Tuesday, October 21, 2014

To Focus or Not

A while back I was reading the SMB IT Journal.  For those of you who haven't heard of it, the Journal is written by an IT Manager named Scott Alan Miller and focuses on information technology from the perspective of small businesses.   For a variety of reasons, that market segment has different needs than large corporations.   In that vein there was one post about the differences between IT generalists and those who focus on a particular specialization such as networking or application development.  Miller's main point was that they each inhabit separate markets and the more one goes down a chosen path, the harder it is to switch tracks.    For those of you interested in information technology, the article was a fascinating read and well worth checking out at the above link.

There is a similar dichotomy within information science.  Academic, public, and special libraries all have their own unique needs.  Moreover large libraries and small ones also are very different regardless of what type of institution they are.   So someone who works in a research library will likely be doing a job which focuses on one particular aspect of librarianship such as reference, cataloging, or systems.  The same is not as true of archives since so many people work alone. However even here different institutions have different needs.  So an individual who has spent their career working at a university archives might have trouble adapting to a small historical society where the main emphasis is on outreach.

Moreover the different branches of the information science tree are quite dissimilar from each other. Libraries, archivists, and data scientists typically come from the same programs.  Of course there are specializations, but upon emerging from school with an MLIS it is entirely possible to start a job in a different part of the profession than one expected.  An example would be training to be an archivist and then taking a job as a librarian.  But once such a choice has been made, forever will it dominate your destiny.  That's perhaps a bit melodramatic, but my own experience has been that after about 18 months working in an academic library the archival world seems very distant.

But information science is not IT.   We don't have the depth of knowledge that they do.  That's not a criticism even though it may sound like one.  Consider the breadth of certifications available just from the Computer Technology Industry Association  .  Or those offered by vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft, and VMware to name a few.  When viewed in that light it's easy to see why some IT people get locked into a particular path. The amount of learning one must do to make the boxes truly sing requires as much.  One must also consider how fluid our field is.  Archivists regularly work within libraries (whether or not that's a good thing is a different matter) and some jobs straddle both worlds.  And records managers work with the same materials archivists do.  There are also lots (and lots) of jobs which don't fit neatly into any box.  Just check out I Need A Library Job.      

As I wrote back in September many of these divisions are artificial.  In that sense we are not at all like IT.   We aren't separated by the sort of vast technological gaps those folks are.  Yet the barriers created by standards can be almost as vast.  Sure a librarian can be trained to do archival description or a records manager trained to do appraisal.   But there is a learning curve in doing so.  That is why collaboration is so important.  Nobody knows everything.  And the key to that collaboration is understanding that these silos we've constructed around us are really of our own making.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Point of Intersection: GIS

At first glance, Geospatial Information Systems seem to have no relevance to the information science world whatsoever.  This is the sort of stuff used by the military, law enforcement, the census bureau, or scientists needing to analyze geographic data.  Libraries and archives don't really fit those.  Much of our research is qualitative and that which is not typically does not have a geographic component. There does not seem to be much room for GIS, although the challenges of preserving those data sets is a worthy topic in and of itself.

But that may not actually be the full story.  There are types of analysis which can be performed using GIS which may be of interest to the information science world.  For example, if a library wishes to create a new branch it is possible to specify certain criteria and use that as the basis of a location study.  In fact that would, literally, be a textbook use case for GIS.   Spatial analysis might also yield unexpected insights.  For example studying the demographics of neighborhoods in which library branches are located has the potential to uncover new insights into why collections are used in a particular way or why certain materials are popular.  Budgets and collecting can then be adjusted accordingly.

Another candidate for use of GIS is historical data.   Often information collected in the past is represented only in paper form.  Even if said information has been put into a chart or a map, modern data analysis tools can produce more flexible and detailed outputs.  So an archive containing census records, for example, can put those from decades past into a database, use them to produce maps for exhibits, and then make the data set freely available in the same fashion as modern records.  Such efforts generally fall under the heading of Digital Humanities.  There are probably more interesting examples, but none come to mind.

Infrastructure too can benefit from GIS.  One possibility is to geolocate one's collections and feed GPS coordinates to patrons or staff searching for materials.  While the effort would be significant, organizations with large collections could see increased access to their holdings.  Those institutions with high density storage might also benefit since robots can receive such location data as well as humans.

As with all technology the key is in how you use it.  Geospatial Information Systems have many applicable uses.  We are all spatial creatures and so any way in which information can be displayed or analyzed based on location calls for GIS.  And such efforts might enable collaboration between organizations which might otherwise see themselves as separate.   Thus technology itself can help bind different branches of the information science profession together in new and novel ways,

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What Keeps Us Apart?

When thinking of information silos one eventually must consider their origin.  And of course there are many factors.  But a lot of it comes down to history.  When professions evolve separately they tend to stay that way.  Different philosophies, standards, and practices develop.  People become embedded in their own ways.  There's probably an element of human nature here.  We seem to be programmed to only trust people we consider part of our "tribe".

That logic could probably be applied to many aspects of life, but we're talking about the information science world.  And in that world there are several branches.  There are libraries (and many kinds at that). There are the data science folks.  Most people put archives in there too.  More on that in a minute.  And one must not forget those information science professors which taught most of us.  Those aren't necessarily neat divisions. A lot of universities have a "special collections" which lumps together rare book collections and archives, for example. There also are hybrid organizations like the Digital Public Library of America.

The commonality which holds those parts together is information.  The definition of that word could fill a whole book.  In fact it fills more than half a million of them according to Amazon.   It's been too long since I've really considered the question (my professors must be cringing) so let's stick to the following from Dictionary.com: "knowledge gained through study, communication, research, instruction, etc".   Looked at from that perspective librarians, archivists, data scientists, and others all deal with the same stuff.  The exact types of information, how we gather it, and what we do with it vary immensely.  But books, journals, data sets, and manuscripts all serve as mediums for people to gather information.

Yet that is a very library-centric view.  Each of those professions are very different.  For example Danna Bell-Russell, in her final presidential address at this year's Society of American Archivists Conference emphasized that archives are about the stories they allow people to tell.  That's an equally valid view. Archives are literally the stuff of history after all. The same logic can be applied to data science or even digital asset management for that matter.  They each have their own methods, standards, and technologies. Perhaps librarians are like the Borg, constantly trying to assimilate any profession which involves conscious thought.

Ultimately all these divisions are artificial.  The archivist could just as easily fit in the museum world as the information science one just as the data scientist can be at home in the IT department.  Or perhaps even those professions belong in the information science world too. It has been said that there's a lot of politics in the creation of standards.  The same holds true, perhaps even more so, in the making of professions.

Which brings me to my final point.  We live in the information age, the era of big data and cloud computing. As the world changes at an ever faster rate libraries and archivists alike need to be careful.  The new actors in the digital age, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, etc, have little to do with the old.  This arguably affects libraries more so, but any profession which deals with the management and conveying of information is in the same boat.   The challenge for those of us in professions born of the analog era is to define ourselves in a way which preserves our role in society.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Hello and welcome to Breaking Down Information Silos!  As the title implies this blog is dedicated to exploring the parallels between various information science professions, principally libraries and archives. The topic has been simmering in my head for some time ever since I accepted a position as a Systems Librarian (technically Electronic Services Librarian although I dislike that title).   Being that my educational background is in Archives and Records Management, working in the library world required some adjustment both in my thinking and in the focus for my professional development.   Yet doing so has made me more aware of the interconnections between the library and archival worlds and how what many of us do is similar to seemingly unrelated fields such as data science and digital asset management.    Breaking Down Information Silos will therefore take a look at the similarities and differences in professions across the information science world and the challenges to working together.