Taxonomy of information work

Info symbol

Info symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am now in extraordinary Budapest, Hungary.  I haven’t done much exploring yet, but the glimpses I have seen from the taxi from the airport have been tantalising.  I am here for the 2nd International Conference on Integrated Information (IC-ININFO – see http://www.icininfo.net/) and am making last minute adjustments to my paper and presentation (as you do!).  I attended the first in this series last year on Kos, Greece, and enjoyed it thoroughly.  It is really a different kind of conference – the only one of which I am aware which really does get together people from all points of the information spectrum.

In my work this morning, I re-discovered a taxonomy of Library and Information Science (for want of a better term) which I developed about  five years ago, in order to lay out the knowledge area/practice of thos involved with work in cultural institutions of all types, but notably galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs).  I hope you find it interesting!  I would welcome your ideas and discussion on this, as I firmly believed that we are charged with two tasks at the moment:

1.  Being able to say clearly to non-information workers – and, yes, to others that work in different branches of the metafield – what it is we do and why we are so necessary to society; and

2. Developing a manifesto as a united body in order to persuade the powers that be that far more attention (and money) should be devoted to this kind of work, in order for the technology to develop in socially effective ways.  (I’m thinking that the EU plans for Information Society have fallen into a deep hole of technological determinism and will not otherwise find their way out).

Enjoy,

Addendum: Taxonomy of LIS: the people who run Cultural institutions

LIBRARIANSHIP AND INFORMATION SCIENCE

The study of the creation, communication, recording, organisation, retrieval and preservation access and interpretation of information and its social effects.

 

Knowledge creation

Indigenous knowledge systems

Research approaches and methodologies

Creativity and innovation

Knowledge representation and communication

Representation of information in language

Linguistics

Semiotics

Scholarly communication

Cyberinfrastructure (e-research, e-science)

Recorded information

History of writing: alphabets and numbers

History of documents: formats and types

Information design

Document design and typography

Information architecture (document design on the Internet)

Document access for the disabled, e.g. talking books, Braille, Kurzweiler machines, etc.

Knowledge creation and communication, and document types

(by discipline and/or other characteristics, e.g. children’s literature; literature for neo-literates, etc.)

Human information behaviour

Identification of information needs/problems

Information behaviour of communities and groups

Information literacy (making meaning)

Reading

Critical literacy

Bibliographic literacy

Media literacy

Information usability

History and scope of information professions

(Those who deal primarily with information recorded on/in information objects such as documents).

Librarianship

Records Management

Electronic records management

Archival science

Manuscript management

Document and object conservation

Document and object preservation (including digital preservation)

Museum studies

Curatorial studies

Corporate information management (Note: ‘information management’ usually refers to corporate or organisational document management).

Knowledge management

Competitive intelligence

Informatics

Community informatics

Development informatics

Health informatics

Social informatics

(Other informatics)

Informetrics

Bibliometrics

Physical document collections

(Libraries, information centres, archives, records centres, galleries)

History and evolution of each type of document collection

Types of libraries

National

State

Academic

School

Public

Special

Health

Museum

[Etc.]

Objectives of each type

Functions of each type

Document and artefact management – physical and virtual

Construction of metadata codes

Development of taxonomies (boundaries and structures of each knowledge domain; ideally should show intersections with other domains)

Development of ontologies: representation of information in codes

Classification codes

Enumerative hierarchical systems (e.g. Dewey)

Faceted classification systems (e.g. Ranganathan)

Indexing languages

Enumerative hierarchical systems (e.g. Library of Congress subject headings; MESH)

Faceted indexing systems (e.g. Precis)

Thesaurus construction

Semantic Web

Organisation of information resources (i.e. documents)

Bibliographic analysis and description

Systematic bibliography

Analytical bibliography

Cataloguing

Content, concept and discourse analysis

Classification

Indexing

Abstracting

Mark-up languages (e.g. MARC, XML, RDF, etc.)

Service models

Real-life

One-to-many (passive; standard in most libraries-as-place)

One-on-one (interactive; more common in special libraries)

One-on-one ongoing continuous over time (highly desirable but rarely encountered)

Outreach services (e.g. housebound and neo-literates) (a variation of one-to-many)

Mobile services (variation of one-to-many)

Mediated

Digital libraries (remote access to digitised documents)

Online reference (usually email; can be VOIP e.g. Skype)

Podcasts

Interactive social networking techniques, e.g. social bookmarking, blogs, Flickr, RSS feeds, etc.

Second Life

Information retrieval

(Using systems, codes or programs to locate documents and information)

Reference

The reference interview and question interpretation

Retrieval techniques and processes

Metadata retrieval (from flat files and relational databases)

Full-text retrieval (from relational databases and hypertext)

Sound retrieval

Image retrieval

Video (or multimedia) retrieval

Information sources and retrieval (by discipline/group)

Music

Law

Art

Government

Geography

Business

Humanities

Medicine

[Etc.]

The role of information in society

Social effects of writing

Social effects of reading

Social effects of documents

Social effects of libraries, archives and other information/cultural centres

Libraries as cultural interventionists and mediators

Libraries in a multicultural global society

Transformative effects of information

Individual learning and development

Societal development

Social capital and social cohesion

Democracy, governance and citizenship

Social and community networking

Social entrepreneurship

Information ethics and laws

Copyright

Intellectual property

Privacy

Security

[Etc.]

 

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Remiss or just missing?

The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola a...

The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola at the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Ucello {Musée du Louvre, Paris} (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, I’ve been both remiss and missing.  To misquote John Lennon, sometimes life gets in the way when you’re making plans.

There seem to be more activity now – at the  bureaucratic and perhaps even policy levels – to acknowledge and perhaps merge the cultural institutions – namely libraries, archives, galleries and museums.  These are known variously as GLAMs or LAMs, depending on how inclusive you want to be and where you live.  Why is is that there is always some difference or discrepancy in the vocabulary used in this field???   If you have read some of my previous rants, you will know that this is something that irks me, and, in my view, has created not only conceptual obfuscation (deliberate choice of word), but also is leading to the clear demise of the associated professions – particularly librarianship and recordkeeping/archival work (should that be archivism?).

Moving on from semantic issues, it has been long recognised that the institutions that collect, preserve and provide access to recorded cultural memory all share similar goals and, by and large, similar procedures.  (See for example the 2008 IFLA report:  http://www.ifla.org/files/public-libraries/publications/prof-report-108/108-en.pdf).  Sometimes this seems to occur willy-nilly, for economic reasons, that not all are happy with (http://www.ucd.ie/archives/isa/news/2008-11-03-merger.html).   Well, yes, the procedures do appear to be similar – in essence, if not in detail –  as well as the goals – so that the viewer/visitor can access and better understand them.  Documents  (I use the term loosely, to include any recorded expression of human thought)  are collected or selected from the universe of available documents, according to varying guidelines and constraints.  Selection is made of which documents to keep by records managers, before the archivists get hold of them, even though archivists claim not to ‘select’ those documents they keep, as such.  Museologists are constrained, to a large extent, by what is ‘found’, even though items can especially be collected for them – even if only as a conquest of war, like the Elgin marbles from Greece, now unhappily resident in the British Museum.  Galleries will deliberately collect works of a specific type, age, authorship or perhaps nationality: the Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery and the Guggenheim Museum in New York are as distinguished by their collections as by their architecture.  Libraries, of course, select materials according to the (little understood) needs of their communities, the space they have available and their budget.  All of these ‘collections’ are, to a greater or lesser extent, reflective of their prevailing political regime, whether intentionally or not.

And there seems to be little disagreement about this.  As I have previously noted, I am of the view that all these professions belong to a metacommunity of information professionals, which may include such information technologists as are involved with the creation of digital cultural institutions, their description, storage and preservation.  Not all information technologists have equivalent expertise in this dimension.

The problem of digital collaboration in our new information environment is, unfortunately, far more profound and still recondite.  Providing a single point of entry into a heterogeneous world of virtual documents, each of which may reside in quite different physical spaces, sounds wonderful.  And indeed it is: not only because it is clearly impossible for every information seeker to visit every venue which holds potentially useful documents, but also because the juxtaposition of virtual documents provides the opportunity for new insights and fresh intellectual synergies.  It also means that the ‘user’ – so far, constructed in the information professions as various ‘types’ or rather generalised caricatures – is even less defined.  The virtual visitor to, for example, the painting ‘The battle of San Romano’ by Paulo Uccello,  located in the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence, may be an art historian or a child; a costume expert or a stage designer.  While we can, and perhaps we should, provide context to the digital documents that we place in the virtual world, what elements of context are important?  Should we link such a work to the artist’s biography, the history of the battle, the development of perspective, the use of particular weaponry, contemporary artists, authors and philosophers – or the ways in which Uccello mixed his paints?  Indeed, everything is connected to everything else in some way or another.  And there are degrees of intellectual complexity as well, from beginner to expert.  In my opinion, these links or associative trails are what the internet is best at, and should be fully exploited, as nothing happens without a context of some kind, and understanding this context enables us to better understand the idea.  A non-LIS book on the topic of context was recently published: ‘Situations matter: understanding how context transforms your world’ by Sam Sommers.

And this leads me to what I see as the crucial problem facing GLAMs: the notions of multidisciplinarity and interdiscplinarity.  These terms appear interchangeable, but there are in fact, real differences.  ‘Multidisciplinarity’ refers to problems which require the expertise found in various different knowledge domains or disciplines.  Each discipline will retain its own methodologies and theoretical frameworks in order to solve the problem: these are not ‘shared’ between the disciplines.   Interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, transcends, or is found in between,  any knowledge domains which claim to be a discipline.  In other words, by selecting elements of the various theoretical components (objects of study,  ) from two or more disciplines, a new ‘interdiscipline’ is formed.  An example, perhaps, is biochemistry.

Leaving aside the question of whether the traditional information professions (such as librarianship) have associated academic disciplines, which I have discussed elsewhere, it seems as if a new ‘interdisciplinary’ discipline is now required, to provide a theoretical framework for the work that is already taking place towards collaboration, not only amongst the GLAMs, but also including other disciplines: computer science, of course, but also historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, designers and many other groups who could contribute to the continually ongoing manifestation of virtual information space.  This is not new: you can take a look at http://bickersteth.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/museums-and-web-2012-and-digital.html or http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/14/museums-libraries-arts-council or http://www.dlib.org/dlib/october01/boyack/10boyack.html (2001!) or http://informationr.net/ir/12-4/colis/colis02.html (from 2007) or  http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/html/cem/cem99/cem9922.html, to get a taste of the zeitgeist (and mix metaphors).  But very little has been actioned, and one reason, I believe, is that the administrators do not really ‘get’ what we are all about.  Being clear to them means being clear to ourselves, and this is another reason why a theoretical framework for this field is important.

There are clear steps that guide the creation of a theoretical framework for this inclusive field:

1. Identification of the persistent or seminal entities and phenomena in the particular fields (i.e. those that are of interest to all groups involved).  This is the ontology.

2. Discovery and enunciation of the interrelationships between these entities and phenomena, which are called propositions or principles.  This is called a taxonomy.

3. Establishing the axiological commitments, and the ways in which ‘truth’ may be revealed.

4. The rules or principles that exemplify the interdiscipline – nomos.

5. The purpose or goal, or social responsibility, of the interdiscipline: the teleology.

Constructing a theoretical framework is part of the overall process of theory development, which is primarily a sequential process that begins with a broadly based descriptive and exploratory study, proceeding to the generation of explanatory studies, which may be accompanied by quantitative correlational studies.  The methodology of theory building, as suggested by Steiner (1988), involves criticism of extant theory, including explication and evaluation; and construction of new theory, by way of emendation and extension (Steiner, 1988, p. 1).

Why is a theory important?  So that we have conceptual clarity about what we work with, what we do, the relationships we have to each other and to our communities, and that we can appropriately structure education for the next generations.

Thinking about this will keep me busy until I write again.

Steiner, Elizabeth.   (1988).  Methodology of theory building.  Sydney: Educology Research Associates.

Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

Image via Wikipedia

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 http://www.eash.eu/openletter2011/index.php?file=openletter.htm , 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.

What information people have to do with learning

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

Image via Wikipedia

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] http://www.infocobuild.com/education/education.html).  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] http://wikieducator.org/OERF:Home) and the WikiEducator ([online] http://wikieducator.org/Main_Page).  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.

My bucket list – for the information professionals

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose I had better make it quite clear what I mean by ‘information professionals’, and also that I do not think they are necessarily looking at their impending demise, in the same way that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson were challenged in the film of the same name.  After having been in this field for some time, of course I have seen changes, but some things have, sadly remained the same since I entered it in 1980: the public ignorance about what we do; the pathetically misogynist caricature that is made of us; the quick and easy belief that we can be supplanted at the drop of an internet connection; failure to understand what lives would be like without access to the materials – and rather more specifically, the ideas – that we make possible as our task.  By ‘information professional‘, I mean those of us who assist in communicating ideas (and feelings, of course) from one human mind to another, regardless of time and distance, in particular by noting how ideas are recorded, and caring for those records to ensure that they can be physically and intellectually accessed as required.

Of course this is vague, general, aspirational, ill-defined and broad: but so, then, is human nature and the ideas and insights that our imaginations and intellects can conceive.  No shame in that.  And of course there is an ongoing shift (possibly evolution) in the ways in which ideas may be represented and recorded, in language and using various physical artefacts.  As humans, we have used sound, sculpture, light exposures on photosensitive materials, mud, blood, plant juices, movements, sounds, colours, stones, egg yolks – just about anything that you can think of, some more permanent than others, in order to do this.  No surprises there.  I don’t remember artists of old debating the pros and cons of lithographs versus oil paintings.

But all of this is utterly redundant and irrelevant if the aspirations in my bucket list are not realised.

1.  We deal with ideas, not books, or, indeed, documents of any kind.  Documents are convenient and secondary, mere facilitators of our goals.  We must be engaged with ideas, understanding, and what we and everybody else think and have thought of reality.

2.  We have a social responsibility to ensure that ideas flow in society as and when they are needed.  We should make our systems as transparent as possible.  Working together will help (a ‘world brain‘ of information professionals).

3.  I don’t want people attracted to the information professions simply because they enjoy reading.  Or even, perhaps, if they imagine themselves as literary.  Literature is only one, very small part, of the ideas with which we must work and with which we must be familiar.

4.  United, we should be able to fashion a compelling argument for people like David Cameron, who should not only fund libraries (and other cultural institutions) generously, but also pour money into schools so that everybody has a good level of functional AND critical literacy.  Education is a basic human right.  Everybody must understand the cultural symbols of their milieu and make sense of them.  Never mind all the distractions about different kinds of literacy: the ability to  ‘read’ any medium, with critical ability, is what the world wants.  AND creativity.  Anything else is going to be really dangerous in the long run.

5.  I want the world to be curious.  This means that even though meeting the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, health) can be very demanding, people will realise that are are more ways in which this can be accomplished if they can learn about what solutions others have come to.  There are many ways to live our lives, and just one of them may make you happy.  (Which, in my view, is the purpose of life).

6.  I want cultural memory institutions to be capable of making life better, and to be recognised for doing so.  And we must work out how this is to be achieved.

Well, this is my Sunday flight of fancy.  I would be really, really, happy if these were to be achieved by a communal effort.

Have a good week, everybody.

Creativity, strategy and innovation – for sheer survival

Advocacy Poster

It seems to me that these are the essential competencies for the new breed of information professionals, instead of wondering about what (if any) technical, technological or theoretical skills should be taught in places of higher learning that educate such people.  What is required most on the ground is not people who can use information and communication technologies (ICTs) (because everybody born after 1985 has these skills, and the rest of us have already learnt them – and we all continue learning them on a daily basis, so how can a formal programme possibly keep up?).  We do not need to emphasise writing software or designing web pages, either – nor doing elaborate database construction exercises, nor any of the cutting-edge technological stuff that computer scientists (aka technologists) do very well indeed, thank you.  You lot could work a bit more closely with us lot thought, especially in overlapping areas such as ontologies, human/system interaction, information retrieval and so forth, but I’ll leave that alone for now.  In the meantime,  algorithms have taken the place of indexing; the internet issues or grants access to documents.  We also do not need people who are so involved with theoretical foundations and philosophies that they are unable to persuade the powers that be (i.e. those who control the purse-strings) of the necessity for our professional services or who cannot  provide compelling and convincing press releases, or suitably snazzy and controversial soundbites for television news.

With the world being as it is – and I will refrain from trying to elaborate on this point too much, as I am not entirely sure what the world is nowadays with everything being as jumbled up and confusing as it is – it would appear that if the information professions are to survive at all, they need to develop a different persona.  In spite of the fact that we have been drenched with the idea of the so-called ‘information society’ and pelted with new hardware and software capabilities for a couple of decades now, the link between the communication of ideas and information professionals does not yet appear to have been made in the public mind.  This is deeply worrying.  That the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, a well-educated man by all accounts, is naive enough to suggest that public libraries in Britain can be staffed and run by volunteers, is beyond mind-boggling.

Besides an understanding of our professional social responsibility – our professional raison d’etre – we need imagination, curiosity, embrace of new and strange ideas, capacity to change and turn nimbly and quickly, an adventurous spirit that has little fear of failure (it seems as if we have already failed so dramatically that we have nowhere further to drop to) and is willing to try different things and different ways of doing things.  Above all, perhaps, it a sense of political power and the development of strategic descriptions, encounters, events, plans or whatever that will catch the attention of both the public and the purse-string holders.  This is the major reason, I believe, that collaboration between the information professions is so essential.  It rises above turf wars, listserv debates, preaching to the converted, and the whole enclave or laager mentality that we have clung to for too long.

In an age that seems to rely on – nay, is predicated upon – spin, the mass media, disinformation and social networking – information professionals should use the same mechanisms and techniques if they are to survive.  It has often been noted that the side that ‘wins’ is that side whose story is most believed, and not necessarily whose army is the biggest.  There is an abundant literature on creativity and innovation, strategies and implementing plans to achieve goals, so there is little point in repeating all of that here.  But I would urge you, gentle reader, to talk to those OUTSIDE of your immediate sphere rather than seeking consolation from within the ranks where of course you will find understanding and a shoulder to cry on.  You should dangerously venture into the world of realpolitik to engage those who make the important decisions that affect us, rather than relying on public goodwill, that concedes that ‘libraries are good to have’ and ‘reading is a mark of civilisation’.  These sentiments, perhaps sadly, don’t mean anything at all in today’s rather more brutal world.  We will end up going round and round in circles until the inevitable happens.  Or perhaps it is already too late.

Collaboration? What in *&^$#* is it anyway?

Cover of "The Wisdom of Teams: Creating t...

Cover via Amazon

Canadianarchivist, in a recent comment on my first blog entry, repeated the important point: that no matter what kind of information or cultural professional we are, we must all be clear on the terms we use so that we can understand each other.  It is only if we share meanings or understandings of the particular concepts that we all deal with – documents, information, artefacts, data, users, preservation and so forth – that we will able to collaborate usefully.

So, what does ‘collaboration’ mean?  It is perhaps easier to understand collaborative processes, which share the following characteristics:

1. Involves more than one person, and usually more than two.  In other words, we can think of ‘collaboration’ taking place in a group or team.

2.  This team or group has identified a problem – which affects each individual in the group – that requires a solution.  The solution should be equally satisfying to all members of the team, even though the effects of the problem or the solution may be more important or significant to some than to others.

3. Problem-solving involves clarity: what the problem is, in its full complexity; clarity in communications between all members of the team (and here conceptual clarity is vital and often becomes the first task of the group); clarity regarding the various implications of proposed solutions.

4. Solving the problem, or set of problems, becomes the goal of the group of people working together.  Achieving the goal does not necessarily have value per se: rather, the solution is understood to have benefits for the team and possibly for a much wider group as well.  These benefits may be economic, social, spiritual, political, professional, educational or cultural.

5. Strangely, the goal may not necessarily be clearly articulated or defined before the process begins: this may stifle innovative and creative ways of seeing the problem.  The process may also identify other issues that require resolution.  Sometimes the collaborative effort may be directed towards clarifying the problems or issues.

6. Collaboration requires creativity.  The culture of the team should encourage open and honest thinking, which is significant and holistic, and which does not skirt or avoid important and perhaps fundamental issues (the so-called ‘elephant in the room‘).

7.  Collaboration requires openess and trust – and mutual respect.  Attached to these notions is readiness to change one’s mind or outlook by listening carefully to ideas and proposals presented by others.

8.  Because of the iterative and possibility of repetition that often occurs in a collaborative process (often indicative of thoughts that have not been well explained or understood, or issues that remain unresolved), constant accurate notetaking or recording of conversations and exchanges is essential.  This is one way to acknowledge the individual contributions that are made.  Such documents should be made easily available to all team members.

9.  While the team may not require formal ‘leadership’ if all members are equally enthusiastic about seeking solutions and are committed to successful, useful outcomes, time frames, goals, meeting times and so on need to be mutually agreed and made known to all team members.  Sometimes, it is necessary for individuals or smaller groups of people to be given tasks to work on independently of the group, providing their answers at group meetings.

10.  Finally, the results of the collaborative effort will frequently affect a much wider group than the participative team members.  Interaction between the team and its stakeholders may be an ongoing process, but the results and conclusions mus be made available to all concerned, whether these are open to further discussion and negotiation or not.

Why, then, is collaboration between the information professionals possible, or even desirable?  Because we are all involved with assisting in the recognition, preservation and communication of ideas so that further knowledge can be created and communicated, we share a great deal, even though some of us may emphasise one or other aspect more than others.  Our overall purpose is, I believe similar.  If this can be clarified, and if we can identify as one large metasystem or metagroup of professionals, retaining and preservation our individual specialties (as ‘experts’) but acknowledging that we also need to confront and deal with a number of similar phenomena, perhaps we can be more efficient and successful in our tasks.  Instead of becoming increasingly fragmented and divided, let us unite.  Failure in our obligations and social responsibilities is rather too awful to contemplate.