Bulletin, April/May 2006

The I-Conference: 
Gathering of The Clans of Information

by Harry Bruce, Debra J. Richardson and Mike Eisenberg

Harry Bruce is dean and professor in The Information School of the University of Washington . Email: Harryb<at>u.washington.edu

Debra J. Richardson is dean and professor in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences of the University of California at Irvine . Email: djr<at>ics.uci.edu

Mike Eisenberg is dean emeritus and professor in The Information School of the University of Washington . Email: Mbe<at>u.washington.edu

Great anticipation accompanied the opening session of the first-ever I-Schools conference. This conference was an historic event – not quite in the constitutional convention sort of way (although prior organizational work was done by the deans of the schools and there would also be a post-conference meeting of the deans) – rather the I-Schools conference was similar to a gathering of the clans. The conference represented the first time that faculty, students and staff from schools that embrace and champion the broad-based information school model had gathered together.

In this spirit, the goal of the opening session of the I-Conference was to facilitate engagement by all participants in a discourse aimed at identifying the baseline attributes and qualities defining their affiliation as “information schools.” The focus was to be on essentials – on trying to articulate the essence of an “information school” and the “information field.”

Yes, this goal was ambitious and contentious and perhaps even a little misguided. For more than 40 years, the information field has attempted to articulate clear statements of identity, core values and distinctive qualities. We have learned that such a discourse risks the exclusion of voices, the alienation of important partners and the building of barriers that can threaten future collaboration. If we draw too narrow a formulation in identifying what is essential to being an information school, we risk drawing artificial boundaries that may have long-lasting impact. Alternatively, being too broad runs the risk of having an abstract and mostly meaningless or trivial view of the information school movement. So, it’s important to strike the right balance, to address serious and important questions and to better define what we mean when we say that, “This is our time!”

The ground rules for the opening discussion of the I-Conference were therefore established:

  • Understanding that most (if not all) propositions about the core or essence of an information school would be contentious.
  • Hearing all voices; to be broad and inclusive.
  • Emphasizing that the qualities we sought to identify were those we regarded as essential; those at the essence of who we are.
  • Focusing on attributes that are clear to us and able to make them clear to others both inside and outside the information community.

A strategy suggested for implementing the ground rules was to think of a set of concentric circles of defining concepts and qualities. The key questions then become these:

  1. What qualities of information schools and the information field lie in the center? Here we each should see ourselves clearly and be able to say, “I definitely belong here.”
  2. What other qualities identify us and help us to understand who we are? These qualities may lie in outer circles – not at the essence or may not apply to all of us. These qualities may also contribute to our discussion and over time may appear closer to or further from our center.

To structure the participants’ thinking, one of the chairs of the opening session presented a number of preliminary ideas that had been discussed earlier among the deans of the schools represented at the conference. This introduction also included a number of views expressed in papers submitted for the opening session.

The following essential attributes of an information school were identified:

·        The focus of the school should be on information – variously defined.

·        Information should be clearly at the center of the schools academic, research and service programs, and a vision that emphasizes information provision and the connection of people with information should be fundamental.

·        The school should focus on the interaction of people with information and technology, viewing effective use by people as the motivation for design, development, evaluation and re-design of information technologies, services and systems.

·        The faculty of an information school should come from various disciplines and have broad based, inclusive, multidisciplinary mindsets. They should be active in leading, advocating and celebrating the information field.

·        The dean of the school should report directly to the chief academic officer or provost of the university. The information school should, in other words, be an independent school or college within its institution.

·        The school must have an active research program that may be reported on a range of metrics. For example, the school should have a Ph.D. program and some minimum dollar value in terms of annual research expenditures.

Initial analysis of the submitted papers for the opening session of the I-Conference revealed that these essentials for information schools might be loosely organized for the purpose of the I-Conference discussion according to who we are as 1) academic and educational communities; 2) scientific communities; and 3) professional communities.

After this introduction, participants dispersed into five breakout sessions. The participants who submitted papers to the essentials session were assigned to these breakout discussions and asked to briefly present the ideas in their paper. Each session was chaired, and the discussion was recorded by a note-taker. Participants then reassembled for a plenary session, which began with the breakout discussion chairs forming a panel to provide a five-minute report on their discussions. These reports were followed by questions and open discussion.

The general discussion celebrated the multi-disciplinarity of the information school community and our variety of theoretical traditions and methods. The centrality of information as the primary object of study was acknowledged but no defining single core set of methods or theories binding the community together emerged. Rather, the notion of a scientific community overarching a set of sub-fields was the model most used for articulating the information field.

There is, of course, some tension with the goal of being a defined field while at the same time being multidisciplinary. The information schools provide an opportunity to bring together interdisciplinary collaborators on common ground while maintaining connections to the contributing disciplines. At the same time, the information schools must produce core research and develop theories so that other disciplines will come to the information schools and see society through the “I-School lens,” not per se in the content, but especially in the design of information, its representation and use. The group identified the need to grow an information school both by hiring new grads from other I-Schools (while maintaining the diversity and tension by mixing in academics from the contributing disciplines) and also by exporting our graduates to other disciplines, since every discipline deals with information.

In terms of educational programs, a wide range of views was expressed on what is fundamental or foundational for students in an information school. There were differences of opinion as to what all graduates of information schools needed to know or have in their skill sets. Most participants agreed, however, that a core course introducing the baseline knowledge required by graduates would help define information schools academically and professionally. In fact, an important theme throughout this discussion was the desire to see information schools participate in the broader society and culture – a desire to make the information field relevant not just to the academy but also to the local, national and international communities in which it is situated. Establishing community relevance and social good is an essential thrust of the information school movement.

Tied to this is the emphasis many of the participants placed on collaborating with industry and preparing students for jobs. The general view was that information schools must prepare students for leadership positions with a core curriculum of adaptable skills and the ability to think abstractly and critically. It was proposed that information schools in this way are providing a new liberal arts education – preparing students with strong thinking and analytical skills and preparing them to meet the challenges of the future workplace.

Collaboration and diversity were common themes, with agreement that the most fruitful gains for the field occur through collaborative efforts bringing diverse ideas and intellectual backgrounds together. These conditions are occurring in faculty collaborations on projects, student collaborations and collaboration with industry on innovation (and a real desire to work with industry and graduate job-ready professionals).

Many other points, issues and topics were raised as well. For example, in relation to other fields and disciplines, there seemed to be agreement that we shouldn’t try to set clear boundaries between ourselves and other disciplines; we should seek collaboration and partnership. At the same time, identity was the key and most-discussed theme: the information field does need to establish its own identity in terms of who we are and what we are attempting to do. The information field is not simply a confluence of other fields, but rather it is a science in its own right with theoretical foundations, understandings and principles. Every field has a foundation question and ours might well be, “What is information?”

The opening session ended having accomplished exactly what we hoped it would: the clans were assembled, the challenges were presented and the hard work of engaging, debating and discussing in order to reach consensus commenced.