Bulletin, April/May 2006

The First I-Conference of the I-School Communities

Glynn Harmon, Guest Editor

Glynn Harmon is a professor in the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin . Email: gharmon<at>ischool.utexas.edu

In this Special Section of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, we are pleased to report briefly on The First I-Conference of the I-School Deans’ Community, which was held last September at the School of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State University . The purposes of the conference were to (1) explore and develop the essential foundations of the information field; (2) identify some of the grand challenges faced by society and the I-Schools; (3) explore disciplinary and administrative relations between I-Schools and the university; (4) search for common themes related to I-School identity; and (5) explore possible transformations, impacts and opportunities ahead. This extraordinarily well-organized and managed conference was hosted primarily by Penn State I-School Dean James Thomas and his faculty and staff and by other members of the coordinating committee consisting of I-School deans and assistants from the universities at Syracuse , California at Irvine , Michigan and Washington . Other I-Schools represented included those at the University of California at Berkeley , UCLA, Drexel , Florida State, Georgia Tech, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , Indiana , Maryland , North Carolina , Pittsburgh , Rutgers and Texas at Austin . About 300 individuals (deans, faculty, students, others), primarily from information-related university schools and departments throughout the United States , attended the conference. About 85 papers were presented.

In the first paper that follows, Harry Bruce, Debra Richardson and Mike Eisenberg discuss “The I-Conference: Gathering of the Clans of Information.” They explore some key attributes and qualities of I-Schools, their issues and problems, and the formation of multidisciplinary affiliations and other collaborative ties to promote drastically improved education, research and professional problem solving. Their use of the term information clans in their title is interesting in itself, since it conveys the notion that the information nexus can serve flexibly to mobilize the diverse efforts of specialists in hitherto relatively separate areas (such as computer science, communications, library science, management information or educational technology). Such collaborative efforts are no longer merely a desirable feature of information enterprise, as they were (for the most part) during the 1900s. The flexible mobilization of appropriate collaborative ingenuity and skill sets for 21st century problem identification and solving is now a sine qua non for virtually any enterprise. Accordingly, the lines that circumscribe I-School multidisciplinary integration and collaboration need to be continually optimized to be neither too inclusive nor restrictive. Likewise, perceptions about the fundamental nature of I-Schools might need to be readjusted on a contingency basis as new, fundamental problems and trends are identified. As Mike Eisenberg might say about essential I-School collaborative partnering and disciplinary integration, information clans might well “make love, not war.” After all, as an attendee remarked at the I-Conference, information is a promiscuous thing.

Next, John King provides an eloquent and incisive analysis of “Identity in the I-School Movement.I-School identity continues to be elusive largely because these schools usually incorporate a mix of legacy disciplines into emergent, more dynamic identities that can deal quickly and decisively with such challenges as ubiquitous information environments. The required metamorphosis of legacy disciplines into new strategic configurations to confront unprecedented challenges creates essential tensions. Essential tensions are requisite to negotiating differences and discovering basic similarities between different disciplinary structures. Thus, the requirement for adaptive identity and resourcefulness tends to clash with the comfort of older, incumbent identities and their clarity of focus. But universities themselves tend to be conservative and often allocate resources to schools and departments that possess clearly articulated identities, mission statements and academic standards. Further, interdisciplinary programs are more operationally difficult and can likewise be viewed skeptically. Nevertheless (and King makes an important point here), I-Schools can make themselves invaluable to various constituents by being interested in their problems, by identifying and fulfilling their needs and by capitalizing on feedback. If I-Schools are successful in filling needs, identity problems should take care of themselves.

Jim Thomas, Ray von Dran and Steve Sawyer provide a highly informative summary analysis of “The I-Conference and the Transformation Ahead.” A number of factors serve to explain the convergence of information scholarship underway throughout various universities and within multiple I-Schools: the globalization of economies and their information infrastructures; breaking away from the insularity and incompleteness of older, information-oriented programs previously scattered throughout the university; and the balkanization of information curricula and research. I-Schools provide a barrier-free academic infrastructure within which separate information programs can find conviviality and redefine themselves. Redefinition can take place via comparisons of curriculum structures and behavioral objectives for graduates or via such integrative themes as the confluence of technology, people, policies, organizations and information. I-Schools are thus characterized by a number of features: their concern with society-wide information problems; their concomitant problem focus; their flexibility and adaptive nature; their repositioning to capture research funds; and their assumption of innovative leadership. Looking ahead, I-Schools can become exemplars of multidisciplinary coupling, increased educational and research prowess and leadership in reducing the duplicative overlap among various information programs on campus. These authors deliver an inspirational message about I-Schools and the academic and social high ground they can capture.

Anthony Debons and I look at “The I-Conference in Retrospect” by comparing and contrasting the thrusts of three NATO Advanced Institutes in Information Science held in the 1970s. Like the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes addressed similar issues and questions about identity, the essential nature of information, its multidisciplinary study, globalization, needed competencies of program graduates and domain mapping. These concerns mark some of our enduring issues. In the 1960s and 1970s, we were primarily devoted to developing information science as a discipline. There was some anxiety about finding a proper academic home for the newly hatched orphan in established schools or departments, such as library, computer or communications science, or business or philosophy. Initially, information science tended to be tacked on to these parent disciplines and eventually more fully integrated. Now, in a rather ironic reversal of fortune, I-Conference attendees appeared to be concerned about developing a multidisciplinary home, largely for the purpose of hosting older and less self-sufficient legacy information disciplines. However, the NATO Institutes constitute only one of a very large number of historical strands. Given that each I-School disciplinary member possesses its own set of historical interpretations, we now have multiple historical legacies awaiting reexamination. But perhaps it is more important to chart the future of I-Schools than to look to the past.

Last, Andrew Dillon and Mary Lynn Rice-Lively provide their overall reactions to the I-Conference. Their paper, “Passing the Taxi-Driver Test,” argues for the necessity of educating the public at large (including taxi drivers) about the capabilities and potentialities of I-Schools. On the one hand, it is necessary to answer perennial questions like “What is information?” but at the same time to avoid premature closure about the scope, depth and reach of I-School programs and agendas. Conceptual closure and solidification implies that the very voices and perspectives needed for I-School program development might end up being excluded. In particular, younger faculty members can be rich sources of innovation, but in unstructured environments fewer common credentialing rituals exist to guide their progress. Nevertheless, the I-Conference environment was exemplary for its balance between inclusiveness and search for central, unifying concepts.

In conclusion, this observer found the I-Conference to be an unusual and unique event. It is probably fair to say that no singular set of analytical lenses, observers or perspectives, could render an accurate assessment of the I-Conference or its significance. The deliberations were relatively unstructured, inclusive, eclectic, intellectually and socially diverse, and open-ended. Because the conference was held outside of normal professional, governmental or commercial venues, it was relatively free of a priori assumptions, traditions, territorial boundaries, doctrines, ideologies, preordained world views and the like. But there was definitely a lot of electricity in the air, as my fellow students at Cal Berkeley used to say. Dialectic reasoning prevailed over old dichotomies, as yin-yang opposites were argued and reconciled. Attendees were driven by curiosity, the need to explore and an apparent willingness to reinvent themselves continually. Although a number of disciplinary or professional fields were frequently mentioned as areas of potential or actual I-School inclusion (computer science or engineering, management information, traditional information science, library science, telecommunications, etc.) there seemed to be an emergent recognition that I-School requirements will most likely transcend many older categorizations to develop new ones as the 21st century progresses. For now, though, all these areas appear to be essential components of the I-School amalgam, despite the transformations ahead.

We are most indebted to the I-School deans and faculty, particularly Jim Thomas, Steve Sawyer and other hosts at Penn State , as well as all other coordinating committee members, for sponsoring the first I-Conference. Their efforts provided us with the right catalyst for future explorations and targeted progress.