Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Small, medium and big IOPs

Thinking about the current state of KO -- and the future of KO research and practice, I would divide the KO universe of research and practice into three sets of information organization problems (IOPs):
  1. Big IOP. Organization and representation of large quantities of information for unrecognizable many people; people with with varied interests, beliefs, positions, knowledge, expertise, etc. The Web is the prototypical example of such an IOP, large academic and many public libraries are also Big IOPs. Interoperability issues and mantras are certainly Big IOP.
  2. Medium IOP. Information collections for particular, stated, clear, objective, specific purposes - to be used by people with particular, similar interests, beliefs, positions, knowledge, expertise, etc. which can be known, understood and articulated by those in charge of the collection or service. A company's intranet, web portal, store and some special libraries are typical examples. I would also think that some more specific Web services, like Flickr is Medium IOP.
  3. Small IOP. Individuals' information management challenges and collections. These IOPs are particular to an individual's (or a few individuals') personal information collection and will typically be managed by that same individual(s). The information could be email, documents, files, photos, etc., which will be collected, searched and used but individuals for their own usages.
The past 150 years of work in KO has, more or less, been focused on creating systems that could address the Big IOP with the development and research into universal classification and KO systems. There has also been a lot of work done on Medium IOPs - especially with the development of special and domain based systems and the development and research into techniques, methods and approaches to the design and development of specialized controlled vocabularies.

We have seen some interests over the years in Small IOPs, personal information management, and it could seem as if this area is developing into a specialized sub-discipline in information, with its own research agendas, etc.

Today KO is focused on the Big and Medium IOPs. I propose that these two sets of IOPs are quite distinct and we should really split them into two distinct areas of inquiry and foci... with distinct vocabulary, interests, and agendas. If we fail to do so, my sense if that we will not be able to meet the future challenges in KO -- we will not be able to fully address the real issues and prepare the next generation of KO professionals.

I see two main challenges:
  1. The universal systems and standards KO has developed for the Big IOPs will become more and more irrelevant... mainly because they have been developed with the assumptions for Medium IOPs in mind. I think that the sort of IOP that these universal systems and standards was createdy to address was much smaller in scale 150 years ago, even 40 years ago -- the IOP grew, and has grown tremendously lately... but we still tend to attack the Big IOP from the same approach as we did when the IOP was smaller. This is doomed. There may be financial and practical reasons why librarians want to kept these dinosaurs alive, but it is really only a matter of time before social computing applications will make them obsolete. There is also good reasons why librarians never really played a significant role in the organization of the Web... they had hammers but there were no nails. We need to educate students for a future where the dinosaurs of the past are long gone and we all collaborate on solving the Big IOP.
  2. Medium IOPs will grow in complexity, interests, importance, and demand. There are good reasons to develop robust KO systems for information collections and services that are used in particular domains, for particular interests, by specific people -- and there are demands for people who can tackle such challenges and the demand will likely grow. We need to educate students who master the challenges of designing and delivering KO systems and services that address Medium IOPs -- and we need research that increase our understanding of the such Medium IOPs. The answers are not to use the dinosaur systems of the past in new enviroments; the challenge is to take the knowledge and experienced gained in KO and develop that is the 21st century digital contexts.
I suppose this is a call to rethink KO research and education -- to think of KO education as first and foremost concerned with design; and not as users of systems... no reason to educate students to use systems that are only kept alive because that's all we know.... instead of educating students to be active players in today's digital future.

I would like to see more research and education on critical analyses of Big and Medium IOP KO systems, more discussions of methodological issues involved in design and implementation of Medium IOP KO systems, more historical analyses of societal impacts of Big IOP KO systems, more comparative analyses of other classificatory systems, etc., etc. Less focus on the dinosaurs...


  1. "to think of KO education as first and foremost concerned with design" - Completely agree. Wrote a forthcoming ISKO-paper about that.


  2. "We need to educate students who master the challenges of designing and delivering KO systems and services that address Medium IOPs "

    Yes! Being told to essentially memorize classification systems developed long ago is not exactly rewarding for graduate students either. The flipside to this comment is that I think most people would the work of design to be more interesting and rewarding (both intellectually and financially) than trying to keep the dinosaurs on life support.