2006 Award of Merit Acceptance Speech

by Blaise Cronin

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I am delighted to accept this award; flattered to find myself bracketed with such lustrous recipients as Hans Peter Luhn and Robert Fairthorne from the sixties, Cyril Cleverdon and Eugene Garfield from the seventies, Wilfrid Lancaster and Gerard Salton from the eighties, Tefko Saracevic and Henry Small from the nineties, and Don Swanson and Howard White from the present decade. I mention these individuals, not because they are somehow more prestigious than other laureates, but because their work in particular, though not exclusively, has shaped my career in myriad ways over the course of the last thirty or so years. 

It was as a graduate student in the seventies at the Queen’s University of Belfast that I first encountered the doyens of information science. I pored over copies of American Documentation, Aslib Proceedings, IP&M, ARIST and the Journal of Documentation with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, stumbling upon seminal papers by the aforementioned grandees and others such as Bertram Brookes, Michael Buckland, Pauline Atherton Cochrane, William Goffman, Belver Griffith, Robert Hayes, John Martyn, Stephen Robertson, and Karen Spärck Jones. There may not have been an epiphany per se, but I had an inchoate sense that here was a field, albeit a relatively youthful one, with a coherent intellectual core. That sense was confirmed a decade or so later when I read Irene Farkas-Conn’s unmatched history of the field, From Documentation to Information Science. 

My understanding of the history of information science and its intellectual contours was much helped by the five years I spent at Aslib, an organization that remains sui generis in the annals of documentation and information science, one—and here I intend no diminishing of Peter Taylor’s charming compilation, Essays on Aslib—waiting for the history it so richly deserves to be written. The Aslib of today is, however, a sorry shadow of its former self, but in those halcyon post-war days it played a signal role in promoting both theoretical and practical developments in information science, broadly conceived. The organization was unique in having a dedicated research and consultancy division: when I joined in 1980 sixteen of us were billeted in a fine Georgian building in Bedford Row, working on a diverse portfolio of R&D projects for public, private and voluntary sector clients. Later I shared an office in Aslib’s Belgrave Square headquarters with the laconic John Martyn, from whom I learned a great deal. John, along with Alan Gilchrist, sometime editor of the Journal of Information Science, had conducted the first full-scale evaluation of the Science Citation Index, as you may recall. 

While at Aslib, one acquired a very definite sense of the field’s evolution and maturation and, more specifically, of its historical ties with the intelligence community; the redoubtable Elizabeth Lowry-Corry, conference organizer extraordinaire, was just one of those who had served the cause at Bletchley Park. In any case, you need only pick up a copy of Covert and Overt, edited by Robert Williams and Ben Ami-Lipetz, to understand the links between information science and the intelligence community. 

Aslib also functioned as an incubator for academe: by way of illustration, Brian Vickery, Stephen Robertson and I were all at one time or another members of the research department before being appointed to chairs of information science at University College London, City University and the University of Strathclyde, respectively. The late Derek de Solla Price, that most elegant of men and minds, spoke at a number of Aslib conferences, but sadly I arrived just too late and our paths never intersected. However, I was one of a small group, including Bertie Brookes, who attended an early seminar by Nick Belkin on ASK (anomalous states of knowledge) in the Aslib boardroom. I listened to a presentation by Wilf Lancaster, had the pleasure of Belver Griffith’s stimulating company as he passed though town and breakfasted with the inimitable Gene Garfield. I mention all of this because even then I was conscious of, to use Randall Collins’ term, ‘the intergenerational chain’ of which I would in due course become a very minor link. I learned a lot in those days from my elders and betters; most importantly, perhaps, I developed an understanding of, and respect for, classical Anglo-American information science. 

Winston Churchill referred to the R.A.F fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain as “The Few.” I came into information science at a time when, to appropriate Churchill’s language, the last of the few were being succeeded by the first of the many. But latecomer though I was, I was still close enough to “The Few” to be able to appreciate the foundational nature of their contributions. We stand, as the old adage goes, on the shoulders of giants. I have already mentioned some of those broad shoulders; I could easily double my list of first and second-generation pioneers. All of this is a sesquipedalian way of saying that information science is both a clearly defined domain of professional practice and a bona fide academic field in its own right. University-level programs in information science have been offered for almost half a century. There is a credible research literature; for doubting Thomases I recommend Tefko Saracevic’s 1970 edited volume, Introduction to Information Science. Our field may indeed be a modestly sized enterprise, but it is no Johnny-come-lately, as Boyd Rayward and others have shown. 

For some of us the term ‘information science’ denotes a clear set of concerns, models and practices, encapsulated in a canonical literature and exemplified in recurrent praxis. For others the term has shifting connotations. Humpty Dumpty inevitably comes to mind: “a word means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” If Donald Michie, one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, with whom I became acquainted when he directed the Turing Institute in Glasgow, chooses to describe himself as an information scientist, who am I to disagree? When it comes to language, policing is well nigh impossible. The Académie française can issue proscriptions to its heart’s content, but the French are going to carry on saying le week-end. And no matter how much we may huff and puff, people will hijack the term information science and use it as they see fit. We may be the Association for Information Science and Technology, but we don’t have a monopoly on information or the associated lexicon. What we do have, as almost everyone sitting in this room knows, is a well-defined, well-documented set of intellectual concerns. 

To be sure, there will always be debate within the ranks as to the precise coordinates of the field and the extent to which we should seek to expand our intellectual Lebensraum, but that is as it should be. Many of those who have left their mark on the field had no formal education or training in information science as such; Bradford was a chemist, Griffith a psychologist, Luhn and Salton computer scientists, Price an historian of science, as was Small, Merton a sociologist, Swanson a physicist, and Garfield, according to Paul Wouters, an “alchemist.” I could go on. Our field has remained hospitable and attractive to scholars from other domains—Brenda Dervin, honored here today, is a case in point—and the membership of ASIS&T continues to reflect the irrefragably interdisciplinary nature of information science. Although we are some way from becoming a Tower of Babel, we ought nonetheless to be mindful of what makes us what we are; wherein our commonality and distinctiveness reside. As Howard White and Kate McCain put it a few years ago, the “rich word ‘information’ has seduced some into characterizations of the field that are, to date, overgeneral.”

Personally, I am troubled by the fact a number of one’s peers routinely invoke the term ‘information science’ without much sense of the field’s history or literature. Wittgenstein’s aphorism springs to mind: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But these days the silence that ignorance warrants is all too often supplanted by bluster and boosterism. My point can be illustrated with reference to the i-School movement. Now, I don’t want to sound like an old fogy nor to disparage what may in due course prove to be a significant development within academia, but the latitudinarianism of the i-Schools’ spokespersons makes one wonder what these diverse institutions actually have in common. Information is a protean construct, not one for easy boxing. In reading some my peers’ pronouncements, in scrutinizing some of their root definitions, I am at a loss to know what actually makes an i-School an i-School—and I say that as one whose institution is a fully paid-up member of this embryonic confederacy. Irony aside, I cannot resist paraphrasing the celebrated salonnière Madame de Staël: “Speech is not their language.” What, I ask you, are we to make of tag lines such as “Energizing the Infosphere”?

Moreover, there is something mildly perverse in seeking to fashion a fuzzy set when a stable population, otherwise known as ASIS&T, already exists. Ontological legerdemain may be politically expedient, but it ought to be anathematized within the academy. And yet no one seems willing to point out that many of the Emperor’s new clothes are hand-me-downs. The Institute of Information Scientists, of which I was once an elected Fellow, no longer exists. Will the same hold true for ASIS&T, a decade hence? I would like to think not, but I am not altogether sanguine. 

As Jack Meadows noted at the Silver Jubilee Conference of City University’s Department of Information Science in 1987, our field is “evolving into a much broader entity.” The process continues apace, but that is no reason to throw out the ASIS&T baby with the bathwater. We owe it to our Founders to build on their intellectual legacy and not cede turf will-nilly to the Fashionistas of the so-called “i-Fields”—at least not without a jolly good joust. 

Thank you.

2006 Award of Merit