I had heard quite a few things about Marcia Bates through my class with Prof. Hartel, mostly that she was this femme-extraordinaire with the ability and passion to identify just how interdisciplinary the field of information is, and advocating endlessly for a more cohesive direction in the fundamental understandings of information scientists, by, well, information scientists. After all, if we can’t agree which directly is the right one, and no one has presented a persuasive enough argument for any particular approach, we’d lose focus and momentum. In a way, I believe that my ability to pursue my interdisciplinary pursuit is in part due to grounds established by Bates, Sonnenwald, and many others whom I have yet to meet, whether I am aware of it or not. A healthy respect for tradition is not a forfeiting of innovation, but finding a network of mentors and supporters who also has a healthy respect for what you are trying to forge.
I met her during only during the session on “Positive Info Science”, which refers to not the positivist way of thinking, but literally just an optimistic, and ‘positive’ approach to information science. It is not always challenges and problems that creates information needs, but information science has only begun to address the phenomenon that information seeking can be a core activity that provides pleasure and joy. I mean, information professionals know that already about ourselves, but perhaps we forget that others experience the same joy at times too.
…the battles of my generation are different from those that were in her own, but it is important to own what you contribute…
If “optimism” or inspiration provides a context for inquiry into information seeking behaviour, how differently would we frame our research questions? Off the top of my head, I can imagine an approach to classification systems that is designed to “inspire” discoveries, instead of one that puts the onus on the user to already know what they’re looking for. Or perhaps exploratory eLearning systems, that includes a performance metric on ‘how excited’ people become about the topic, and what further in-depth explorations the users pursue after using it. Part of the joy of teaching and knowledge sharing is seeing that initial spark kick in when a student figures out why a piece of music is beautiful, or why history is so fascinating. We still need real people to do that, but why can’t systems do a better job of facilitating that as well?
The talk was more inspirational in nature than it was technical, but hearing the endorsement of Bates made me think that maybe this is a battle for the next generation of information scientists like Hartel, and those of us who are inspired by their trajectories. I approached Bates to introduce myself, referring to her ‘Cascade of Interaction’ paper which I was very inspired by. It shows all the layers and steps of a design process, and all the design and research questions that are raised at each stage. The most comprehensive production guideline for a knowledge or information system if I had ever seen one.
I asked her about the advice she would give someone (like myself) who wants to pursue that interdisciplinary and collaborative career. She said up front that the battles of my generation are different from those that were in her own, but it is important to own what you contribute to a system design process. Don’t be afraid to BE that expert in information seeking and use and saying so. It takes a lot of confidence and definitely a thick skin, but if you believe in what you’re doing, even if you don’t have all the answers, you should have confidence that you can find the answers.
That was sage advice, and one that I will have to frequently remind myself of. It is almost too obvious to have needed to be said, but looking back on my conference notes from almost a month ago to write this post, it feels like I am hearing this advice again for the first time. I know I have the capacity to own what I think is my unique contribution and perspective in the field, both in its research and applications, now I just have to remember to really own it.