Professor Jones and The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

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?

-Malcom Harris

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.

A denial!

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.

The limits of notation and the organizing impulse.

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.

Libraries: Raising the Numerator

Something has gone wrong in the organisation, production, and maintenance of things. This is no pathetic fallacy, for it’s not just that we constantly confront the world of commodified objects as a world of social relations. It’s that we confront that world of commodified objects as a hostile world of social relations of hatred, coercion, competition, boredom, emiseration, and exploitation. The entire built world of capitalism is a literal record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions, stacked millions of hours high. And it is that which surrounds us, at all moments. -Evan Calder Williams, Hostile Object Theory

The tone here is pretty angry, which is something I’m less likely to stand behind, but this is worth considering in the context of libraries, public, academic, or otherwise. That is to say, the social role of libraries: a polite buffer zone that pulls our resources out of the social-coded world of commodities and into a different social order. At he very least, something along the tones of Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air which follows in the Lessig tradition of calling for open intellectual commons, but spends more time talking about the legal framework and cultural understanding of “the commons.” Lately, Google has fallen to this increasing commodification of what was mythically thought of as the “free” internet. It’s search has fallen to a plethora of useless websites when it comes to reference questions, and wikipedia is still holding strong as the quick-and-dirty but still helpful internet reference of choice. Essentially, I feel like the increase in commodified reference is the result of Google posing to be merely an aggregator as opposed to a curator, and as a result, it suffers from other companies gaming it to race to the bottom line. When our information is turned into a raw commodity, it takes on the characteristics that Willams talks about, “hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions.” Sadly, even the Harvard Business Review is savvy enough to make a similar point:

Consider a mini-case study: America. America’s got a (major) competitiveness problem: its goods simply aren’t in enough demand by the rest of the world — and it isn’t all the fault of China deliberately keeping its currency undervalued. More deeply, it’s the fault of a three decades spent chasing lowest common denominators, by any means necessary, instead of elevating numerators even slightly. To get serious about igniting its exports, America’s going to have to elevate the numerator, setting incentives for a new generation of products, services, markets, industries that produce stuff that’s envied, treasured, and adored by people across the globe. -Umair Haque, The New Calculus of Competition

I’m skeptical of this for one reason: Haque predicates the raising of the numerator on the happiness that a given product can achieve, and puts this in front of creating an enduring benefit to society. But information and the creation of new knowledge is not really a happiness game, it is ideally part of the “creating an enduring benefit to society” game. Happiness that can be bought is of a dubious sort, and while buying and selling is not inherently evil, the profit motive rarely produces the effect that Haque is after. More often, it races to the lowest common denominator, and likely will continue to do so.  It’s our job to raise the numerator, and the best way to do that is to remove the production of knowledge and access to information from the marketplace. This might apply more to publicly funded libraries, but all of them have to potential to cut information out of the cycle of buy/sell that is closely monitored by the strictures of intellectual property, interrupting the record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions by providing a place for those things to be without the expectations that formerly encumbered them.

FTW! and getting beyond us.

You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system. -Arlo Guthrie via Robert Greco

A well-ordered humanism does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self. -Claude Levi-Strauss via Robert Greco

These quotes summed up my feelings about our information resources and the web at large. They are full of quirks, tricks and snares, and my best reference work and teaching involves helping the people I work with to be able to game information to their advantage. Any database is an enemy that obstructs real understanding of how things relate to one another. Reference is not the art of designing better systems or databases, full of their special biases and publishers agreements, layered by proprietary search algorithms. It is the art of helping people transcend them. To ask for better systems is to ask for a better way for libraries to co-opt individual thought into our own systems of organization, to flatten the originality of the query to better fit our technology. Reference needs to be that well-ordered humanism that does not put itself before those it serves.

Libraries and the continued importance of curatorship.

From Wally at iNode: we are going to be more about data, early parts of the scholarly communication process, and “We’ll still be doing the “special collections and archives” thing as that will be a large part of what differentiates libraries.” His whole post is worth a read, but i think it only goes part of the way. While we might have reduced institutional footprints, I also believe that what will set us apart is the idea of curatorship. This is the dreaded “gatekeeper analogy that many in the library world are trying to diminish, but the idea is worth a second look. In an information environment that is too large for people to comprehend, then we need some way to organize things to understand it. Included in this is the idea that while we can lease a lot of content, it is worth considering that we don’t need access to everything (the Google approach), but just to the things our patrons actually need. Maybe we as librarians need to talk to our faculty rather than rely upon vendors to tell us what they think our faculty needs. This is curatorship, being a gatekeeper to make sure that important resources are not spent on what is not needed.

 

Rebeca Horton at the Curator Magazine blog quotes a 1994 Wired article by Paul Saffo, which is worth re-quoting here:

The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintessentially human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. (emphasis added by Horton)

That is worth considering. Horton applies this to the design of information design, which is ultimately done by a human being, who reflects upon how data is visualized, mapped, filtered, etc. Even though this is done by computers, the design is still human, starting which what information to process and onwards. There is still a human curator. Librarians who are connected to their faculty and students don’t need to fear their role as curators. It is an important part of what we do.  The creation of a point-of-view is part of creating new knowledge that can be acted on, not just the passive intake of data. The manipulation of data is a reflective task that is part of progress, not a hindrance to it.

Publishing Industry and Music Industry

The most obvious comparison between these two giants of intellectual property distribution is the digital connection: the music industry had a boom in the last couple of years that petered out, which relied on iTunes and streaming services, while pay-for-access still had trouble, and access through free channels is still the way to go. The widespread supposition is that live shows and higher amounts of participation in music is the way of the future, less than passive consumption. When all of the hoopla about “Millennials” came out, how they demanded more active participation in their classrooms, their culture, and in their society, this seems to mesh well. In my mind, this seems to have some connection with the diversification of music outside of the major labels, and the rise of independent labels and musicians.

Could the same thing happen to the publishing industry? Over at the comments section of a blog post about the total failure of libraries hearkening in a “Digital Underclass” (as if there wasn’t one already), one commenter posted:

Today, authors use publishers for distribution but that may change. They may start publishing their works themselves – just as some musicians do.

The reply was: “Never happen.” Looks like someone hadn’t been paying attention. In addition to self publishing sites, and Amazon getting in trouble after a really bad PR job about pedophile handbooks for the Kindle, it’s clear that self-publishing, along with the rise of small and successful publishing houses, that people are actively participating in the creation and wider distribution of content.