Michael K. Buckland’s Liberation of the Information Sciences

Essay by Charlene V. Martoni

Kudu_antelopeInformation is pertinent in any discipline, which is why so many meanings for it exist. In his 1991 article, entitled “Information as Thing,” Michael K. Buckland, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, identifies three variant definitions for “information” in relation to the information sciences: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing. He then elaborates on the final of these definitions, information-as-thing, in his 1997 article, entitled “What is a ‘Document’?” Buckland shows, in these pieces, why it is necessary for information professionals to widen the parameters for what should be considered an informative document. In presenting his ideas, Buckland opens the information sciences to new possibilities, and so he opens the world to them as well.

Buckland defines information-as-process as an event that occurs when “someone is informed” or when “what they know is changed” (“Information as Thing” 351). In this situation, information is the act of communication of some sort of knowledge, and so it can be paralleled with other processes like teaching or even journalism. Though this definition is somewhat abstract, it does apply to the information sciences by acknowledging the practice one undergoes when conveying information, an integral part to the field.

The second definition of “information” Buckland offers is for information-as-knowledge, which is “the knowledge communicated” through information-as-process (“Information as Thing” 351). This type of information is intangible because “knowledge, belief, and opinion are personal, subjective and conceptual” (“Information as Thing” 351). Information-as-knowledge can, therefore, be likened to unexpressed ideas within the mind. This knowledge, when expressed in a physical representation through the practice of knowledge-as-process, can be considered information-as-thing, which brings us to Buckland’s final variant definition.

Information-as-thing, he says, consists of objects which are or have the potential to be informative (“Information as Thing” 351). Buckland asserts that many things can be informative, including data, texts (including images), objects (like dinosaur bones), and even events (“Information as Thing” 353-356). It becomes clear from his long list of informative objects that Buckland’s view for what should be considered information-as-thing is quite extensive.

Buckland presents arguments in favor of his list in his article, entitled “What is a ‘Document’?,” proving that documentation should not be limited to just books and pictures. Unlike Indian theorist S.R. Ranganathan’s constrictive view that documents can only consist of “records on materials fit for handling or preservation,” Buckland argues that there is “no theoretical reason why documentation should be limited to texts, let alone printed texts” (“What is a ‘Document’?” 805 and 807). This idea is especially reasonable in light of the move towards multimedia, which exploded in the years since Buckland’s article was published (1997). Indeed, taking a more inclusive approach would not only help information professionals and systems to adapt to our modern world, but it would also encourage progressive research across disciplines by allowing scholars to glean accepted information from a more diverse source set.

To support his argument for inclusion, Buckland offers other information professionals’ views. Paul Otlet, the father of information science, said in his 1934 Traité de documentation that “graphic and written records are representations of ideas or of objects” and so “the objects themselves can be regarded as ‘documents’ if you are informed by observation of them” (“What is a ‘Document’?” 805). British information scientist Bertram C. Brooks similarly said, “I see no reason why what is learned by direct observation of the physical environment should not be regarded as information just as that which is learned by observing the marks on a document” (“Information as Thing” 354). Certainly, the objects themselves could hold purer information than their representations because they would be free of any bias, which brings us to our next point.

Information-as-thing, Buckland contends, is situational. He states, “Whether any particular object, document, or event is going to be informative depends on the circumstances” (“Information as Thing” 356). The rings in a tree could be informative to someone looking to prove its age, but they may be irrelevant to someone looking to prove another phenomenon. Thus, anything is likely, at some point, to be informative based on the subjectivity of the observer. This only stresses the need for Buckland’s inclusive view, for anything has the potential to be a valuable source of information depending on the circumstance.

The problem, however, is that “mechanical information systems can only operate on physical representations of information,” which is why traditional libraries are more concerned with information communicated through manageable means like books and microfilm (“What is a ‘Document’?” 804). Still, informative objects in their purest form, such as living animals or ancient artifacts, can still be organized in systems like museums and zoos. Though librarian Suzanne Dupuy-Briet contends that an antelope would need to be in this type of context for study in order to be informative, Buckland argues that “physical relocation into a collection is not always necessary” as “reference to objects in their existing locations creates, in effect, a ‘virtual collection’” (“What is a ‘Document’?” 806; “Information as Thing” 305). Though being in physical relation to an antelope in its natural habitat could pose a challenge, supporting the desire for a physical representation of it, the idea of a collection beyond the walls of a building is quite liberating.

Buckland’s notion of a virtual collection would rightly suggest that our world is a giant library of information, and what a great concept, undeniably. His comprehensive definition of “information” shows that documents can be found everywhere, whether in words on paper, rings in a tree, or animals in a forest. Nevertheless, his view is so expansive that it illuminates the need for information professionals to provide access to these documents through more manageable means. In doing so, we can offer people the world in their hands.

Works Cited

Michael K., Buckland. “Information as Thing.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42.5 (1991): 351-60. Print.

Michael K., Buckland. “What Is a ‘Document’?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science (1997): 804-09. Print.

© Charlene V. Martoni, all rights reserved

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