Information and Information Systems. By Michael Buckland. New York: Praeger, 1991. 225 p. ISBN 0275938514. $16.95.
[The review of a book such as this in a journal such as this may call for some explanation. There is nothing said about developing countries or their libraries in the book. Our purpose in bringing it to attention of Third World librarians is to suggest that the reading of librarians everywhere ought to be much wider than their immediate situations require. We will offerfrom time to time descriptions and critiques of books that deal with the universal topics of library concern, trying to identify volumes that would be worth considering for a basic professional collection especially in the context of greatly limited resources, where every title has to chosen with great care. It will be for the reader to determine whether this, or any book presented in this context, is one that ought to be chosen. Ed.]
At the Symposium on Education for Information Science held in 1965, Robert Fairthorne expressed dismay about the confused terminology in the field. "Information," he noted, had been used in so many different senses that it had become "a linguistic convenience that saves you the trouble of thinking about what you are talking about." Things have not changed much. If anything, Michael Buckland (Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies, University of California at Berkeley) points out, the confusion has been compounded by the fact that a massive but separate literature has grown for each type of information system. Bucklands book is an attempt to provide a framework in which all information systems can be viewed. "Our goal," he writes, "is to build a better understanding of information systems through the description of their nature" (p. 5). The approach is general and to some extent philosophic, rather than practical or technical. The text contains many ideas that have appeared in Bucklands earlier papers, such as "Information Retrieval and the Knowledgeable Society" (Proceedings of the 53rd ASIS Annual Meeting, Toronto, 48 November 1990, pp. 239244).
The book is in five Parts: IIntroduction; IIConcepts; IIIProcesses; IVRelationships; VConclusion. Buckland begins by attempting to clarify terms. "Information," he finds, is commonly used to convey three different meanings: (1) "informationasprocess" (the intangible act of informing); (2) "informationasknowledge" (also intangible); and (3) "informationasthing" (tangible objects that are regarded as being informative; pp. 34). "Information systems" are "systems that provide information services intended to result in human beings becoming informed" (p. xiv). Because informationasknowledge is intangible, information systems necessarily deal only with informationasthing. "Information technology" is "any technology used in handling information," including pen and paper as well as computers (p. 69). It will be noted that Bucklands definitions are not rigorous; they tend to employ the term being defined, and they do not precisely distinguish the term being defined (or the concept that the term represents) from other terms.
In Part II (Concepts), the author refines and expands his discussion of these terms and the concepts they represent. At this point his acceptance of imprecise definitions leads him down some unusual and controversial paths. Certain paths turn out to be culdesac; e.g., when he suggests that information in addition to recorded, intentional communications such as data and documents may also encompass events and objects, a tree for example, Buckland concludes "we are unable to say confidently of anything that it could not be information. This leads to an unhelpful conclusion: if anything is, or might be, informative, then everything is, or might well be, information. In that case, calling something information does little or nothing to define it. If everything is information, then being information is nothing special" (p. 50). Without a distinct idea of information, there cannot be one of information systems. Buckland acknowledges this: "the boundaries between what is and what is not an information system are not clear ... a system is an information system if it is used as an information system, especially if it has been designed to be used as an information system" (p. 35). If libraries are information systems, he asks why do we not also regard museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and art galleries as information systems.
Part III (Processes) is on more solid ground. Buckland focuses on the processes involved in providing and using information. For most of this Part he concentrates on the individual inquiry. Among the topics addressed are inquiries (the motivation to know, the motivation to address an inquiry to an information system, the representation of inquiries); retrieval (types, difficulties, measures of effectiveness); becoming informed (what this means, barriers to it); and ways that information can be derived or represented. Even in this relatively straightforward descriptive section, Buckland is drawn to questionable observations, such as "ignorance is not necessarily a gap in our knowledge. We may have acquired conflicting knowledge ... this constitutes ignorance in the sense that we do not know what to believe" (p. 87). What we do not know, however, must be a gap in our knowledge.
Shifting from the individual to the collective view, the author notes that "the seeking, the acquiring, and the supplying of information is best understood as an economic and political activity and will be treated in those terms" (p. 127). Information seeking is governed by a price mechanism that includes time, effort, and other costs as well as money. Demand tends to adapt to supply. The nature of an information system is determined by the allocation of resources to it and within it. The process of allocation is a political process, in which the information service depends on support from sponsors, users, or both.
In Part IV (Relationships) Buckland presents a model of an information system. (Here and elsewhere in the book there are diagrams of various models.) Three loosely connected subsystems form the whole: (1) a political and managerial system in which the nature of the information system is determined; (2) an economic system, in which the system's level and pattern of use are determined; and (3) a cognitive system in which the individual uses the system to become informed. Provocative chapters on artificial intelligence and the social context of information conclude this Part.
The final Part is a lucid summary of the entire book. All the chapters are documented with citations, emphasizing the more speculative literature. There is a bibliography of about 250 items, and an expansive index.
In the author's words, "this book is best seen as a fallible, tentative interpretation of the nature of information systems and their relationship to their context" (p. xv). It provides a means of orientation toward the reallife problems and the literature of information. It raises difficult questions and provokes thought. If his methodology is too soft to permit the exposition of a true philosophy of information, Buckland does suggest the way that such a philosophy might develop.
About the Author
MaryFrances Watson is Assistant to the Dean and Lecturer, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Rosary College. Her degrees are from Knox College (B.A., English), Rosary College (M.A.L.S.), and Saint Xavier College, Chicago (M.A.). She was formerly Technical Services Librarian at Saint Xavier College. Her principal interests are online database searching, library computer applications, and library management.
© 1992 Rosary College
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