Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

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I am so happy that I am not alone in my take on the Paradiso Conference, although the Conference itself is not mentioned.  Not only has an Open Letter been written to the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation (Máire Geoghegan-Quinn), but, to date, over 10,000 people from across Europe have signed it.

This letter, which you can view at , is  entitled “Horizon 2020: Social Sciences and Humanities research provides vital insights for the future of Europe”.  

The letter points out what Blind Freddy can see: that European society is complex and diverse, and it is more appropriate to talk about ‘societies’ and ‘cultures’ in the plural, rather than the singular.  This in turn suggests that there is no ‘One size fits all’ strategic plan, economic model or financial solution that can possibly be the most appropriate for all the countries in Europe, particularly those who are already members of the European Union.  The ongoing financial crisis in Greece (which is largely about banks not losing money, rather than austerity or poverty experienced by the people of Greece) has provided a very clear example of this.

This letter encourages creative responses to the question of what Europe will look like in the future, given current (and historical) events.  While there is little doubt that there will be change and transitions, as is pointed out, in the final analysis it is the people – of Europe and elsewhere in the world – that should be the focus of all debate, and their well-being the goal to be achieved.  I sometimes think that ‘strategy planners’ forget such simple facts, and assume that’s what is good for them (their companies or banks or governments or whatever) will somehow, by default, be good for the population at large.  We know this is untrue, as we see corporations scurrying to make profits for their shareholders (some of whom are us!) rather than considering the environment or any other short or long term ethical issue.

As far as academia is concerned, and the information professions in particular, this letter raises important issues.  For example, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work is encouraged in order to deal with the complex problems that we face: none of the ‘disciplines’ – whatever they are – has the vision, knowledge, methodologies or skills to imagine and put into place suitable solutions on its own.

In particular, it seems to be generally forgotten that ‘change’, whenever it is mentioned, is only important to us if societal change will occur – as a stimulus or a response to, for example, changing medical practices or changing technologies.  We are only interested in change, for the most part, if it will affect our lives in some way: our work, the education of our children, or where we will take our holidays.  If changes occur within a praxis (for example, new techniques for hip replacements) we would only be interested if, for example, either we or somebody we knew were to undergo such a procedure.

Those who praise technology as the most important, or perhaps even the only, agent of change have sadly completely misunderstood what the question was: particularly those who are designing technologies for problems or events that don’t yet exist, where they hope the technology will bring such phenomena or entities into existence.  And this is not to say that this doesn’t happen – look at the internet generally, and Google and Facebook in particular.  But I am fairly certain that none of those involved with the development of these had any idea how they might be used and, indeed, are used quite differently from what they may have imagined.

As the Open Letter points out, we cannot let the future be determined solely by the technologists: a number of challenges (and perhaps the most important ones) fall well within the bailiwick of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).  And that, fellow information professionals, means us.  These areas include, as noted in the Letter, education, gender, identity, intercultural dialogue, media, security, and social innovation (to name but a few).  The Letter notes that it is the “key behavioural changes and cultural developments” which should concern us: “changing mindsets and lifestyles, models for resilient and adaptive institutions” are mentioned as examples.  The authors call this challenge “Understanding Europe…” and believe it is as important as other challenges such as food and transport.  They state, “a climate of sustainable and inclusive innovation in Europe can only be established, if European societies are conscious of their opportunities and constraints – this knowledge is generated by Social Sciences and Humanities research”.

It is time, I think, for all information professionals to consider carefully, and to articulate, how they see their societal role.  This is as important for the world as it is for individual professional futures.

European zeitgeist and mysterious ways: Occupy information

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I have been absent from my blog for a while, as some of you may or may not have noticed. I found that travelling around Europe, flipping through airports and hotels and having intermittent or nonexistent internet access, combined with  more pressing and immediate priorities like talking to people, rather precluded paying attention to this blog. I promise to remedy this very soon now that I am safely back in my own familiar surroundings, with no need to rise at the crack of dawn to stand and wait around at airports for delayed planes.
My travels in Europe, the conferences, and of course the colleagues I met were all equally interesting, and I will report on them in more detail in the days that follow.  These included researchers as diverse as David Lankes and Alexandros Koulouris; Anna Maria Tammaro and Edward Fox; Seamus Ross and Vittore Casarosa; Marie-Helene Lay and Amanda Spink.

Suffice to say, while the technologists may not yet get it – neither those who own IT companies nor those who labour in the fields of computer science – other information professionals are growing more and more aware that they have special additional and irreplaceable skills to offer the networked world. This was, for me, most encouraging.  Equally inspiring was evidence of a zeitgeist that is emphasising, more and more, the necessity for the traditional information professionals not only to work with one another, but to work with the newer kids on the block. Looking at only one aspect at a time – and this has been almost exclusively the economic/financial aspect – is now being shown to be inadequate.
So, together with a new economic model that is being called for internationally by the ‘Occupy’ movements everywhere, we need a new information model, particularly with regard to access and distribution.

What information people have to do with learning

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As you may have noticed (or not, as the case may be), I haven’t written here for a while.  I’ve been meeting a publishing deadline for a new book, which has been an exciting project (for me, anyway).  This is a bit of a draft chapter on scoping out the role of education.  I am writing about how best to educate information professionals for the digital age: the whole question of tertiary education is, at the moment, quite fraught anyway, as any of you so involved may be aware.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this.  Here beginneth the text for today:

Teaching and learning

As humans, we are engaged in teaching and learning from birth to death.  We learn from living – from every experience we have – and no experience is ever wasted.  Learning processes are affected by sensory input, physical sensations of energy, fatigue, pain, emotions, spiritual insights, and flashes of creativity.  Knowledge is created from individual experience and vicariously, from the experiences of others, which are shared in a multitude of ways: directly in face-to-face conversations, through reading what others have written or recorded (in books or email, where communication is asynchronous) or through the mediation of technologies such as television or radio, or chatrooms, which may be synchronous.  For centuries, a distinction has been made between such everyday learning, and ‘formal’ learning which takes place at certain times and venues, where there are clear and different roles for teacher and learner.  The teacher is ‘somebody who knows’, and the learner is the person who lacks knowledge.  (The learner, like the information user, is constructed in a deficiency model).  The role of the teacher is multifaceted: s/he must socialise learners, training them to work respectfully with others, as well as conveying content and instilling in them the ability and the skill to learn how to learn.


With regard to students in a first professional degree in information work in the 21st century, however, the model of a teacher in front of a classroom of children is not the best one that can be emulated.  All information students, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, are adults.  They live in a highly networked, digital information environment, one in which globalisation is present in many spheres, as are many problems – poverty and climate change amongst them.  These students, as adults, already have a considerable amount of knowledge, gained formally and informally.  The leitmotif of contemporary discourse is postmodernism, which places an emphasis and responsibility on individuals to attempt to make sense of the world we live in (a task in which information workers can assist).  It stands to reason, therefore, that the ways in which the discipline/profession is taught is at least as important as what is taught.


There are a number of components that will affect knowledge creation or the learning process.  These include the personality, competencies and interests of the individual (and the teacher), as well as previous experiences and his/her cultural context, the space in which the exercise takes place, the complexity of the content, the time available, as well as many other factors.  The teaching and assessment methods employed are usually predicated upon the epistemological approach to the content as well as to learning theory.  Apart from content, the educational programme needs to be built on an intellectual framework or structure for the discipline/profession, to demonstrate clarity regarding its goals and responsibilities, and to provide clarity on the chief concepts within the theoretical framework.  In addition, teaching techniques should encourage the development of the skills mentioned previously – such as working in teams, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity and the like.  Assessment and evaluation should also be aligned with the teaching philosophy.


In this chapter, then, there is a brief review of framing epistemologies that are considered suitable for education for digital librarians, and the three predominant models of teaching/learning that are most common.  The argument is made that a constructivist methodology supporting the heutagogical model (which resonates with critical pedagogy) is probably the most suitable, and can be used for the design of course experience and student assessment and evaluation.  While there is a healthy body of literature on teaching and learning, educational theory and adult learning, in particular, no attempt is made here to summarise or critique it.

Use of ICTs in education

It is not original to note that the use of ICTs has already changed formal and informal education, but their use is still embryonic, and a great deal of research is being currently undertaken with regard to online learning, also known as elearning or Web 2.0 education.  Specifically, these terms designate a physical distance between the teacher, the documents referred to and the students – and between the students as well.  Networking enables conversation, remote access to documents and creation and distribution of other documents.  Elearning exploits audio-visual media as well as text, synchronous and asynchronous communication, and the mediating technologies can be mobile, such as smartphones and tablets.  This has given rise to renewed emphasis on making educational resources ‘open’, that is, freely available on the internet, and one of the first universities to do this was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2002, with its OpenCourseWare project (see, for example, the portal at InfoCoBuild [online]  Alongside these developments, there has been increasing interest in the idea of open access materials in publishing generally, with a focus on educational resources, currently spearheaded by Wayne Mackintosh of Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand with the Open Education Resource (OER) Foundation ([Online] and the WikiEducator ([online]  This counteracts to a certain extent the extraordinary rise in for-profit online education, to which Daniel (2011) refers, and which points to the increasing commodification and commercialisation of higher education, in particular.  The OER venture, if successful, will also go some way to assist in providing access to quality tertiary education and research in Majority World countries.


Amongst all the technological changes, perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic is the relatively easy and cheap access to information resources, which has blurred the distinctions between who has knowledge, who shares knowledge, and the ways in which individuals create their own knowledges.  There is little point in memorising a great deal if access is so easy (Berg, Berquam and Christoph, 2007).  University students form only a section of internet users who can all control online content delivery, create information to share with others (via blogs, wikis, FaceBook notes, websites and mashups) and create knowledge themselves (e.g. Klamma, Cao and Spaniol, 2004; Lenhart and Madden, 2005).  Commenting, communicating, contributing and collaborating are activities that students – and many others – engage with every day.  Furthermore, education is only one area in which rapid change is taking place, and a major challenge facing higher education now is preparing students for a different future.  Mobility, flexibility, lifelong learning and job-readiness must all be considered, to encourage the development of people who can cope with uncertainty and change.

Social responsibilities of higher education

It comes as no surprise that under present circumstances, institutions of higher education are increasingly called upon to recognise their social responsibilities, even, and perhaps especially, while there is an ongoing trend towards the corporatisation of the university.  In 1997, Saul, in his book Unconscious civilisation, suggested that the population at large prefers to believe in a fantasy world created and perpetuated by a corporatist ideology, rather than addressing the many issues raised by economic rationalism.  He believes that, in spite of increased access to knowledge and education, the struggle for individual freedom and democracy is being lost while we succumb to “the darker side within us and within our society” (Saul, 1997, p. 36), characterised by greed and selfishness.  In 2009, a UNESCO Conference on Higher Education accentuated the contribution that higher education makes to the eradication of poverty and progress towards sustainable development goals.  Higher education institutions should both respond to and anticipate societal needs.  Universities must, UNESCO asserts,


advance our understanding of multifaceted issues, which involve social, economic, scientific and cultural dimensions and our ability to respond to them.  [Higher education] should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges… Higher education must not only give solid skills for the present and future world but must also contribute to the education of ethical citizens committed to the construction of peace, the defense of human rights and the values of democracy (UNESCO, 2009, pp. 2-3).


Even while there is talk of a ‘knowledge economy’ and a ‘learning society’, the means must be found to realise the anticipated positive outcomes, and this highlights the role that digital librarians can play.  Hutchins (1970) was an early proponent of the idea of the ‘learning’ society, after considering the model of classical Athens.  At that time in Athens, he noted, education was not separated from the rest of daily activities but becoming educated was a societal aim: society educated the individual.  “The Athenian was educated by culture” (Hutchins, 1970, p. 133) facilitated by slavery, which freed citizens from the more mundane chores of life.  Hutchins believed that modern machinery – and now ICTs – have taken the place of slaves and can likewise permit this in contemporary life:


The two essential facts are… the increasing proportion of free time and the rapidity of change.  The latter requires continuous education; the former makes it possible (Hutchins, 1970, p. 130).


Schön, whose work has been referred to previously in connection with professionalism, is considered by Ranson (1998, p. 2) to be “the great theorist of the learning society”.  Schön is another scholar who has noted the turbulence of the modern age and the loss of the ‘stable state’, which convinced people of the unchangeability or constancy of life, or at least the “belief that we can attain such a constancy” (Schon, 1973, p. 9).  Technology is disruptive, however, and has threatened the ‘stable state’, so even while a desire exists to remain the same, there is a continuous process of transformation which demands proficiency at learning (Schön, 1973, p. 26).


Schön was particularly concerned with ‘professional’ learning, and as demonstrated in his work The reflective practitioner (1983), he associated the problem firmly with the rise of what he calls ‘technical-rationality’.  ‘Technical rationality’ is described by Usher et al. (1997, p. 143) as “a positivist epistemology of practice… the dominant paradigm which has failed to resolve the dilemma of rigour versus relevance confronting professionals”.  Schön’s reaction to this was the development of the notions of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’, which respectively deal with considering what a person already knows and his/her attitudes towards a problem in order to understand it, and considering the phenomenon after the event (Schön, 1983, p. 68).  It is tempting to note the phronesis in Schön’s thinking.

Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

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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?

Open Educational Resources – and generally open stuff…

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Being ‘information interventionists’ (Myburgh, 2007), as we are, we facilitate the transfer of information from one head to another.  Practically speaking, we can only do this if the information has been recorded in some way: recorded information, or documents, we can call ‘information resources’.  The recorded information must still be moved or transmitted physically – whether by postal services or by networked information and communication technologies (ICTs).  While it is one thing knowing whether suitable information resources exist, and another knowing how to find them, the third is actually achieving physical access to them.  It is this last point that is, and has long been, critical for many individuals and communities.  Physical access to materials in many Minority World countries has been facilitated by the establishment of libraries, and more recently, by digitising information resources and making them accessible using networked ICTs.   But the problem of physical access remains enormous in most parts of most Majority World nations.  Computer costs and network access costs are often prohibitive, and purchasing access rights to digitised materials – particularly scholarly materials and those associated with teaching, learning and research – is often not a viable option.

To deal with this problem, and provide access to necessary information materials, ICTs are nonetheless very useful, and setting up centres where people can access networked computers has been largely the domain of the field called Community Informatics (which is a bit like public libraries on steroids, really.  As an aside, it puzzles me why the Community Informatics people don’t work more closely with public libraries, which are often already established as network  ‘nodes’ and can provide internet access.  But that’s a matter for another discussion).  The access to suitable materials remains a problem: open access as a general issue will be discussed as a separate issue.  The focus here is particularly on educational materials, and goes beyond access, as these are understood to support learning processes which take place over a period of time, after which the participant will receive formal recognition of having mastered the material: in other words, accredited certification.

The wonderful work currently being undertaken by Open Education Resources, which endeavours to provide quality learning materials to all, either free or at a very low cost, and to ensure that completion of such courses are formally recognised as equivalent to those bearing the imprimatur of established schools and universities, is a world-wide initiative which has drawn massive support from all over the planet.

I am proud, therefore, to introduce you to the work of a student in the Digital Library Learning Master’s program, who I met (and taught) at the University of Parma last year: Nithin Lakshmana.  Nithin is originally from India, as so is familiar with many of the information issues experienced in Majority World countries.  As his thesis, he has designed and developed a course for school teachers, which will start on 4th April.  He is hoping for at least 20 participants: please join or forward this information to any school teachers you may know!  Check out the web page:

For those of you who wish to participate, you could go to the WikiUniversity site, or perhaps complete this course on Connecting and Connectivism

All the best


Internets = Parody motivator.

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The value of libraries

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This is possibly one of the greatest challenges for all the cultural institutions: trying to express the intangible, long-term social effects of their presence in the dollar terms that current culture seems to demand. ‘Good’ is just not good enough any more.
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How valuable can libraries become?

By Andy Havens and Tom Storey

In the current economic climate, every dollar spent in support of libraries—whether public, academic, school or special libraries—is being more closely scrutinized than ever. In these circumstances, value calculations and Return on Investment (ROI) tools can provide powerful arguments for continued funding. In most cases, a snapshot of the value that your library provides will necessarily look backward, taking into account current services and resources. But are there ways to calculate value going forward? In an information landscape that seemingly changes from day to day, a view of your library’s future value may be an important consideration for budgetary analysis and planning.

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

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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’?

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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.

Comme des francais – orphans, cousins and nieces

FYI France: digital tortoise or digital hare?

Regarding the “orphans” — the legally and financially dispossessed, of the 20th c. and future digital worlds — the books / texts no one claims, or their cousins no one wants either, hidden in the vast library treasuries now being digitized by so many…

The French today, le 10 February 2011, announced their approach to these problems, see below — it is a brave declaration, well worth reading, as much for its “vive la différence” aspects as for what it both says and does not say.

Some comment:

* Approaches: “top=>down” very much versus “bottom=>up”

The above fairly characterizes a fundamental difference in approach, between the US and the Rest of the World Including France, in these and many other matters. And it is a difference best remembered on both sides, although often glossed-over, forgotten, or even never-known.  The French here are looking to their highest levels — their august national library, their publishers’ association, their national and supra-national governments — for leadership, in digitization. This is regulation-before-invention, rationality-before-impulse — “all is forbidden which is not permitted”, perhaps, as the oldest saying about all this goes…

The US approach could not be more different: “over here”, instead, two young Stanford graduate students, gangs of free-wheeling “venture capitalists” operating far outside the bounds of State-regulated “banking” — a virtual and real and very expensive maelstrom of inventive activity, conducted by a horde of mere kids (think of young Hewlett & Packard, Jobs & Wozniack, Brin & Page, Doerr fresh from college, Gates before he’d even finished, Zuckerburg ditto) all of them far too young at the time to have come up against any real “State regulation”, yet, more serious than a pot bust or a parking ticket, anyway, then many hectic deadlines and midnight sessions and much “labor rights” insecurity, “only the paranoid survive”, and tremendous excitement… There is no “business as usual”, in US hitech innovation: little of the “regulation” or “rationality” which the French so value, and absolutely _no_ “métro, boulot, dodo”.

China is different in all this, from the US, Japan is different, India is different although more like the US than some of the others are, perhaps. So thinking of France, a nation so like the US and yet so different, may help us to appreciate how _un_-like the US all the others really are, too — may enable us to take such differences less for-granted than we often do, in the hitech marvels currently pouring forth from the US and out upon the rest of the world, now.

* Marketing

If there is one characteristic of the US approach really not understood or even permitted, in most “foreign” places, it is “le marketing”. In US usage, the term describing and encouraging the private “corporations”, such as Google and Apple, which lead in these digitization efforts, is “marketing-led”: in a US firm, per the US “business” schools, marketing must be everything — if you can’t “sell” it you shouldn’t “do” it — it’s a way of characterizing the customer’s input, or the manipulation of same, in design and operations and all aspects of the firm, an outgrowth of the “customer is king” mantra of the older Horatio Alger commercial generation in the US.

But nothing could be more “foreign” to the French approach, here or generally. Digitization of their precious texts is motivated not by “marketing” but by various forms of altruism — history, philosophy, notions of the value of “reading” and the necessity of “education” — mention “marketing” and the folks in France involved in these matters literally will not know what you mean, as to them that is merely an instrumental, operational idea, more like “typing”, or “filing”, the idea that “marketing” could be central or a motivation or an end-in-itself, to the French is very foreign and the very strangest…

* Money

Unless it’s “monetize”… The French are no strangers to either term — Paris houses one of Europe’s best and biggest international business schools. But in France, as in most non-US places, it’s not “marketing” or “money” which drive book digitization efforts, for example, but “patrimoine culturel”.  Whereas in the US, “it’s the money”… The younger Venture Capitalist Generation’s mantra, this time, chanted repeatedly into the ear of the even-younger Graduate Student Corporate Founder, “Monetize! Monetize! Monetize!”…  To foreigners this preoccupation is a mystery, while in the US it is the essence: “The business of America is business”, as one US national president put it succinctly.

* Floods and Famines

Now then comes the problem, though: there must, it seems, be room for more than one approach.  Because things have Globalized, now: like it or not, for both us and the French, and the other Europeans, and the folks in India, and the teenager in Urumchi in China, doing research for her term paper & texting her friends & shopping at Victoria’s Secret, all via her cellphone… Also because there is a new flood of all this on its way, now…

The “information overload”, predicted from the “computers” of the 1980s and 1990s, was just “Flood 1.0” — an initial inundation, one coped-with, moderately well, by then-new tools such as “personal computers”, and by hypertext and information search & retrieval and The WorldWideWeb, and by Jerry’s List, then Yahoo, Google’s infamous algorithm, and decades of hitech development.  Now, though, from outside of the “computer” world and to a great extent unanticipated by it — “from Left Field”, to use the US baseball-analogy — comes the newly-Globally-omnipresent “mobile” telephony, and its possibilities for communicating via Internet.  The “power of many” just got graphic demonstration in the images from Cairo, repeating Teheran, and the Obama and Dean campaigns, and Manila’s “People Power”, and so many other recent instances.  The use of “mobiles”, in finding and retrieving and using and creating raw “data” — and then, hopefully, useful “information” too — is the information overload “Flood 2.0” just-now breaking.

However many “computer” users there are now or ever will be, Globally, there are far more “mobile” users now — and the two digital worlds, “computer” and “mobile”, now are merging, into user networks capable of producing virtual firestorms of data, and many unpredictable consequences.  As all of us who followed Cairo events on Twitter et al. over the last few weeks can attest…

Typical GoogleSearch retrievals of i.e. “3,439,000 results” are about to jump a thousand-fold, then — already we don’t really understand at all why “#1” floated to the top, of our particular retrievals-heap — Google says their algorithm knows, but that she’s just not telling — imminently, though, soon retrieving 1 out of “3,439,000,000+” instead, we’ll _never_ be able to find or evaluate or use anything, if we don’t start thinking outside of our old “computer”-era boxes pretty soon.

* Of Tortoises and Hares

Which brings us back to the French, here, and to their “different” approach — one which, I am suggesting, stands for similarly-“different” approaches to be found elsewhere, all over the newly-Globalizing world in fact…  Plenty of sterile debate takes place, in hitech, about who was “first” and who is “fastest”: sterile because most of it is circular — where knowledge is additive, identifying origins is an arbitrary matter of deciding where to draw the line — whether at a certain coffee shop in Silicon Valley, or at John von Neumann or Lady Lovelace, or at the invention of the “zero”.  But the French have held their own, in this history: for instance their Minitel offered “online graphics”, and “commercial applications”, and “general public access”, all long before the US Internet did — back when all these activities still were illegal on the Internet, in fact. Early French contributions did not end, or even begin, at Descartes…  And one of the first among non-anglophone nations to try at least to adopt the early and still-anglophone ASCII-only Internet was France: this despite the many battles — over “accents aigüs” and “OSI protocol wars” and “droit de copie” and the fascinating “droit moral”, through which M. Victor Hugo still “owns” a slice of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to the eternal mystification of Americans, and now over “Google the phenomenon” — the battles have been part of the process, educational for all sides.

So now, increasingly, comes governance: _who_ will “call the shots” and _how_, as the digital scales up to Globalized applications — to a Globe where governance generally is done mostly in a very non-US way, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Egypt as we recently have discovered, and really everywhere else, in places far more “different” from the US than France and the French ever have been?  The French have been “first”, in this, in many senses, and they very often have been very “fast” — they have been “en avance” of the US even in some hitech arenas, for example, in spite of there having been a “retard français” in others — always, however, they have offered usually-friendly although not-always-noticed clues, to us their US friends.  So in this “governance” instance, perhaps the French can help again. Their “top=>down” approach, and other aspects of the way they intend to do their book digitization — for “orphans” and “out-of-print” and other things — may be very different, from the way these ideas are thought of in Mountain View, or Manhattan, or Washington DC.  But they are more representative of the rest of the non-US world — and that is where the US wants to sell its own products and services, now, in a Globalized economy — marketing’s Golden Rule, “know thy customer…”  Worth-a-journey, then — the French, on caring for digitization’s “orphans”, below — definitely worth-a-study, at least.


[Original version in English — translation _not_ by JK — see

also the original version in French, below]

Paris, 1 February 2011 –

“Signature of the framework agreement for the digitization and

online exploitation of out of print French books of the 20th


Frédéric Mitterrand, Ministry for Culture and Communication, René Ricol, Commissioner-General of investment attached to the Prime Minister, Bruno Racine, President of the National Library of France, Antoine Gallimard, President of the French Publishers Association (Syndicat national de l’Edition, SNE) Jean-Claude Bologne, President of the French Society of Literary Authors (Société des Gens de Lettres, SGDL) have signed a framework agreement reflecting the will to give new life, through digitization, to copyrighted out of print books of the 20th century. The aim is to digitize and make available for sale online, a corpus of 500 000 books within five years.

This agreement, fruit of the past year’s reflection and cooperation, enables the project to be taken one step further with the launching of a detailed feasibility study within the coming months. It stresses in particular the fact that digitized books through « Investments for the future » will be exploited by means of a common management guaranteeing publishers and authors, equally, a fair remuneration in line with intellectual property rights. As a result, copyrights law will be modified.

Digitization will rely on the legal deposit collections stored at the National Library of France. The latter will be entitled to possess a digital copy for its own use. The website Gallica  ( will display the complete enriched bibliographical records, provide a possibility to access excerpts and redirect users towards online retailers in order to buy a digital copy.

The state financial support will be provided within the framework of the program « Development of the digital economy ». This euros 4.5bn scheme is one of the main components of the euros 35bn mobilized by the government for the « Investments for the future ». This includes euros 750m earmarked for the development of new ways of promoting and digitizing cultural, educational or scientific content.

[And the following is the original version in French — with a few ISO 8859-1 character set symbols added-in here, only, by JK.]

* Paris, le 1er février 2011

“Signature de l’accord cadre relatif à la numérisation et l’exploitation des livres indisponibles du XXème siècle” Frédéric Mitterrand, ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, René Ricol, commissaire général à l’investissement, Bruno Racine, président de la bibliothèque nationale de France, Antoine Gallimard, président du Syndicat national de l’Edition et Jean-Claude Bologne, président de la Société des gens de lettres, ont signé un accord-cadre traduisant la volonté de redonner une nouvelle vie, sous forme numérique, aux livres sous droits du XXème siècle n’étant actuellement plus commercialisés en librairie. Un corpus de 500 000 livres pourra ainsi être numérisé et proposé à la vente à l’horizon de 5 ans.

Fruit d’une année de réflexions et de concertations, cet accord-cadre permet d’aborder une nouvelle phase dans la mise en oeuvre de ce projet avec la réalisation d’une étude de

faisabilité détaillée dans les prochains mois. Il rappelle notamment que les livres numérisés au moyen des Investissements d’avenir seront exploités dans le cadre d’une gestion collective assurant aux éditeurs et aux auteurs, représentés à parité, une rémunération équitable dans le strict respect des droits moraux et patrimoniaux. Le code de la propriété intellectuelle sera modifié en conséquence.

La numérisation des livres sera effectuée à partir des collections du dépôt légal conservées à la Bibliothèque nationale de France. Celle-ci pourra conserver une copie numérique pour son usage propre. Le site Gallica ( présentera l’intégralité des références bibliographiques enrichies, avec une possibilité de feuilletage, et renverra à des sites marchands pour l’acquisition des livres numériques. Le soutien financier de l’Etat s’inscrira dans le cadre du programme « développement de l’économie numérique ».

Ce programme doté de 4,5 milliards d’euros est l’une des principales composantes des 35 milliards d’euros que le gouvernement mobilise pour les « investissements d’avenir ». Il inclut un volet de 750 millions d’euros visant à développer de nouvelles formes de valorisation et de numérisations des contenus culturels, scientifiques et éducatifs.

[* Both versions are from the “Press Release” distributed via email on February 10, 2011, by the BnF.]


Tortoises are said to have better track records than hares, long-term — and, besides, it is not always entirely clear who is the “hare” and who the “tortoise”, until the end of the race.

Jack Kessler,


FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal                   ISSN 1071-5916

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