Foundations of Information Science

UNC SILS, INLS 201, Fall 2023

Week starting August 21

View slides Updated Tuesday 8/22 7:15 PM

This course has two kinds of meetings: lectures and recitations. You’ll attend lecture twice a week with all of the other students in the course, and recitation once a week with a smaller group of students.

Our first meeting of the semester is at 9:05 AM on Monday, August 21 in Peabody 1040. We’ll go over the structure of the course, access to resources such as readings and slides, and guidelines for success.

Our second (or third, if your recitation meets on Tuesday) meeting is at 9:05 AM on Wednesday, August 23. This meeting will be an overview of the content of the course.

August 22
Recitations begin meeting

All recitation sections will begin meeting this week. See the recitation schedule.

Week starting August 28
No meetings this week

August 29–September 1
Classes cancelled

Due to the tragedy on campus, Tuesday’s classes have been cancelled. In order to keep all the recitations synchronized, Wednesday’s lecture and Thursday and Friday’s recitations are also cancelled. We will resume meeting on Monday, September 11.

Week starting September 4
No meetings this week

September 4–5
Labor Day / Well-being day

Due to the Labor Day holiday on September 4 and the well-being day on September 5, neither lectures nor recitations will meet this entire week. Use this time to get a head start on next week's reading.


The first unit of this course introduces the fundamental concepts of knowledge, meaning, and information.

Week starting September 11

View slides Updated Wednesday 9/13 8:22 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 3,700 words

What is knowledge? What does it mean to produce, acquire, possess, organize, or preserve knowledge?

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Buckland, Michael. “Individual and Community.” In Information and Society. MIT Press, 2017. PDF.
    3,700 words

Week starting September 18

View slides Updated Wednesday 9/20 8:41 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 6,500 words

What is meaning? How do we attribute meaning to gestures, sounds, images, artifacts and other perceptible phenomena?

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Shaw, Ryan. “Semiosis at an Intersection.” In Selecting Systems, 2021. PDF.
    2,600 words
  2. Shaw, Ryan. “Semiosis on the Front Page.” In Selecting Systems, 2021. PDF.
    3,900 words

Week starting September 25
No meetings this week

September 25
Well-being day

Due to the well-being day on September 25, neither lectures nor recitations will meet this entire week. Use this time to catch up on lectures or readings that you missed.

Week starting October 2

View slides Updated Thursday 9/28 10:58 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 9,500 words

Information is the result of transforming knowledge into a measurable commodity by de-emphasizing or ignoring meaning.

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Weaver, Warren. “Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” September 1949. PDF.
    6,000 words
    Reading tips

    Claude Shannon, an engineer who worked at Bell Labs, developed a mathematical theory of communication that came to be known as “information theory.” The papers in which Shannon developed his theory were originally published in 1948 in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal. A year later, Warren Weaver published this summary of Shannon’s work.

    There is some math in this report. If you’re not mathematically inclined, just skip over it—it isn’t necessary to understand the math in order to understand the basic ideas.

  2. Shannon, Claude. “The Bandwagon.” IRE Transactions on Information Theory 2, no. 3 (1956): 3. PDF.
    600 words
    Reading tips

    About six years after information theory made its debut, Shannon wrote this one-page editorial.

  3. Buckland, Michael. “Discovery and Selection.” In Information and Society, 135–52. MIT Press, 2017. PDF.
    2,900 words
  4. Optional
    Eckersley, Peter. “A Primer on Information Theory and Privacy.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, August 10, 2020.
    700 words
    Reading tips

    This short article use the information theoretic concept of entropy to explain why it is so easy to identify individual people based on their web browsing activity.

  5. Optional
    Gleick, James. “Information Theory.” In The Information, 1st ed., 204–232. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. PDF.
    9,100 words
    Reading tips

    This chapter from science writer James Gleick’s book The Information is an engaging mini-biography of Claude Shannon, but it is also an accessible introduction to information theory.

Week starting October 9

Monday’s lecture will review the concepts introduced in the first unit.

On Wednesday, you will take the midterm exam at the same time and place as you usually attend lecture.

Recitations will not meet this week.

October 11
Midterm exam 1

Week starting October 16
No meetings this week

October 19–20
Fall break

Due to the Fall break on October 19–20, neither lectures nor recitations will meet this entire week. Use this time to enjoy Fall break.


The second unit of this course introduces some key techniques employed by information professionals: classification, deduction, and induction.

Week starting October 23

View slides Updated Friday 10/20 1:41 PM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 8,400 words

Classification is grouping things together in a principled, systematic way for a specific purpose.

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Hunter, Eric. “What Is Classification? / Classification in an Information System / Faceted Classification.” In Classification Made Simple, 3rd ed. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. PDF.
    5,600 words
  2. World Meteorological Organization. “Principles of Cloud Classification.” In International Cloud Atlas, 2017. PDF.
    1,600 words
  3. Dupré, John. “Scientific Classification.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2–3 (May 1, 2006): 30–32. PDF.
    1,200 words
  4. Optional
    Daston, Lorraine. “Cloud Physiognomy.” Representations 135, no. 1 (August 1, 2016): 45–71.
    10,100 words
  5. Optional
    Glushko, Robert J, Paul P Maglio, Teenie Matlock, and Lawrence W Barsalou. “Categorization in the Wild.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12, no. 4 (April 2008): 129–35.
    5,000 words

Week starting October 30

View slides Updated Wednesday 11/1 8:48 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 3,400 words

Deduction is a kind of reasoning about classes that takes the form of a chain of premises and conclusions. Each conclusion in the chain automatically follows from its premises. These chains can be expressed and manipulated using the formal language of Boolean algebra.

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Berkeley, Edmund C. “Boolean Algebra (the Technique for Manipulating AND, OR, NOT and Conditions).” The Record 26 part II, no. 54 (1937): 373–414. PDF.
    3,400 words
    Reading tips

    This article is by Edmund Berkeley, a pioneer of computer science and co-founder of the Association for Computing Machinery, which is still the primary scholarly association for computer scientists. But he wrote this article in 1937, before he became a computer scientist—because computers had yet to exist. At the time he was a mathematician working at the Prudential life insurance company, where he recognized the usefulness of Boolean algebra for modeling insurance data. He published this article in a professional journal for actuaries (people who compile and analyze statistics and use them to calculate insurance risks and premiums).

    Berkeley uses some frightening-looking mathematical notation in parts of this article, but everything he discusses is actually quite simple. The most important parts are:

    pages 373–374, where he gives a simple explanation of Boolean algebra,

    pages 380–381, where he considers practical applications of Boolean algebra, and

    pages 383 on, where he pays close attention to translation back and forth between Boolean algebra and English.

  2. Optional
    Evans, Eric. “Crunching Knowledge.” In Domain-Driven Design. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2004. PDF.
    3,000 words

Week starting November 6

View slides Updated Tuesday 11/7 11:36 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 6,500 words

Induction is a kind of reasoning about classes that seeks reoccurring patterns in how things have been grouped together. Conclusions (predictions of further reoccurrence) follow premises (observations of grouping) not automatically, but with some likelihood. Statisticians offer formal languages to characterize these patterns and to quantify the likelihood of their reoccurrence.

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Maron, M. E.“Automatic Indexing: An Experimental Inquiry.” Journal of the ACM 8, no. 3 (July 1961): 404–17.
    6,500 words
    Reading tips

    Bill Maron was an engineer at missile manufacturer Ramo-Wooldridge when he began investigating statistical methods for classifying and retrieving documents. In this paper he describes a method for statistically modeling the subject matter of texts. He introduces the basic ideas behind what is now known as a Bayesian classifier, a technique that is still widely used today for a variety of automatic classification tasks from spam filtering to face recognition.

    Trigger warning: math. The math is relatively basic, and if you’ve studied any probability, you should be able to follow it. But if not, just skip it: Maron explains everything important about his experiment in plain English. Pay extra attention to what he says about “clue words.”

Week starting November 13

Monday’s lecture will review the concepts introduced in the second unit.

On Wednesday, you will take the midterm exam at the same time and place as you usually attend lecture.

Recitations will not meet this week.

November 15
Midterm exam 2

Week starting November 20
No meetings this week

November 22–24
Thanksgiving recess

Due to the Thanksgiving recess, neither lectures nor recitations will meet this entire week. Use this time to enjoy Thanksgiving.


The third and final unit of this course considers a couple of complex social issues involving information professionals: labor and attention.

Week starting November 27

View slides Updated Wednesday 11/29 8:27 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 4,400 words

Classification is labor. Information professionals use machines to automate this labor, but it is never fully automated. What kinds of classification labor are done by people, and what kinds are done by machines?

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Irani, Lilly. “Justice for ‘Data Janitors.’” Public Books, January 15, 2015.
    4,400 words
  2. Mattes, Eva, and Franco Mattes. The Bots. 2020.
    Reading tips

    The Bots is a video installation work created by media artists Eva & Franco Mattes. The Frankfurter Kunstverein describes the work as follows:

    They present anonymous testimonies from content moderators who have worked for Facebook in Berlin. Six videos have been created … The films were executed with the typical aesthetic and features of online make-up tutorials. The statements in the films are derived from investigative research and interviews conducted with numerous witnesses employed as service providers for Facebook. The films were interpreted by actors so as to anonymise the statements of the content moderators. They perform the role of influencers addressing their followers directly. They recorded the videos using smartphones, for which reason the images are in portrait format. Advice on make-up products alternates with distressing descriptions of moderators’ work.

    To view the videos, you will need to log in. I will post the login information to the course announcements list in early November.

  3. Optional
    Roberts, Sarah H. “Understanding Commercial Content Moderation.” In Behind The Screen, 33–72. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. PDF.
    20,200 words
    Reading tips

    In this chapter from her book Behind the Screen, Sarah Roberts provides an overview of commercial content moderation at companies like Facebook. She explains what commercial content moderation is, who does it, and the conditions under which they work.

Week starting December 4

View slides Updated Wednesday 12/6 7:49 AM

Total amount of required reading for this week: 10,700 words

Information professionals create systems for classifying things as worthy or not worthy of attention. Knowing what people are paying attention can be valuable. When information professionals seek to profit from what they know about attention, it raises questions about whom their systems serve.

📖 To read before this meeting:

  1. Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “The Attention Machine.” In Antisocial Media. Oxford University Press, 2021. PDF.
    10,700 words
  2. Optional
    DeLong, J. Bradford. “The Attention Economy Goes to Court.” Project Syndicate, November 9, 2023.
  3. Optional
    Wu, Tim. “Attention Brokers,” 2015. PDF.
    8,400 words

December 5–8
No recitations this week

Wednesday, December 6 is the last day of class, so recitations will not meet this week. Lectures will meet as usual.