Plus ça change in information research; or the modernity of older studies

Aslib was, from 1924 to 2010, an independent membership organisation for special librarianship, technical and commercial information work, and latterly for information management, It was highly influential in the development of documentation and information science, in the UK and worldwide. Its activities included research and consultancy, training, professional development, publishing, and technology development. Aslib was for many years the de facto UK centre for information research, especially information and library management, information organisation and computer applications. It has had several names, being at various times: The Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux; Aslib; The Association for Information Management; and ASLIB. Since 2010, it has been a part of Emerald Group Publishing.

My colleague Lyn Robinson and I have been preparing an article on the history of Aslib, for the third edition of Taylor and Francis’ Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. While investigating the background, I came across a reference to an intriguing study carried out by the Aslib Research Department back in the 1960s. It was led by Brian Vickery, a leading force in British information research, who later became Professor of Librarianship, and Director of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London.

This Aslib study was a wide-ranging examination of the availability of, access to, and use of metals information in Britain. The full reference to the final project report is: Vickery, B.C., Slater, M., Presanis, A. and Fisher, P. Metals information in Britain, Aslib research report no. 5035. London: Aslib, 1969. It was not published in any other form, and does not seem to be available in a digital format, although the British Library has copies.

What caught my interest was that it was conducted by a remarkably modern-looking mixed-methods empirical approach, including semi-structured interviews with information providers, a questionnaire survey of information officers, a broadly-based survey of users again by questionnaire, and a detailed examination of secondary services. As with all Aslib research, this was carried out with the very pragmatic purpose of directly supporting and improving practice, rather than developing or examining theories and models. And, in accordance with the prevailing information research paradigm, the study was positivistic in nature, gathering data to identify the objective ‘facts of the matter’; albeit that this approach was tempered by the use of interviews to ascertain opinion and personal perspective.

These two factors might cause modern information researchers, with an enthusiasm for phenomenology, critical theory, ethnography, grounded theory and the like, to wish to put this kind of study in the box marked ‘historical interest only’. This, I think, would be a mistake. Some studies and their methods, such as this one in my opinion, are timeless, in that what they offer is simply a good way of finding out what needs to be known, in order to improve the communication of information. They may not provide conceptual breakthroughs, nor apply the latest intellectual fads; but they can be very useful nonetheless. This particular Aslib study was certainly important and influential for practice in its time. There is still room for them in the information research spectrum, and they should not be overlooked.

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