Information, Professions, and Technology

One of the research projects I began last spring is starting to show some initial results. I wanted to study the reception of some key technologies by information science professionals over the past 40 years. I was interested to see if there were any differences in professional attitudes toward different technologies. I decided on two cases to look at in depth: first was the development of OPACs, online public access catalogs, during the 1970s and 1980s; second was the World Wide Web, during the 1990s. What were the attitudes of information professionals toward these new technologies at the time? To discover these attitudes I started a content analysis of the Bulletin of the American Society of Information Science and Technology. So far I’ve been through 1 year of the 6 I plan to analyze.

I was particularly interested to see how the rhetoric of the professionals reflected the status of the profession. Were professionals positive or defensive about these new technologies? Were they eager to adopt them and spread them further? What motives were adduced for the spread of these technologies? My guess was that information professionals would be more eager to accept OPACs than the internet because the former was driven by forces internal to the profession and the latter was an exogenous shock beyond the control of information professionals. I expected OPACs would be described positively and framed as a benefit to libraries and information science, while the world wide web would be described negatively and the dangers of inaccurate information emphasized. So far I’m still working on this question.

One theme that has emerged is automation. Automation is a word that seems to have disappeared from most of the technology discussions I read today; social and network are much more common. Why was did this change occur? I started doing some background reading on automation and why it became so important to the information professions during the middle of the twentieth century. A number of companies, such as ISI, began during this period of time and began providing automated indexing and abstracting services to libraries. There were also an increasing number of consortia formed between libraries to share resources. Finally MARC, the standard for machine readable catalogs, was developed in the second half of the 1960s. Automation was in the air in library land and a keyword in professional newsletters as late as the early 1980s. Usability, design, and information seeking were hinted at but remained on the fringes of professional discourse.

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