Information access is distinct from information retrieval. In a basic sense users must have access to data before they can retrieve the data. Before Bate’s “berrypicking” [i] may happen, users must have a general idea that the desired information exists and a theory on how to attempt to access the data. Information professionals work along every part of the path to a full bucket of berries.
Current theory leans in favor of usability, in that most systems are designed as user-centered, not systems-centered. A computer is not (yet) capable of interfacing with users without mediation, no matter how user-centered its design may be. Therefore information professionals test systems in usability labs, conduct surveys, build crosswalks, create controlled[ii] vocabulary and use natural language vocabulary. A vital part of information access is working with the user to define their information needs and structure appropriate ways to retrieve the needed data, as in Poster: Combating Zone Creep with Big Data.
Information access has concrete tasks and controversial, abstract issues. Specific examples of hardware and software the user must have for access in today’s information environment are a computer, a search interface (generally in the form of a search engine inside a web browser), search terms, and possibly even a subscription to source material. One of the less concrete and hotly debated aspects is the ethics of access, with a very closely linked topic of censorship. A specific example is the concept of “digital divide”, which arguably creates second-class citizens[iii].
A specific example of needs assessment is creating relational databases for businesses. My product, Database: Creating a database for APAC, started with a conversation about the users’ needs. This reference interview was vital to track priorities, needs, and preferences to understand how the user wants to be able to access and retrieve the data. Sometimes the user may not be able to have all of their information access needs addressed in the way they had anticipated. However, the information professional’s knowledge of the structure of the data environment, coupled with understanding of the priorities of the user, leads to relevant access and retrieval, with fewer false drops.
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[i] Bates, Marcia J. (1989). The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface. Online Review 13(5): 407-424
[ii] McClung, Julie. “Herding Cats: Indexing British Columbia’s Political Debates Using Controlled Vocabulary.” The Indexer 27.2 (2009): 66–69, 4p. Print.
[iii] Kim, Eunjin, Byungtae Lee, and Nirup M. Menon. “Social Welfare Implications of the Digital Divide.” Government Information Quarterly 26.2 (2009): 377–386. ISI Web of Knowledge. Web.