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:  Sometimes this seems to occur willy-nilly, for economic reasons, that not all are happy with (   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 or or (2001!) or (from 2007) or, 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.

Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

Image via Wikipedia

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?