A Quantitative Technique for Designing the Technical Information Center

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    BY DeWITT 0. MYATT AND THOMPSON E. UPHAM Science Communication, Inc., Washington 7, D. C.


    Within the past generation, the technical information environment of the typical scientist has changed from scarci ty to surplus. Our sci- entific forbears could "keep up with their field" ra ther comfortably. With the journals and other tools of their e r a , their capacity to scan for pertinence and digest for meaning essentially exceeded the rate at which significant new knowl- edge was being generated. t ime i s gone, and gone forever .

    scientist views his obligation to remain well- informed with a sense of acute personal dis- t r e s s . Almost certainly, the annual output in his own specialty has continued to increase . But beyond that, our great tr iumphs in merging science at the base have unblocked new a reas , previously the specialty of another, in which he can also be competent. Self-interest , i f nothing more , p resses him to command them a s well, or accept consignment to a relatively narrow and barren field.

    A second major influence on the scientist has been the way our society has altered i t s expectations of him in the past generation. In fact , we have only to go back four years to Sputnik I to see quite significant changes, a l - though the historic inflection point probably should date from the OSRD activities of World War 11. Before then, the scientist really lived in a comparatively simple and undemanding world. He roamed pretty much where he pleased, and the te r ra in of a single discipline usually proved fert i le enough to keep him happy and r e - warded. Society pretty much looked on his use- ful discoveries a s windfalls. Since i t had not yet grasped the full implications of creative r e - search, i t issued no socially-motived directives and established no quotas for our scientists and technologists .

    Today the individual scientist usually finds himself a par t of la rge and complex technologi- cal endeavors. These endeavors reflect the rapid industrialization of science and the sci- entist . And, more and more often, they a r e addressed to the meeting of a social des i re or need, which may be the conquest of a major

    F o r most of us that

    In most technical fields today the thoughtful

    disease, the creation of a new tool of national defense, o r the enhancement of an economic r e - source. The scientist and his science bear the sobering responsibilities of cultural maturity.

    In this new environment the scientist 's in- formation need cannot be dismissed a s a uniquely personal concern. Increasingly it has become viewed a s a responsibility his employer should share , most particularly with informational serv- ices that conserve the ever-more-sought talents - and ever -more -costly man-hours --of available technical manpower. This i s the shift, we be- l ieve, that has led to the appearance of the mod- e rn technical information center .

    The scientist 's very endorsement of the in- formation center concept suggests strongly that new forces of actual historical magnitude have come into play. scientist 's philosophical acceptance of the judg- ment of another in sifting subject mat ter through a s torage-retr ieval mechanism that he does not ever expect to operate personally. (It i s t rue , of course, that he st i l l i s f ree to use other channels that give him direct contact with origi- nal mater ia l . But the fact that research scien- t i s t s will even concede value to techniques r e - quiring a third-party participant indicates the magnitude of the influences they feel.)

    and yet-vulnerable institution (perhaps, in fact , the f i r s t undisputed child of an information- surplus technological culture), we believe those who would design and operate them should make a rea l effort, however scanty the current f i rm knowledge, to understand underlying forces , the practical l imits they imply, and the special in- novations they encourage. This i s the t ime for intellectual r igor , so fa r a s it can be applied.

    With amply-justified humility we offer such an analysis. affected some of our choices and interpretations in an actual design project.

    Especially significant i s the

    Because the information center i s a young

    Later , we will describe how i t


    Any realist ic definition of a technical infor- mation center must relate it to a la rger func- tional system. This la rger system contains, in



    addition to our center , information use r s and (since the use of knowledge almost invariably c rea tes new knowledge) i t contains information sources . Finally, the l a rge r system contains a policy o r managerial element. The executive element decides the use r s to be served and the sor t of information and service the center i s expected to provide.

    comments : Let us formalize an asser t ion from these

    "The proper informational mission of a technical information center i s a function of the technical mission of the population it serves." (ASSERTION I)

    This asser t ion does not differentiate the technical l ib rary from the information center . We shall contend that the staff of the informa- tion center i s professionally qualified in the technical subjects handled, whereas the special expertise of the technical l ib rary is the man- agement of documents. In any r ea l situation, we ra re ly find either information centers o r technical l ib rar ies whose staffs a r e entirely un- qualified in the other 's domain. tempt to fix the ultimate distinction between pr ime competenc ies that lead to totally different roles within the organization, we believe the tes t i s the presence o r absence of professional capability (i .e. , capacity to function a s a tech-

    But i f we at-

    nical expert) i n t h e subject ma t t e r . In talking hereaf ter of a technical informa-

    tion center , we mean an organization that sat is- f ies the following definition:

    "A group serving a technical organiza- tion or field by collecting and supplying pertinent technical and specialized in- formation to other specified groups and individuals, and qualified and functioning in this ro.Le a s a professional peer of those groups and individuals .'I

    (DEFINITION I) The clause within this definition that reads

    ' I . . . functioning in this role a s a professional peer . . . . ,'I cal ls for examination of one other pr ime question. The question concerns the r e - sources the center must command to collect , s tore , search , re t r ieve , and communicate at peer level. To account fo r them, we suggest:

    "The information center ' s proper tech- nical knowledgeability and subject range a r e determined by the technical compe- tence of the persons being served and by the nature of the problems in which they a r e engaged. I ts proper information- processing and -supply pract ices a r e determined by the knowledge patt e r n s traditional in the special fields repre- sented among those i t i s serving."

    (ASSERTION 11) It will be seen that a center satisfying As-

    ser t ion I1 does not require those it se rves to learn anything about i t s information-processing operations. This i s possible because it has peer

    competence in the technical subject mat te r , and thus can "translate" i t s raw retr ieval output f rom "information system" language to, say, colloid chemist language. In this respect , the center can make life distinctly eas ie r for the person served than the "pure" l ibrary we defined p r evious ly .

    Assert ion I1 also implies that working knowl- edge of specialized information-processing tech- niques i s not an inherent responsibility of the "bench" scientist . And a s the opposite side of the coin, it implies that there i s a distinctive field of expertise pertinent to information and communication processes . (We have heard !!in- formation scientist" with increasing prevalence, so we should perhaps call it "information sci- ence" - and i t s applied-art companion, "corn- munication technology.") rapidly advancing r e sea rch in machine and non- machine s torage-search-retr ieval methods already has presented substantial justification for this very important c la im. Machine data- processing, for example, may be a small par t of the total information a r t , but it i s important in special a r eas and certainly has demanded spe- cialized training far beyond the tolerance of the person who i s not a machine specialist .

    The logical consequences of this line of reasoning produce guide-lines that we think a r e of pr imary importance when one actually gets down to the mat te r of designing or operating an information center . They include:

    of-knowledge patterns, competency levels, per- sonal attitudes, and working objectives of the group he proposes to serve . F rom these, he can derive the information service range and tech- niques that make connections with rea l custom- e r s a t the other end of the line and a r e neither over- nor under-designed to serve them.

    2. His information output should be purged of any character is t ics imposed by the center ' s internal s torage-retr ieval techniques. (We will concede one departure f rom this ideal, when purging costs a r e grea te r than the combined effects of the educational costs and communica- tion losses imposed on those he i s serving.)

    3 . His staff must contain two professional competencies: in specified technical subjects, and in information science and communication technology. Key members of his staff must be knowledgeable in both fields.

    4. He should view his staff a s pr ime t e r - minal vehicles for conveying information to the customer -- and for accepting i t initially to the center . As information c a r r i e r s , face-to-face discussions (or ea r - to- ea r telephone conve r sa- tion) a r e impressively distinctive from the ac- cession l is t , o r even the individual memorandum. He should be most particularly aware of the novel ways in which the human can function a s a com- ponent link of an information service system.

    We believe that the

    1. The designer should investigate the field-



    When "science" and "man" a r e mentioned in the same breath, the f i r s t quick comparison that comes to mind--particularly to the mind of a scientist possessing the t rue faith--is the relative fallibility of the human when compared with the ordered beauty and reassuring repro- ducibility of scientific law.

    Shouldn't we be doing our best to build in- formation services that exclude the human, ra ther than making him the pivot component ?

    And isn' t the added suggestion that the service be derived from the human interests of the group to be served really a sor t of ultimate confession that there i s no discipline or sub- stance to this subject a t a l l?

    We believe neither i s so. Our ear l ie r discussions do not really an-

    swer this very appropriate question, since they consist of a brief attempt at contemporary his- tory and a recital of some implications associ- ated with a few gratuitous definitions and asser t ions.

    F o r our f i r s t advocate of the human ingre- dient in the technical information service, we offer the French philosopher-scientist du NoCy. Du Noiiy advances the essential argument that "science" i s inherently shot through with human- i sm. "Science," he says, "is only that portion of nature that humans have been able to make sense of through a process of rational ordering.'" If one follows du Notiy's basic contention to i t s application here , the human i s the most fully compatible vessel for contending with scientific information, being i t s c rea tor . Mechanisms (like index cards or computers) may aid the human but only ra re ly can c a r r y value discr imi- nation beyond the moron level. And professional scientists have only limited use for moronic services .

    defense of the human ingredient, we offer R. E . Gibson, the scientist- executive-philosopher who heads the Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University. APL originated and currently operates one of the f i r s t modern tech- nical information centers , the Solid Propellent Information Agency. Gibson asser t s :

    "Knowledge, the distillate of human expe- rience, i s stored in three types of banks: (a) in the human mind and memory; (b) in the l i terature--periodicals, books, repor t s , and so forth; (c) in the products of technol- ogy and culture, commodities, tools, serv- ices , and organizations. bank which pays interest and offers capital gains i s the mind. The growth of knowledge i s a function of the capacity and the number of educated minds engaged in i ts cultivation?" So much for natural congruence of a r t and

    For our second fundamental argument in

    Of these the only

    discipline with the human mind: what about

    human fallibility? To examine this question, we propose to review the conditions and conse- quences one might reasonably anticipate i f he set up an information service.

    Let us suppose you have been charged with the responsibility of designing a technical in- formation service. Let us suppose further that a rea l organization, or field of interest , staffed with rea l scientists and engineers, with rea l laboratories- even rea l l ib rar ies and l ibrarians- exists already to use and be used by this service you have been asked to design.

    If you subscribe, a s the authors do, to the belief that an optimal technical information serv- ice i s a derivative of the population it se rves , the logical outgrowth of your efforts should pos- s es s several gratifying characterist ic s :

    Your recommended design should relate closely to the expressed interest of the popula- tion being served--which makes them happy (at least before the actual service i s launched; it a lso helps in getting executive authorization).

    2 . In your design, you will find yourself virtually forced to take account of the f i rm data you were actually able to develop. This s t r ic - tu re reduces the likelihood that the "service" will really be an experimental vehicle for one person 's untested theories. By no means, how- ever , does it eliminate the opportunity for imagi- native o r unconventional techniques. It i s more likely to stimulate innovations that have the notable added virtue of utility.

    3. Even i f your survey te...


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