By Tomas Russo COM-ITI’25
Tourism has never really been my thing. Marveling at architectural feats does not do much for me. So what was the first step to prepare for my trip to London? Well, wait, pause: first of all, why the heck was I going to London?
Because eight months of dedication to research I have been conducting as a fellow with the iSchool Inclusion Institute earned me acceptance to the 19th Annual Social Informatics Symposium, part of the 86th Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T 2023 for short). And this year, the conference was being held in London.
So how did I plan for this trip? Find out the best angle for viewing Big Ben? Look up the best hours to visit Westminster Abby? Map out a strolling path that would take me across the London Bridge? None of the above.
Instead, I searched for a place to hang my hat in the three-ought hours between my flight’s landing and the hotel’s check-in time. The method for doing so involved leveraging search operators (here’s an article on search operators if you’re curious) to make the following request to DuckDuckGo: “Hammersmith” AND “pub” site:instagram.com. In other words, show me all posts including both the terms “Hammersmith” and “pub” on Instagram.com.
This search led me to an Instagram post from a place called The Hammersmith Ram, a lovely little local pub with weathered wood flooring, comfy chairs, and a revolving door of people grabbing pints, sitting in one of the antiquated booths, and chatting the hours away. This was the first stop of my trip, and, in addition to a lovely pint of Guiness, it led me to a discussion with a wonderful gentleman named Chris, who told me a bit about his time spent in advertising, his career as a graphic designer, his past life in Boston, and how he has been enjoying retirement.
"This conference solidified for me the idea that in my scholarship, both now and going forward, I will aim to center on storytelling."
And I did not realize it at the time, but in that conversation, there lay a humble lesson, one that would be iteratively retaught, refined, and realized across the course of my time at the conference. See, I am still new to information science scholarship and have a lot to learn. But at the center of my intention to join the ranks of the field’s phenomenal minds lies a love for, what in my estimation is, the purest form of information sharing: storytelling. And this conference solidified for me the idea that in my scholarship, both now and going forward, I will aim to center on storytelling.
But what does that mean? To make it clearer, allow me to take you through a few of the spaces I saw at the conference and tell you about the lessons they held. The first, a lively space where I sat in on an early morning workshop; the second, an impressive lecture hall where a renowned panel engaged in brilliant discussion; and the third and final one, the streets of London themselves, exploring with two of the most wonderful people in my life. Ten minutes of your time, three journeys, and a core lesson at the center of it: let us begin.
Lesson 1: Research can be storytelling
The morning workshop was held on the second day of the ASIS&T conference, and even though I was slightly jet lagged and only four coffees deep, the moment the presenters, Jenna Hartel and her team of co-authors, Keith Munro, Hugh Samson, and Niloofar Solhjoo, began their multi-media presentation, I was hooked.
The workshop was about writing up research as thematic narratives, which is a research reporting approach focused on balancing the “four voices” involved in research: the voice of the discipline; the voice created by contrasting interpretations of literature; the voice of the researchers themselves; and the voice of the study participants. The workshop demonstrated ways to include the participants’ voices – the stories they told of their experiences – in the research findings, as a means to show how the researcher engaged with the study participants.
This presentation entirely reframed how I thought of research reporting. Previously, I found it to be uber-technical, heady, convolutedly theoretical, and generally inaccessible to public audiences. Hartel and her team, however, showed me that data collection is, in and of itself, a story researchers can and should share in their scholarship.
This deeply resonated with why I fell in love with this discipline in the first place: because it allows me to hear and elevate the stories of others.
And the next experience I had further refined this idea, by teaching me that good research supports and amplifies these stories that might otherwise go unheard.
Lesson 2: In storytelling, consider whose stories you are telling
A recommendation by Chair and Professor of Library and Information Science Rebecca Reynolds, a strong supporter of my ASIS&T journey, led me to the panel Strategies for Conducting Critical Research in Information Science by Designing Social Justice Research Informed by Intersectionality.
The panel focused on critical informatics – an approach to informatics that looks at the impact power structures have on the ways humans and technologies interact.
Two of the presenters were from Syracuse University: Renate Chancellor, associate dean for diversity, equity, inclusion, and LaVerne Gray, whose work focuses on “African-American historical information collectives and archival evidence analysis,” according to her Syracuse profile.
Two others presenters were from the University of Michigan: Robin Brewer, a prominent voice in the discussion surrounding HCI and accessibility, and Megan Threats, a former SC&I faculty member, whose research (some of which, in the past, has been conducted in affiliation with the iSchool Inclusion Institute) investigates the systemic racial injustices and inequities in health information systems.
The panel also included SC&I Associate Professor of Library and Information Science Charles Senteio, whose work investigates the use of health information in the improvement of health outcomes, especially for members of vulnerable populations.
The individual presentations given by each member of this panel were fascinating, and through all of them ran a singular thread – a crucial idea that strengthened my ideas about research as storytelling and turned them into my new mission as a scholar.
"This is what I learned: in storytelling, consider first and foremost, whose stories you are telling. To do this, adhere to two principles – first, is the story you are telling one that needs to be heard and one that otherwise might not be told? Or does it reiterate knowledge that already exists or that someone else can tell better?"
This is what I learned: in storytelling, consider first and foremost, whose stories you are telling. To do this, adhere to two principles – first, is the story you are telling one that needs to be heard and one that otherwise might not be told? Or does it reiterate knowledge that already exists or that someone else can tell better?
These questions lead to point two: respect that there are stories that are not yours to tell. If you have not been given the permission to tell them, they are not yours to tell. If there is someone who can tell a story better, find a way, through your research, to help them tell it. Finally, work in service of the communities whose stories you would like to share. Earn their permission to tell their stories, and listen to how they want them told.
This panel put a mission to my practice. It provided a set of central values to follow. And then, on a night spent exploring the city of London with my phenomenal advisors, I was again reminded of the last crucial lesson: it is not enough to simply follow your personal ethics and values; they must be the center of your research’s core.
Lesson 3: Center Values
Back in the summer of 2021 they took a chance on a lost and confused student, unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, invited him to try research, and through their unwavering guidance and by setting the most inspiring examples, transformed him into a scholar, something he – a 25 year old, “non-trad undergrad,” convinced he could not succeed at university – never knew he could be.
They then invited this same lad out on a slightly chilly night to explore the cobblestone streets of London. And how did that night go? Well, I will phrase it like this: anyone who knows me, knows my propensity for chattiness, the lengths at which I can talk, and talk, and talk. However, that night, sitting in historic pubs and strolling storied streets, I did not say much at all. Why? Because the ideas and thoughts being shared between these two brilliant minds taught me so much without even trying. And I did not want to miss a word of the beautifully profound message at the center of their conversation:
If research is a form of storytelling, it must be storytelling that respects and serves those whose stories it tells; and reflects research that has been guided by those values. Without fail. And without compromise.
This is what I learned at ASIS&T in London, and it confirmed that academia is where I am meant to be, and for as long as I am in this space, I will always seek to be a discoverer of truth who is guided by the call to serve a more diverse collective of narratives.
I’d like to thank all the wonderful individuals I met in London whose conversations, insights, and company not only expanded my mind but also made my first conference better than I could have ever imagined. You are all amazing!
Photo: Courtesy of Tomas Russo