It was 1968 when Nicholas Belkin graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. A Russian Language and Literature major, he had long hair and wore things like beads and beards, which is why he didn’t think IBM would hire him at the time. So, he initially pursued other jobs, including a stint as a bridge tender in Seattle.
He didn’t keep that job for long. Belkin said he knew when he graduated from college that he wanted to explore problems in information in society, and he was soon enrolled in a master’s program studying librarianship at the University of Washington. When Belkin began his master’s degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, he said he had decided by then that what he needed to do first of all was think about what information actually means. “It’s about changes in people’s states of knowledge,” Belkin said. “I take a position that from the point of view of information science what we are interested in is predicting the effect of messages on people’s states of knowledge and the information that is associated with messages has to do with the structure of the knowledge within it.”
After working as a librarian following his graduation, he then earned a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of London in 1977. At University College, London, B.C. Brookes was Belkin’s doctoral advisor, and Belkin said Brookes was very interested in what Belkin wanted to do for his dissertation research. “My idea initially was that since information was a central concept in the field, and the field itself didn’t have a firm understanding of information, and it needed to have that. I changed my mind about that, but my dissertation was a call to a concept of information for information science,” Belkin said. “What my research really was about was understanding the effect of information on people’s states of knowledge. Understanding that required the backgrounds and methods of cognitive science, so that’s where I began my interdisciplinary work in what I think of as now as information science, or Library and Information Science. I quite like the name of our department.”
Belkin said he was primarily interested in information retrieval systems -- systems which help people to find information that will be useful for them in whatever way that they want.
“One of the results of my dissertation research was my suggestion that the reason people engage in information seeking behavior is because their states of knowledge are anomalous (deviating from what is normal, standard or expected) with respect to some task or problem. That is, that in some sense, they don’t know their knowledge is inadequate in some way for helping them to achieve some goal or accomplish a task. And I called this an anomalous state of knowledge.”
So from this point of view, Belkin said, “what an information retrieval system needs to do is to understand what a person knows already about some topic or issue, and to some extent what a person doesn’t know about it, and to identify information objects which are likely to resolve the person’s anomalous state of knowledge."
A couple of years after Belkin coined this concept and term, he said someone pointed out to him that the acronym was very nice: “ASK.”
“Together with a colleague at the University of Aston, in Birmingham, U.K., Robert Oddy, who later moved to Syracuse University, I and one of my Ph.D. students, Helen Brooks, proposed a design for interactive information retrieval systems based on the ASK hypothesis. Subsequently, this anomalous state of knowledge idea became quite important in information science as a way of thinking about why people engage in information seeking, and what is it that information retrieval systems ought to do in order to help people resolve their anomalous states of knowledge,” Belkin said. “In particular, it suggests that, in general, systems ought to accept the idea that people in principle can’t tell the system what it is that will help them because they don’t know. That’s why they are there.”
The “ASK Hypothesis” then led Belkin and other scholars to think about ideas of modelling users, Belkin said, and supporting the interaction of the user with the system in order to build a representation of the person that will be useful for the system in suggesting or finding the right information for them.
As part of his doctoral research Belkin also worked on pioneering research on what’s known as the “cognitive viewpoint” as applied to information science.
Belkin said, “The anomalous state of knowledge idea indicates that you have to study people’s state of knowledge and their cognition. The cognitive viewpoint is the basis of a discipline called cognitive science which was just forming in the mid 1970s. The idea was that people’s perceptions of the world and understandings of the world are mediated through their existing states of knowledge. It was applied to various disciplines, but the cognitive viewpoint in library and information science was based on the idea that information science, instead of thinking about building systems, ought to think about in the first instance understanding people’s states of knowledge and how they change. That became the basis for my research from then on. I was also thinking about this from a communicative point of view because we are thinking about authors sending messages into the world intending to influence other readers, and this brought me to think about information retrieval as a communicative process.
“That had already been suggested by Paisley and Parker at the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University in the early 1970s, and that was one of the places I thought I might do my Ph.D. Although that didn’t happen, this framework then led me to collaborate with colleagues in the faculty of communication at The Free University of Berlin in the early 1980s and I spent most of a year working with them in 1980 and I continued to collaborate with them for a number of years."
All of these ideas were coming to bear in the mid to late 70s, early 80s, when there were information retrieval systems, but long before the internet and the world-wide and web browsers and search engines, Belkin said.
It was during this time when Belkin saw an advertisement for a position at Rutgers at the new School of Communication and Information and Library Studies, looking for an interdisciplinary scholar. “I was very attracted to the ad,” Belkin said, “Because I saw myself as a scholar who combined communication and information science in an interdisciplinary way with other fields as well. There was also another part of that job ad that was really nice, and that was being responsible for developing the Ph.D. program. That was very attractive, but the real reason I came here was that I really saw this as an intellectual home for me in this interdisciplinary milieu.“
It was 1985 when Belkin first arrived at SC&I (the school was then named the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS)) as an accomplished scholar and an expert on human-centered information retrieval. Belkin had already developed the heavily cited “anomalous state of knowledge,” or “ASK” hypothesis, and was conducting his research program on the "cognitive viewpoint" as it applied to information science.
During 35 years at SC&I, Belkin continued to advance his pioneering work in the field of information science. He helped establish and continue the interdisciplinary structure of the school and the Ph.D. program, he mentored over 30 Ph.D. students and taught many more, and, along with Associate Dean for Administration and Planning Karen Novick, he launched SC&I’s online master’s program.
Through Belkin’s influence and that of his colleagues, Rutgers became one of the very first universities in the country to have an interdisciplinary idea about Library and Information Science and its close connection to communication and information. “That’s since become much more accepted, but we were really pioneers in the United States in that area, and I feel that my work in that, along with all of my colleagues including Jim Anderson, Brent Ruben, and Tefko Saracevic, is what is perhaps one of my most important legacies,” Belkin said.
“Nick Belkin’s transition to Professor Emeritus is a bitter-sweet moment for all, Nick included, I’m sure,” Ruben said. “During his many years at SC&I, Nick has been a very engaged and influential colleague and thought leader, and as a Professor Emeritus, I would imagine that his scholarly work and research will continue. Within SC&I, his efforts related to the Ph.D. program are particularly noteworthy. Nick has been a vocal, persistent, and persuasive advocate for interdisciplinarity in research and programming. His perspective has been a significant force in shaping the evolution of the Ph.D. program during his years as program director and since, and that influence will be a lasting legacy to his years at SC&I.”
Belkin arrived at the same time as Tefko Saracevic. They worked together with Brent Ruben to establish an explicitly interdisciplinary structure for the new Ph.D. program, integrating the fields of communication, library and information science, and media studies to study problems of information and communication in society. Belkin also said that not long after he arrived the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science was founded. He had already established connections with its founding Director, Professor Zenon Pylyshyn, and the Center became another place where he and his students could do their interdisciplinary work.
While developing the new Ph.D. program, Belkin began teaching and mentoring generations of Ph.D. students. Today, their work is in turn influencing the world in many profound and lasting ways. For example, this year, one of Belkin’s early students at Rutgers, Diane Sonnenwald, Ph.D. ’93, was named the 2020 recipient of the Award of Merit by ASIS&T, the Association for Information Science and Technology, their highest award for lifetime achievement. Belkin has also received this award.
“My Ph.D. students have done really well, and at last year’s Honors Award ceremony at SC&I I received the Friend of the Doctoral Program award from the Doctoral Student Association. That is the most meaningful award I’ve received at Rutgers, because that’s really where I feel my influence has been most effective,” Belkin said.
Asked what it takes to be an effective and successful mentor, Belkin said, “You really have to care. You also have to be humble. You have to let students do what they want to do, and not what you want them to do.”
One of his advisees is current Director of the SC&I Master of Information Program and Associate Teaching Professor of Library and Information Science Lilia Pavlovsky. “I first met Nick when he came to Rutgers just as I was graduating from the master’s program,” Pavlovsky said. “I returned a few years later to start Ph.D. coursework and when I took the class he taught (in a subject area he is renowned for) Human Information Behavior, my entire perspective on the field of study was redefined through the insights presented in the class and his perspective on the subject. To this day this is not just a course, but a subject area that is deeply influential in our field and its importance only grows as technology advances. He later agreed to be my dissertation adviser. Working with Nick in this capacity felt like I was playing chess with someone who was about 10 moves ahead of me. He is a great teacher and mentor. He tells you what need to hear, not what you want to hear. Working with him was challenging and rewarding.”
After completing her Ph.D., Pavolvsky applied for a grant funded faculty position (Belkin was co-PI) at SC&I to develop courses for the online modality of delivery. She was offered a non-tenure track contract at Rutgers and she has been on the LIS faculty ever since 2003. “It has been truly rewarding to work with Nick as a colleague. His guidance and perspective strongly influenced my teaching and work with curriculum design and program management,” Pavolvsky said.
Professor Marie L. Radford, current Chair of SC&I’s Library and Information Science Department, arrived at SC&I in 1985 as a doctoral student at the same time that Belkin joined the faculty. Radford was a communication student, and SC&I then required doctoral students to choose a second focus area. She chose information retrieval.
“Nick’s research on the ASK Hypothesis was ground-breaking at the time and heavily cited in the literature, and the research productivity of his students was well-known,” Radford said.
Radford took the classes Information Science 1 and 2 with Belkin and Saracevic, and she said she ended up doing her qualifying exams in communication and information retrieval. “This always served me really well because later when I started to teach at Pratt Institute I was teaching basic and advanced search courses in the humanities and social sciences, so I was really glad I had a strong information science theoretical background, ” Radford said.
Belkin was also on her qualifying committee, Radford said. “The quals process was very rigorous. Brent Ruben was my advisor, and as Ph.D. Director he also attended every qualifying exam. The exam was ten days of non-stop writing, followed by an intense oral exam with five professors drilling me with challenging questions about what I had written. Immediately afterward, it was in Room 323, I came out and was standing where the mailboxes are now, and I was in a daze. Nick came over. He had stayed to talk to me. He said, ‘I’m really sorry it was so rough. You really did well, but we have to start to change the way we do those because you shouldn’t have to experience that.’ I will never forget how kind he was to me that day. Nick was always extremely kind to all of the Ph.D. students.”
Radford also said she met her husband Gary Radford at SC&I when they were Ph.D. students at the same time. Radford said, “After we got engaged, Nick said to both of us, ‘if you need a place to have your wedding you can use my house.’ We decided to get married in England, and I’ll never forget this, which was another example of how generous Nick was to the Ph.D. students. Nick also helped Gary found the SC&I band, The Professors (originally consisting of former SC&I faculty member Bob Kubey, who passed away in 2018, on drums, Gary on guitar and Tomasz Imielinski (a computer science faculty member at Rutgers) on guitar.) They practiced at Bob’s house and their first gig was at Nick’s big house in Highland Park. His daughter Anna was graduating from high school and Nick invited the band to play for their party. That was their first public performance gig. This history is chronicled on theprofessors.net and in a documentary filmed by Rutgers’ film students “The Professors Project” features footage of Nick and his family dancing."
Launching the online program for the then Master of Library and Information Science degree with Associate Dean for Administration and Planning Karen Novick is one of the initiatives Belkin undertook that will remain a significant part of his legacy. Recalling their forward-thinking work, Belkin said, “I believe we were the first people at Rutgers to do an online master’s degree. Karen Novick and I wrote the grant proposal to the Institute for Museum and Library Services which resulted in the online master’s degree. I am very proud of that. That was new and really important I think, and very germane given the current situation. It was very forward-thinking and brilliant work for our program.”
Describing their collaboration on the grant proposal, Novick said, “Nick Belkin was a senior member of the Department of Library and Information Science and was department chair during the years we were exploring a fully online learning option for the then Master of Library and Information Science degree program. It was wonderful working so closely with him through that initiative. One of my particular memories of that time was a meeting we had on December 24, 2003. It was Christmas Eve, so we had no interruptions, and in three intense hours Nick and I mapped out in tremendous detail three years’ worth of course development, class schedules, and faculty and student recruiting, which we needed to include in our proposal for what became a $1M grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to support the launch of the program.
“Nick and I later traveled to Chicago together to attend the first exploratory meeting of the WISE consortium, a group of the highest ranked MLIS programs that had online degrees. The group created a really innovative way to collaborate to enable each of the member schools to better serve students. There were so many people to learn from in that room, and I remember sitting next to Nick around the big table with both of us trying to soak up everything being said, scribbling many notes and ideas to each other throughout the two days, both of us being very excited about the many possibilities for us at SC&I.
“Nick was such a supporter of the online learning initiative and participated in the first wave of faculty to develop online classes. His involvement was certainly one of the key ingredients for the success of the program as it rolled out.”
Belkin has been extremely active in the professional community during his scholarly career. He served as the Chair of the ACM SIGIR, and President of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). He is the recipient of the ASIS&T’s Outstanding Teacher award, its Research Award, and its Award of Merit, for outstanding contributions to Information Science. In 2015, the ACM Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval (SIGIR) conferred upon him its highest award, the Gerard Salton Award, for significant, sustained and continuing contributions to research in information retrieval, and in 2020 he was an made an inaugural member of the ACM SIGIR Academy.
Today, Belkin is transitioning to Distinguished Professor of Library and Information Science Emeritus at SC&I in order to begin yet another exciting new journey. Belkin is working on new research that he also urges prospective Ph.D. and current doctoral students to think about, which is the question of, Belkin said, “how can information science develop systems and services which support people in all their interactions with information, in an era of information ubiquity, when we are inundated with information and data of many new types, pushed at us from many new sources, and available to us in many new contexts and through many new modalities?"
“This is an extremely exciting time,” Belkin said. “There are lots of new problems to study and lots of new issues arising, ethical ones as well technical, about what could and what should systems know about people in order to help them, and who has control of that knowledge about people. It’s a difficult time as well, but it’s a time of enormous opportunity.”
Belkin will soon take up a Visiting Researcher appointment at Microsoft Research exploring these issues, and intends to continue his research and publication activities in this broad area of interaction with information in an era of information ubiquity.
Belkin continues to live near the campus on the fifteenth floor of an apartment building that that overlooks the SC&I building, so he can look down at his former office whenever he wishes. What he will miss the most about SC&I, Belkin said, are “my students and my colleagues.” When asked what he most looks forward to in this exciting new chapter of his life, Nick Belkin smiles and shares that he and his wife Colleen Cool (SCILS Ph.D. ’97) hope to spend more time with their eight grandchildren, who live along the east and west coasts.
In the video below, taken and provided by Professor Marie Radford, look for Distinguished Professor Emeritus Nicholas Belkin playing the tambourine (1:47):