Dr. Sanda Erdelez began her journey in higher-education by receiving her undergraduate and graduate degrees in law from a university in Croatia. At that time, her focus of interest was at the intersection of law and information technology. It was the mid 1980s and anything resembling the concepts around ‘computer law’ were barely on the map. It was nowhere near the wide-ranging sector of our legal system that it is today. Looking for a way into the burgeoning discipline in the place where it was all just starting, Erdelez decided to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the US.
She began looking for coursework covering information technology and law being offered by schools in the US, but could only find a gaping hole where that curriculum should be. The subject matter was just too new that there wasn’t much of a framework for educators to work with. By chance, she happened to meet Jeffrey Katzer, Interim-Dean of what was the precursor to Syracuse University’s iSchool at the time, at an international conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. After explaining her dilemma, the Dean agreed that they needed to fill this void in the educational spectrum. And so they created a series of courses devoted to studying information technology and policy. In 1987 Erdelez brought her Fulbright Scholarship to School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and effectively opened the door to a new area of research and scholastic purpose. She promptly began teaching, while also working on her own doctoral studies.
After finishing her doctoral work at Syracuse, she headed to the University of Texas at Austin and brought her expertise and perseverance to the School of Library and Info Science. About seven years later she accepted a position at the University of Missouri and worked her way up through the LIS program all while adding a new understanding of learning technologies to her own teaching arsenal.
During her time in Missouri, she started the Information Experience Laboratory, which is a project that continues to explore the subjects that Erdelez holds dear. In addition to serving as the Director of the IE Lab, she was also the Chair of the LIS program, and Associate Director of the Informatics Institute. She was being well-groomed for administrative roles in higher-education, but she was still keeping a foot firmly planted in the teaching and researching camp.
Dr. Erdelez eventually shifted interests away from law and found a new calling in information science and user behavior. As she puts it, “I left the law behind and turned myself into a hardcore LIS type of person.” As a self-proclaimed ‘information super-encounterer’, Dr. Erdelez studies the way that we encounter information when we are not looking for it. In a way, she keenly observes serendipity, and its effects on how people absorb ideas and information.
Having coined the term Information Encountering in her iSchool dissertation, and spending years laying the groundwork for the science, Dr. Erdelez is pleased to continue her research in a field now fully established and respected in human information behavior science. Her material is now taught in LIS coursework far and wide. She has grown her research methods from personally conducting painstaking interviews and small focus groups, to highly-controlled internationally collaborative experiments, with teams of researchers and tools like eyeball scanners. She admits, “it is not an easy thing to study, but it can be done.”
Dr. Erdelez looks back on her career and sees how it was just a series of small steps and adjustments in her path that lead to where she is now. As a young law student in Europe, she had no way of knowing that she would one day be studying humans’ serendipitous encounters with information, in Syracuse, New York. But she has followed her passions and interests the entire way. Wherever she found an academic deadend, she forged a path through it, and as an educator she has ignited countless curiosities in minds hungry for inspiration.
After 17 years with Mizzou, Dr. Erdelez moved on to become a Professor and Director of the School of Library and Information Sciences at Simmons University, in Boston. She joined a number of colleagues that she had worked closely with in various capacities over the years, and found the atmosphere and culture of Simmons to be warm and inviting. She excelled in her position for a few years, and was just recently tapped to be the Interim Dean of the College of Organizational, Computational and Information Sciences (COCIS), and she proudly accepted the position. To add to that, she is also serving as the Chair of the iSchools Organization, which is made up of about 120 iSchools from all around the world. She recognizes this as both another great opportunity to practice leadership, and also to get a sense of where the field is going in the future and how to prepare. As one of the leaders in the iSchools Women’s Coalition, she continues to remain focused on getting and keeping more women in leadership roles in the Information Science and Technology industry and academia .
Throughout her career, Dr. Erdelez has been the recipient of many awards and honors, but there was one in 2015 that holds a particularly special place in her heart. Having served as the chair for the Special Interest Group on Information Seeking and Use (SIG USE), and on the Board of Directors for the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), Dr. Erdelez was recognized with the Outstanding Contribution to Information Behavior Research Award from SIG USE and was named to their Academy of Fellows. This was an enormous appreciation of her work from the entire field of Information Science.
Dr. Erdelez credits her time at Syracuse’s School of Information Studies with providing her the network of people that have helped her along her journey. She says, “courses are courses, places are places, but what really makes an environment unique is its people. It sounds cliche, but the connections I have with colleagues take time, and these connections are what I’ve been carrying and relying on throughout my career.” She recalls that the environment was rich and collegial and the dynamics they created in those early days were both nurturing and competitive. They urged and supported each other while also demanding excellent and prolific output. Her experience coming to the United States and studying at Syracuse changed her entire trajectory, and she knows that she is on the right track as she embraces the next challenge.