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.

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 , 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.

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.

The territories that were at one time or anoth...

Image via Wikipedia The British professional association, CILIP, is currently engaged in a discussion on LinkedIn regard the fragmentation of the information professions. This is a report of the second meeting to discuss this matter.