Still the frontier: Information science at the Millennium



Terrence A. Brooks

The Information School

University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195





 He who first shortened the labour of copyists by devices of Movable Types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most Kings and Senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.   Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, bk. i, ch. 5


            The temptation is to wax eloquent, or pontificate upon the significance of the date: We stand at the threshold of a new Millennium and we find the world centered on information.  The date itself is arbitrary, but it prompts self-reflection.  While this millennium issue addresses how information technology has changed society, perhaps a more dramatic vehicle for reflection is how information technology has changed one’s life.

            In 1971 I began my professional career as a cataloger using p-slips and a pencil.  I punched the cards of my first computer program in 1980.  It was a remote experience since once never actually saw the computer; the cards were batched and run through hourly by a technician.  By 1981 I was writing my dissertation on an IBM mainframe.  Teaching technology in a library school in this era meant teaching online searching with Dialog, BRS and Orbit.  By 1990 I word processed on a PC in my office.  By 1994, adding gif images to HTML was novel.  By 1998 I had an NT Server in my office.  Now, to save one of my web documents is to publish it anew to the Web.  In thirty years my relationship with information has completely changed.  In the spirit of the Carlyle quotation, I am master of Movable Types.  But my new ways of reading and writing threaten society’s pillars such as publishing, authorship, librarianship, copyright, the tenure system…the list could go on.

            The intent of the Millennium issue is to provide a forum for assessment of where we have been and where we’re going.  Several themes emerged from the nine selected papers:    


            Community and trust   Trustworthy information emerges as an important issue.  Acting as the public’s trustworthy agent has been the historical role of librarians.  Atkinson identifies the public’s trust as an essential validator of libraries in the new Millennium.  On the other hand, lack of trust motivates Lynch’s observations. The Web world lacks social conventions for indexing markup, which permits struggles between those that would index the Web and those whose financial interest is in attracting the attention of the Web community.   How trustworthy is Web information and how will that affect community?


            Communication and community   Information tends to define community.  Garfield reminisces about the reprint-sharing culture of science in the 1950s and anticipates the digital full-text documents of the future.  But will traditional forms of communication seamlessly migrate to the Web?  Liew, Foo and Chennupati report that the top ranked features of e-journals are those not available in paper journals: querying, navigation and visualization.  At a finer level, Amitay speculates about the use of language on the Web.  The Web may be one large corpus of text, but she suggests that communities will express themselves by the conventions used for writing hypertext.  It may be that new information technologies will spawn new communities.


            The identity of the information science community   The problem of identifying “information science” is still with us.  Hawkins is concerned with the relationship between the information science community and the library community, especially in terms of the recent initiatives to reassert the information technology aspect of information science.   Information technology is also an important aspect of the discussion of Oluić-Vuković, who attempts to shift the discussion to knowledge processing on the technical side and user demands on the other.  Uncertainty about who we are and what we do persists.


            Theoretical development in the information science community  Several authors expressed concern about the intellectual development of the field of information science.  Oluić-Vuković observes that while the Web has transformed information, our approach to searching large collections of records has remained relatively unchanged.  What about theoretic development?  The survey by Pettigrew and McKechnie reveals an astonishing array of theories that information scientists have employed.  Does such richness represent a fruitful blending of different intellectual communities, or superficial scattering of attention?  Finally, Bookstein points to the ambiguity of our measurements that seems to present a structural impediment to the development of social science theory.  Our theory always seems to be at an early stage, information science still at the frontier.


            It is a pleasure to acknowledge the many authors who contributed to this issue, the support of John Wiley, Inc. and the editor of JASIS, Don Kraft.


Terrence A. Brooks