Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

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Information is that part of an individual’s knowledge which s/he choses to share with certain other persons at certain times for certain reasons.  Information must be represented in language of some kind – and by ‘language’, I mean any form of symbol or code or gesture that enjoys a culturally derived meaning: there does not appear to be universally understood meaning that can be attached to any sound, gesture, image, colour or shape, as far as I am aware.  Information is best considered as a rather loose form of the concept of ‘ideas’.  A document, it has already been noted, can be considered as a container of information: that is, when information is recorded in order to overcome spatio-temporal constraints, it is recorded in a document.  The document, as a physicality, has its own particular characteristics.

‘Ideas’ are also perhaps culturally derived, or have cultural origins.  While, as individuals, we certainly enjoy individual personalities, capabilities and competencies, we also, fairly early on, start forming a knowledge framework, or scaffolding, onto which we can position other thoughts and ideas and insights and experiences, as they are encountered.  But while our individualism makes us selective, our individualism is, in turn, shaped by our context – our cultural context, specifically.  As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, ‘First we shape our tools (or houses) and then they shape us’ – we have a similar structurated relationship with knowledge, culture and ideas.  Eventually, what we know – our knowledge – is a product of our being and of our experiences – physical and cultural – of the world.

What is ‘culture’?  I will not attempt any definition of that word here, except perhaps to say that it does not necessarily mean the grand artefacts of high culture, nor the most popular of contemporary creative expression.  As T.S Eliot said, ‘Culture is the smell of cabbage soup’; slight sensations (like the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea) can give rise to great visions and deep understandings.

What does this have to do with digital libraries, archives and museums?  We do know that these are highly specialised and expensive projects.  We also know that the technology is still at a primitive stage, comparatively speaking, compared to where it might go: digital preservation is an area that, in particular, needs some significant development.  Because of these reasons, at least, digitisation efforts have, for the most part, been focused on digitisation of documents (used here to include any information-containing artefact) that  are perceived to have some cultural value.  In other words, these documents are considered to contain information which is considered to be important to transmit, to preserve, to communicate.

In making such decisions, however, are we not making choices which may change or even skew the understanding that future generations may have of the very ‘culture’ we are attempting to preserve and make available?  Do we run the risk of relaying or supporting only one particular view of what is important (however broadly that may be conceived)?  Archives tend to deal with those documents which provide evidence of business transactions – and which are considered worthy of conservation and preservation for possible later use (whatever that might be).  Museums will collect objects, sometimes defined by subject area (‘art’, ‘natural history’) determined to a certain extent by what is discovered or found, as well as what is unusual or scarce.  Libraries are known to be particularly selective in the documents that they collect and manage, depending on subject area and user community profile.

But what about all the other textures and flavours of everyday life?  What should we be doing about social media?  Should we continue to rely on Google to locate all the born-digital documents that are available less formally than those that are formally published and distributed?  Should we, could we, ignore more transient or ephemeral documents?  Where does ‘quality control’ begin and end?  Who will the digital ‘user’ be in years and generations to come?  Will focusing only on the past or present in a selective way make sense in the future?  How should we as information professionals be associated with open access materials?

We just aren’t sexy enough. Digital World, Part 2.

World Summit on the Information Society, Tunis...

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Information professionals are not taken seriously.  In fact, it is doubtful if we are ‘taken’ at all: who ever thinks of us?  Were we a news-breaking element in the World Summit on the Information Society?  Are librarians, archivists, records managers and other information professionals regularly consulted when so-called ‘information policies’ are being created? (I put ‘information policies’ in inverted commas as they usually have to do with either technology or economics, rather than information itself).  Why is all the theory that already exists in the field – in information retrieval, user behaviour, learning, categorisation and so on – steadfastly ignored, only to be laboriously reinvented when required? We are concerned with ‘upliftment’ and ‘preservation of cultural heritage’ and ‘corporate memory’.  We are anxious that people don’t ‘know’ enough, and give them more than they need to know (something I myself have been rather guilty of in this blog, flooding you with my opinion).  We understand the consequences of losing or destroying documents, and so are preoccupied with preservation and conservation. Anybody concerned with technology is a ‘geek’: a male with gross personal habits and no social habits; usually with pimples and a paunch from pizzas, he performs magic at his keyboard which is totally incomprehensible to a non-geek. We are doing things the wrong way.  We are not taken seriously because we take ourselves too seriously. We are out of line with the current cultural environment, in which everything is easy, quick, attractive. With all our talk of ‘the user’, we are making the classic mistakes that Mrs Thompson made with me in Grade 8 Mathematics: (a) she assumed that I understood what quadratic equations were; (b) she thought I cared and (c) she assumed I loved mathematics and would exert myself to overcome the obstacles that stood in my way.  She was wrong on all accounts. We must start with where the user is.  The user spends his/her day in a world of unemployment, recession and mobile technologies.  S/he is stifled in an oppressive regime, in a world of immeasurable opportunity, has access to anything or everything or nothing; suffers inequities of gender, sexuality, religion, race, class or political persuasion.  Even the ‘good’ countries are flawed:  look at income distribution in the US :  His/her favourite activities are playing computer games, abusing alcohol and drugs, living an alternative lifestyle for the planet, or struggling to survive.  S/he can’t believe what s/he reads ( or hears (Gulf oil is not a fossil fuel:; New World Order and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency:; US military is spraying chemicals into the air: – pick your own conspiracy theory) but often doesn’t know the difference, or doesn’t even care.  They are downloading all the movies and TV shows they want to see using Utorrent or BitTorrent.  Do they care about breaking copyright laws?  Doesn’t look like it. Can we compete when most of our research looks at relatively sophisticated educated people: students, scholars and academics?   How much information information is communicated on any given day in any given organisation that changes the way the organisation works?  How many students request advice from a librarian for an essay?  How many governments consider their political legacies in terms of the documents they leave behind? How can we get a new healthy outlook and a sexy new approach?  We need to reinvent and rejuvenate.  We will also need to increase our numbers, and our specialisations, enormously.  The digital information environment is throwing up challenges that we haven’t even started to consider, as we plan and strategise for a digital future. Do you agree?

Who is the ‘digital user’?

Elders from Turkey

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The first part of this phrase is easy to understand: “Digital” here refers to data that are recorded and stored electronically, using binary code. We can now create or convert written language, spoken language, static and kinetic images, and all sounds that are capable of being heard by human beings, in digital formats.

But who or what is is the “user”? It seems that the original use of this term was very specific, referring to a localised community of regular users or visitors to a particular library files in a building. Generally speaking, this community was reasonably homogenous: the community could be described demographically by age, socio-economic position, types of work or industry, lifestyle, age and so forth. It was therefore relatively easy to draw conclusions quite quickly about such large groups of people, and additionally, extrapolating what they are reading habits might be. For example, if there were large numbers of school children using a particular library, it was likely that there would be a heavy demand for those resources which supported and helped with homework assignments; a preponderance of elderly people might suggest a number of visitors who lingered, reading newspapers and magazines, and so on.

“User studies”, as an area of study within the discipline, has perhaps not receive the amount of attention that the discipline/profession should demand. Much early work in the discipline/profession involved solving the technical problems that were involved in handling physical collections.  But once upon a time, the librarian/scholar knew each and every one of his/her users personally, and knew what they knew or alternatively, what they didn’t know. There was no need for user studies. When libraries became very large indeed after the invention of printing, the librarian scholar not only lost touch with the content of all the books under his/her management, but also with the masses of users, or visitors, to the establishment.

As information professionals, we have an expressed dedication to providing a service: specifically, an information service. But how would we ever know whether the services that we provided were in fact appropriate for our users without knowing more about the users themselves?  For some time, user studies appeared to constitute rather general surveys of users, sometimes even based on personal and subjective observations, and these resulted largely in stereotypes. For example, ” Ten-year-old boys will read Harry Potter books”. My son didn’t.  Such user studies had the additional defect that they only looked at those who physically visited the library; not those who have never visited at all nor those who had others borrowing items on their behalf.  An “information user” was somebody who not only visited the library, but did borrow books and was an enrolled member; “information users” who did not visit the library or were not members of the library, as were not considered as such. The very thought that people were using information that lay outside the walls of the library was not even considered, and such information is regarded as of poor quality, if not subversive.

There are many problems with this construction of an information user. The most glaringly obvious is that there has been no research that I can find that examines the ways in which people use the information that they find in a library – or indeed beyond its walls – in their lives, apart, perhaps from Elfrida Chatman. There is an assumption that the use of this information has “good” outcomes, otherwise why would people want it? Furthermore, the library user is constructed as somebody who reads: reading itself, as an activity, is seen as “good”. It is logical though to suggest that some reading may be good, but some reading may be downright bad, and some may have no interest at all: a little like tasting the porridge of the three bears in the story.  Librarians have tended to avoid approaching this issue, which has resulted in a paradox: on the one hand, librarians have sought to provide a selection of materials that are deemed to be appropriate and good; on the other hand, it can be said that such selection involves a subtle, or surreptitious, type of censorship. But this matter can be addressed at another time.

Not only does the librarian – or indeed any other information professional – ignore any use of information or documents outside of his/her domain, but the user is also constructed as being deficient in some way. The main stimulus for anybody to visit a library or information centre of any kind is that they have an “information need”. In other words, they lack something which the librarian or archivist or  records manager can supply, and this is something that is found in a document. But usually all attention is paid to the document itself as a physical artefact: most commonly, a document is provided, or indeed, perhaps even more commonly, directions to a particular document given. How is an information need satisfied when one is given a classification number or an indexing term? This question doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody.

I must acknowledge that during the 1990s, interest developed in what is known as “information seeking behaviour”, or “human information behaviour”. Much of this research was based upon the theory of phenomenology, which contextualises the user within a particular milieu or context.  Unfortunately, there are so many factors or elements or phenomena or entities within anybody’s context at a particular moment, this research has, for the most part, been rather superficial. For example, a person is embedded in his or her own social construction: gender, for example, is largely understood to be a socially constructed phenomenon. The physical context, with its temperature and light variations, may have an effect on whether a person looks for information or not, or accept information or not. The organisational culture or climate will have an effect; as will the larger social environment, the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of both individual and his or her colleagues; religious persuasion; interest in the topic; personality and so on – the list is practically endless. It is certainly as complex as any given human being on this planet. And to add to this complexity and difficulty, context or situations trial resumed and variable, so that anything that may be true on one particular space – time continuum, may arguably not be true in another.

Working out who precisely a ‘digital user’ or ‘digital information user’ is,has become a matter which deserves focused attention. Now that everything except smell and taste can be digitised, information (as binary data) can easily be transmitted far and wide. This means that anybody can access nearly any information at nearly any time, should they have the correct equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. In other words, the digital user is as diverse as the people who live on this planet. The digital user or digital information user cannot be construed as a composite or average of human characteristics even, because of the great diversity that we find in our species at many levels, as indicated.  Add to this some of the problems identified above: the construction of the user as needy, the lack of knowledge concerning what people do with information once they get it, or even whether they understand it or not, we can rapidly realise that the global access to information presents a number of challenges. Not least amongst these challenges, is that of language: this is a quite obvious marker of culture. But beyond language, for example if we were to speak symbiotically, there are many images, icons, sounds, colours and so forth which, when represented digitally, may have quite different possible interpretations for different people at different times.

How then are we going to provide information services for people who we have not only not even met, but possibly cannot even imagine that exist? For those of us framed within our own contexts of space, time and culture, it is hard to imagine somebody who exists for the entire lives in a context that is quite different from our own. I am fortunate enough, for example, to live in a soundly constructed house which has clean running water, electricity, space and privacy, and a garden. I have easy access on made roads to schools, hospitals, and shops – as will as any other facility that I might need, such as a gym.  I have also been lucky enough to have received an excellent education at school and at university, I have travelled extensively, I can speak several languages, and have always been a voracious reader.

I therefore find it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine myself to be a woman who lives in the mountains of Lesotho, who is illiterate, who speaks only Sesotho, and must walk for hours carrying her sick child to a clinic which is visited by a nurse once a week. The same woman has no easy access to clean water, no electricity, and has experienced little beyond her own experience and the experiences that others have had – others who have told her their version of the events that they have experienced. And this woman is not, and may never be, a digital information user. But assuming that one day, using open access information sources and wireless technologies, and hoping that she or her children will be literate, she will be – even if secondhand through her children. With all due respect, her information needs will be not only substantially different from mine, in terms of what we find interesting or useful, but there will undoubtedly be a number of other differences and distinctions, but I cannot really understand how different, nor what I need to do, as an information professional, in order to solve any information problems that she may have.

While much important work has been done thus far on the development of digital information resources, most of it is predicated upon the assumption that the digital user will be a Minority world inhabitant: a person who is literate, fluent in possibly more than one language, highly educated on a comparative basis at least, and wealthy enough to have the equipment and connections. This person will also have social demands placed upon him or herself: his/her information needs may or may not be related to how to make a living, how to improve one’s financial and social position, how to survive, or even how to enjoy leisure time.

Who do you think the digital user is?  Is it someone you know, or someone you’ve never met?  How should your professional relationship be shaped?

I look forward to your comments as ever. All the very best from Sue.