The Intermediation of Community and Infrastructure
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The Intermediation of Community and Infrastructure

The concepts of community and infrastructure reverberate throughout the information sciences. As digital information technology becomes ubiquitous in work and everyday life, scholars analyze how communities adapt to, and adapt, information infrastructure. This paper explores this topic through a cross-study of field scientists' changing data practices and of older adults learning technology. The contribution of this comparative study is the concept of an intermediary space. Both studies found individuals, referred to as intermediaries, who enable their communities to speak back to information infrastructure—that is, to have a voice in infrastructural development. In particular, the study noted the roles of those outside positions of power in the design and development of effective information infrastructure. Understanding this intermediary space involves attending to issues related to design and narrative. The implications of these findings include more effectively preparing the information sciences' workforce for these intermediary roles.

Introduction and Background

Information activities depend on the arrangements of communities and infrastructure. These two concepts, community and infrastructure, are at the heart of social challenges associated with the increasing ubiquity of digital technology and digital information throughout our lives. As Weick (2016, p. 333) explains in another context: "We're learning how to talk about distributed interdependence and how to hold it together." In our respective doctoral projects undertaken at the School of Information Sciences of the University of Illinois, we investigated the distributed interdependence [End Page 473] of infrastructures and communities in the arenas of data work by field scientists and digital learning among older Americans. We are informed by a number of perspectives that have developed in the information sciences, including community informatics, information literacy, information management, and information systems. Although studying diverse phenomena in the workplace and everyday life settings, we nonetheless found many similarities in terms of how infrastructure and community are interconnected and held together in the digital world. This paper explores these cross-case findings.

Information Infrastructure

In recent years theories of information behavior have increasingly focused on information use within the contexts of information systems (Courtright, 2007). This shift relates to trends in both social informatics and science and technology studies (Van House, 2003). In the theoretical frameworks of information infrastructure (Star & Ruhleder, 1996), cyberinfrastructure (Atkins et al., 2003), and sociotechnical systems (Lamb & Kling, 2003), among others, the focus is on the interplay of information systems and users.

An ongoing discussion in this literature concerns how users shape systems. In widely cited research on cyberinfrastructure, Atkins et al. (2003) demarcate the infrastructure of science and what they call "end-users." A somewhat different tradition comes from the work of Star (1999) and Bowker, Baker, Millerand, and Ribes (2010). Star theorizes information infrastructure as resulting from the interactions of information users and information systems. Information infrastructure, she writes, is "a fundamentally relational concept, becoming real infrastructure in relation to organized practices" (p. 380). Infrastructure here consists of those information systems that have been integrated into the organized practices of a group.

Drawing on these trends, some have called more recently for the creation of infrastructure studies. Within this nascent field the issue of power relations in and around information infrastructure has central theoretical importance. Scholars increasingly recognize that infrastructure creates both opportunities and challenges in terms of people's ability to make effective use of technology. In a special issue on this topic in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems, Edwards, Bowker, Jackson, and Williams (2009, p. 372) write, "Questions of distribution, power, and justice need to be addressed urgently and systematically by our field. How can claims on, through, and against infrastructure be formulated, organized, and heard? What constitutes adequate representation or participation in the process of infrastructural change and development?" These questions relate to the characteristics and dynamics of how infrastructure is created through use (Karasti, 2014), as well as to the codesign of social and technical [End Page 474] systems. A central concern is understanding how diverse communities contribute (or do not) to infrastructural development and design.


Within the information sciences, multiple conceptualizations of community exist (Veinot & Williams, 2012). A common theme uniting these...