One of the readings for INST800 this week was Bates (2007). It’s a short piece that outlines how she and Mary Maack organized their work on the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences. When creating an encyclopedia it becomes immediately necessary to define the scope, so you have some hope of finishing the work. As she points out, information science is contested territory now because of all the money and power that is aggregated in Silicon Valley. Everyone wants a piece of it now, whereas it has struggled to be a discipline before people started billion dollar companies in their garages:

We have been treated as the astrologers and phrenologists of modern science— assumed to be desperately trying to cobble together the look of scholarship in what are surely trivial and nearly content-free disciplines.

It’s fun to pause for a moment to consider how much of what comes out of Silicon Valley feels like astrology or phrenology in its marketing and futurism.

So, in large part Bates and Maack needed to define what information science is before they could get to work. But Bates seems to feel like this theory transcended its use to scope the work, and really did define the field. Or perhaps it’s more likely that her previous work in the field (she is a giant) informed the scope chosen for the encyclopedia. What better way to establish the foundations of a field (ideology) than write an encyclopedia about it?

A few things struck me about this article. The small addition of “s” to the end of the title of the encyclopedia seemed like an important detail. It recognizes the pluralistic nature of information, its inter-disciplinarity – how information science has grown out of many disciplines across the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences. But she goes on to point out that in fact all these disciplines do have something in common:

… we engage in living and working our daily lives, and these vast numbers of human activities give off or throw off a remarkably extensive body of documentation of one sort or another: Business records, family histories, scholarly books, scientific and technical journals, websites, listservs and blogs for groups with common interests of a work or avocational nature, religious texts, educational curricula, x-rays, case records in law, medicine, and criminal justice, architectural drawings and purchase orders from construction sites, and on and on and on. The universe of living throws off documentary products, which then form the universe of documentation.

This description of different universes is compelling for me because it seems to recognize the processes and systems that information is a part of. She also includes a quirky mindmap-like diagram of these two universes in interaction which helps illustrate what she sees going on:

The Universe of Living and the Universe of Documentation
The Universe of Living and the Universe of Documentation

Now I would be mostly sold if things stopped here, but of course they don’t. Bates goes on to criticize Briet’s idea of documents, in which anything that can be used as evidence, is a document (Briet, 2006) in order to say:

Though it is immensely valuable to recognize the socially mediated character of any animal’s presence in a zoo, I object to this characterization of the antelope as a document. I have not the space to make the case fully here, but I argue that a document, above all, contains “recorded information,” that is, “communicatory or memorial information preserved in a durable medium”. (Bates, 2006).

For Bates the antelope in the zoo is a specimen, not a document. I should probably dig down into (Bates, 2006) to understand fully what’s going on here. On the surface this definition seems quite specific, but it begs a few questions.

  • Who or what is in communication?
  • Is understanding required for it to be communication?
  • Does this communication need to be intentional?
  • What is does durable mean, over what time scales?

Maybe I’m just getting defensive because I’ve always been a bit partial to Briet’s definition. :-)

Bates goes on to use this distinction as an argument for not including the study of living things as information in the encyclopedia; which seems like a perfectly fine definition of scope for an encyclopedia, but not as a definition of what is and is not information science:

In the definition of scope of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, the first two branches of the collections sciences, all working with collections of non-living but highly informative objects, are being included in the coverage of the encyclopedia, while the collectors of live specimens— the branch most remote from document collecting— are not included at this time.

Can we really say information is dead, or rather, that it has never been alive? Is information separable from living things (notably us) and still meaningful as an object of study? Where do you draw the line between the living, the unliving … and the once living? Can we disentangle these systems? What does it mean for something to be alive? I like to think that she herself would agree that this is not a sustainable view of the scope of the information sciences.

Gene

References

Bates, M. J. (2006). Fundamental forms of information. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(8), 1033–1045. Retrieved from https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/bates/articles/NatRep_info_11m_050514.html

Bates, M. J. (2007). Defining the information disciplines in encyclopedia development. Information Research, 12. Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/12-4/colis/colis29.html

Briet, S. (2006). What is documentation? : English translation of the classic french text. (R. E. Day, L. Martinet, & H. G. B. Anghelescu, Eds.). Scarecrow Press.