Emergence, novices, and all things new

The rather sudden arrival of spring leads one (well, leads me), naturally enough, to think of new things and emerging entities, and their information needs and consequences.

Most obviously we might think of providing the knowledge needed by learners, at all stages and in any subject or topic, and of the need for those learners to have sufficient information literacy (or digital literacy, if you prefer) to acquire and use it. A good deal of attention has also been focused on ‘novice searchers’, particularly those using web search engines for the first time.

But beyond these extensive and well-studied areas, there is the rather different area of information support for the novice practitioner; the person who, perhaps having studied a topic, now embarks on the practice of a new discipline, profession, activity or hobby. At a time when it is recognised that, in many contexts, the old ‘job for life’ is disappearing and we must all expect to continually retrain and reskill, when the old idea of apprenticeship is finding a new popularity, and when new ways of doing things constantly appear, this seems a particularly important topic.

Yet it is one which has been little studied. A recent paper examining the information behaviour and needs of novice practitioners in art and design is one of the few such studies. Others have looked at newly appointed academic faculty, and at junior entrants in various professions, for example a study of those entering practice as family doctors. However, there is no substantial body of literature on this aspect, and reviews, such as the various editions of Donald Case’s wide-ranging Looking for Information text, do not distinguish this group as a specific object of study.

This is unfortunate. It is all too easy to assume that new entrants to some practice or discipline are, in information terms, essentially the same as the rest of the practitioners of the field. But such studies as have been done show that, although there is certainly a large extent of commonality, there are also distinct differences. Novices have particular needs, particularly for a rapid entry into the informal communication structure – the social networks – of their area, and particular constraints of knowledge, time, resources, etc. This is an area which, in my view, deserves greater emphasis as an important field of study; and not merely because we want to enable new entrants to an area to become proficient as rapidly as possible. Habits, information-related as much as any other, are set at an early stage; and it is in everyone’s interest that novices start to take full advantage of information resources as soon as possible. This is surely an area in which research ‘impact’ (of which we hear a lot in connection with the evaluation of research and researchers) can truly be claimed, and it deserves much more emphasis as a topic for information research.

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