoughts about the two visual design options in the comments.




Posted in Web Redesign | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Defining Musical Similarity: Genre and Beyond


Musical similarity is typically equated with genre, whether reflected directly within various categorization systems, or indirectly within recommender systems. However, taking into account (1) the ways in which genres are constructed, (2) the common musical facets / traits (and listeners’ understandings of them) found in diverse genres, and (3) the emergence of musical “omnivores,” there exist other possibilities for defining musical similarity. The proposed research focus for my doctoral thesis will provide a foundation for understanding (1) how avid recreational music listeners perceive musical similarity and (2) the extent to which they agree with top-down genre-based models. The findings will have implications for considering how well categorization and recommender systems meet the needs of such users, and could eventually inform the development of new systems that account for broader notions of musical similarity.

1. “What Kind of Music Do You Like?”

Although music can be personally enriching and meaningful, it can also have significance to one’s sense of belonging to a broader social circle. Music can act as a signifier by which people can identify others who share common interests, whether prospective friends or (as this heartwarming story describes) intimate partners. It seems no wonder that a common suggested icebreaker for first dates is something related to musical taste. On a related note, Maslow mentioned that music and sex are two ways of achieving “peak experiences” (Gabrielsson, 2011)

Regardless of the context, responses to questions about musical taste will likely relate to specific musicians, whether performers or composers. Another possibility is to mention musical genres. Not much of a surprise, given that music is categorized that way in brick-and-mortar stores, libraries, and a variety of online systems (Cunningham et al., 2003). In library catalogs, subject headings for textual works relate to their “aboutness,” while music and other “non-text” materials have subject headings related to genre (McKnight, 2002). Although they offer a wider range of “bottom-up” possibilities for music categorization, the majority of tags have tended to relate to genre as well (Lamere, 2008).

Although they don’t operate on the basis of genre, recommender systems on, YouTube, and other such sites typically reflect such forms of categorization. This is because they track observable user behaviors by using collaborative filtering algorithms, with two of the most common being user-to-user and item-to-item. Systems employing user-to-user algorithms make recommendations on the basis of aggregated information about similar behavioral tendencies (e.g. purchases, views, ratings) among multiple users, which ideally predict and reflect tastes the users likely have in common. In contrast, item-to-item algorithms draw upon individual user tastes and interests, focusing on objects that are ideally similar to those previously purchased, viewed, rated, etc. (Bonhard & Sasse, 2006; Celma, 2010; Celma & Lamere, 2011; Ricci, 2011).

2. Genre Trouble
(With Apologies to Judith Butler)

Recommender systems can be helpful to people who want to explore genres unfamiliar to them. The sense of novelty can eventually wear down as one feels sufficiently well-versed in a particular genre, however, and might even wish to explore genres perceived as “very different” from what they already enjoy.

Genre itself is a problematic construct as well. For starters, musicians can take liberties with the rules, whether implicit or explicit, surrounding a pre-existing genre. With enough “transgressions,” musicians can end up creating music that’s sufficiently different from its predecessors to be considered part of a new genre.  In this process, transitional works emerge, which can prompt debate as to whether they belong to an older or newer genre (Fabbri, 1982). It’s little wonder, then, that taxonomies can vary widely in (1) numbers of genres and (2) the granularity to which levels of subgenres are parsed out. To some degree, such taxonomies also reflect the vested interests of those in the music industry that use genre to identify, or even create, prospective markets for their wares (Aucouturier & Pachet, 2003; Holt, 2007; Negus, 1999). To further complicate things, lay listeners might disagree on the genre to which a work or musician belongs. The same is true for music experts, as exemplified by debate about whether bands like Led Zeppelin are “heavy metal” or “hard rock” (Cope, 2010).

Much of the debate about genre categorization tends to occur in discussion about various kinds of popular music. At least in the broadest colloquial sense, “classical music” seems imperturbable. Nonetheless, being music, it isn’t entirely immune from the confusion surrounding genre, either. And it’s certainly not immune from considering what one means by “musical similarity,” beyond genre-based categorization.

3. A Personal Interest

I developed a keen interest in classical music in high school, back in the late 1980s. So, if someone at that time were to ask me what I liked, that’s what I would’ve said. It’s what I listened to most often, and it’s what meant the most to me personally. Some complications emerge from that statement, however.

At a more obvious level, adolescents are “supposed” to like “popular” music… or at least certain kinds, depending on where one lives. Needless to say, especially growing up in a small rural town, a teenager listening to classical music and enjoying it was bizarre. I sometimes wished I could find a way to truly enjoy what “everyone else” was listening to. I figured one entrée would be to find popular musicians whose music shared some degree of similarity to classical. That didn’t really begin until I started university and met people with broad musical tastes. Since that time, I’ve stumbled over the years upon instances of direct classical influence on popular music. Even beyond “crossover” music that explicitly tries to combine classical and popular sensibilities, to varying degrees of success, they are too numerous to list here.

To further complicate things, I didn’t (and still don’t) like all classical music. My listening interests have tended to gravitate towards the “sound” of certain German composers from between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

So what do I mean by the “sound,” without getting too technical? Complex, layered instrumentation. A wide melodic palette. Thunderous percussion, especially in the kettledrums. Strong brass. Interesting harmonies, such as the “Tristan” chord from Wagner’s revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde.

And those are just a few examples, which can also be found in other classical music that I like.

I gradually discovered what I took to be similar features as well upon encountering a wide range of popular music over the years. The more traits I perceived in a popular song that sounded like my favorite classical music, the better. No recommender system helped with yielding such moments, which were more serendipitous than anything else. Furthermore, efforts to figure out direct influences have been in vain. While frustrating, it makes the notion of sufficient similarities across music from different genres even more interesting. I discuss some personal observations regarding a number of them on my personal blog, too.

Nonetheless, over the years, I puzzled as to why my tastes seemed so idiosyncratic. Why I more or less knew what I liked when I heard it, even if I felt at a loss for textual description initially. Eventually, it came to me that this could be an information-related issue: Regardless of whether two pieces of music come from “very different” genres, how do (or how could) listeners actually perceive similarity, and how might that inform the process of finding new music? Since that time, whenever I’ve mentioned my research interest to others, I typically receive an enthusiastic response that indicates personal resonance with their listening interests. As someone once described it to me, their tastes were “all over the map.” So even if the possession of diverse musical tastes seems “random,” maybe there are good reasons why this occurs.

4. Other Ways of Accounting for Broad Musical Tastes

Of course, the ambiguities and confusion of genre categorization mentioned earlier could provide a plausible explanation. But thinking about music more broadly, at least within a “Western” context, all kinds of music draw upon many of the same principles. The 12-note, or 12-pitch, musical scale, carrying with it an array of musical traits, acts as a kind of foundation for musical “universality.” Or, perhaps more accurately, listeners’ understandings of that scale do so, at least in the sense of extramusical meanings they attach to the appearance and conglomeration of particular traits. That said, they might not be consciously aware of the degree to which they’re constructs. (I usually forget that myself as a listener, until I put on my scholar’s cap.) Of course, the term “universality” can be easily misused, and its nuances misunderstood. In the interest of conserving space here, and to understand what I mean, please see my commemorative posting about the 40th anniversary of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lecture series at Harvard.

Whatever the case, listeners’ understandings of what musical traits “mean,” whether heard individually or together, could also account for similarities across different genres. Prospective clues could come from the “facets” identified by Downie (2003) in our own field, as well as others identified in music psychology (Gabrielsson, 2009; Snyder, 2000; Wedin, 1972). Interestingly, there are some variations in terminology used among the aforementioned publications.

Another phenomenon worth mentioning is the emergence of “omnivorous” music listeners over the past century, as identified and discussed in papers by Peterson and Kern (1996), as well as Peterson and Simkus, (1992). This term refers to the ability of individual listeners to enjoy music that’s not typically associated with their social status, referred to in the study as low-, middle-, and highbrow. According to Peterson and Kern (1996), such factors as higher living standards, increased social mobility, broader acceptance of diversity, and the emergence of mass media seem to account for omnivorous tastes. There are some questionable assumptions, however, such as not including jazz (mainly due to its shifting social status associations) and not accounting for divisions among specific types of popular music. Nonetheless, the broader concept is useful for describing how people can enjoy music that might seem “very different.”

Additional factors could also account for broader musical tastes. In the 20 years since both “Peterson papers” were published, the ubiquity of the Internet has created more opportunities for musical omnivorousness. As well, in discussing the results of her dissertation research on young adults’ music information-seeking behavior, LaPlante (2008) describes how underground music could act as a marker of “legitimate taste,” regardless of whether an underground fan also listens to classical music. For further insights on what one could consider “popular” or “legitimate” music (or somewhere in-between), I recommend LaPlante’s discussion (2008, pp. 224-229) about sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s (1979 / 1984) research into the ways people use musical taste to distinguish themselves from others. More or less in line with the 1992 and 1996 “Peterson papers,” perhaps this (along with the traditional limitations of “physical” classification systems) accounts for why formal music categorization systems tend to draw upon genre, and generally do not acknowledge other traits that could indicate other forms of similarity.

5. Approach

When I started thinking about musical similarity as a research focus, I considered the potential implications of cross-genre similarity for recommender systems. Could they make suitable “cross-genre recommendations,” which go beyond the behavior- and market-based (and perhaps even status-based) limitations of current systems? A handful of studies have taken some tentative steps in this direction (Roos & Manaris, 2007; Hong, 2011), but nothing currently large-scale has emerged.

Many studies related to music information-seeking tend to focus primarily on systems, while very few (Cunningham et al., 2003; Inskip et al., 2008; LaPlante, 2008) ask users about their experiences. LaPlante’s 2008 dissertation comes closest to my proposed approach, with its focus on self-described avid recreational music listeners.

What distinguishes my study is a closer emphasis on how listeners define musical similarity. I suspect that it might be based on genre to some degree, but with some discrepancies possibly emerging as well.

I will conduct face-to-face semi-structured interviews with 15-20 respondents, who will also be asked to engage in an open-ended “think aloud protocol” exercise where they describe how they look for “similar” music. It will conclude with a brief questionnaire to see if responses might somehow correlate with demographic traits.

Personally, I’m quite keen on hearing responses regarding similarity and the “popular vs. classical” divide, especially with that conflict’s pervasiveness in the broader culture over the years (Ross, 2004; 2007; 2013). Nonetheless, the researcher in me thought it best to have no questions related to that. A fair number of respondents might not really think about the dichotomy at all, and I don’t want to use leading questions that would make my personal interest in the topic all too clear. Still, I do have a question at the end of the interview about noticing “surprising” similarities across different genres. It will be interesting to see how respondents conceptualize the question, and especially the word “genre.” Whatever they say, it should provide insights on how listeners perceive genre, along with an interesting point of comparison with “top-down” systems-based conceptualizations.

6. Implications and Applications

Although the research findings might have a variety of potential applications and implications, categorization practices seems like a fairly obvious place to start. By extension, depending on such factors as scalability, the findings could be used in developing recommender systems that go beyond the item- and user-based algorithms mentioned near the beginning of this posting. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such systems will act as a “solution,” as human judgment is still very much needed for something as individual (and yet still socioculturally informed) as musical taste. As well, the findings could be of interest in a variety of music-related fields, including music education and therapy.

Of course, the proposed study could act as a foundation for further research into listeners’ perceptions of musical similarity. Although the proposed study will draw upon self-described lay music enthusiasts of any background, future studies could focus on more specific demographic groups for points of comparison regarding music information-seeking practices.

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ASIS&T’s Web Presence: Upgrades and Redesigns

Today’s post updates you on ASIS&T’s recent happenings surrounding our website: a server upgrade as well as progress toward a new visual identity and virtual presence.

What happened to the Web server?

Good news! The web server underwent a server upgrade last weekend. It’s now residing on a much faster server. Apologies to anyone who visited the site last weekend and encountered missing pages or other oddities. ASIS&T is happy to report that the transition is complete, and the site is lightning fast now.

What’s going on with the Web redesign?

As the chair of the ASIS&T Web Presence Task Force, I’m excited to report all the exciting changes that are forthcoming for ASIS&T’s website and visual branding. You might remember that a few weeks ago, ASIS&T announced that it had contracted with Seven Heads Design (; @7HeadsDesign) after a thorough RFP-based selection process. We got to work right away, and things are progressing nicely so far.

The founder of Seven Heads Design – @kevinmhoffman – and others working with him on our site’s redesign led a project kick-off workshop on Wednesday in Baltimore. There were about 15 of us present, including ASIS&T staff members, Seven Heads Design team members, and ASIS&T members. I was thrilled to witness all these amazing people coming together for a commonly shared goal of an improved web presence for our association.

The day started with individual introductions and statements about what we would each like to achieve by the end of the day. Kevin and @rozduffy reviewed preliminary findings from the informal interviews they’ve already conducted with a cross-section of ASIS&T members. @vlh led some analysis and discussion about visual branding, and everyone got to critique other organizations’ logos as well as all-important ampersands. She rightly pointed out that the “&” is an important part of our brand, and so its typeface should be chosen carefully. (I think I’m in the “sans serif” camp now, but then again, I also had too much coffee at the start of the morning.)

After lunch, we did some prototyping exercises in which we worked individually and in groups to think about how certain pages could be designed to incorporate interaction, new technologies, static and dynamic content, and so on. (Some delicious hotel-supplied cupcakes enhanced this hard mid-afternoon work.) We moved on to a presentation from @tkadlec about design patterns and how they’ll be used for a consistent visual identity. We had a teleconference call with ASIS&T’s Web server administrator, and then we received an overview of the project schedule from @iamjolly. We followed up with some  discussion about how we can all work together to meet the deadlines he’s set for us. Kevin concluded the day with some final thoughts and a check-in with each of us to see whether our hopes for the day had been realized.

We’re optimistic that we’ll have a redesigned site, or at least something close to completion, by the ASIS&T Annual Meeting in November, and we’ll observe it with a grand unveiling. Join us for the celebration!

What can you do to help?

This is a major initiative for ASIS&T that has required – and will continue to require – significant time and resources to yield a successful redesign process. To keep the project manageable, the Task Force will work closely with Kevin’s team to provide feedback about their progress on a regular basis. However, I’ll keep the membership informed about our progress throughout the summer and fall as major milestones occur, and I’ll ask for your feedback at various points. Please use this blog as a place to share your thoughts about anything related to the redesign. We want to hear from everyone.

What’s next?

We have a busy few months planned as we work on the technical development, the visual branding, the content, and everything else. Next week, a few of us will attend a content strategy workshop (personas and identity pillar) led by Kevin and the content experts on his team. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll keep you posted about it.

Posted in Web Redesign | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment