Tag Archives: culture

Part 3: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Will the open library provide more or less access to information for all people within the community?

I initially started this article by suggesting that open libraries could provide greater access to information and that this could potentially be a good thing. They provide greater access to information simply because the library is open for longer periods of time. However, does an open library provide greater access to information than a less technologically enabled staffed library?

If the user is computer literate then the staffed library and open library provide the same access to information. However, if the user is not computer literate then the open library provides less access to information. This is because many people do rely on the librarians to help them use the IT facilities in the library. Many users do not know how to search the catalogue in order to find the books they are looking for; others do not know how to log on to a computer let alone search a digital database effectively; most users cannot use the photocopying and scanning facilities without help; and in libraries when there are self-service machines, most users come to the desk with their items anyway preferring the human interaction and service they get from the staff. Open libraries exclude all of these people. So, if it is cheaper to staff a library than to set it up for open access, and if open access excludes users, then is it not true that staffed libraries provide greater a access to information than open libraries given that a staffed library service in the evening provides access to more people and for longer periods of time? The simple truth is that librarians are as much a part of the access infrastructure of a library as computers are.

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Solutions to Controlled Vocabularies Part Two……

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Structuralism can be understood as a normative science in which a classification system would begin with the norm and afterwards, if necessary, treat of any exceptions. This, in many ways, goes a long way towards explaining how some of the solutions to classification biases are conceptualised. Both Olson and Mai have basically inserted into the old systems a new way to deal with any exceptions to the norm. They both imply an understanding and incorporation of difference into their models, but only once the normative system has been first applied. However, in Poststructuralism, there emerges a more appropriate definition of difference, and not as an exception of ‘limit’ to the ‘core’, but as a regulating principal that functions to define the core of a subject. As James Williams (2104) demonstrates, in poststructuralism “the limit is not compared with the core, or balanced with it […]the limit is the core”. Poststructuralism sees dualism as a problematic approach to understanding language, and even more problematic with the dualist approach of classification theorists is that they imbalance the dualism between sameness and difference, lending more significance to sameness than difference. Perhaps it is better to explain the principle of ‘core’ and ‘limit’ through an example. Defining something like ‘Irishness’ is traditionally understood through what is at its core, that is, being born in a certain place, time, to certain parents, being a certain skin colour, speaking a certain language, etc. This understanding of Irishness is what regulates our political system and society as a whole. The ‘limit’ in this example would be the problems that arise with the definition once we factor in ethnic minorities who become naturalised with their own set of cultures and histories. But in a traditional, structuralist understanding, these minorities are the exception, and while the Irish government may legislate to create better conditions for ethnic minorities, there will always be discrimination because the limit does not change the core. However, poststructuralism, in James’ (2014) words, would argue that “The truth of a population is where it is changing. A nation is defined at its borders”, that is, at the point of difference because everything that happens at the borders of a country changes how the core is defined. It is the ‘difference’ of ethnic minorities that is most representative of a where a nation is going to in the future and so the ‘limit’ for poststructuralism is the most meaningful way that a nation, or a text, or indeed a classification system can be defined. In terms of vocabulary control then, what defines how a text is classified should not be a biased and static system. Texts should be classified by emphasising how those texts are being, or could be used in ‘different’ ways, by different disciplines. A book like ‘Words of Power’, that would be classified under LCSH and DDC as Philosophy: Logic, would no longer be limited to such static systems. This book could also be used by feminist scholars, by those working in ethics, or anthropology, sociology, psychology, gender studies, linguistics, and so on. Defining the book under strict controlled vocabularies denies access to ‘exceptional’ groups which results in a lack of real innovation and creativity in academia. In this sense, there are lessons to be learned form poststructuralist theorist Deleuze who argues for the power of openness in creativity.

To reassert, then, poststructuralism denies the traditional approach to classification through controlled vocabularies and aims to positively disrupt traditional classification systems in order to achieve greater autonomy for texts and their users. The problem with the solutions is that they are developed from the point of view that it is too disruptive to completely change our classification systems. But here disruption is seen negatively rather than positively. The seriousness of this ultimately limiting attitude and of the reliance on outmoded classifications can best be understood by applying the work of Jacques Derrida to the topic. Derrida’s (1976) ‘textual positivism’ would not ask ‘what is this book about?’, but rather, ‘what does this book do?’ This question radically changes the way we would categorise texts because it places an emphasis on multiplicity of use rather than the singularity of meaning as defined by ‘specialists’. Derrida’s approach distinctly adopts anthropocentrism and sees the classification system as onto-theological. Derrida’s ‘origin’ is constantly being affected by a texts ‘presence’, thats is, what a text is doing in the moment. It is this ‘presence’ that leads to both the future and the past, that essentially pulls the ‘origin’ into ever-evolving new contexts. A ‘sign’ then for Derrida is nothing more than a ‘trace’ of that change, a trace that can be followed to a point of difference so long as we understand that once we reach the trace, we have too altered its origin which has moved off beyond our grasp. It is this point of difference that allows for creativity to emerge in what Derrida defines as ‘play’. In this sense, and applied to classification systems, the moment at which a reader reads ‘Words of Power’ in relation to psychoanalytical studies, is the moment that changes the origin indefinitely, opening up that text to new contexts in the future and the past, and thereby changing how that text should be defined in a classification system.

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This essay will argue then, that classification systems should take ‘difference’ as a key underlying principle in the way we organise information. To do otherwise is to consciously do ‘violence’ by excluding individuals or groups from our knowledge economy. As Derrida (1976, 140) writes “There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing”. This is because traditional classification systems and the solutions outlined in this paper, try to regulate the past, present and future of information in order to make it more accessible. However, the adoption of a classical scientific approach only makes it possible to categories if texts, if language, are seen as static. But Derrida (1976, 67) teaches us that “The concepts of present, past, and future, everything in the concepts of time and history that assumes their classical evidence – the general metaphysical concepts of time – cannot describe the structure of the trace adequately”. This constitutes a denial that there is no ‘final’ past, present or future of a text. Derrida (1976, 69) would argue that what is really happening in controlled vocabularies is a violence and unethical act of control which is borne out of a fear and misunderstanding of ‘death’. “Spacing as writing is the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconsious of the subject. By the movement of its drift/ derivation the emancipation of the sign constitutes in return the desire of the presence. That becoming – or that drift/ derivation – does not befall the subject which would choose it or would passively let itself be drawn along by it. As the subject’s relationship with its own death, this becoming is the constitution of subjectivity.” Death in this sense is seen as continuity from one context to the next rather than a final end. In many ways, traditional classification systems are a kind of death sentence in the traditional sense in that they render entire texts and disciplines static and irrelevant as new contexts emerge and are classified in inadequate ways. Perhaps the point is best represented by Williams (2014) who claims “The demand for clarity is dangerous because clarity justifies violent judgements and exclusions on the basis of a promise of a world of understanding and togetherness.”

What is happening then in our classification systems is that subject specialists are attempting to create greater accessibility to information by categorising information under specific and specialist subject headings in order to create a sense of clarity when one is searching for that information. Texts are gathered together based around a principle of sameness and difference in which things that are similar are classified under the same subject headings. The reality is that this system, based on controlled vocabularies is extremely biased and fails to account for real difference, heterogeneity and multiplicity in our information world. There have been attempts to create new systems that, for example, are more appropriate for those interested in feminist studies, but these systems simply shift the control from one universal group to another smaller prioritisation. They do highlight a very important politics and injustice, for example, in the way texts are classified, but they do so by reverting to an equally biased system. It is at the point of difference that real innovation and creativity occurs. Our universities are set up as places in which creativity and independent thinking is supposed to lead to new innovations, while our public libraries are moving more and more towards providing creative spaces for communities to grow and develop. Yet, the way in which we search for information is limited and contradictory, and no longer fit for purpose. The argument that ‘difference’ should be prevalent in classification systems is not absurd or contradictory, but would require a complete overhaul of the way in which we understand and categorise information. Perhaps there is already a working model existent in the way in which internet search engines like Google operate. Websites on Google are presented to us in a way that can promote difference as a classifying principle. This is because those websites that have the most links to other active sites are presented as being more prevalent and relevant. What would happen if a similar approach was adopted by libraries? That when we search for information under a certain topic, that we are presented with a list of texts that are organised based around the number of connections the texts have to other texts and thus other disciplines? This would perhaps provide a classification system that would celebrate multiplicity, ranking texts according to the many possible ways they can be used and interpreted. In the field of literature, I remember my PhD supervisor suggesting to me that I include some comparative work between John Banville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in my thesis because the postcolonial contexts of Ireland and Colombia bare many similarities. As a researcher, in all the hours spent searching for information on Banville and postcolonialism, I was never presented with any texts that implied real difference or multiplicity. Searches were singular and restrictive, never indicating that any different approach was possible. The classification system would provide no new spark of creativity for young researchers to pursue. In fact, using Boolean logic, I found that the more search terms I entered in different searches, the more relevant the results that were presented. If difference was to become an organising principle, then information would be retrieved that prioritised multiplicity and that would lead to greater inclusion and thus innovation. The problem at the moment is that the way we search the digital databases is dictated by the way in which information is placed on stacks. The stacks or the numbers on the books do not have to change. Where the information is located in the library is irrelevant because rarely nowadays do we search the stacks anyway. What needs to change is the way information is classified on the digital databases. There is nothing stopping us from radically changing this digital system to one that is more inclusive of difference and that contains less ‘violent’ vocabularies.

Bibliography

Beghtol, C. (1986). “Semantic validity: concepts of warrant in bibliographic classification systems”. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 109-25.

Borges, J.L. (1952). “The analytical language of John Wilkins”, Other Inquisitions 1937-1952. Souvenir Press, London, 1973.

Bowker, G.C. and Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, Boston, MA.

Derrida, Jacques (1976). Of Grammatology. John Hopkins University Press, Maryland.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Mai, Jens-Erik (2010). Classification in a social world: bias and trust. Journal of Documentation, Vol. 66 Issue 5, pp. 627-642.

Miksa, F. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Forest

Press, Albany, NY.

Olson, Hope A. (2001). Sameness and difference: a cultural foundation of classification. Library Resources and Technical Services, 45, no. 3, pp.115-122

Shirky, C. (2005). “Ontology is overrated: categories, links, and tags”. Clay Shirky’s Writings about the Internet. Economics & Culture, Media & Community, available at: http://www.shirky. com/writings/ontology_overrated.html html (Date Accessed 28th April 2015)

Williams, James (2014). Understanding Poststructuralism. Routledge: London.

Digital Curation & Preservation: At what cost?

brainIt continues to astound me on this MLIS course how many ideas, theories and practices blindly press ahead with the supposed ‘advancement’ of the industry without ever addressing important fundamental questions about the underlying nature, impact and value of the work being undertaken. It also amazes me at how information studies academics continue to theorise while passively ignoring the poststructuralist theory that has been informing many other disciplines uninterrupted for the last 50 years. Reading Helen Shenton’s work has left me no less bemused.

Digital curation and preservation takes as its starting point the mantra ‘we must preserve’ without ever asking whether or not it is right, or indeed valuable to preserve. Poststructuralism has worked hard to ensure that history and culture are not controlled as homogenous entities, but digital curation is now threatening to undo much of that good work. Poststructuralism is a theory of language that denies words as static culture building objects, and instead views language as a highly dispersive subjective heterogenous experience. It is the theory that underlies so much of our achievements in the last 50 years. It lead to the feminist movement, to the reconceptualisation of history as a discipline, and to the destruction of periodisation in literature. With real world artifacts we still have the potential to make new discoveries about the past. However, with born-digital objects which only have a lifespan of up to 25 years, we will not have the capacity to re-write the past through new discoveries. As a result, the digital curators of today are essentially the historians of tomorrow. The files that they choose to save will create a static history that cannot be questioned in the future. Howard Zinn, a postmodern historian argued that history has traditionally been written by those who win wars. Digital Curation, which is funded by governments or private organizations, is in danger of destroying the culture it is aiming to preserve in what could be become a Big Brother like scenario.

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Helen Shenton’s work in ‘Virtual reunification, virtual preservation and enhanced conservation’ focuses on the digitisation of dispersed works. It is in many ways a hugely interesting project, but it needs to be taken to question about its real underlying value. It is disturbing that Shenton’s work has as its goal ‘reunification’. This word summons forth a whole litany of other terms like ’empire’, ‘colonisation’, ‘power’, ‘race’, ‘slavery’ and ‘control’ to name but a few. This word inherently references imperialism at a time when the breaking apart of the United kingdom has become a real possibility in the near future. The fact that some important texts exist in a dispersed format is in itself culturally significant because it is indicative of the breaking apart of empire itself. Bringing these texts together has the potential to create a false narrative and a homogenous cultural discourse, and in this sense Shenton, like many of her contemporary information professionals, uses an outmoded form of structuralism to inform her ideas. She argues, in relation to the Sinaiticus Project, that it requires ‘the production of an historical account of the document’ that needs to be objective. The very idea that a homogenous ‘objective’ narrative is being added to these documents is a regulating process that ignores the lessons learned in the arts through poststructuralism. Structuralism is also implicitly referenced in the layer of information in the form of digital links over the manuscripts, which again inherently asserts control and authority over the material. Shenton has not stopped to ask what is the cost of such a project. Nor has she asked why the British Library feel as though they have the right to oversee the reunification of material from different cultures around the world.

The British Library is not only collecting material, but they are seeking to play a role in culture building. I thought the function of a library was to provide non-judgemental access to information. Shenton talks about ‘enhancing’ culture through diplomacy insofar as cultural diplomacy can play a role in international relations. It shows that there is an implicit and dangerous politics behind these preservation projects. Questions need to be posed regarding for whom is the British Library attempting to play a role in international relations and to what end? This project seems to be going beyond simply collecting material, but is ‘using’ material to re-tell an old story of empire. It feeds into an attempt by governments to create and control fake grand narratives. Howard Zinn’s principle of postmodern history was a way of challenging power by telling history through dispersed narratives. Shenton’s digitisation project runs the risk of more easily cutting off avenues to the past for us here in the present, but more dangerously, for people in the future. It poses the danger of manipulating information in ways that reassert a new kind of imperialism, a new homogeny of information, and an oppressive future in which subjectivity is no longer valued.

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‘Financing’ public libraries through permaculture

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Glen Holt’s article ‘Getting Beyond the Pain’ assessing the impact of funding cuts on US libraries and suggests ways in which these libraries need to adapt to not only retain efficiency with less money, but also to maintain their relevance in an ever-evolving information age. Holt points out that, ‘the point is simple: unless yearly income is rising faster than inflation, the library’s annual spending power erodes precipitously. When any political leader starts talking about “stable budgets,libraries need to watch out for real-dollar income declines”. Added to this problem of placing the library within an quantitive socio-economic framework, is the fact that the ALA have adopted a strategy in which they treat the funding of public libraries as local matter. He suggests that “he most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do”. In this sense Holt argues that libraries need to improve the ways in which they communicate their funding needs and their benefits to communities and society.

There is no doubting that libraries can do more to improve their services even with less money. Holt further points out that bureaucratic processes within a library can often lead to an unnecessary depletion of finances, especially at a time when the taxpayers are less willing to provide public funding for any public purpose irrespective of how good a cause it is. Finally Holt lists four ways in which libraries can retain their relevancy and their funding:

  • Need to demonstrate the critical need for youth services, adult literacy, help for immigrants, job preparation and economic development

  • Need to tell voters, politicians and civic leaders about the critical benefits they provide to their communities

  • Funding is not only a local matter because libraries are crucial to the nation

  • Library leaders need to focus much more on customers

  • Need to ask what role can libraries play in international information industry

I have no doubt that there is a lot of waste within public libraries, but there is also a great deal of potential. There is no doubt that libraries need to become more connected to a global economic and information framework and they can do so by connecting more directly to national and university library services, as well as partnering with information services abroad. A promotion and move towards Open Access can also open up new avenues for libraries to pursue. However, for now I would like to focus briefly on a principle borrowed from agriculture that could be applied to how libraries operate within a local community. These communities may not now be willing to give financial support to libraries through public funding bodies, but they should be encouraged to contribute in other ways. I believe permaculture practices can be applied to libraries in order to find ways of becoming more efficient, saving money, and also involving the community more. Permaculture originated as an agricultural movement that promoted permanent agriculture practices by mimicking nature. In nature, nothing is given away for free and wasted. What you have, on every level, is a kind of energy exchange. Patrons in libraries are not customers in a traditional sense in that they pay for the service through their taxes. However, at times when people are not willing to fund a library, they may be willing to contribute to the library community by giving up their time and skills in exchange for services. This principle is at the heart of permaculture in that rather than providing books for free, patrons exchange time and skills for the services. Basic services could be run in this way freeing up time for librarians to do more specialised work. It creates a stronger sense of community spirit and brings the library firmly to the centre of community.

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

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Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.