For Whom We Design Systems

Robert S. Taylor

    Probably the most significant moment in my professional career happened about 1953 when I was sitting at the reference desk in the Lehigh University Library. Note that this was well before the computer became a ubiquitous artifact in America. The computer at that time was a huge machine filled with tubes that required heavy air conditioning. There was no such thing as on-line. The personal computer was thirty years away. I had been educated as an historian and had been at various times a newspaper reporter, sports editor, intelligence agent, free lance writer (unsuccessful), and now a librarian. I suddenly realized that in all my adult life I had been doing the same things: gathering, organizing, retrieving, analyzing, and communicating information. From this realization sprang a whole series of questions over the next several decades. What the hell am I doing? Is there a new grouping here (a new profession)? If so how are such professionals educated? How do people seek and make use of information? How do we as professionals help people become aware of the significant role that information plays in their lives? How can we design systems that will help people resolve problems critical to them and, at the same time, enhance the quality of life around them? Over the next forty years I tried to find some satisfactory answers to these questions.

    The Profession and Education: Through the Center for the Information Sciences at Lehigh which I directed (1962-1967), the Program in Language and Communication at Hampshire College (1967-1972, and especially at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University both as Dean and Professor (1972-1983) I began to outline an education for this new profession.

    Information Systems: My work on value-added processes (NSF-supported) published in 1986 began to answer my system design questions.

    Information Seeking and Use: Papers published on question negotiation and information seeking in libraries (1968) and on information use environments (1990) began to open up for me those concerns.

    These questions are I feel fundamental to the profession and will remain so. Worth noting is that I place people at the center of my concerns. It is people, both as individuals and as members of organizations, for whom we design systems. This is a user-driven approach. Technology, important and overwhelming as it is at this moment, is but a means of gathering, storing, manipulating, and moving information to people who can make use of it. Our professional responsibility is to understand the technologies and to use them effectively to help people in whatever setting. Without people at the center we become but another technology-driven vocation.

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