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Monthly Archives: October 2006

ASIST 2006

The conference was a great event over 6 days, depending on when you started. For me the official kick off was the iSchool party at the Cedar Door where our tab had to be upped several times to handle the thirsty hordes. I had dinner later with our first keynote, Laszlo Barabasi, who is a delightfully engaging guest and speaker. His keynote address was fast paced and pointed to the insights to be gained in viewing human activities on the web as scale-free networks incorporating bursts of activity. He argued that 10% of most networks provide the key to holding the network together and that fitness attracts a disproportionately large number of links from other sites. Of course, the mystery of what makes a site or a linked node super-fit remains something to be discovered (and sold, I suppose). You can find out more about the man and his work here: http://www.nd.edu/~alb/

Attendance was up and most people seemed genuinely happy with the program and the location – Austin makes for a great conference venue though I needed to work on people to move them beyond the dubious delights of 6th St when seeking entertainment. Several sessions just would not end — a well attended set of presentations on blogs ran 30 minutes over (it was lunchtime) as people just would not stop asking questions of the various presenters. And it was not just new areas that caught the buzz. The panel on historiography was equally in demand even on the last day! I make a point in my program notes that ASIST is one conference where the old and the new mix easily, and it is this type of perspective-mix that keeps me at ASIST year after year. It was also good to see so many PhD students and younger members – ASIST seems to have lost many of the younger set in recent years to the equally-large IA Summits but when President Mike Leach asked at the outset how many people were attending ASIST for the first time, it was good to see so many hands go up.

Peparing a conference program is a long process and I am glad it’s over. I had superb assistance from Dick Hill at ASIST and three executive program committee members (France Bouthillier, Javed Mostafa and Carole Palmer) but it remained a long slog which I am glad to hand over to next year’s committee (see the call for papers: http://www.asis.org/Conferences/AM07/am07cfp.html). While the society is good about awards events for various members, I think the program committee each year deserves a little more than a piece of paper commemorating their efforts and handed out in a rush at the poorly-attended business meeting. But this is a minor issue – the conference is its own reward, right? I’ll just not be rushing to serve on future program committees.

It was good to see so many faces there, and to talk to several readers of the blog – hello!! More later when I get a chance to think about it all.

No more information seeking models please

Am just back from a trip to GSLIS at McGill (great people, wonderful hospitality) where I spoke last week to faculty and students there on the future of information studies and the need for us to more aggressively position the field through better research and a focus on real world issues. I mentioned, rather bluntly, that I consider the world not to be in need of any more models of information seeking behavior, since I consider there to be far too many of these out there already. Worse, most of these are not really models at all but vague representations involving arrows, boxes and circles that contain little more than common sense. I doubt anyone will really listen to this since one sure way of making a career as an academic in LIS is to find a group that has never been studied explicitly and then describing their behaviors as if these were unique or important. I joke that there really ought to be a model generating algorithm out there rather like those “How to Speak Postmodern” or “Create your own Blues Singer” guides which contain three separate lists of terms that can be combined in any order to give you phrases such as ‘Hyper-modern multivocalities” or names like “Jumping Jake Humperdinck”. For information seeking models it could be as simple as listing age, gender and job characteristics (e.g., the info seeking behavior of middle-aged, male, clergy etc.). We could get more sophisticated and add task or media attributes once we have exhausted the possibilites of three attributes. Maybe we are there already.
Of course, I expect a ‘model’ to have some predictive value in helping us understand what people do, so this is probably a minority concern for now but it has me thinking about the need for a corrective in the LIS literature.

Most models of information seeking behavior look at more than behavior, they consider cognition which is quite natural for information activities, except that behavior and cognition are not the same. I can let this slide and go with Wilson ‘s (1999) slightly unwieldy definition of information behavior as ‘those activities a person may engage in when identifying his or her own needs for information, searching for such information in any way, and using or transferring that information”. Should this not be a reasonable concern of information researchers? It could certainly be if the fruits of that research shed real insight but it’s not clear that we have gained much from all this effort. Most models allude to environmental or contextual drivers, some responses by a human, and a state change resulting in feedback. They are presented often in a form of flowchart that seems to indicate a logical human process abstracted by careful examination.

Wilson’s (1999) article Models of Information Behaviour Research synthesizes many of the popular models into a nested framework that reveals many of the similarities among models but in so doing highlights for me the paucity of real content in any one of them. I was surprised nobody challenged my view but then again, the challenge requires an example of a model that really works. Maybe I am just expecting too much here, but for the sake of Information Studies, I hope not!