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.

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