Research Agenda

Primary Research Line

My specific and immediate research interests involve the description of political/editorial cartoons by naïve users. There has been very little research done to date concerning the description of individual cartoons or on the organization of large cartoon collections. Because of this, there are a number of questions that need to be asked and answered: what is the shelf-life of a political cartoon? Do political cartoons have a definable subject? Do cartoons need to be organized so that their subjects can be followed longitudinally? Is there a difference between editorial cartoons and political cartoons? But the bedrock question that must be answered before all of these deals with how people describe such images, so that we can proceed secure in the knowledge that we are representing the aspects of political cartoons that matter most to the end users.

My general research agenda — the long-term, multi-step process of discovery — deals with creating a metadata schema for large cartoon collections. To date, such collections deal primarily with the content of the images, leaving the context and subtext out of the description. I wish to develop a metadata schema specifically for political cartoons because this subset of images in general is meant to communicate in such a way that this context is key to understanding the point of the cartoon. While there is a great deal of literature on the subjects of image indexing, metadata development, and subject analysis, I am aware of no combination of these that sheds light directly on political cartoons; known relevant work is always at least a few degrees removed from the focus of this specific field of study.

Along these same lines, I would like to investigate how iconic images come to gain this status. The flag hung at Ground Zero on 9/11, JFK Jr. saluting his father's coffin as it rolls by, and the firefighter carrying a child away from the Oklahoma City bombing; these are all lasting, meaningful images to the Americans who were 'politically aware' at the times that the events took place. Why these images and not others? What decisions were made by what powers that put forth these images as worthy of representing an event while other images were found to be less so? In the same vein, how do certain terms, like 'Watergate', 'the Miracle on Ice', and 'Monica Lewinski' come to represent an event? How do terms or phrases, like the aforementioned images, come to represent an historical event? This work is complementary to the research described before as it deals with the vocabulary used to describe the subjects of political cartoons.

This work is important in three main ways. First, it will expand the historical record, adding depth and breadth to the understanding of times and events, and enabling educators and historians to better make sense of the era in which the cartoons were created; better access to political cartoons will help create and disseminate information. Second, it will allow educators in the fields of history, political science, anthropology, and the social sciences in general to begin using these cartoons as examples of what happened in times past, as well as providing a way to teach the lesson again as time goes by; better access to political cartoons will help convey understanding. And third, it will benefit those involved in indexing images of all types by providing another example of how it can be done and what results might come from it; better access to political cartoons will help provide better access to all images.

This research will fill the gap that currently exists between the description of cartoons — and their subsequent availability, findability, and searchabilty in online and other electronic environments — and the descriptions that already exist for most other kinds of images. At this point, reliable and ready systems for describing political cartoons do not exist; while it is possible to adapt current systems to the task, those systems are not designed with the peculiarities of political cartoons in mind and thus fall short. Metadata and classification systems are always mismatched to the specific tasks of describing and retrieving these images from large collections, but in correcting this we build on the work that has been done before and proceed in the knowledge that the task is achievable.

But why should this work be done at all? While we might recognize that there are those who would benefit from the work, why is the work intrinsically important? Because it is morally and ethically wrong to throw away history, which is what we do when we allow political cartoons to be published today and forgotten when the indices of history are written later. Because allowing these snapshots of opinion on events whether historically important or socially faddish (or, sometimes, both at once) to be forgotten is ill-considered at best and foolish at worst. And because we need to remember events not only by what we know happened, but by what people thought and felt while they were happening. Leaving political cartoons out of the historical record is like giving ourselves selective amnesia about our cultural history, something neither we, nor subsequent generations, can afford.

Secondary Research Line

An altogether separate line of research that I'd like to pursue has to do with describing the nature of information. Information science has long lamented both its inability to define this word, and the attendant issues that emanate from that inability. Our field almost always takes a deductive approach, starting with a theory and conducting less of a research effort than a thought experiment to define information. I have tried to shed light on the nature of information by taking an inductive approach, gathering data in the form of student essays about the differences, if any, between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, and determining what aspects of information were said to be important in both defining these terms and in how one of these becomes another of these.

This new approach would help to fill a gap in the literature if it includes the perspectives of digital natives — rarely represented in efforts to define information in the so-called Information Age — who view information from a consumer/creator perspective, and who are generally not immersed in the LIS field's existing scholarly debates about the nature and definition of information. To do this it is important to capture research data about the related concepts of data, knowledge, and wisdom to help contextualize and distinguish the aspects of information that emerge from the research data and content analysis.