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Magazines > Information Today > December 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 11 — December 2003
Report from the Field
ASIS&T 2003
By Robin Peek

"Humanizing Information Technology: From Ideas to Bits and Back" was the theme of this year's annual conference of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). The meeting was held Oct. 19­22 in sunny Long Beach, Calif., and according to Richard Hill, executive director for ASIS&T, more than 700 people attended, an increase over last year's event.

This year, ASIS&T made some changes in the meeting design. According to ASIS&T's immediate past president, Trudi Bellardo Hahn, "many attendees wanted to spend less time away from work, [so] the technical program portion of the meeting now begins at noon on Sunday (instead of Monday morning) and ends Wednesday evening (instead of Thursday)." In addition, the awards banquet was switched from Wednesday at dinner to Tuesday at lunch. And the President's Reception on Wednesday was turned into a gala closing reception, which included a dance band. From the comments that I heard, these were all welcome changes.

New Directions

Along with the modifications above, ASIS&T experimented with changes to the presentation formats. Instead of single keynote speakers, both keynote plenary sessions were composed of three panelists. The first of these was "Humanizing Information Technology: New Directions in Information Science Practice." Jodi Forlizzi of Carnegie Mellon University spoke on "Design for Emotion, Image, and Sound." Anne Gilliland-Swetland of UCLA's Department of Information Studies described "Digital Asset Management and Electronic Archives." And Brian Detlor of McMaster University discussed library portals and enterprise intranets.

The second keynote panel session was titled "Humanizing Information Technology: New Theoretical Approaches in Play." Pamela Sandstrom of Purdue University­Fort Wayne described "Anthropological Approaches to Information Seeking." Birger Hjørland of the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen, Denmark, spoke on "Domain Analysis: A Socio-Cognitive Orientation for Information Science Research." And "The Social Construction of Information Systems" was the topic of Leigh Star's (of the University of California­San Diego) presentation.

A new program called the "Impact Forum" was launched at the meeting. This session focused on forecasting information systems and how the rapid emergence of technologies and services can suggest new avenues of research. Michael Leach of MIT presided over a 14-member panel that discussed how to create opportunities to build the network between "practitioners" and "theorists," taking advantage of an environment unique to ASIS&T. Near-term goals for the Impact Forum include determining what conditions make for good research/practitioner interactions and examining opportunities for collaboration outside ASIS&T.

Building on last year's Global Information Village Plaza, this year's edition maintained its interactive format, which allows participants to express their views about how the information society affects their personal and professional lives. This year included an edited video segment showcasing individuals and communities from around the world and the ways in which they frame the debate.

Diverse Range of Topics

ASIS&T 2003 featured 22 different tracks that covered a wide range of topics. For example, the History Track had a session on "Pioneering Women in Information Science." Even kids had a place at the table in a track called "Design for Children." There were also a larger number of sessions devoted to social issues than I normally see at an ASIS&T meeting, particularly international topics. One session, the "Transborder Dataflow: Implications for Information Dissemination and Policies Between the United States, Canada, and Mexico," raised questions about the blurred geographic and political boundaries. This is a problem that has worsened as more multinational companies move activities, such as call centers, to other countries. As respondent Shelly Warwick of Queens College declared, "Your data is not at home anymore."

In the session titled "World Summit on the Information Society," the participants discussed the upcoming United Nations summit of the same name. The first phase of the summit, which will be hosted by the Swiss government, will take place Dec. 10–12 in Geneva. The second phase will be Nov. 16–18, 2005, in Tunis, Tunisia.

This session focused on defining the main issues for the summit: freedom of expression, the digital divide, and information technologies for socioeconomic development. Julian Warner of the Queen's University of Belfast presented "Shouting Fire on a Crowded Internet," where he discussed the problematic legal quagmire that faces publishers and noted the recent Australian libel case against Barron's magazine. Tran Ngoc Ca from Vietnam's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment reminded the audience that everyone is not on the Internet. At least for the immediate future, the cost of the Internet may be high in his country and access is still limited. And even for those with access, the available content is not suitable for economic development. Moreover, the majority of the people in Vietnam don't speak English, making much of the appropriate content inaccessible.

More international issues were raised in "New Information Models for Rural Populations in Developing Countries." Sue O'Neill Johnson, a consultant for International Library & Information Associates, said, "Despite its massive potential, the current global information explosion has had surprisingly little impact on access to relevant, practical information for healthcare providers in developing countries, especially those working in primary care and local hospital settings."

Users, Standards, Behaviors

Have users become passé? Certainly one of the most discussed panel sessions was "Death of the User," in which the panelists explored the possibility that digital information and communications systems were ending the traditional concept of user-centered research, which, it was argued, was already weak to begin with. Howard Rosenbaum of Indiana University stated that many information systems that had employed user-centered approaches do not work well for their intended audiences. Therefore, he questioned if the concept of the user had now reached a point of diminishing return for ongoing research.

Elizabeth Davenport of Napier University argued that "the focus of attention and approval is shifting from individual human agents and their output (such as traditional publisher-to-consumer relationships) to bundles of bits, approved by groups of others whose opinions we are pleased to share." This was echoed in another conference session titled "User-Centered Design: Science or Window Dressing?" There, the panelists argued that user-centered design methods were not uniform in nature and that this variability in application of the user-centered approach is leading some researchers to question its value.

In "New Standards for Networked Reference Services," Mark Needleman, project manager at Sirsi, described the current status of a National Information Standards Organization protocol for networked information services. The protocol, which is currently in the public review phase, is using XML for its encoding and SOAP for transport via the Web or e-mail. The committee documents are available at

In "The Impact of Digitization of Scientific Information on the Scholarly Communication of Scientists," the presenters argued that the possibility of a freely accessible, universal open archive containing all scholarly material is quickly becoming a reality. Cecelia Brown of the University of Oklahoma reported on a study that used surveys and case studies to determine the ways in which molecular biology graduate students utilize Web-based data warehouses such as GenBank and the Protein Data Bank.

Brown also found that among graduate students, PubMed Central was the first source that they turn to. In addition, many are not using the commercial products available through the library. Bradley Hemminger of the University of North Carolina introduced NeoRef, a methodology for how different types of content, including video, genetic sequences, lab results, etc., can be stored and retrieved using a single generic framework that's based on the open archives initiative standard and Dublin Core Metadata.

In "Humanizing Information Retrieval: Organizing Works," the session presenters introduced the notion of a "work" entity and its role in information retrieval. A work is described at the basic level to be a deliberately created knowledge record that represents a coordinated set of ideas conveyed with the purpose of being communicated to a consumer. A document may contain one or more works, and a work may exist on one or more documents.

One of the more intriguing sessions was "Information Behavior in Everyday Life: Research on Street-Level Sex Workers, New Immigrants, and Hair Stylists." This was, as advertised, a presentation on an area in which little research has been focused: the information behavior of the general public. Karen E. Fisher of the University of Washington did her research on immigrants and introduced the concept of "information ground." She defined this as an environment temporarily created when people come together for a singular purpose but from whose behavior emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information.

Final Thoughts

I found that there is a new energy flowing through the veins of ASIS&T. I detected this last year in Philadelphia but even more so in Long Beach. Conference sessions were adventuresome and engaging. There were also more international presenters and attendees than in previous years.

"I am pleased at the attendance numbers for the Long Beach meeting," said incoming ASIS&T president Samantha Hastings. "I'm looking forward to another excellent conference in Providence, Rhode Island, next November." The call for papers and sessions is available at



Robin Peek is an associate professor at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Her e-mail address is
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