I returned from the iConference a few days ago… after changing my flight to one earlier in the day, which I’m very glad I did, as others got stuck in Urbana-Champaign on account of the weather there. But that’s neither here nor there (so to speak). I’m writing this post to document some of my impressions and thoughts about, and to generally debrief from the conference.
Up front, I need to admit that, as with most conferences I attend these days, I didn’t actually attend many sessions: most of my time, outside of the sessions in which I was a speaker, I spent talking to colleagues and having pickup meetings.
My first comment about the iConference is really kind of a meta-observation: about the conference itself, rather than about the content of the conference. Let me expand on something I tweeted the other day. The iConference needs to find its identity. It’s currently somewhat schizophrenic, trying to be two things simultaneously. On the one hand, there were sessions that explored the identity and branding of the iSchools, the scope of information science, and the appropriate content for iSchool curricula. On the other hand, there were sessions in which just straight-up LIS research were presented — presentations that would have been perfectly at home at ASIST. Personally, I think it would be a mistake for the iConference to compete with ASIST as a research conference: ASIST is better-established and has a larger attendance, not to mention that ASIST isn’t the only research conference in the field. To compete on that front is to be merely one more player on a fairly broad field. We don’t need another research conference in the field… but on the other hand, a conference that attempts to be agenda-setting for the field would be a unique contribution.
To be fair, I’ve seen this pattern before. JCDL seemed — to me, anyway — not to have a unique identity for its first few years. For its first few years it wasn’t so much about digital libraries, as it was about information retrieval in the context of digital libraries. It wasn’t until JCDL 6 that it seemed to me that the conference really came into its own. And, to be fair, this is only the 4th iConference. So I’ll give it 2 more iterations before I come to any conclusions. But I think it’s worth watching.
My second comment about the iConference is that — since I think this is part of what the conference should be doing — it got me thinking about teaching, and what a curriculum for the iSchools should look like. Stephen Wolfram’s plenary talk got me thinking that we need to address computational thinking in a direct and deliberate way in our curricula. I’ve been saying it for years: at every turn, information science gets scooped by computer science on the developing tools front. We need more courses that address systems analysis and systems design. We need more courses where students do actual development. I don’t necessarily mean really hard-core development, in C++ or Ruby on Rails or whatever… building things in Yahoo Pipes would be enough. Anything to get students into the mindset of thinking about content as data, and data as manipulable.
We also need more courses on copyright and intellectual property law.
We also need more courses on information economics.
We also need more courses on program evaluation.
And finally, it strikes me that the beating heart of information science is user needs assessment. That is hardly a novel thought, I know. But it was brought home to me very clearly by one session after another at the iConference, as technical and curriculum and policy and coordination problems ultimately boiled down to user needs problems.
I’ve been working lately on two distinct and unrelated curriculum development projects, one for digital libraries and one for reference. And now I’m wondering if I’ve been thinking too parochially. Developing curricula for DLs and reference implies that the traditional “silos” of the LIS curriculum still make sense. And I increasingly think they don’t. And now I’m wondering what an LIS curriculum would look like if we developed it from scratch, right now, tabula rasa. User needs assessment über alles. A core course on information seeking behavior and question / information-related problem negotiation. A core course on copyright. A core course on assessment and evaluation of information services. A required internship / residency / paraprofessional gig. A required dual-degree with some subject area specialization. This is just off the top of my head. My megalomania apparently knows no bounds.