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Whither the Information Professions? Indicators From the iConference
by
Posted On April 16, 2019
One good way to assess the future of a profession is to find out what the people who educate new professionals are talking about. For the library and information field, the iConference offers a great opportunity to do just that. It’s sponsored by the iSchools organization, an international consortium of 100 member information schools on six continents. Criteria for full membership include “substantial sponsored research activity, engagement in the training of future researchers through an active, research-oriented doctoral program, a good reputation, and a commitment to progress in the information field.” About half the institutions hosting ALA-accredited master’s degree programs belong to it.

The organization and its annual iConference have been growing, and this year’s event, the 14th, attracted 500-plus academics from around the world to the University of Maryland from March 31 to April 3. Attendees participated in a rich variety of workshops, colloquia, poster sessions, themed program sessions, and administrative meetings. They were also treated to plenary presentations by University of Michigan professor Kentaro Toyama, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

Themes in Plenary Presentations

Given the sheer number of activities, the iConference had something for just about every information professional. The idea that information science is an interdisciplinary field was amply reinforced. Taken together, the three plenary presentations demonstrated just how diverse the field is.

Opening plenary speaker Toyama brought a techno-skeptical viewpoint. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science, worked on computer vision and multimedia research at Microsoft Research, and is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs, 2015). His recent work deals with the social impacts of IT. His “law of amplification” presents the idea that internet technologies don’t change the fundamental forces at work in society, they just make them faster and more powerful. Thus, both accurate information and mis/disinformation spread more quickly and become more pervasive, economic growth and economic inequality become more pronounced, and so forth. The paradoxical implication of this is that the virtue and quality of people and institutions matter more than ever. The challenge to information professionals is clear: to focus on these “soft” disciplines in their work, to grapple with values, and to develop and maintain systems and cultures that foster the “good.”

The biography of second-day plenary speaker Kahle embodies the interdisciplinary nature of information science. He is described on Wikipedia as a “computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur, internet activist, advocate of universal access to all knowledge, and digital librarian.” Kahle brought a techno-optimist, entrepreneurial sensibility to his presentation. Focusing on the availability of books and published material, he pointed out the disparity between the traditional library service policy that relies on interlibrary lending to present a broad array of resources, some of which aren’t immediately available, and the operating principle of web-based information services that content is either available immediately, or, for practical purposes, it doesn’t exist. He described the Internet Archive’s Open Libraries project, which seeks to bridge this gap. Working with American libraries and others, Open Libraries’ goal is to put 4 million books online (while respecting copyrights) and make them accessible regardless of users’ physical abilities.

Hayden, the last day’s plenary speaker, represents the traditional library science wing of the information professions, and yet, her presentation dwelt on the importance of technology. She discussed the mission of the Library of Congress and the challenges of applying technology effectively to deliver positive outcomes. She described the Library of Congress’ digital strategy and its goals of “opening up the treasure chest” and showcasing the expertise of the library’s subject specialists as well as its collections. Hayden pointed out that these noble goals are dependent on technology, and she vividly recounted some of the challenges of upgrading the library’s technical infrastructure. In the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked how she, as an appointee of President Barack Obama, found her job to have changed in the current administration. Her response was an emphatic, “Not at all!” The Library of Congress, she asserted, is a neutral space that is respected and given strong bipartisan support. Another questioner pointed out that the library’s digital strategy should make its “treasure chest” resources accessible to computers as well as people. That, it turns out, is part of the strategy. The library’s LC for Robots page at labs.loc.gov/lc-for-robots includes datasets, APIs, and instructions for machine access to them. There’s also a page, crowd.loc.gov, for volunteers who would like to help transcribe and tag the library’s treasures.

Themes Throughout the Program

Other program sessions also reflected the interplay of technology, humanities, and social sciences across the information science field. Here’s just one illustration, which also highlights the global scope of information science and its blend of a stable body of knowledge with dynamic progress and new insights.

Scheduled in the last time slot of the conference program, the session Addressing Social Problems in iSchools Research concealed interesting insights under its bland title. It included three papers:

  • “‘Berrypicking’ in the Formation of Ideas About Problem Drinking Amongst Users of Alcohol Online Support Groups,” by Sally Sanger, Peter A. Bath, and Jo Bates
  • “LIS Job Advertisements: Seeking Inclusion and Diversity,” by Kim Thompson, Rebecca Muir, and Asim Qayyum
  • “Unmapped Privacy Expectations in China: Discussion Based on the Proposed Social Credit System,” by Yuanye Ma

The three papers focus on three very different countries: the first on Great Britain; the second, Australia; and the third, China. They all deal with universals of human information behavior: seeking information and support for a problem (in this case, habitual alcohol consumption), how information (or its absence) reveals discrimination (explicit or tacit) in hiring practices, and attitudes toward privacy and the sharing of personal information. And yet, two of them point out the cultural and national differences inherent in their subjects: “Diversity” means different things in different societies, and ideas of privacy are dramatically different as well. The third demonstrates the ongoing influence of the established body of knowledge of human information behavior. In this case, Sanger, Bath, and Bates’ study illustrates the relevance of Marcia Bates’ principle of “berrypicking,” which was published 30 years ago. It shows people’s tendency to selectively pay attention to information from different sources and to form their own interpretations, rather than following purely systematic and rational search and evaluation procedures.

Conclusion

Judging by the attendance, energy, and intellectual progress on display at the iConference, information professions should have a robust future. They have developed a core body of knowledge that informs their progress. Moreover, they seem to be trending away from their computer science roots toward a concern for the ethics, values, and cultural aspects of information in society and the application of both quantitative and qualitative methods to develop new insights. The next checkpoint in their evolution will take place at the next iConference, which will be held March 23–26, 2020, in Boras, Sweden.


Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded the Special Libraries Association’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

 

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