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Mon, 14 Nov 2005 13:00:00 GMT

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Libraries : culture by proxy, epistomological musings and perceived freedom from technology

[update!] Denham Grey talks about Social knowledge, 'Why I believe knowledge is constructed, emergent, ephemeral and tied to a community', which ties in nicely with what I (think I) say about how culture is knowledge.

I work as an information and knowledge pimp at The National Library of Australia. Let me state for the record that I do love my job despite my frustrations with it and the library world at times. I soundly believe that my love comes more from potentials I see here than things that are done, and this post will try to explain this.

Let's talk about what a library is first. At the core sits 'collection of books and periodicals', and on top of that, with the advent of newer technologies, ' libraries are now also repositories and access points for maps, prints or other artwork, microfilm, microfiche, audio tapes, CDs, LPs, video tapes and DVDs, and provide public facilities to access CD-ROM databases and the Internet.' And with 'recent thinking' thrown into the mix, 'libraries are understood as extending beyond the physical walls of a building, providing assistance in navigating and analyzing tremendous amounts of knowledge with a variety of digital tools.'

My job here at the National Library of Australia is 'web technology manager' (a different name for project wrangler and over-geek of all things involving the web), and I'm involved in all sorts of projects, from the public website to resource search services to exhibition sites (not open yet) to the intranet and a dozen applications within.

In the beginning

When I started working here, I started with a mission statement which is still with me; to promote and use Topic Maps to bring the library properly into the knowledge representation world, usability and information architecture to promote good design, and funnel ideas and cultural junctions of interest through open communication in ways to evolve and nurture my love of epistomology.

Unfortunately, it seems that most people meet their 'Gradus ad Parnassum[1]' of Knowledge Representation and good design a lot earlier than I would like it to be. The hurdle of going from information wrangler to knowledge worker within contextual design is a huge one for most people, featuring steep learning curves, new paradigms, academic baggage and 'opinion-over-standards' essays, not too different from this one. What to do? Cause a storm.

[1] In musical terms, the 'Gradus ad Parnassum', in addition to be a book on counterpoint and possibly because of its defining nature of that most important part of musical theory known as 'counterpoint', is often used as the definition of some musical category, often referring to a hard and complex piece of music or a technique, or musicians. For example, the 'Gradus ad Parnassum' of church organ music is often said to be the Trio Sonata No. 6 by JS Bach.

Lately I caused a teapot storm within the geeky library world. I think I caused my own reputation more harm than I did good to the library world, although I did actually receive some positive feedback (unfortunately, almost exclusively in private emails. Hmm.). I also tried to engage in the geeky library world without getting any response. Yes, you might say this is an isolated occurrence, but the fact of the matter is that speaking with other likeminded people (and you should check the excelent comment number 8 in my link above from Daniel Harrison for one of those like-minded people, although sadly he is no longer with us as you shall read ...) I discover that dreaded 'Not Invented Here' coupled with 'fixing our own problems first' syndrome.

Not invented here

So let's talk about 'Not invented here' first, because surely, we're all guilty of this one from time to time. For example, lately I dug into the ANSI/NISO Z39.88 -2004 standard, better known as OpenURL. I was looking at it critically, I have to admit, comparing it to what I already knew about Web Services, SOA, http, Google/Amazon/Flickr/Del.icio.us API's, and various Topic Maps and semantic web technologies (I was the technical editor of Explorers Guide to the Semantic Web)

I think I can sum up my experiences with OpenURL as such; why? Why have the library world invented a new way of doing things that already can be done quite well already? Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the standard per se (except a pretty darn awful choice of name!!), so I'm not here criticising the technical merits and the work put into it. No, it's a simple 'why' that I have yet to get a decent answer to, even after talking to the OpenURL bigwigs about it. I mean, come on; convince me! I'm not unreasonable, no truly, really, I just want to be convinced that we need this over anything else.

So, is this me ;

  • Being a victim of ignorance (or stupidity; you choose) and playing the protagonist of the 'Not invented here' syndrom
  • or, pointing out that the standard is part of the 'Not invented here' syndrom itself!

'Not invented here' is what forces organisations to reinvent whatever wheel they think they need.

Fixing our own problems first

Oh boy, this one is a tough one; did the chicken or the egg come first? Humans have argued both sides and alternatives since the dawn of, well, chickens, and we'll probably still argue well beyond the last one.

Similary, how can we fix everybodys problem when everybody is busy fixing their own problem? You would think that sharing solutions would do the trick, but that somehow implies that all legacy is equal, which it absolutely is not. We're all stuck in our individual legacy hells, and we can't get out because we're all to busy getting out. The advent of truly open data storage standards is the very key to save ourselves from ourselves! Sure, protocols are nice, and we couldn't do much without them, but truth be told, we can do even less without open data storage formats. And my assertion is that all legacy in the library world stems from this fact, yet we don't make it perfectly clear to neither ourselves nor our vendors that open data formats is a requirement for any system. Instead they've chosen to wrap the data storage problem in an open data access layer, for example with OpenURL. Shouldn't we fight for freedom first, and the right to party after?

Sure, there's MARC XML as the de facto open data storage format. Insert hysterical laughter here; whenever I lecture about bad schema design, I always point to this one. It is embraced by vendors because it gives us percieved freedom, yet with ugly tie-in to legacy systems. Don't get me started. MODS is one understandable step up, two lossy non-embracing steps to the side. XOBIS is experimental. FRBR is cute and smells of semantic modelling, but soaked in 'Not invented here'. There are others as well, giving hints to the lack of a unified and thoughtful way forward.

In the library world, the function of the comitee is supposed to solve a part of this problem, be it a standards committee or a working committee or a coffee-brewing committee, all sharing another huge problem that it is hard to get away from. Of course, now there are more improptu technological advances that offer mailing-lists, IRC channels and instant messaging for more open means of communication. I'm inclined to think they would certainly help out in trying to be more flexible with how we go about using and sharing technology in the future, but there are a few pitfalls there as well, for example the lack of formalities, or, as often is the case, we're all too busy fixing our own problems so we overlook and ignore grassroots solutions.

People are people; libraries are not libraries

It always come down to people, no matter if it is being a president or flipping burgers. Personal skill and vision is more important now than ever; the role and function of the library is dramatically changing. At the top of this post it became clear that at the core of the library is the book, no matter how you want to twist the meaning of 'library' to fit your hopeful future direction, and the book is dying. Professional books are probably gone in 30 years, at least in any fulfilling way such as it is today. So what to do?

There is one thing that isn't talked about much in the library world, and is totally absent in the geeky part of it; culture. Libraries are carriers of culture, not knowledge! It is one cultures percieved baggage that is stored in the library hull, not some accumulated knowledge, or understanding of information, nor the actual writings themselves. We have only the traditional understanding of the library from the curator perspective, but this needs to change. We need to embrace and promote the culture within, not guard it like a prized collection item. In 50 years, no one cares about the printed book in the dungeon, but they certainly care about the culture that produced it, just like we should care about promoting it, creating systems that grant access to it.

And then there's the clinch; culture is not books, but people. Let's go back and take another hard look at epistomology which for me links culture and people to our perceived knowledge. I belive firmly in representationalism, or otherwise known as proxy thinking; that all things are percieved by proxy, that we see things not as they are, but as they are seen through our tools such as our eyes and brain. Given the nature of tools, as passive but interactionable objects to our disposal, we all percieve things differently dependant on what our tool is like. The shere amount of neurons and couplings that are different from person to person given us a good hint that all perceived knowledge cannot be constant, nor singular.

'Culture' is one word that tries somewhat haphazardly to join perceived experiences from many people into one fuzzy blob we can talk about and understand. I personally feel that the lack of this focus when we librarians (or as the case is with myself, a perceived wannabe librarian) talk about our world is the very thing that will be our demise!

The book will change, and unless the library changes with it, the library will disappear. Should we not focus more on the culture we are made from than on the objects in our collection? Our collection is one more proxied perception away from the real thing; a curator for a collection is yet another hop away; an exhibition from a curator about objects in a collection that belongs on a shelf in section three of a building in Dixon is so many hops away from the real thing that it becomes nothing more than a museum.

So, is that what we are? Or perhaps more importantly; is that what we want to be?

Permalink (Mon, 14 Nov 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | General
pacoit ( Sun, Nov 20 2005 - 01:11:04 )
Lots of good points. But, as a non-librarian, the following caught my interest the most:
"'Culture' is one word that tries somewhat haphazardly to join perceived experiences from many people into one fuzzy blob we can talk about and understand."
Hmm, I've recently been critical of the new breed of "documentaries" showing up on television. For example, what has a dramatization in faked grainy and scratchy black & white footage (made to look like archive film) got to do with a documentary? Or a (I would think) obviously invented narrative of how Alexander The Great felt as he retired to his tent after a battle, experiencing the lowest point in his career...blah, blah. One recent public television program (here in the U.S.), advertised as a documentary, broke new ground by being a 100% dramatization. Absurd!, you say? I agree.
So what is my point about culture vs book focus in libraries? With a mass media instilling us with a existentialist/nihilist perspective of the world, i.e., where everything is relative, because substance, research, and references are substituted for imagery, action, and the "human interest" angle, what is the value of "contemporary culture"?
I quote contemporary culture because it strikes me as a contradiction in terms: "contemporary" seems to obliterate the notion of history as an implicit part of culture; it also implies fast change--from which, I would think, "culture" can't really develop.
Whereas, 100 years ago, "contemporary culture" could reasonably have meant, say, the current state of culture as it has so far evolved, such a statement today would be illusory.
So, my thought is, keep the documentaries straightforward, limited to the facts, and boring (if necessary). Keep libraries the same way. Sure, improve access; but be very cautious about creating narratives, interpreting the meaning and significance of the subjects in your archive. This will invariably lead to marketing, promotion, money and the special interests that chase it. It can easily debase the perception of honesty, integrity, objectivity, and public trust that the general public has of librarians today.
Best regards,