Monday, February 25, 2008

Runaway Disequilibrium, or: Why Marian the Librarian and the Techno Kid need to kiss and make up

You know her on sight: frumpish; hair-style out of another century, much less decade; too much beige in her wardrobe; scolding; haughty; rule-bound. I am speaking of course of Marian the Librarian, the stereotypical schoolmarm/librarian who has been the butt of many jokes. And, like most stereotypes, there are enough people in the library profession - men and women - who fit this bill to warrant the stereotype in the first place.

Contrast that stereotype to an newly-emerging stereotype of the Techno Kids: young librarians/information specialists coming out of the rapidly evolving library/information studies programs around the country. Where Marian totes a copy of the Anglo-American Catologing Rules (2nd ed. revised, of course), they chatter on about metadata. Where Marion drones on about the goal of universal bibliographic control, the Techno Kids yammer on about the semantic web and social networks. They are les enfants terribles of the information age.

Needless to say, the Marians in the profession do not quite see eye-to-eye with the Techno Kids, and vice versa.

Of course, both groups are wrong. And both are right. Both have insights that we can use and that can help guide us through these ever-changing times in our increasingly decentralized yet ever-more pervasive information environment. The trouble is that both groups have a tendency to dismiss the other as irrelevant. The Marians of our profession look down their noses at what they see as under-qualified, bibliographically-weak gadflies. The Techno Kids roll their eyes at their hopelessly out-of-touch elder colleagues.

What we need, of course, is a way to conceptualize a third path, one that lets us draw on the insights that both sets of colleagues bring to the table and enables us to synthesize a healthier, more productive approach. For this, I suggest that we draw on some of the insights that George Soros writes about in his book The Age of Fallibility: the Consequences of the War on Terror. In it, he hypothesizes that open societies are societies that accept that they are fallible, which allows them to strive to be better than they are. This allows them to evolve over time. He calls this state one of near-equilibrium.

In contrast with such healthy societies are at least two contrasting types of societies: ones in which dynamic disequilibrium reigns, and ones where static disequilibrium reign. Dynamic disequilibrium is another way of saying chaos. Static disequilibrium is another way of saying dictatorship that prevents healthy development of society.

If we extend this model to the librarian/information manager profession, we see that the Marians try to impose through force of will a situation of static disequilibrium. They adhere slavishly to rules and regulations that were themselves only strategies to manage information when they were first promulgated, but which have been reified into absolute rules to live by. They have lost sight of the fact that we must always adapt to evolving situations or become obsolete. Like lemmings, they are willing to have our libraries fling themselves over the cliffs rather than take a different route to get to our end goals.

Contrasted to that, the Techno Kids tend to slavishly adopt every new fad just because it is a new fad. They are dismissive of rules and regulations. They scoff at standards. They have no time to learn traditional cataloging or other aspects of the intellectual underpinnings of traditional librarianship. They revel in the now, the new, and the fadish. Unfortunately, this path leads to chaos.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of processing the Allen Ginsberg Papers. Despite his role as a leading figure of the counter-culture in the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, I discovered that Allen was a harsh instructor who insisted that his student's master the traditional poetic forms. Ultimately, he argued, you have to be fully conversant in the traditional rules of poetry in order to break them effectively for greater poetic insight. I think the situation above calls for something similar. The Techno Kids need to be fully conversant in the traditional approaches to librarianship before they can effectively break the rules employed by that approach to more effectively manage information in our post-modern world.

The Marians' dogmatism is unhealthy, but the Techno Kids disregard and irreverance when it comes to traditional librarianship is equally unproductive. The two need to kiss and make up and take a third path together, where the insights from the past and the insights from the present can lead us to a more holistic and effective understanding and management of our complex information milieu.

To be relevant, we need to be able to talk intelligently about traditional cataloging and metadata capture. We need to be able to understand how the semantic web may not only replace the concept of universal bibliographic control but move beyond it into an arena of universal access to information. I firmly believe that we need to synthesize both sets of insights in order to survive as a profession.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Information Past, Present, and Future; or, Don't Garden Your Library to Death

I just finished reading The future of the past by Alexander Stille (New York: Picador, 2002) which proved to not only be a fascinating look at the "past" and how human cultures define the concept, but also how massive technological and societal change shapes not only what we can communicate about the past but also how we can even conceive of it.

More to the point for this blog, Stille subtly explores the nature of libraries, archives, and other cultural storage and transmission traditions (oral tradition, anyone?) in post-modern, internet-era societies, the need of libraries to increasingly be entrepreneurial to stay afloat, the way in which the ability to record sound and images is eroding literacy world-wide, etc. The whole book is a wonderful and thought-provoking read, but several chapters are particularly relevant for contemporary librarians:

  • Chapter Seven: War of Words: Oral poetry, writing, and tape cassettes in Somalia
  • Chapter Nine: The return of the vanished library (all about the building of the Bibliotecha Alexandrina .. the reincarnation of the old Library of Alexandria)
  • Chapter Ten: the Vatican Library Mystery
  • Chapter Eleven: Are we losing our memory? or The Museum of obsolete technology
  • Conclusion: Writing and the creation of the past

I would definitely recommend this book to thoughtful people everywhere, especially anyone interested in the cultural construction of reality (a shout out to all my fellow anthropologists and philosophers out there), the power dynamics of access to information, the way in which our society destroys the underpinnings of cultures at the very moment that it tries to document those cultures.

OK, you might say, that's all very well and good. But how does it affect me as a librarian/archivist/information professional? Well, first, I would say, read the book, THEN we will talk.

But, if you are not inclined to read the book, let me indulge in a bit of personal narrative by way of explanation: as a freshly-minted Masters of Arts in Anthropology, I found myself working as the Reference Specialist in the Special Collections Department at Stanford University. This was at the moment when Stanford was beginning a major campaign to build its rare and unique collections but was still perceived as having a slightly quaint, nice, "regional" special collections repository.

A young academic, herself a freshly-minted Ph.D. in History, came in to do research on the African American experience in the San Francisco Bay Area region. Lo and behold, I discovered that we had next to nothing in the department's holding to support her research. And then it struck me: what is preserved to document a topics shapes what can be asked about the topic and what can be answered about the topic. To put it in very real human terms, since we had nothing to document the African American experience, the African American voice was essentially silenced in that archive at that time. The collection had lots of material documenting the history of rich, dead, white guys but nothing - or next to nothing - documenting working class folk, Black folk, Hispanic folk, etc.

(Important disclaimer: Stanford's major campaign to build collections mentioned above was particularly focused on documenting many formerly neglected social, cultural, and political groups that make up the tapestry of U.S. society. Its holdings now include some of the richest sets of collections documenting the Hispanic experience in the United States and extensive collections documenting African American, Jewish, and Asian communities throughout the U.S. If the same researcher had come to the desk a mere five years later, her experience would have been completely different.)

I learned an important lesson that day: What we select, collect, and preserve fundamentally shapes what we can know about ourselves as a people, as a society, and as a civilization. As librarians and archivists, we know that we have to continuously evaluate our collections to keep them relevant and like a good gardener, weed out the damaged branches, the unhealthy shoots, etc. That being said, we need to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water. We also need to be sure not to throw our cultural heritage out the door with the outdated copies of ready reference materials. If we cut too deeply in our holdings in order to make them more "relevant", we risk cutting ourselves off from our past. The moral of the story: don't prune your library to the point where you kill it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Cult of Instruction: or, Why A Fishing Pole is Better than a Fish

My first rant on this site has to do with what I call the "cult of instruction" that is currently sweeping through many academic libraries. As our digital environment becomes ever more complex, academic librarians have begun worshipping at the Temple of Bibliographic Instruction. Don't get me wrong: to a certain extent, I believe bibliographic instruction is useful in terms of indoctrinating, err, orienting new users of a library system on the tools, procedures, etc. of said system. But, increasingly, when faced with the vagaries of 21st Century librarianship, some academic librarians are losing sight of our mission (e.g. to provide high-quality. research-calibre information sources - in whatever format our users need them - to support the academic instruction, research, and intellectual inquiry of our parent institutions.)

What has replaced that larger vision is all too frequently an overly-simplified vision of the academic librarian/research library as a second-rate instructional center teaching bored, uninterested students how to use the frankly sub-par tools to discover content in our collections.

We need to take bold steps beyond this limited and limiting view of librarianship and libraries in the 21st Century. Contrary to popular belief, and misconception within our profession, our books are not going away anytime soon. We are not yet in an era of print vs. electronic resources. We are in an era of print AND electronic resources. If you don't believe me, get over it.

Instead of focusing our attention on half-assed attempts at bibliographic instruction, we should be putting our efforts into building much better discovery tools. Meta-search engines need to be perfected. Endeca-like indexing tools need to be inserted above our OPACS ... and over all of our other information silos. "Google"-like search interfaces need to be put into place where appropriate, and easy-to-use more advanced, finessed search functionality also needs to be at our user's fingertips. (For more on the topic of evolving library technologies, Andrew Pace has waxed philosophic for awhile on his blog. The pre-OCLC version is available at The new, improved, OCLC-era version is expected to have its grand unveiling soon.)

Any research library that does not put its money where its mouth is in terms of programming staff, system admins, and technologically savvy staff has missed the mark. If we give our researchers the search tools that they are clamoring for, they won't need us to instruct them on how to use sub-standard tools. If teaching someone to fish is better for them long-term than just providing them the fish, then by extension, building them a fishing pole that works would be just as - if not more - important.