What is information?

Ah, that’s a tricky one. Maybe best to save it for later.

What is the Department of Information Studies?

It’s one of the two academic departments that make up the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. There are lots of other departments and schools around the world that are like it. Not all of them are called departments (or schools) of information studies. Some of them are called iSchools. Some are called departments (or schools) of library and information science, or something similar. Most of them are quite different from departments (or schools) of computer science, or information systems, or IT, or management. The people in those other places are usually interested in quite different kinds of things.

What is information studies?

“Information studies” is just the name that some people use to refer to the area of inquiry that they’re interested in. That might sound unhelpful, but the problem is that it has proven very difficult to find a definition of information studies that everyone in information studies agrees to. It’s easier, and perhaps more accurate, to say that information studies is what the community of people, who say they do information studies, do.

No, seriously, what is information studies? Surely, if you really are a professor of it, you can do better than that?

OK, I’ll give it another go. Information studies is what you do if you ask interesting questions about the things that people do—or that they could do, or should do—with or to information. So it’s about people just as much as it’s about information.

But—What. Is. Information?

Well … different people have different ideas about the nature of information. Some of the ideas are quite narrow in scope. Others are quite broad. Some are about the kind of thing that information is. Others are about the properties of information—especially those properties that only information has, and those that all information has. Here are a couple of those ideas. Which one is better than the other? You decide.

One idea is that information is something that is contained in the things that people say, write, draw, and make. (Instead of “contained in,” you might prefer one of these: “stored in,” or “recorded in,” or “encoded in,” or “expressed by,” or “carried by,” or “meant by,” or “communicated by,” etc. Although, there are subtle and important differences among these different formulations.) Here’s something that people occasionally say (too occasionally, actually): “Norwich City F.C. won the Milk Cup in 1985.” The information contained in this statement is the information that Norwich City F.C. won the Milk Cup in 1985. In other words, information is whatever something means.

Another idea is that information is whatever has meaning. Here’s something that has meaning: the statement “Norwich City F.C. won the Milk Cup in 1985.” According to this second idea, then, it’s the statement itself, and not its meaning, that is information. Things that have meaning include the things that people say, write, and draw, and some (if not all) of the things that people make.

Each of these ideas has many variants. For example, some people define information as whatever can be encoded in a sequence of binary digits (0s and 1s). That’s a version of the first, information-as-meaning idea. Others say that it’s the sequences of binary digits themselves, not what they encode, that are information. That’s a version of the second, information-has-meaning idea. The most important variants are probably the ones in which it is understood that meaning is not literally contained in any given statement, but is at least partially determined by the context in which the statement is made—a context that encompasses the mental state of both speaker and hearer.

So you’re saying that some people in information studies are interested in meanings, and others are interested in things that have meaning? That sounds really vague. (And also maybe a bit like semiotics?)

Ah, well, remember that information studies is about the things that people do with or to information. Create it and destroy it; collect it and scatter it; lose it and find it; preserve it and waste it; hide it and display it; remember it and forget it; fake it and verify it; steal it and give it away; and so on. In particular, information studies is about the reasons that people have for doing these kinds of things in the ways that they choose, and about the effects of those actions on the world. By studying such reasons, methods, and outcomes, we can figure out what people could and should be doing with or to information, and endeavor to change the world accordingly.

So, for example, you might be interested in the ways in which …

  • school librarians can meet the needs of children and teens by providing access to wide-ranging collections of relevant materials
  • community archivists can ensure the preservation of unique records that provide evidence of the activities of previously under-represented groups
  • user-experience (UX) designers can conduct evaluations of search-engine interfaces
  • special-collections librarians can develop standards for the digitization of medieval manuscripts
  • media archivists can establish workflows for managing an animation studio’s digital assets
  • data scientists can build platforms that enable physicists to participate effectively in the curation of their research data
  • digital-humanities researchers can devise techniques for the visualization of temporal changes in the themes of literary works
  • information policymakers can establish principles for the protection of personal data privacy

The best place to study any of these topics, among very many others, is a department of information studies. There happens to be an excellent one of these at UCLA—ranked #2 in U.S. News & World Report‘s ranking of public research universities in 2014.

You say on your website that you study something called “philosophy of cultural stewardship.” That sounds extremely pretentious. What does it even mean?

Broadly speaking, to be the steward of something means to be the person who is responsible for preserving the value of that thing.

By extension, cultural stewardship is the set of practices involved in taking responsibility, both for preserving the value of cultural works (e.g., works of literature), cultural objects (e.g., individual copies of sound recordings), and cultural events (e.g., individual performances of plays), and for providing the means by which people may take future opportunities to benefit from that value.

And then, if you do philosophy of cultural stewardship, you inquire into the basic properties of cultural works, objects, and events; you try to understand the nature of the interactions among the stewards, the cultural resources in their care, and the contexts in which stewardship takes place; and you study theories of value, perhaps distinguishing among informational value, evidentiary value, inspirational value, entertainment value, transformational value, etc. You try to understand what stewards could do, and what they should do, as well as what they do do.

Why do you insist on using the word steward? It sounds like you’re talking about labor union representatives, or flight attendants …

I know what you mean. But I don’t have a better alternative. Let me know if you think of one.

What are some of the kinds of things that you do if you’re a cultural steward?

You acquire or receive quantities of cultural resources (henceforth, “stuff”—an ancient technical term).

You build and develop collections of stuff.

You take care of stuff so that it endures.

You find out what kinds of things other people (sometimes called “users“) would like to do with that stuff.

You design, develop, evaluate tools and systems that help people do what they want to do with that stuff, while helping you take care of it.

You put stuff in order.

You describe (i.e., create representations of) stuff—and the contexts in which it is created, cared for, and destroyed—so that it can be found, accessed, displayed, interpreted, used, and exchanged, and its benefits enjoyed.

You come up with theories as to how to do any of these things more effectively, efficiently, and ethically. (“There’s nowt so practical as a good theory!” as my grandmother used to say. Or would have done, if she [a] had thought of it, and [b] was from Yorkshire.)

You identify principles and policies that guide the actions both of systems designers and of the people who are interested in finding out about stuff.

… Amongst other things.

What sorts of job titles do cultural stewards have?

First of all, it’s probably worth pointing out that many members of the LAM (library, archives, museum) community are cultural stewards. At the same time, many cultural stewards are members of other professional communities. Many cultural stewards do not happen to work for institutions that are actually called things like “The Such-and-such Library,” or “The Archives of So-and-so.” Of those who don’t, many nevertheless think of themselves as librarians, archivists, or museum professionals; whereas many others prefer to think of themselves in other ways. You might like to figure out where you would place yourself in the diagram that will appear below (once I’ve drawn it).

So, any list of job titles to look out for, if you’re interested in a career in (what I’m calling) cultural stewardship, should include the following at a minimum:

  • [x] librarian, [x] archivist, [x] curator: where x might refer to the type of “parent” institution (e.g., school, academic, public); the form, genre, or subject of the stuff you’d be dealing with (e.g., rare books, oral history, web, digital); or the group of people you’d be serving (e.g., youth, community); and
  • data [y], metadata [y], records [y], information [y], knowledge [y]: where y might suggest the kind of thing you’d be doing with the stuff, ranging from the very general (e.g., professional, manager), through the still-fairly-general (e.g., analyst, scientist), to the more specific (e.g., architect, preservationist).


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