April 24, 2012 Leave a comment
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.
- Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia (GLAM-Wiki): Insights Interview with Lori Phillips (blogs.loc.gov)
- Review: Tice and Steiner’s Vasi Map (dhs.stanford.edu)
- Follow-up: Do We Really Need Brick and Mortar Museums? (eogn.com)
- Event Planning Theory Case Study Format (ivythesis.typepad.com)
- History of Lines: Perspective with Lances (longstreet.typepad.com)