- Information Organization and the Mysterious Information User
For the whole of the last four hundred years—the modern period—those in the chief expressions of what we might call the information service professions—bibliography, librarianship, indexing, documentation, computerized information storage and retrieval, archives, records management, and museum work—have made it their business to aggregate informational objects (or their surrogate descriptions) in such a way as to help people (information users) identify, gain access to, and interact with them. These actions have led to the creation of systems organizing both discrete informational objects and portions (often even snippets) of the objects.
During my career I have studied and written about many such systems. My method had been to focus especially on how essential concept words and terms (e.g., "information users") have been used (i.e., to what did they refer, what roles have they played) and how their uses and what they referred to have changed over time. This led me in the early 1980s to investigate the sources of particular ideas in Charles Cutter's subject access work and in the work of those who followed him in incorporating subject heading systems in the dictionary catalog.1 Afterward, I applied the same methods to the idea of "classification" across several fields, to the idea of "library and information science," and to "information organization" as a general concept.2
During the same period I had many occasions of considering the concepts of information users and use, the natural complement of information systems themselves, but I have not written extensively about them.3 Thinking through such concepts immediately brings one face to face with many heady questions. For example, how might we characterize information users and the use or uses to which informational objects might be put by those people? How have these people been characterized and described in the past and present, and under what circumstances have they been characterized in one way or another? [End Page 343] When, for example, did the practice arise of calling them "information users" and their interaction with the information objects "information use"? What broader social and cultural phenomena can be correlated with the conceptualizations, and what tentative conclusions can one draw from what is discovered?
The purpose of this essay is to bring together my thoughts on information users and use. These will be presented chiefly in the form of a historical survey of how reference to information users (and, by implication, information use) has changed over the modern period in history (beginning at about A.D. 1500) and up to the present. Before attempting to address such characterizations I will comment on both the timeframe involved and the words of my title. Afterward I will summarize what I have covered and provide some broader suggestions about the matter.
It has become a commonplace opinion recently that consideration of information users and use not only is relatively recent but also is the cause of creating two main subfields in the information studies field that, according to some, represent a fundamental split in the field. Tefco Saracevic, for example, in a series of writings that began in 1991, concludes that our field has come to have two primary focal points or subdisciplines, one focused on information system making, the other on information users and use. He claims that the systems emphasis, under the name "information retrieval," was the original center of the field, that it began with Vannevar Bush's article in 1945 entitled "As We May Think," and that it is the most robust portion of the field. He identifies the 1970s and 1980s as the time in which user studies began. Claiming support from White and McCain's 1998 cocitation analysis of the 120 most cited authors of the field, he concludes that these two elements of the field barely overlap or communicate with each other (much to their respective losses), and if someone were to find a way to unite them, he or she would, so to speak, go down in history as a hero.4 Douglas Raber, in contrast, finds the two realms so different in their views of the underlying phenomenon of information...