Collaboration can be fun

Orange blossom and oranges. Taken by Ellen Lev...

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If we knew what it was, why it was necessary and how it could work.

I have long contended that recognition of what is similar amongst the information professionals is more useful – and perhaps more logical – than focusing on what is different.  At the same time, I recognise that clarifying and protecting professional territory is important for a number of reasons, and I also realise that there are differences in approaches to information problems and in the ways in which these may be dealt with.  But these differences, to my mind, provide as strong a motivation for collaboration as the similarities, as they form the basis for synergestic relationships.

Boyd Rayward mentioned in 1994 that , “Over the past 20 or 30 years… there has been growing awareness that what has been accepted as separating these professions may no longer be relevant and may have become dysfunctional” (Rayward, 1994, p. 163).  The areas of commonality exceed those that separate.  For example, we can all recognise that all kinds of information professionals are engaged with users, organisations, information technologies, products and services.  They are all concerned with the origination, collection, organisation, storage, retrieval, interpretation, transmission, transformation and utilisation of information, as contained in documents of some kind.  Moreover, they are all concerned with the information contained by the documents, whatever this might be.  These similarities exist even though one community (for example, records managers) may privilege certain attributes or characteristics of a document (e.g. its potential for complying with evidentiality requirements) over others (such as popularity).

A cross-sectoral competency analysis undertaken by Gendron (1998) provided a clear picture of the work elements involved in information work in archives, libraries and records management, which exposed a common profile.  However dissimilar they may superficially appear to be, they still perform many similar functions, although the emphasis on one or the other might vary: identifying information needs; understanding how individuals search for and use information identified as being valuable to them; identifying and making accessible the documents which provide such information, by describing the documents; protecting information, both physically and virtually, and preserving the documents (and their information) that are believed to have long-term historical or social value.

Some time ago (2005), I drew up this list of the tasks of information work.  You may be aware of some that have been inadvertently omitted: if so, please feel free to add them.

1. Alignment of provision of information with the goals and objectives of the organisation or community or wider society;

2. Identification of information and documents that might be used and must be managed (this might even involve asking people who have knowledge to record some of this, as information, in documents in order to transcend spatio-temporal constraints – for example in knowledge management projects);

3. Collecting the documents – whether physically or virtually (through links or databases);

4. Ensuring the integrity and ‘value’ (whatever that may mean within a particular context) of documents;

5. Describing the documents in order to organise them whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

6. Providing access to documents – whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

7. Preventing access to documents – whether physically or virtually;

8. Storing and preserving documents – whether physically or virtually;

9. Information audits and reviews of document and artefact collections, discarding those that have no continuing value, and discerning, describing, arranging and protecting documents and artefacts that have exceptional qualities and perceived long-term value;

10.  Management of all these activities.

The information professions, therefore, whether they are aware of it or not, share a number of issues of concern, such as uniform metadata, information retrieval, intellectual property, and intellectual capital, ethics, digital document management and preservation, the nature of information, organisational management, database structure and use, systems analysis, user needs and behaviour, legal influences, information resources, evaluating information and professional education.  The boundaries between the subdisciplines are shown to be quite permeable, as themes, issues, topics and research run across all the major professional journals in each field, in spite of the apparently different discourses and methodologies shown by each.

Unfortunately for all of us, instead of collaboration, and spaces in which we can share our different ‘takes’ on these issues, we have diversified and become increasingly fragmented, instead.  This fragmentation is expressed in various ways: in nomenclature (knowledge engineers, strategic information managers, digital adventurers, information analysts, literacy enablers – just about anything is possible); it is expressed in the diversity of professional associations that an information professional can join (and I will leave you to fill in the missing words here); it is also expressed in the variety of terminology that is used to describe the same entity or phenomenon, in different fields.  For example, ‘information’ is ‘data’ for some, but ‘knowledge’ for others; the ‘user’ is the user of a library, a facility, a machine, a document or perhaps even a piece of evidence; ‘literacy’ may mean the ability to read and write, or to navigate through multi- and transmedia.  In some information work practices, the document itself is more important than the information it might contain; in other areas, the ‘document’ as such barely exists, except as a string of bits and bytes.

The increasing sophistication of information users (and that, really, means everybody on the planet to a greater or lesser extent) and of information and communication technologies seem to indicate, however, that a cooperative, multiparty assembly of information professionals, who can share and participate using their assorted and unique skills to tackle society’s information problems, may be the most successful way to go, in the long run.  Val Turchin has suggested such a model, which he calls the ‘metasystem transition‘ model (or MST).  In this model, various ‘parts’ or ‘components’ or ‘subsystems’ recognise their similarities – in both processes and goals – and identify as belonging to the same conceptual territory.  MST can be thought of as the reverse of the ‘general to specific’ processes that we engage in when constructing hierarchies.  Instead of thinking ‘trees’ – ‘evergreen trees’ – ‘citrus trees’ – ‘orange trees‘ – ‘blood orange trees’, the ‘orange trees’ are recognised as having something in common (or, indeed, several things in common) and eventually end up recognising the ‘meta’ or general or holistic group to which they belong.

Increasing fragmentation seems to me to be the way to disintergration and final destruction, which means that the work that we undertake,  the ways in which we do it, the purposes for which this work is performed, will be destroyed.