Hektor, Anders. What's the use? Internet and information behaviour in everyday life. Linköping: Linkoping University, Tema. 2001. 338 p. (Linköping studies in arts and science; 240). ISBN: 91-7373-113-7
We all know that information is a heavily stressed factor when shaping the societies of today. We all know that there is sometimes a lot of it, sometimes a lack of it, and all too often nowadays, too much of it. We talk about sorting it, ranking it and selecting it.
The most important trend during the last years of the 1990s was the growth and the use of the Internet. I don't find it an exaggeration to call it an information explosion, at all. It has been both fascinating and inspiring to follow its expansion and its acceptance by people everywhere.
There was, I think, a certain force in the use of the Internet or, as it is often called, the Net, that originated at grassroots level and spread upwards. Swedish statistics show constantly growing figures in what is called the use of the Internet. Often these figures tell us that Swedish people use E-mail and that they surf and search for information on the Net. The statistics also tell us that well-educated and younger people use it often.
The figures give us a good idea of general trends but, in a closer examination, how does the Internet affect the people that have access to it and use it? If we had earlier said, for example, "let's go to the library and find some books on this topic ", so what do we say now? "Let's go to the Net, find some information on this topic and then print it out "? These are some spontaneous reflections that have arisen while I have been working on my doctoral thesis on post-modern library concepts.
This is the background to my interest in reading a recently published dissertation by Anders Hektor and in attending the public defence of his work at the University of Linkoeping on the 2nd of November, 2001. Hektor is affiliated to the Institute of Theme Research, at The Department of Technology and Social Change at the University of Linkoeping, Sweden. Let us look at some of the important aspects of his work to begin with and then close the review with some personal comments. The comments are not intended as criticism but as a means of expressing my own reflections.
The aim of the thesis
Hektor wishes to contribute to a larger project: that of understanding information behaviour in relation to computers and the Internet. He recognises the need to limit the scope of his work and achieves this by studying Internet use in daily life as opposed to working life and by concentrating on relatively computer-literate individuals.
The longer-term aims are, according to the author:
The emphasis lies in the first objective, although it is necessary to be able to describe use in order to move towards the second objective. The purpose is, thus:
"to develop a theoretical and conceptual framework of information behaviour in everyday life that offers description and categorization and relates it to information systems, with an outlook towards also describing the usefulness and objectives of information behaviour."
The main question, which is stressed in the title, is "What is the use ". Hektor understands this in two ways: firstly, it concerns the use of information systems in terms of how actual use may be described and secondly, the instrumentality and the usefulness of such information systems. The context is the use of the Internet in everyday life referring to a distinct type of context: it is intended to cover the private aspects of individual use. It excludes work-related activities but not private activities performed during working hours and at the place of work.
The method used in the empirical part of the study is qualitative case studies. Hektor justifies his choice by stating that we know little of information behaviour in the context of everyday life. He means that, at this point, there is a need for the conceptualisation and understanding of this phenomenon. Better understanding builds the foundational knowledge that is needed in order to make good hypotheses and a frame for the questions. The empirical material consists of diaries and of the interviewees' accounts. The number of cases (individuals) is ten. The author studies individuals but claims that despite this, it is possible to acquire a quite accurate picture of the sociality of information behaviour. The individual is social when he is not a socially isolated unit. The empirical models that have been developed in Information Studies tend to be largely individual in that they disregard social influence, according to Hektor's interpretation.
The author's intention is to build a conceptual framework for information behaviour. He has explored previous research within the field of information studies: for example, work by Taylor, Ellis, Kulthau and Wilson. Building on previous research Hektor has developed an analytical model for his work. The general model of information behaviour created by Wilson has great significance for Hektor's work, particularly with regard to its holistic ambitions. The elements in Hektor's model of human information behaviour comprise of the following:
Environment - ICT-Setting (Information and Communication Technology-settings) - Information Activity - Outcome & Change and in the center Individual that relates to these elements.
Examples of findings:
In the final chapter of the book Hektor reviews his study: What's the Use? Revisited. The model developed here by Hektor is, according to him, "true" as there are, in his ten cases, no negative examples to a proposition. The starting model consists of the elements described above. Then the author has built up a model of the relation between behaviour and activity. It results in a final model which is called A social model of information behaviour. It is constructed in order to describe individual information behaviour where micro-social relationships are included. The model has been reprinted below with the permission of the author:
The Social Model of Information Behaviour represents elements of information behaviour and elements that are understood to relate to information behaviour.
Information behaviour takes place in response to problematic situations in the projects of everyday life, as pointed out earlier. behaviour can be described as one of four types of information behaviour and as more specific information-activities as we can see in the model.
When a respondent is responsible for initiating an information behaviour this leads to information activities leading in turn to the information systems available to the individual and to the individual's social network (e - a - i - c). But in cases where an outside agent initiates information activities the order of events is not the same: it begins with "preceding and others' information behaviour", which leads to "information systems and people" followed by "events" (f - b - c- d). So for example, the model can be used in different ways.
Some concluding comments
Hektor has written an interesting book. Grounded in library and information studies I found this dissertation very interesting to read, of course: at the same time I feel that the discussions in it have been central to our discipline for some time. The author's vocabulary is very familiar to me, as are many of the references. He uses central terms like information environment, information behaviour, relevance, and information system. Hector's ambition is even to create new terms for the area of information research: the thesis includes a Glossary of Terminology where he presents terms and neologisms such as unfolding and dressing information which are used, as can be seen, in the model above.
I had some difficulties understanding Hector's point of departure, by which I simply mean his professional background when discussing this topic. In some ways he seems to put Library and information science into a box that I find difficult to recognise. He finds, for example, in the beginning in his theory chapter that Library and information studies are divided by the kind of issues their practitioners are interested in. He means that people as subjects of study make his research more oriented towards Information Studies than towards Librarianship where the focus, according to him, lies in documents or information systems carrying representations of information. I don't think that we categorize our research quite so simply within Library and information science in Sweden. The trend towards understanding the user is an overall trend in our discipline and as far as I know it does not exclude libraries or librarianship.
I see Hektor's thesis as a journey to a better understanding of information use in a broad sense, focusing on the user in his own context. This kind of interdisciplinary work is, in fact, categorized as mainly belonging to the field of "Informationsteknik IT", Information technology, in the Swedish union catalogue.
Hektor's work offers many inspiring thoughts and ideas for refection and further exploration. It is a modern, fresh, youthful piece of qualitative oriented research work. I will with interest read coming articles based on this thesis.