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The red thread of information

Jenna Hartel (Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 18 February 2020

Issue publication date: 21 April 2020




In The Invisible Substrate of Information Science, a landmark article about the discipline of information science, Marcia J. Bates wrote that “…we are always looking for the red thread of information in the social texture of people's lives” (1999a, p. 1048). To sharpen our understanding of information science and to elaborate Bates' idea, the work at hand answers the question: Just what does the red thread of information entail?


Through a close reading of Bates' oeuvre and by applying concepts from the reference literature of information science, nine composite entities that qualify as the red thread of information are identified, elaborated, and related to existing concepts in the information science literature. In the spirit of a scientist–poet (White, 1999), several playful metaphors related to the color red are employed.


Bates' red thread of information entails: terms, genres, literatures, classification systems, scholarly communication, information retrieval, information experience, information institutions, and information policy. This same constellation of phenomena can be found in resonant visions of information science, namely, domain analysis (Hjørland, 2002), ethnography of infrastructure (Star, 1999), and social epistemology (Shera, 1968).

Research limitations/implications

With the vital vermilion filament in clear view, newcomers can more easily engage the material, conceptual, and social machinery of information science, and specialists are reminded of what constitutes information science as a whole. Future researchers and scientist–poets may wish to supplement the nine composite entities with additional, emergent information phenomena.


Though the explication of information science that follows is relatively orthodox and time-bound, the paper offers an imaginative, accessible, yet technically precise way of understanding the field.



Hartel, J. (2020), "The red thread of information", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 76 No. 3, pp. 647-656.



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