Bulletin, April/May 2006

Passing the Taxi-Driver Test

by Andrew Dillon and Mary Lynn Rice-Lively

Andrew Dillon is dean and professor in the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin . Email: adillon<at>ischool.utexas.edu

Mary Lynn Rice-Lively is associate dean in the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin . Email: marylynn<at>ischool.utexas.edu

The birth of fields elicits both fascination and consternation for those involved and for those observing from the sides. There is never one event, one moment, one idea or one person who creates a new discipline, though hindsight often latches onto one of these and writes history accordingly. Regardless, the I-School Conference at Penn State in 2005 will certainly go down in history as a landmark event.

The conference was an eye-opener on many levels, from the academic and disciplinary diversity of attendees to the amazing facilities of Penn State ’s cybertorium, but what many of us found most positive about the event was the complete lack of territorialism. Unlike so many conferences in the LIS world, there was a notable absence of the us versus them arguments intended to gain some form of ownership of an idea or to protect a legacy orientation to the field. Instead, there was a genuine attempt at inclusion, exploration of cross-disciplinary collaborations, with an appropriate nod to history as Tony Debons and Glynn Harmon were recognized for their pioneering work in shaping the field of information.

Perhaps this spirit of inclusion led to the avoidance of any substantive answers to the perennial and thorny questions, “What is information?” or “Is information a field?” – but it did not prevent the expression of honest and thoughtful concerns. As one person remarked, information is a promiscuous term so there was little chance of us changing that characteristic at one meeting. Jack Carroll was one of several speakers who noted that most conceptions of the field failed to emphasize enough the importance of design and the need for graduates to be skilled in creating artifacts for use. There was no disagreement with this remark, but the point had to be made, and one can expect future discussions on the topic.

The purpose of the conference was set for the group from University of Texas during the taxi ride in from the airport. As we explained our visit to the driver, he seemed bemused by the idea of a field of information. Revealing more than passing knowledge of management and business from his own undergraduate days, he just remarked, “I’m not sure I know what that is” when we spoke of the I-School idea. He’s not the first person to say that and he will not be the last, but the exchange encapsulated a very real concern, and the information field must forge answers that pass the “taxi-driver test” before we can be sure we have arrived.

Amid all the positive discussion, the sense of inclusion and the almost unanimous sense that something important was happening, practical concerns were raised. Many junior faculty members in attendance expressed concern that the lack of history and the diversity of credentials complicated the path to tenure. Clearly, in a bootstrapping phase, the discipline is represented by schools in transition or green-field programs. Additionally, many assistant professors in information programs obtained their degrees in programs of library and information science, psychology, computer science or business, where expectations of productivity are established and where outlets for publications and research are widely recognized. More than a few attendees noted their concerns about how they would be assessed come tenure time when their home departments were new or undergoing major changes. These are very human worries associated with the emergence of a new field within the conservative environs of a modern university, but many schools were able to point to notable successes in crossing this hurdle at their institutions, which certainly increases optimism that the field is here to stay.

Hearing other schools outline their struggles, their history, their debates, their clashes, their confusions and their home university’s views revealed a tale with many commonalities. Despite the varied programs and degree offerings, there is common ground in the origins and history of information programs among this group and in the type of questions each is now seeking to answer. But this commonality should not be seen as uniformity within the field. Information is an open terrain. It is not yet time to define and delineate formally the boundaries or to exclude from our discourses the many perspectives and contributions to be made from others.

A key attribute of information schools must be the values they espouse. In this regard, it is important that we recognize and advance a vision that involves a social agenda, and one that values humanistic as well as scientific orientations towards the technologies and uses of information. That message may not have come through as strongly as it should, but these are early days. However, when a field nominates inter-disciplinarity as a defining characteristic of itself then it needs to be careful that the quieter voices are given a fair hearing. That said, observations from a group of doctoral students attending the conference should give us hope. In sum, they opined that the conference confirmed that they are in the right place at the right time, and that is really the most compelling evidence that the future is bright.