We installed the ethos that pedigree was over and all money was now equally valuable. The mythology of Silicon Alley was forced to coalesce for good, with City Hall’s fervor behind it. The start-up culture wars—a fresh beef with the West Coast, except boring!—intentionally pitted us against the weirdo jerks of Palo Alto. The scrunchy-face foxy Foursquare co-founders appeared in Gap ads, clad in mediocre jeans but form-fitting venture capital. You were a good person if you were an entrepreneur. You were creating jobs, until you weren’t. The big floor-through lofts of Broadway between Houston and Spring filled up with inexpensive furniture and even less expensive young people, each with a bitter mouthful of Adderall, each office bright and identical. So far, we’ve disrupted a few things, mostly coffee-related. – Choire Sicha, Let Me Tell You About the Most Heartfelt $200 I Ever Made
Automated, frictionless sharing is certainly not a solution. As I’ve often observed, human problems are almost always solved by human solutions, very rarely by technical solutions. We have to ask ourselves what the real solution is, given that we’ve negotiated an arc from immersion in a social community (with all that entails) to helplessly private insularity to immersion in a virtual world that lacks privacy, but that also lacks human contact. It may be that dating sites are so consistently popular because they are the only online services that require human contact to work. -Mike Loukides, The Privacy Arc
Perhaps the books have outlived their original intended purpose, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use them.
You could pull almost any image in the library out of its context and it would probably be nearly impossible to identify its source or its meaning. In other words, the bizarre quality of the images might not necessarily be a function of the texts that they live in.
I wouldn’t want to prescribe a particular approach. I think that books are really interesting objects in part because they are relatively stable. Unlike electronic information, books are relatively difficult to change and revise.
-Zach Friedman and Anrew Beccone, Bomblog: Reanimation Library
In the face of the eroding perceived value of books, this lays out an interesting proposition, which relies on the strange combination of durability and the ability to be lost. Much of library practice relies on the idea that we need to keep information from getting lost, but as the reanimation library demonstrates, this is sometimes necessary for continued creation. Despite the increasing availability of full-text searching in ebooks, access to the ideas in books are heavily dependent on how they are represented in various titles, or, for the more cautious researcher, by the author and her affiliations. The upside of this being, you are more likely to read something that isn’t exactly what you were looking for. Conversely, the same looseness exposes the author and their work to unintended audiences. The Reanimation Library thrives on a more extreme version of this mechanism: As a result of this serediptious proccess, the creative, unintended uses come to the fore.
Groups like the Library as Incubator Project and discussions by PublicPraxis move one step beyond this by shifting the definition of information, opening up new possibilities for libraries. About a breakdancing competition in a library:
We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. -Laura Damon-Moore, Elizabeth Hough, and Sharon Grover, Collaboration, Innovation, Incubation
By organizing a group around the bikes they own, they promote creativity (they style their bikes, they make their own music), education (both formal K-12 and P2P), responsibility, self-respect (you must ride in style), community–and together they’ve created a world for themselves that meets important needs. All of these needs can be understood as information, as can all of the resources that fulfill those needs. So this is not some lofty far-out library moon colony, this is library terra firma. The way that Scraper bikes engage the members opens up knowledge, values, and opportunities that individually, these Oakland kids may not find widely accessible. -Meg Backus, Alternative Libraries
Both of these examples expand the definition of information, and by doing so expand the role of the library in the world. This is a much more aggressive tactic than what Reanimation Library employs, but the end results reach for the same goal: the breaking down of traditional understandings of what counts as “useful” information. They do this successfully be demonstrating that truly useful information is that which is put into action in a community. All of these projects demonstrate by freeing information from the constrictions we as librarians put on it, it has the chance to become something more–knowledge. For a more formal argument, consider this paper by Jennifer Nutefall and Phyllis Ryder. Serendipity, not a practiced lack of information control,but a openess to the rough edges of it, is actually a method that students and scholars use. Serendipity has always played a key role in learning about the world.
There is some precedent for this; the logical methods of observation and refinement at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution enabled the creation and improvement of the microscope and the telescope. In turn, these tools both grew and shrank our sense of the world, enhancing the idea of hierarchies. Much social and scientific organization followed that path and destroyed its predecessors. We build the tool to change things, and then the tool changes us. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything
This is the logic that leads most folks into a postmodern tailspin, where everything eats itself. It’s a fun place to be, and the revolutionary excitment is great, but it leaves you with a hangover. Hardy leaves his editorial with this thought on David Weinberger’s illustration of the internet as dragon eating-its-tail: “Instead of giving us of a new and better way of seeing the world, the Internet is a tool that embodies how we have wanted to see the world for some time. We have built it according to our new ideas about the world, and it gained a power that is destroying pre-existing structures.” Which is all that and then some, but:
Though of course, when a Harvard researcher values something because it affords a more accurate picture of reality, the end of hierarchy and a quest for ultimate understanding seems a long way off. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything
So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means. -William Pannapacker, We’re Still in Love with Books
There’s a lot of shifts coming up, and yes, it’ll be nice to have more shelf space, but libraries also need to protect the culture of learning over time, not just its resources. So yes to creative destruction, yes to weeding more, yes to being more criticial about the books we take in, but think about your core values as opposed to the values that are sold to you, because often, you’re paying a price. Value is more than money, and it’s our job to build value over time. That includes not just current use, but future use.
As far as I can tell, we need to have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those things in operation. Some, I’m sure, would want to scream ‘confirmation bias!’ at this–but the wonderful thing about the humanities is that they have always allowed scholars to work from problem to evidence, not vice-versa.
The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That’s the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique. -Benjamin Schmidt, Theory First.
The beauty of the humanities is that they allow for a reversal of the scientific method, which as Benjamin Schmidt pioints out, can lead to charges of “confirmation bias,” which is only really a concern if “objectivity” was what you were shooting for in the first place. In reality, humanists are in a luxury position of being able to create and analyze texts in the same motion, and work best to examine all of the human underpinnings of them. I think this creates a large problem for humanist librarians, espcially as we try and operate in the field now called “library science.” It’s got an attractive ring to it, that we are social scientists exploring the reality of libraries. In all honesty, this is a fine way to explore the realities around us, but it does very little good when it comes to the things we do as practitioners, which is make something new. Architects, journalists, artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc., all do this without the compulsion to call themselves scientists. They start with a theory or idea of how things ought to go, and then they make it happen. There’s a vision that is called into being and they create the evidence for it. Anything less than that, while good, is an exhibit of technique. Schmidt callson the eternal snob, Adorno, to make the point.
It is now librarianship’s time to join the humanities again. It is time to look at the cracks. The theory that this is a science is troublesome because we are beginning to ” optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices,” which if you have taken a quick glance at the news, has not been working out as well as we’d like to pretend. If you’re inclined read Chis Lehman’s scathing Rich People Things . Librarians ought to be looking at theories which expose the cracks and faults of the world as it is.
Here’s an example: I believe that students ought to be taught to create openly while they explore their choosen academic fields. There is no reason to cheapen this and call it “play,” which can also be highly structured. I’m basing this on critical theory a la Paulo Friere. You can see examples of it in Critical Library Instruction, where learing starts from the student’s perspective and you go from there. It’s the exact opposite of this:
I could not help but to think of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for this transition. In fact, progression through the program is similar to ascending the various levels, steps, or stages. They are learning the language, behaviors, and knowledge base of their discipline. They are expanding their exposure and proficiency which leads to the goal of contributing something new. – Brian Matthews, “What It Takes to Become a Scholar“
The theory here is based on a description of what already is: if you play by the rules, you will build up slowly through the accepted levels and will maybe succeed. What is essentially taught are the rules of the game, not an understanding of how to succeed on one’s own terms. Isn’t that what information literacy is supposed to be? A similar problem came up in a blog post that wandered it’s way through twitter:
It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge. When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution. In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories – they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture. -Hugh Rundle, Evolution, The Death of Libraries and the End of History.
I’d like to emphasize the idea of “citizen-centered,” because it resonates with the idea at the heart of critical literacy, and it goes in with the evolution of thought that started as far back as Jaques Ranciere. There’s not much that is revolutionary with these theories, they’ve evolved over time, and are part of the history of libraries. We’ve come a long way from chaining books to tables, or from being closed-stack, and began providing people with the means to put things together their own way. We need to build and explore library theory that reflects those interests, and not lock ourselves into the world as it is. That’s merely technique.
I’m occupying LIS research literature. I’m indignant that its impact on practice is minimal, and I don’t believe it is only practitioners’ lack of application or researchers’ lack of skill – it’s a gap that both sides need to help fill. For practitioners, this may come in the form of a shift from relying on anecdotal information in making decisions about services and collections; for researchers, it could be a focus on how the results of a study are communicated.
-Eric Frierson, “Occupy the Research and Practice Divide“
I like where Frierson is going with this, I’d love to see more research I can use, and conversely, would like to see more work time justified to do so, I would also like to raise a rhetorical question: is this really part of the “Occupy” strategy? This is a call to more actively participate in a already existing system, which is to say, engage it and support it by participation and/or resistance. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m a part of it too. But Occupy calls for things beyond that. By way of Slavoj Žižek in the Parallax View, Occupy starts at Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to.”
It requires a look back to a much less institutionalized time to really see some radical work being done, and to some extent, I don’t think that PHD programs nor in general, viewpoints that diminish “anecdotal” perspectives will be the primary movers, if you are strategically invested in the “Occupy”, a better place to look would be further back in history, and also, to the public libraries. It’s not that theory and practice should not meet, but that “Occupy” exists in a space much different than our own, and while institutions can and should engage in the discussion, the real action is more dynamic. As the occupiers of Taqhir Square wrote to those in Oakland:
We stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized, and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection’. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.
The research arm of librarianship is full of privatized interest and buracracy. They are over-policed and interested in protecting the status quo: “information” over wisdom and knowledge, statistics over a view of life which is full of humanity. If librarianship is going to thrive, it’s not going to be in those journals, nor in the endless hype cycles of library blogging on trendy, technologially driven topics. It’s got to be about people. Over at Monoskop, a extended piece by architect Nikki O’Loughlin examines the practices of public libraries in the United States. O’Loughlin unearths various models for the distribution of books in public space, both urban and rural. These set up a confluence between spaces in people’s lives and the presence of knowledge artifacts that might interest them for whatever reason. By doing this, dialogs across life-spaces could happen, with the library directly involved. All of this is facilitated by an inexpensive and transferable technology (books, in this case). The a heavily institutionalized library just can’t do this with the same aplomb, and digital products don’t provide the physical, social space for interaction, on top of their barriers to entry. I’m not recommending slavishly reproducing the past, but rather to look at times of radical change and how libraries dealt with them. What was that about doomed to repeat it?
Read the whole thing, breath in the radical and stop thinking about theory and practice as seperate. That only holds you back. Librarians, join your 1% to your 99%.
Sarah Werner makes some excellent points as to how limited the imagination is for digitizing objects (why focus only on text?) along with the ideas that most digitization conflates copy and edition, and it allows others to make important decisions for you.
I often look at scanning machines and wonder about how much they cost. They seems like a lot. Good digital cameras have come down in price, and the know-how of taking good pictures is not outside the reach of most people. So, as Werner points out, you lose the bespoke elements in digital work. Harder, better, faster, stronger is the motto, which runs counter to the whole view of special collections and archives as being places that hold unique items. Considering the difficulty and expense of traditional models for digitization that requires special software, hardware, expertise and training, how many countless hours and expensive plane tickets could be saved with a Nikon? It’s high time that digitization becomes not just a collections tool, but a reference tool as well.
The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.”
Using expert knowledge no teacher could have inculcated, young hackers risk jail to expose public falsehoods and build solidarity with peers overseas by fucking around on the internet. They’re not willing to leave the problems of their inherited world for moribund labor unions or withering socialist parties. Students in America could try a different kind of strike based on what’s occurred in Cairo and Athens — out of the classroom and into the streets. And how much better would that be for their future happiness, how much better for their souls?
Those are harsh words. Not every professor out there is Professor Jones, but we all have the potential to emancipate students by giving them permission to explore outside the dictates of those “petty kooks and jowly tyrants” that we have the potential of being. Indy barely has the patience for his students, so well versed at following those prescribed interests. It’s clear that outside of the classroom, Prof. Jones could “teach” his students a lot of things, but the classroom sets up a distance between the students and the things to learn about. It makes him a horrible teacher and a great adventurer. Jacques Ranciere outlines the issue clearly:
The explicator’s special trick consists of this double inaugural gesture. On one hand, he decrees the absolute beginning: it is only now that he act of learning will begin. On the other hand, having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it.
-The Ignorant Schoolmaster, pgs. 6-7
What makes for learning, and what makes for an interesting life is doing, either Indy or kids in Egypt or Greece illustrate the point. Ranciere repeatedly states that intelligence is nothing special, and with the proper time and application people can teach themselves to do anything. So the calling is this: to emancipate people. To tear down the barriers that explication puts in between people and the things that interest them. The things that prevent the doing. Finding things in a library, taking those things, and doing something interesting with them is not the privileged domain of so-called “smart people.” No librarian should forget that.
So, information as thing?
Further, the term “evidence” implies passiveness. Evidence, like information-as-thing, does not do anything actively. Human beings do things with it or to it…The essence of evidence is precisely that perception of it can lead to changes in what people believe they know. (353)
This includes documents and events themselves, almost to the point that information as thing could include everything, but that it needs to be put into a specific context, such that “(a)t quite specific situations and points in time an object or event may actually be informative, i.e., constitute evidence that is used in a way that effects someone’s beliefs.” (357) As a result, information storage and retrieval systems can only deal with this conception of information, which is handy for legitimating information science, but in reality, it ignores the complexity of what information actually is. The drive to carve up the definition of information into its respective parts partially results in conceptual clarity, but it also results in the obfuscation of important details that lead to real-world understandings of those very things.
A case study:
Miley Cyrus v. Kurt Cobain
These are the same song, the metadata on these two videos, when viewed by a person, would be pretty similar. But what is at the heart of these things that makes them informative? Surely, the ads, Miley’s stage banter, Kurt Cobain messing around before they kick into it all matter. But what really separates these two, aside from video quality, is the fact that Miley is earnest in her delivery, striving to communicate the song’s aggression and libido. Kurt, on the other hand, doesn’t push as hard, delivering the contradiction and insouciance of it.
But some things that can be seen in the metadata could matter a lot outside of the Benjamin-esque consideration of “aura,” which, regardless is intact. I’m accusing Benjamin of being a spoilsport. The Miley video is probably some kind of camera-phone video, maybe a camcorder or a flip, whereas the Nirvana video was captured on some much higher quality film, and from the sound of it, the audio came off of the mixing boards. All of that is important to note for the reception by the person watching the video. Benjamin is a spoilsport because no matter what the formats of the “evidence,” no matter what the “information as thing” analysis, you can tell the difference between these two performances.
So don’t divvy up information. It’s oversimplifying, and you might miss something more important going on. Information and knowledge are about context, and reducing information to it’s thingness leads to Benjamin’s accusations of lack or aura resulting from technological reductionism.
Likewise, don’t ignore the thingness, because it directly affects the experience of the aura. Information is more complex than mere “evidence” and it always will have an affect on the perciever. It will help librarianship if we stop pretending that all of these things aren’t intimately related.
I’m not making this fairly obvious statement so that we can all wring our hands and fret about the downfall of the Western classical tradition. Rather, I’m pointing out that as “crossover” artists continue to take advantage of their unique position, one in which two distinct kinds of cultural capital—the “Western composer” kind and the “hip creative person” kind—are abundantly available in a society that recognizes no inherent contradiction between them, the terms and conditions of production will change for all of us.
Such are the issues surrounding the status of the composer of music. I think this goes to the heart of the Jeff Trzeciak debacle, but I think the issue is a lot more tied to technical know-how and institutional support than it is in music (I could be wrong). The reason I bring up the analogy is specifically because of the comment made on this post, and it addresses what the commenter sees as a particular and unwieldy piece of technical know-how, musical notation:
Common practice music notation has increasingly become inadequate for what composers do today.If you compose music out the conventional 12-equal system, conventional music notation won’t work. -mclaren
Perhaps Trzeciak’s point lies somewhere in here, but I think that both privilege institutionalized forms of understanding over others, to a much greater degree than in music, and also that this makes us all blind to the fact that the organization of information is not proprietary to PHDs, MLIS’, Libraries, Archives, Museums, Content Managers, or any other kind of “Knowledge Worker.” The impulse to organize is prevalent in most people, whether or not they have institutional backing or not. That impulse is born of passion (or sometimes mere interest) in the object of collection and organization.
Like quilting, archiving employs the obsessive stitching together of many small found pieces into a larger vision, a personal attempt at ordering a chaotic world. It’s not such a far leap from the quiltmaker to the stamp collector or book collector….
Our primary impulse, then, has moved from creators to collectors and archivists, proving Walter Benjamin, once more to be prophetic: “If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’” -Kenneth Goldsmith, “Archiving is the New Folk Art“
What separates the knowledge worker type folks from the average collector goes beyond the inclination to collect and organize. It is the impulse to share with others. I suspect this is the same reason that people call themselves composers, because they feel the need not just to create music, but want to harness larger amounts of resources to get their work out. It is unsurprising that traditional musical notation would sometimes turn out to be irrelevant to the process, just as the technical tools of librarianship might (and have) fallen by the wayside from time to time. While archiving is the new folk art, the desire to do it writ large to have an impact on greater numbers of people requires not only the technical knowledge, but also the desire to continue sharing new and old ideas with other people. That’s what makes us all, degrees and job titles aside, librarians.