by Martha K. Smith, Ph.D. student
In November I had the opportunity to attend the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) annual meeting in Providence, RI. I was honored to receive the annual conference scholarship from the Pacific Northwest Chapter of ASIS&T, awarded by the iSchool ASIS&T student chapter and supplemented this year by a matching donation from an iSchool faculty member, for a generous $1000 travel award.
National conference attendance is expensive for students. This award is a great resource that takes a huge bite out of the expense of attending a vital conference in our field. My goal here is to describe and promote the experience-and mention the possibility of scholarship support!-for iSchool students in all degree programs who might be thinking about attending the ASIS&T conference in the future.
As a doctoral candidate in the iSchool's information science program, my main goal in attending ASIS&T was to take my dissertation proposal "on the road" for the first time. I had very good discussions with several U.S. and Canadian specialists in museum informatics and visual information about my plans to do a meta-analysis of museum visitor studies and what they reveal about gallery visitors and their information behaviors and needs. I also attended the SIG/CR Classification Research Workshop, planning sessions for SIG/CR and SIG/VIS (special interest group in visualization and images), and a broad range of conference sessions. The whole experience was very useful intellectually and professionally.
The conference venue in Providence was spread out but serviceable. Providence was also embedded in an unexpected early snowfall, making a walk around the old town a scene out of Nathaniel Hawthorne. About 600 people pre-registered, with about 20 iSchool students and faculty attending. The conference theme of "managing and enhancing information: cultures and conflicts" and the six session tracks of Disciplinary Issues, Digital Libraries, User Behavior, System Design, Information Organization, and Resources and Services demonstrate the sprawling reach of ASIS&T's interests. I went with the modest aims of (1) assessing the place of LIS students at this conference and (2) looking for connections between LIS research and real-world practice, the variety of research and practice communities included, and the balance between technological (and systems) approaches and human-centered approaches to research and practice.
First a few words about the place of students at ASIS&T and how to make it bit less overwhelming. There are lots of opportunities to learn and mingle, particularly if you go prepared with a small personal agenda of sessions to attend and people to meet. A short "script" of your interests is useful for fleeting introductions and elevator conversations. Poster sessions (difficult though I find them for absorbing a research project quickly) are very good for informal mixing with other students and for encounters with specialists who are also asking questions. Special interest group (SIG) planning meetings are also a good way to meet people on a more casual basis, though these groups do have substantive tasks to tackle, like coming up with program ideas for next year's conference. Attendance is often sparse, but tends to be a mix of longtime members and SIG founders (read: experts) and curious newcomers to a field. SIGs are national organizations writ small and a good way to start your outreach in an area of personal interest.
Likewise, attending a pre-conference workshop can be an experience more tailored to your own interests, though it's sometimes hard to gauge its usefulness against its added expense. I attended the Classification Research workshop and was pleased with the presentations, the collegiality, and the ease of introductions and discussion. A friend attended the Taxonomies for Indexing workshop and found it too basic ("not enough meat for me").
Here are some of the themes that I found threaded throughout the conference sessions and keynote speeches.
Web luminary and W3C director Tim Berners-Lee played off the conference theme of "culture and conflicts" with a high-level and visionary keynote speech on how the Semantic Web, using RDF and URI standards, will ease the interoperability conflicts in data systems and sharing. His optimistic wish is for the coordination, internationalization, and openness of stores of databased information. Though he did talk about trust, authority, and human error in this enterprise, he did not address issues of leveraging dispersed information for less than noble uses in this scenario, an unsettling gap for me. JC Herz, principal of Joystick Nation, Inc., gave an inspiring and grounded keynote speech on the social ecology of information in a technology and communication world of games and gaming, instant messaging, blogs, and wikis. Her emphasis was on the interplay of social networks and information networks, how "informing" is a social act, and how shared knowledge becomes "social currency," much of which is well understood by LIS folks, but it was nice to hear this reframed by an anthropologist. She is energized by the creative, unexpected, and sometimes disruptive uses of contemporary information technologies, such as blogs from war zones.
Overall in the conference sessions that I attended (admittedly a personal selection, but I tried to hit at least one session in each track), I found repeated emphasis on the social and human environments of information, at both the group and individual levels. There were sessions on the role of emotions in information behavior, e.g., uncertainty and self-efficacy in Web searching. There were constant nods to cooperative information work, e.g., teamwork in the creation of graphic design vocabularies. Archivist presenters asked larger institutional and human memory questions such as, "if it's not digitized, will a document be remembered?" Other sessions addressed political and economic issues such as national security applications and access to scientific and consumer health information. Many sessions throughout the tracks addressed global information issues. Interestingly, the Resources and Services track sessions, which addressed library reference services and assessment, were relatively few.
On the whole, I found connections between LIS research and real-world practice to be more implicit than concretely demonstrated in working systems. However, it is reassuring that the prime focus of this conference is on human information interaction and a balance between technological (and systems) approaches and human-centered approaches. Also, there is no doubt about the variety of research and potential application communities included under ASIS&T's umbrella. Considering the scope of this rich, encyclopedic conference, I would urge anyone in LIS to attend at least once. Apply for the ASIS&T PNW student travel award - and then pray for special regional surprises like snow in New England!
The 2004 ASIS&T conference program is available on the website of ASIS&T.