Here are my working notes for the readings this week in INST888. At some point I will try to integrate the annotations I am making using Hypothes.is, perhaps via some JavaScript that pulls them into this page.


(Buckland, 1991) is another classic in the field where Buckland uses the notion of information-as-thing as a fulcrum for exploring what information is. I noticed on re-reading this paper that he seems to feel that information science theorists have dismissed the study of information-as-thing. So in many ways this article is a defense of the study of information as an object. He uses this focus on the materiality of documents to explore and delimit other aspects of information systems, such as how events can be viewed as information and the situational aspects of information. Early on in the paper is one of his most interesting findings, a matrix for characterizing information along two axes:

Intangible Tangible
Entity Knowledge Data
Process Becoming informed Information processing

His analysis keeps returning to the centrality of information-as-thing, in an attempt to avoid this logical dead end:

If anything is, or might be, informative, then everything is, or might well be, information. In which case calling something “information” does little or nothing to define it. If everything is information, then being information is nothing special. (Buckland, 1991, p. 356)

It seems to me that the tension here is one of economy: you can’t put everything in the archive, things must be appraised, some things are left out of the information system. Buckland does note that not everything needs to be relocated into the information system to become information:

Some informative objects, such as people and historic buildings, simply do not lend themselves to being collected, stored, and retrieved. But physical relocation into a collection is not always necessary for continued access. Reference to objects in their existing locations creates, in effect, a “virtual collection.” One might also create some description or representation of them: a film, a photograph, some measurements, a directory, or a written description. What one then collects is a document describing or representing the person, building, or other object. (Buckland, 1991, p. 354)

But even in this case a reference or a representation of the thing must be created and it must be made part of the information system. This takes some effort by someone or an action by something. Even in the world of big data and the Internet of Things that we live in now, the information system is not as big as the universe. We make decisions to create and deploy devices to monitor our thermostats. We build systems to aggregate, analyze the data to inform more decisions. Can these systems be thought of as operating outside of human experience? I guess there are people like Stephen Wolfram who think that the universe itself (which includes us) is an information system, or really a computational system. I wonder what Wolfram and Buckland would have to say to each other…

Some of the paper seems to be defending information-as-thing a bit too strenuously, to the point that it seems like the only viable way of looking at information. So I liked that Buckland closes with this:

It is not asserted that sorting areas of information science with respect to their relationship to information-as-thing would produce clearly distinct populations. Nor is any hierarchy of scholarly respectability intended.

Information certainly can be considered as material, and Buckland demonstrates it’s a useful lever for learning more about what information is. But considering it only as material, absent information-as-process, and other situational aspects leads to some pretty deep philosophical problems. Somewhat relatedly Dorothea Salo and I recently wrote a paper that looks examines Linked Data using the work of Buckland and Suzanne Briet (Summers & Salo, n.d.).

Again in (Buckland, 1997) Buckland attempts to defend ground that he feels many find untenable: defining the scope and limits of the word “document”. Reading between the lines a bit he sees the explosion of printed information as giving rise to attempts to control it, and since printed information exceeds our ability to organize it, it seems only natural to limit the scope of documentation, so the whole enterprise doesn’t seem like folly.

A document is evidence in support of a fact. (Briet in Buckland, 1991, p. 806)

Buckland quotes Briet to focus the discussion on the value of evidence. A star as not being a document, but a photo of a star as a document. This reminds me a lot of his discussion of situational information, where the circumstances have a great deal to say about whether something is information or a document.

traces of human activity, and other objects not intended as communication (Buckland, 1997, p. 807)

This reminds me of Geiger’s work on trace ethnography, e.g. looking at the behavior of Wikipedia bots (Geiger & Ribes, 2011). The quote of Barthes makes me think of pragmatic philosophy:

… the object effectively serves some purpose, but it also serves to communicate information (Buckland (1997)).

And what of the purpose? Can something communicate information while effectively not serving a purpose?

Information systems can also be used to find new evidence, so documents are not limited to things having evidential value now. Electronic documents push the boundaries even more, because anything information is less and less like a distinct thing, since everything in a computer is represented ultimately as logic gates, binary ones and zeros.

In both this article and (Buckland, 1991) Buckland seems to resist the notion that information could be anything:

If anything is, or might be, informative, then everything is, or might well be, information. In which case calling something “information” does little or nothing to define it. If everything is information, then being information is nothing special. (Buckland, 1991, p. 356)

if the term ‘‘document’’ were used in a specialized meaning as the technical term to denote the objects to which the techniques of documentation could be applied, how far could the scope of documentation be extended. What could ( or could not ) be a document? The question was, however, rarely formulated in these terms. (Buckland, 1997, p. 805)

Why is it a problem for anything to potentially be information? Is it only a problem because he wants to be able to identify information as an object? If he accepts that information always exists as part of a process, and that these processes are extended in time, does that help relieve this tension about what can be a document?

For Saracevic in (Saracevic, 1999) definitions of information science are best understood by considering the problems that practitioners are focused on. Saracevic sees information in three primary ways, which are not unique to information science:

  • interdisciplinary
  • connected to technology
  • with a social/human dimension that shapes society

He also sees there having been three powerful ideas:

  • information retrieval (formal logic for processing information)
  • relevance: a model for examining information retrieval systems
  • interaction: models for feedback between people and information systems

Saracevic’s emphasis on problems seems like it could provide useful avenue and citation trail for me to explore with respect to Broken World Thinking outlined by (Jackson, 2014). Is it possible to see Saracevic’s problems as Jackson’s sites for repair? Saracevic claims to have divided information science research into two camps: systems researchers and human-centered research. Is Saracevic’s wanting to merge the two poles of information science an attempt to repair something he sees as broken?

This quote at the end really stands out for me, as a quite beautiful and accidental summary of what agile software development is all about:

The success or failure of any interactive system and technologyis contingent on the extent to which user issues, the humanfactors, are addressed right from the beginning to the very end,right from theory, conceptualization, and design process on todevelopment, evaluation, and to provision of services. (Saracevic, 1999, p. 1062)

References

Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. JASIS, 42(5), 351–360.

Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? JASIS, 48(9), 804–809.

Geiger, R. S., & Ribes, D. (2011). Trace ethnography: Following coordination through documentary practices. In 44th hawaii international conference on system sciences (pp. 1–10). IEEE. Retrieved from http://www.stuartgeiger.com/trace-ethnography-hicss-geiger-ribes.pdf

Jackson, S. J. (2014). Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality and society. In P. Boczkowski & K. Foot (Eds.). MIT Press. Retrieved from http://sjackson.infosci.cornell.edu/RethinkingRepairPROOFS(reduced)Aug2013.pdf

Saracevic, T. (1999). Information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(12), 1051–1063.

Summers, E., & Salo, D. (n.d.). Linking things on the web: A pragmatic examination of linked data for libraries, archives and museums. arXiv Preprint arXiv:1302.4591. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1302.4591