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Get to Know SIG HFIS: History and Foundations of Information Science

We’re starting a new monthly series on the ASIS&T Blog this week: “Get to Know a SIG / Get to Know a Chapter.” This new series will help existing and prospective ASIS&T members learn more about the groups that are an integral and essential part of the broader association. These include Special Interest Groups (or SIGs), which cover particular topics and specialties of interest to researchers and practitioners; Student Chapters, which provide student members of ASIS&T at universities across the world a local organization and special activities and programs; and Regional Chapters, which foster communication, interaction, and events among ASIS&T members in geographically-defined areas. All three group types will be covered by this “Get to Know” series.


(Artist credit: Molly Dolan)

Our first featured SIG is SIG HFIS, History and Foundations of Information Science. I interviewed Lai Ma, the current chair of SIG HFIS and a Lecturer at the University College Dublin School of Information and Library Studies, and Sarah A. Buchanan, immediate past chair and current webmaster for the SIG and a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. We discussed the areas SIG HFIS covers, the activities they engage in, the benefits of becoming a member and volunteering as an officer of the SIG, and how they engage with their members online, among other questions. We hope that this interview helps you get to know SIG HFIS better, and perhaps become interested in joining and contributing to their activities and efforts! (The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)


Adam: How long have each of you been a member of ASIS&T, and how long have you been a member of SIG HFIS?

Lai: I have to count, wait! [laughs] I think I have been a member since 2008, so six years. I think since then I have been a member of SIG HFIS.

Sarah: I joined in early 2008, in my first year of my master’s program at UCLA. I joined SIG HFIS shortly after. I think my ASIS&T story would probably start with the UCLA Student Chapter, and I was a member of that for two years in my master’s program. And immediately after that I joined the local Los Angeles chapter, LACASIST. I was the secretary of the chapter, and when we were aware that our 50th anniversary was approaching, I volunteered to take the lead in planning a program to celebrate that. And so that program was held in June 2011, and I also served as the chair of the Los Angeles chapter in 2011-2012.

Adam: And that sort of historical involvement led you to join SIG HFIS?

Sarah: Yes, as part of our celebratory year, I was interested in our history as a chapter. And, I was hoping to visit the archive—I knew we had an archive of historical documents—mainly in terms of putting together a nice event and possibly showing off some of our history, as a chapter. It grew into a full-fledged research project, where I actually wrote a paper on the history of the chapter. I submitted it to the ASIS&T History Fund, and through that I got involved in SIG HFIS.

Adam: What topics does the SIG focus on?

Lai Ma

Lai Ma
(Photo credit: UCD School of Information and Library Studies)

Lai: HFIS is concerned with the history of information science; I think that’s pretty straightforward. And then also we’re interested in the theoretical development of the field. So it involves and we are particularly interested in historical work, including oral histories, to document what happens in the field. And that’s actually pretty broad, and that will include stories of chapters—like what Sarah has talked about—the history of particular chapters, the history of a particular SIG, and any history of a broader topic in information science. And in terms of theoretical development, I think that anything that deals with concepts or theories in any area of information science, we will be interested in.

Adam: Would you say it’s mostly a focus on research, on practice, a combination, on theory? Where would you say the primary focus ends up sitting?

Lai: I think some of the things will be interrelated. So in the upcoming Annual Meeting we have a panel on the “Pluri-, Multi- Trans- Meta- and Interdisciplinary Nature of LIS,”Tuesday at 8:30. And that type of topic is both theoretical and historical, so I think it’s not like one or another, but—sometimes it will be more historical and sometimes it will be more theoretical, but there are also topics where the two things will be very much interrelated.

Adam: And some topics are focused on research, and sometimes it’s more focused in the practice of the field, is the impression I get?

Sarah: Yes.


Adam: So talking about the Annual Meeting, that’s a good lead into this: What activities does SIG HFIS engage in at ASIS&T Annual Meetings? Like you mentioned this panel for example, but I know there’s been panels at other meetings?

Lai: I think that the story usually will be that at the time of the call for participation of the Annual Meeting we will send out an announcement to our mailing list, to see—because sometimes people will have the idea to put together a panel, but might not know other members who might be interested in the topic. So we usually will start from that, to facilitate that particular process. And there are successes and failures, obviously, but we will do that during the call for participation, call for papers time; we send out a note to the mailing list, inviting members if they want to put together a panel, then we will facilitate putting them together.

So in the coming Annual Meeting I think we have two sessions that are of HFIS interest. One of them is a panel officially sponsored by HFIS, and then there’s a session of papers Sunday at 3:30 which I’m going to moderate, on the history and philosophy of information science. That will be papers of HFIS interest as well. So other than that, we will also have our Business Meeting, like any other SIG, on Monday at 3:55.

Sarah: I’ll add that in the 2012 Annual Meeting, with the 75th anniversary of ASIS&T, we held a preconference on the “History of ASIS&T and Information Science and Technology Worldwide.” This was definitely a unique event, and connected to the history of the ASIS&T organization itself.

Adam: So most years there’s a panel, and then when there’s special events like the 75thanniversary, maybe there’s an additional event or two that might be held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting, other than of course the business meeting that every SIG has?

Sarah: Right. And for example, we might co-sponsor a preconference workshop also.

Adam: What activities, if any, do you engage in outside of the Annual Meetings themselves?

Sarah: Earlier this year, in February, we sponsored a webinar, “iSquares: A New Approach to Information Research and Education” by Jenna Hartel. It was great; I attended it myself and I really enjoyed it. We’re hoping to do more things like that as well.

Adam: I remember that one too!

Sarah: Other activities throughout the year would include the Oral History Project, which is organized by Professor Robert Williams. That was also an endeavor that gained some momentum with the 75th anniversary event, but it’s really grown to involve a whole lot of people both within and outside our SIG. So I think that’s been a real strong point as well.

Adam: Can you elaborate on that just a little bit, for people who might not be familiar?

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. It got started, like I said, as a component of the 75th anniversary celebrations of ASIS&T in 2012. The Oral History Project itself aims to conduct interviews, to do the background research, and to do the transcriptions of oral histories of members of ASIS&T who have a long period of involvement or who were involved in information science and its notable activities through the years.

Lai: The Oral History Project documents the oral histories of some of our leaders. And the web site is up and going, yes. Some of the people that we have interviewed include Marcia Bates, Michael Buckland, Tom Wilson, Stephen Robertson, and so on.

Outside of the Annual Meeting, Trudi Bellardo Hahn I think is working on a photo archives project. It’s not exactly a HFIS project, but we do contribute to that particular project, in terms of volunteering and sometimes financial resources. Again, it’s kind of tricky in terms of what is HFIS and what is not, because most of the people who are on the advisory board for the ASIS&T History Fund—the paper award as well as the research grant—all the members on the advisory board will be from HFIS, I would say. But at the same time it’s not directly under the HFIS umbrella. But we do organize; we put out the call for papers, and then we do have the advisory board members who will be evaluating those papers and research grants, they will be members or officers from HFIS.

Other than that, I think recently we have had some talk about collaborating with the European Chapter to do a little bit more work on the multilingual history of information science, but I think I will leave that to Fidelia Ibekwe-SanJuan [incoming SIG HFIS chair] next year.


Adam: What do you feel is the most important benefit members of SIG HFIS receive by becoming involved in SIG activities and engaging with the SIG?

Lai: I think the most important of the benefits is to be involved in the history, you know, to understand the field that they are in.

Sarah: I think we’re all engaged with history, at some point, whether it’s in conducting a literature review, or just becoming aware of the work that’s been done in any area that we’re researching, whether it’s information behavior, HCI (human-computer interaction), digital libraries… I think it’s interesting that we are already doing history, but through HFIS we have a place to gather all that together, and to meet colleagues who might have resources that perhaps you didn’t know about before, but that are becoming available through a digital library, through online tools. So HFIS is helping to serve as a gathering place for that.

Adam: So do you feel that that is the primary benefit that an ASIS&T member who joined your SIG would receive that they would not get from the main organization, is that focus on history?

Sarah: Yes, a focus on history and a focus on theory, right? We all encounter theory through our academic work, and it’s still an active area. So it’s accessible, also, I would point to it being accessible.

Lai: For me it’s almost like a sense of belonging to the field. That’s how I feel about what HFIS is about. I think everyone should be a member of the SIG! [laughs]

Sarah A. Buchanan

Sarah A. Buchanan
(Photo credit: University of Texas at Austin School of Information)

Sarah: One other benefit that we like to talk about to new, or potential new people would be its members, and the opportunity to meet people who have written articles that you’ve probably read for classes, or for your work. It’s a really great opportunity to meet people, because ASIS&T is often all about its people.

Adam: Which benefits that ASIS&T offers to all of its members do you feel appeal most either to you, as individual members of SIG HFIS, or to members of SIG HFIS in general?

Sarah: I think ASIS&T offers a structure to put together panels, programs, and webinars. So we’re not always starting from scratch, but we can take advantage of that structure, through SIG Cabinetand through the History Fund, as two examples of that structure. And also the people. The structures support the activities of the members. There’s practical things too, like we have the web site, and we have the capacity to converse with our members.

Online Engagement

Adam: Well that’s actually the very next question: What online or social media venues—such as a web site, or a Facebook page or group, or a Twitter feed, etc.—what online venues does the SIG offer?

Lai: We are dinosaurs. [laughs]

Sarah: [laughing also] We have a nice web site.

Lai: A very nice web site. We did talk about social media in the last business meeting, but it received a mixed reception. We’ll see this time.

Adam: What can members find on your web site, then?

Lai: I’ll leave that to Sarah, because she knows all about it!

Sarah: As of now, we have a web site that offers a main page, and then there’s an officers and history page, which has—as fitting our name—we have a historical listing of most of the officers we know about, going back to when our SIG was established, in 1972, in fact! There’s some missing years in there, but we have the most recent sets of officers. Our activities page lists some of the activities we’re involved with, the History Fund among them. Also our chair has, in the recent past, been invited to serve as a representative on the editorial board of a journal, which is called Information and Culture. So that’s another of our year-long activities. Then there’s two other pages; one lists all the ASIS&T sessionsthat we’ve sponsored at the Annual Meetings, and a last page has some links to other resources on the history and philosophy of information science.

Adam: That sounds like great information! Do you try to keep it updated now and then with new information that might be coming out?

Sarah: Yes, especially with the links to new ASIS&T sessions. As Lai mentioned, after the call for proposals, as things get together, we keep that updated.

Adam: How successful do you feel the web site endeavor is with engaging members with the SIG and with ASIS&T as a whole?

Lai: Well, the thing is, I really don’t know how many people look at that, as of now. It would be good if we could get data from the headquarters about how many people are visiting the site and all that. But, in the last week or so, or the week before, we sent out our newsletter to our HFIS mailing list. And I do get thanks for communicating with them. When we have something actually new and we send it out to the mailing list, people do look at it, but if it’s sort-of dormant and people are not notified, then they might not actually get on the web site. We would need the headquarters to tell us, how often, you know, what’s the data in terms of the visits. On social media, we haven’t decided yet.


Adam: Could you each speak to the role you have as an officer with the SIG, and what you think it’s like being an officer in SIG HFIS?

Sarah: I’ll let Lai start, because she has the most recent experience.

Lai: Well, you are still an officer! [laughs] How does it feel like as an officer? I think it’s great to have the opportunity—as Sarah has mentioned—to connect and collaborate with a lot of people who you think, they are such big names, but you are working with them to promote the history and the theoretical development of information science. And thinking how to promote this particular interest in information science, which I think is very important. So, I think that’s the best part of it, and I get to work with great people like Sarah!

Sarah: I would add that, sometimes it varies from year to year, and sometimes you find yourself involved with different activities. If a webinar is coming together, it’s good to support that, or if it’s the 75th anniversary, it’s good to be involved with that. So there’s some flexibility, is what I’m trying to get at. And I would also say, just a level of coordinating and being aware of developments, making sure things happen, the budget, the annual report… getting back to the structure of ASIS&T, being involved with ASIS&T as a whole.

Adam: Would you encourage others to volunteer?

Sarah: Absolutely, 100%!

Adam: And how can they go about doing that, with SIG HFIS?

Sarah: If they can attend our business meeting at the Annual Meeting, which not everyone can, I would say go ahead and do that. This year it is Monday at 3:55. But even if you are planning to do that, get in touch with either of us via e-mail. All our contact info is listed on the very nice page for our SIG on the ASIS&T web site.

Adam: Are there particular areas that SIG HFIS is looking for volunteers in, or is always interested in people volunteering to help out with?

Lai: Anything. [laughs] We need people! And actually, in particular, injecting new ideas of what we can do better for our members, too. We always want to hear from them.

Other Efforts

Adam: I know you mentioned you’re possibly looking to collaborate with the European regional chapter. Would you look to collaborate with other SIGs or Chapters in the future? If so, how would you like to see that happen?

Lai: We are always looking forward to collaborating with other SIGs or Chapters, because as we have mentioned, HFIS is such a foundational area; the interest is so broad and is actually related to all research areas in ASIS&T. So we will always be very supportive if any SIG has anything historical, or if they want to look more into theories and concepts and things like that, we would be very happy to collaborate with other SIGs. I did have some kind of ideas, before, but I don’t think they’re ready to elaborate on in public just yet!

Sarah: One of the things that came out of the 75th Anniversary activities was trying to get SIGs and Chapters interested themselves in their own history. So that it’s coming from themselves; it’s not somebody outside coming in and writing a history, you know, it’s actually them doing the research, and making phone calls, or calling around to archives, and seeing if there’s any resources that they can visit and learn something from. So it’s that activity of getting people interested, themselves, and broadening the numbers of people who are active in doing history.

Adam: You won the 2013 SIG of the Year Award, so congratulations on that! What do you feel the SIG did well that helped it get that award?

Lai: Yeah! [laughter]

Sarah: [laugh] Well thank you, that’s very nice of you! One of the things I think I mentioned at the business meeting—when we were so proud of that award—was acknowledging the work that our whole officers group, and all of our members, did towards the 75thAnniversary, including organizing and reviewing for the preconference. But I can’t point to just one thing like that, I don’t want to just point to that itself. I think it was the result of a lot of people’s work, time, and energy that went into some different activities; some were related to the 75th anniversary, but some were not related to that, and just to history and philosophy broadly speaking. So I tried to acknowledge everybody’s work, at the time.

Adam: And just one final question, and I have to end with this: If an antelope slips in the woods, and nobody notices, is it a document?

Lai: It depends! [laugh]

Sarah: Yes! It’s a document! [laughing]

Lai: The antelope is in a communication system, so I think, yeah. That’s a paper!

Adam: There’s obviously a lot hidden in that question, isn’t there! [laughter] Is there anything else you would like to add?

Sarah: No, thank you! I really hope this blog and the new web site is successful!

Lai: Yes, I hope so too!

Thanks again to SIG HFIS and to Lai and Sarah for being willing to be the “guinea pigs” for this new feature! If this post has raised your interest in SIG HFIS, we encourage you to engage with us in the comment section below, to check out their web site, or to e-mail Laior Sarah for details on volunteering and getting involved. We also welcome your feedback and thoughts on this new “Get to Know” series via the comments.