"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Sep 18, 2009

Does "informatics" automatically equal "technology"?

One of the courses I'm taking this semester is the Community Informatics seminar. I'm hoping it will provide me with a theoretical grounding to help me be more effective as a facilitator for community building and enrichment when I get a job in a public library. CI is a specialization here, and I've been on-and-off involved in it since I arrived last year. It's a bit of a frustrating relationship. It draws me, but never seems to actually offer chances to get deeply engaged with what I'm really interested in.

But perhaps I should provide some background. Let's start with the most fundamental question.

What is Community Informatics?

This is a bit tricky to answer since the field itself is very fluid and still emergent. The blurb about the Community Information Corps from the SI website reads as follows:

Information specialists are needed to deal with the complex issues of community building in the emerging "new economy." Globalization, digital information, and evolving definitions of community are changing the ways in which service-minded individuals engage in work and social transformation. In an effort to answer the difficult questions raised by these changes, students, faculty, and partners at the School of Information have created the Community Information Corps -- an interdisciplinary group of information professionals who learn, share, and apply new techniques in the service of public goals.
To my mind, CI is the facilitation of information flow to serve the public good and to meet the needs of a community, in the context of how our world is changing in the age of the Internet. That could mean anything from designing more effective library services to providing smartphones to people in Africa to intelligently tracking disease patterns in poor communities, depending on how far you want to extend the definition.

Unfortunately, what CI actually seems to mean at this school is "using our programming skills to create apps and tools that will help facilitate information flow." That's certainly a part of CI, as far as I'm concerned. But it is not the only part, not by far. I am not a programmer, and I'm not really interested in creating software tools or web apps. Nor am I terribly interested in working on high-level policy, which seems to be what most of the rest of CIC activities here involve. I understand that these things are necessary, and for the people who want to do them, I say go right ahead. But what I'm interested in, on the most basic level, is just how to discover and fill people's information needs -- whatever form that takes. If a web app is the most efficient way to do it, sure, I'm fine with that. But people seem to not remember or recognize that jumping to technology as the first, "obvious" solution is not always the right way to go. Why program software if running a meeting to get people to just talk to one another, or creating a library program, or running an educational campaign, or doing something else non-technological would be more efficient? The non-library folk at SI are so tech-focused that I feel like other things often just get lost in the shuffle. I wish, when CI projects were posted to the list, they were phrased more like "we need to look at x problem and propose some solutions," rather than the inevitable "we need to program this thing to solve x problem." I would love to work on a project, but as someone with no complex coding skills and a desire to really interact with people, I feel like I don't really have a place in most of the projects the CIC asks for help with.

I know that I should make my own opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to me. But I unfortunately just don't have time to get involved with CIC at the depth I think would be necessary to actually effect a change here. I have a lot of other things on my plate that need to take precedence. CI is, for me, an enrichment activity, not a major focus.

That doesn't mean I can't do little things, of course. The seminar seems as though it will be influenced fairly strongly by student interests, and I'm hoping that through my contributions I can steer it a little more toward the social-consciousness side of things and away from the technological side. I know I'm not the only student who is a little distanced by the heavy emphasis on technology, technology, technology, and I hope that together we can find a balance between the theory and social consciousness that I really feel is at the true core of CI and the other interests that revolve around that core, whether they be policy or technology or interpersonal interaction or...

We will see.


The other night, my boyfriend and I watched Be Kind Rewind. It's a comedy movie where Jack Black accidentally becomes magnetized and erases all the VHS tapes in his friend's* video rental store. The pair try to fix it by taping their own versions of each movie. Eventually the copyright people come down and put a stop to it. Meantime, the building that the store is in has been condemned. The bootleg videos have been the source of income that the store's owner was going to use to fix up the building and keep his store; when they are destroyed, the situation seems hopeless. But the community is now behind him. He used to tell fairy-tale type stories of how Fats Waller was born in his building and grew up in the neighborhood; they were false, but now the community decides to come together to make a "documentary" about Fats Waller's life and times as though he had lived in that neighborhood. They hope that they can show it as a fundraiser that will raise enough money to save the building. The last scene is of many people watching this movie together, laughing, enjoying themselves, and feeling proud of their contribution to this group project.

The movie ended and I thought, "That is the essence of Community Informatics." I didn't mean it in the sense that I thought that particular project would have been an exemplary CI project. What resonated with me was the spirit of the whole endeavor. Community members saw that one of their own was in trouble and they came together to help him, in the process growing closer to each other, investing in their community, and gaining community pride. To me, that kind of dynamic and process is the key thing about Community Informatics. It's about what happens, not about how it is made to happen. The people, their growth and interaction, will always be more central to my conception of CI than the technology or any other means used to facilitate that growth.

* It's actually slightly more complicated than that, but it isn't important for our purposes, so I simplify.

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