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.