Friends, colleagues, and students of Professor Tefko Saracevic gathered at the TEFKO 2010 Conference, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ on November 7-8 to celebrate his 80th birthday. Saracevic has been a giant in the information industry and a pioneer in information retrieval at Rutgers for many years, during which he has become a friend and mentor to many. Sponsored by the School of Communication & Information, the celebration was divided into three parts: The Pregnant Past, The Amazing Present, and The Foreseeable Future (unfortunately, I was not able to attend the opening session on the past, so this report will only cover the other two sessions).
Tefko’s list of achievements, honors, teaching and professional activities, is too long and varied to recite here, but it is available on his web page. He taught courses on online information retrieval at Case Western Reserve Univeristy and Rutgers for many years, and although he retired in June 2010, he continues to teach an online course on digital libraries. He has also been a prime mover and organizer of the annual Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference in Zadar, Croatia (his native country), and he edited a prominent information science journal, Information Processing & Management (IP&M) from 1985 to 2007. He was also on the Editorial Board of Information Science & Technology Abstracts, where I had the pleasure of working with him for several years.
Gary Marchionini, Dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, opened the second day of TEFKO 2010 with a portrait of Tefko as a scientist and scholar, teacher and mentor, leader, and friend.
Tefko as a scientist and philosopher
He has studied a number of the human elements in information retrieval, such as aboutness, relevance, and the science of context. Context is multi-layered, and interaction among information users is asymmetric. Context is necessary, and interaction has context; the problem is that we do not know how to measure it. This is a new kind of interaction that we have not been able to study scientifically in the past. We do it at points, like the interaction among humans on a social platform such as Facebook, but we need to be able to do it over time.
Tefko as a leader
Besides his work as Editor of IP&M, when he made it a pre-eminent journal in the field, his efforts on the LIDA conference were instrumental in making it a special experience for attendees and also in strengthening US-Croatian international relationships. He also led the American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T) as its President in 1991, and received its Award of Merit in 1995.
Tefko as a friend
Marchionini surveyed some of Tefko’s acquaintances and asked them to tell him the first thing that came into their minds when they thought of him. The results show a picture of Tefko as a person:
Arthur Taylor (Tefko’s last Ph.D. student) reported on some of his research on how relevance criteria affect the search process. As a search progresses through its various stages, are there common relevance criteria that searchers use to determine what to do next? They are shown here:
Another of Tefko’s students, Jim Jansen, now at Pennsylvania State University and the Pew Internet and American Life Project, discussed online shopping and fruitful areas for future information science research. 58% of Americans perform online research on products and services that they are considering purchasing, and 74% of them have made purchases or travel reservations online. Sponsored search is a big business for the search engines; it is Google’s primary revenue source, producing over $24 billion in 2009. Advertisers are interested in targeting of consumers; over 75% of advertisers say they would pay a premium for this service.
Jansen said that advertising is information, so it is a fruitful research area. He conducted a survey of online shopping behavior of males and females, which disproved several market assumptions by showing that:
- Targeting by gender is expensive and may not yield significant sales increases.
- Key phrases that were gender neutral performed the best, resulting in twice as many impressions and 2½ times as many clicks.
- Gender may not be a dominant factor in predicting consumer behavior; it may be product-related. For example a purchaser may be buying a gift for someone of the opposite gender.
Jansen’s survey showed that information science can bring much to the domain of sponsored search, and there are many questions that need to be answered.
Michael Lesk, formerly a computer scientist at Bell Labs and other research organizations and now one of Tefko’s colleagues at Rutgers, looked at the future of books in his closing endnote address. He began by noting that digitization of out of copyright books has mostly been done; some books have been digitized multiple times. E-books have entered the mainstream, and to verify that, all you need to do is look around on any commuter train. For books in print, the Kindle store now offers 720,000 books for download, and soon books that do not appear on it will go out of print. Out of print but still in copyright books have also largely been digitized by Google, but access to them is being blocked by lawyers. Advantages of e-books include:
- They have increased the variety of books we can read.
- They are searchable.
- Any number of them can be carried with you.
- They can be obtained instantly; there is no need to go to a store to buy them.
Of course, there times when printed books are necessary, and Lesk showed one use for them:
Lesk also observed that Starbucks has recently launched the free Starbucks Digital Network in partnership with Yahoo! to bring information to customers in its stores. And libraries are opening coffee bars, so he wondered if there is an opportunity for collaboration. This and other trends show that information is the new oil that is fueling today’s economy. And based on the perceived benefits of advertising, Google is worth $53 billion per year, according to Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian. So of these trends continue, what will be left for libraries to do? Lesk suggests that they move into data curation and help scientists comply with NSF requirements that they store their data in long-term repositories.
A closing panel of Tefko and the plenary speakers continued this discussion. Gary Marchionini noted that libraries are becoming community centers–places for interactions, and Tefko said that Mark Twain’s famous remark about the reports of his death being exaggerated applies to libraries as well. Libraries are needed as social places. Peter Ingwersen (Professor at the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen) noted that many Danish libraries were mandated by the government to close, so we must be more concerned about politicians than the market. Someone in the audience observed that students frequently want libraries’ hours to be extended and wondered why they would desire that if they are all working online. This suggests that the social aspect of libraries must not be ignored. Another person said that there will be a continuing need for print; people want books they can touch and share, and many students prefer print textbooks over electronic ones.
It is clear that opinions on the future of libraries are voluminous and varied. This symposium provided an interesting and valuable look at some of viewpoints of academic researchers on the subject. On a personal note, it was a privilege for me to be there and to honor Tefko’s career which has been of such a benefit to information science and the information industry.
Happy Birthday, Tefko!
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor