In form & informing: Materiality and information seeking
Article first published online: 1 JUN 2009
Copyright © 2008 by American Society for Information Science and Technology
Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
Volume 45, Issue 1, pages 1–6, 2008
How to Cite
Anderson, T., Kjellberg, S., Francke, H. and Sundin, O. (2008), In form & informing: Materiality and information seeking. Proc. Am. Soc. Info. Sci. Tech., 45: 1–6. doi: 10.1002/meet.2008.1450450134
- Issue published online: 3 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 1 JUN 2009
- Panel co-sponsored by SIG-USE & SIG-SI
In information science, the role of the informative artifact has long been a topic of discussion. When Buckland (1997) posited “what is a document” he drew on the work of Suzanne Briet, Paul Otlet and documentalists of an earlier age. The introduction of digital documents to our information worlds has not diminished our interest in – nor done away with the need to reflect on – Buckland's question. In an age with talk of technoscience, cyborgs and intelligent agents, the relation between human and artifact continues to fascinate and perplex us. The relation between people and information does, however, become even more complex when technologies are increasingly digital, leading to further questions about ways that individuals are constructed and transformed by the impact of information technologies. This increased complexity highlights the need to discuss the relation between form and informing in the field of information seeking.
The call for sociomaterial and sociotechnical perspectives to examine such questions arises in fields such as Science and Technology Studies (STS)(e.g.: Latour, 1992), Social Informatics (SI) (e.g.: Kling, 2000), and increasingly in relation to information seeking (e.g.: Anderson, 2007). Lave (1988) and Barad (1998) draw particular attention to the perils of dichotomizing our conceptions of “human” and “object”. The interconnectedness is illustrated particularly strongly in the creative works crafted by people working predominantly in the digital. As Jenny Weight (2006), a digital artist and academic, observes:
My creative life is pervaded by the apparatus; while ultimately I seek to communicate with fellow humans, to make this possible I ‘communicate’ with the apparatus first. How is my creativity filtered by the apparatus, and what ramifications exist for texts, creators and interpreters (Weight, 2006, p 413).
This panel will examine such questions and their implications for conceptualizing human engagements with informative artifacts in increasingly digital worlds.
The topic under discussion in this panel ties in very well with the theme of the conference – people transforming information and information transforming people. Information artifacts such as documents or systems play an important role in the transformative, co-evolving relationship between people and information. The material form that such artifacts might take, however, is far from straightforward. While human-centered approaches have proven valuable for shedding light on information seeking, this panel and the ASIS&T 2008 theme offer us the chance to reflect on the significance of material forms on the informing practices of people in a range of contexts.
The material form and physical presence of documents have a role in creating communities and a sense of belonging, regardless of their epistemic content (Brown & Duguid, 1996). This is because people engage in practices with and involving documents; practices that are formed partly by the documents' materiality (Frohmann, 2004). One group of such practices concern the activities of information seeking. Conducting a fulltext search in a web search engine, locating a manuscript in an archive, or posing a question in a library chat room are all activities that engage people with the various considerations and practicalities posed by the technical form of the type of documents they are expecting to find.
Contemporary information practices increasingly involve human engagements with digital information technologies to some degree, even if indirectly. This realisation draws attention to the theoretical discussions of writers like Weight (2006), Ito and Okabe (2005) and Kling (2000), who have explored this interplay in various contexts and draw attention to how our information worlds can and should be framed as sociotechnical worlds. Technology changes human experience and human experience informs technology. In this age of electronic text and virtual information spaces, it is worth discussing the possible implications (and benefits of) a contemporary appreciation of the significance of documents and other informative artifactual forms for users. In other words, one could posit the old searcher/system divide as an analog view of information practice that is no longer suited to our contemporary and future information environments. The panel will invite consideration by the audience of the extent to which sociomaterial and sociotechnical perspectives are valid for our engagements with non-digital as well as digital information forms.
Participants (in order of appearance)
Theresa Anderson (moderator), Senior Lecturer, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
Beginning with a look at what might be considered a traditional information practice (the information seeking of academics), Anderson draws on examples from her ethnographic fieldwork examining scholarly research practices that illustrate a very different take on ‘document’ from the one that is traditionally associated with information and document retrieval and consequently branded as system-centric. The observations will be used to present a sociomaterial perspective that draws on the works of Barad (1998) and Lave (1988) to show how practice is manifested in the relationships between humans and between human and material object. Taking a phenomenological stance informed by Merleau-Ponty (e.g.: 1965) and Schutz (e.g.: 1972), Anderson will discuss how understanding information practices can help us to better understand the relationships between subject and object as a relationship of being.
Using passages from the ethnographic stories crafted through this fieldwork, Anderson will illustrate how, for her informants, documents are often perceived as essential carriers of ideas rather than material artifacts to be located, managed and discarded. In these observed interactions, the material and the social were co-evolving constructions. As carriers of ideas circulating in the informants' worlds, the documents provided clues to not only their own contents, but to the views of a wider community associated with a document and its author. The value of such information artifacts was in turn shaped by values taking shape in that community and beyond. Judgments made by searchers when using a database are far richer than simply selecting or rejecting a document. In a sense, the document is a “boundary object” (Star & Griesemer, 1989) – a conception that is plastic enough to have one meaning in information system terms and another in user-centered terms but rigid enough to allow users and systems to ‘communicate’ via a system. Kjellberg and Francke will offer further illumination of such scholarly practices from other perspectives.
Sara Kjellberg, PhD student, Lund University, Sweden
Kjellberg presents preliminary thoughts from her study of how the blog as a sociotechnical system is used in scholarly communication. She is interested in the use and construction of trust in networked communication. The background for her research about trust and credibility is based both in LIS in relation to information seeking (Wilson, 1983) and in STS when it comes to studies of scholarly communication practice (Knorr Cetina, 1999; Shapin, 1994). The theoretical point of departure is genre theory and more specifically a theoretical framework of situated genre theory where the communicative purpose and social situation are important (Miller, 1984; Swales, 1990). Kjellberg is analyzing the influence of epistemic cultures and discourse communities on the blogging researcher as a producer/writer, but the use of genre allows her to also observe the visualized structural elements. She will discuss how her analysis of blogs in physics and history might show how materiality in the blog is used to create trust and confidence in a certain scholarly communication practice. Kjellberg relies on the same considerations about trustworthiness as in Francke's (2008) research about document properties in Open Access journals. How is the blog as a document considered to mediate old genres in the scholarly communication context? Furthermore, Kjellberg will expand on Anderson's findings about the interaction between document and user. Can the blog act as mediator of the norms and values and creation of trust in the scholarly communication practice and thereby make it possible to say something further about the interaction between technology and people?
Helena Francke, PhD, University College of Borås, Sweden
Francke contributes a document studies perspective to this panel. She will take her point of departure in a study of the materiality of scholarly electronic journals and the ways in which the switch from print to electronic has implications for that materiality. Different approaches to remediating (Bolter & Grusin, 2000) the print journal result in very different artifacts. The new medium affords the inclusion of new modes of representation, such as movies and audio, but also various forms of interactive content. So far, many of these features are used fairly restrictively, and the response among authors and readers seems to be limited. Questions that will be posed and discussed are: What happens when new material possibilities position authors and readers in new situations? Does the transformation of the documents require a transformation of information practices? What forms may such transformations take?
New approaches to the design of document forms and content influence the conditions for information seeking. There is a need for better information systems adjusted to the retrieval of (moving) images, audio, and algorithmic material to be developed, also within the previously text-centered area of scholarly communication. And a corresponding need for users to think differently with regard to what type of information they are searching for. At the same time, the (slowly) increasing inclusion of interactive content in connection with scholarly articles further challenges the view of a document's unity as well as the question of authorial control and responsibility – where do we draw the limits for an author's text? These changing conditions require an approach to information seeking that considers the materiality of documents and systems in relation to and in constant negotiation with the communities of practice that look to the artifacts as sources of information or as boundary objects within and between communities.
Olof Sundin, Senior Lecturer, Lund University, Sweden
Sundin presents a theoretical framing of the topic that will serve as a bridge between the findings presented from the fieldwork of the other presenters. During the last decades, information behavior research has primarily taken its point of departure in the perspective of the user as a contrast to taking the perspective of the information system. In this discourse, the format of the information, the information artifact, has rarely been regarded as important, even if there are important exceptions. This methodological split between user and information system has contributed to a lack of awareness of the ways information artifacts, digital as well as printed, shape agency in different communities. Sundin discusses the critique against the user perspective of information seeking and the way that this critique could be answered. He will be doing that by presenting ‘practice’ as a concept for information seeking and use research as well as point to some methodological consequences of such an approach. The arguments will be taken from the growing research tradition of information (seeking) practice together with an underpinning in the theoretical literature of practice theory (e.g.: Savolainen, 2007; Talja & Hartel, 2007). An interest in information practices problematizes a one-sided user perspective and contributes instead to visualizing the constructive relation between human practices and the artifacts in specific communities. Furthermore, when focusing on situated information practices, the research focus does not only include seeking, but also various activities concerned with production, such as writing and tagging, which is particularly interesting in new interactive media forms. That is, the material properties of information, as formed within different communities, contribute to the construction of the user.
The panel will invite the audience to discuss whether new understandings about the transformative people/information relationship allow us to break away from traditional dichotomies, such as human-centered and system-centered. The panel's presentations will be used to stimulate an audience discussion of the questions they will introduce in their presentations, including:
- •Can we conceive of alternative views that are neither what one might call traditionally document-centered or user-centered?
- •Is there a hybrid perspective that draws on learnings from both communities?
- •What elements of human practice and human-material interactions give us a way of examining informing practices in digital spaces, where fluid forms are the norm rather than the exception?
Helena Francke and Olof Sundin wish to acknowledge support from the The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction, and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS), Göteborg University and the University College of Borås, Sweden and from the Nordic Research School in Library and Information Science (NORSLIS) (also Sara Kjellberg).
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