Bringing it all Back Home

Putting the ‘I’ back into ‘IT’

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one to see these connections. Then, out of the blue, I find I’m not alone. As with many historical advances in science and technology – and, dare I say, the arts – similar developments can occur in different places, at different times, quite independently of each other. Or at least, so it appears.

Take IT for example. As an information scientist working as an IT Manager in the NHS back in the early ’90s, I loved the technology (still do) but became increasingly frustrated at the way the ‘T’ bit always seemed to grab more than its fair share of attention. It wasn’t long before other information scientists in a similar position began to argue for redressing the balance towards the ‘I’. The ‘I’, after all, was what was important; the ‘T’ was just a tool.

Now I see that the BCS KIDMM group are holding a day conference in September entitled Putting the word “information” back into IT! Go to the conference details on the web site and you will read that this is a ‘Call to put our heads together’ and:

“This is an issue that crosses specialisms: within the British Computer Society we have discovered that a concern with the management of data, information and knowledge is common to a number of Specialist Groups (e.g. Data Management, Information Retrieval, Artificial Intelligence, Electronic Publishing to name but a few). And within the KIDMM project we have learned to appreciate the old-established intellectual skills contributed by the disciplines of management, librarianship and the publishing industry, among others.”

Recognizing the role of ‘T’ in IM

The KIDMM initiative is to be applauded wholeheartedly, but it also makes me wonder whether the information management community might do more to reciprocate. I mean, LIS professionals are not exactly renowned for their eagerness to make the most of technology. Or am I being unfair?

When I was working in Luxembourg in the summer of 2004, the EDRM implementation team happily combined bibliothécaires, with documentalistes, archivistes, records managers, a taxonomist (me) and various IT systems staff. We all knew that it was the ‘I’ that was the produce and the ‘T’ that was the packaging.

When I was press-ganged into providing a quote about knowledge management for a Ministry of Culture booklet on careers in information management, the front cover did indeed list archivistes, bibliothécaires, chargés de veille, documentalistes and knowledge managers as the primary readership; but inside, the role of IT was fully and freely acknowledged.

Scanning through various discussions on the future of the LIS profession in the UK, I don’t get that same feeling of openness, no sense of the complementarity of IT and IM. In fact, when I attended a day workshop last autumn on mentoring for a career in IM, I was the only delegate among 14 who did not work in a library. Is it an Anglo-Saxon thing, perhaps?

LIS skills are more important than ever

It seems that everyone but LIS professionals themselves understands how their skills – cataloguing, classification, indexing, searching, information design – are vital to the successful deployment of IT. Maybe the problem is just that the demand nowadays arises largely outside the library and they just don’t notice.

A case in point – connecting records managers and archivists as well as LIS and IT professionals – is KIDMM’s recognition of digital preservation as an important issue. Just today, I received the Summer 2007 edition of RecordKeeping, The National Archives (TNA) quarterly bulletin. One news item provides details of the MoU signed between TNA and Microsoft for the latter to provide TNA with access to past versions of Microsoft Office running in a virtual machine environment.

That’s an important step forward, but relevant only to existing digital documents under TNA’s care, and only MS Office formats at that. The preservation of digital documents generated now and in the future in the industrial and commercial sectors remains an issue in need of urgent attention. For one thing, not everyone produces documents using MS Office, and if the analysts are right, Open Office is set to eat away relentlessly at Office’s share of the productivity software market as the decade progresses.

KIDMM’s mailing list recently mentioned the two formats currently competing for the role of digital preservation format: OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Office Open XML (OOXML). The former is being developed by the Oasis consortium and has been adopted by Open Office. The latter is the alternative document format developed by Microsoft for its Office 2007 suite, (despite Microsoft being a sponsor of Oasis). Both ODF and OOXML are XML-based. Records Managers and Archivists have an obvious interest in these developments, but it should be equally obvious that LIS professionals do too.

What point is there in ensuring the longevity of a digital document if its key characteristics are not recorded so that it can be found again when required? Metadata matters just as much in long-term preservation as in any other context. In other words, for LIS people, Cat & Class rides again. Yet, do we – whether information managers, records managers, LIS or IT professionals – know whether ODF or OOXML better supports metadata for preservation and retrieval? Surely, that’s a significant factor when it comes to choosing a preservation format, and one which LIS professionals should be discussing with their RM, IM and IT colleagues.

KIDMM is doing us a great favour in bringing such issues into the open, and we need to respond to the challenge. As their event notice for their day conference says:

“The aim of our event is to tear through the boundaries between different professional specialisms, and ‘mash-up’ the perspectives we carry from our own practice to create something for the benefit of all.”

I’m all for it. Anyone else?


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