Tag Archives: information

Digital Curation & Preservation: At what cost?

brainIt continues to astound me on this MLIS course how many ideas, theories and practices blindly press ahead with the supposed ‘advancement’ of the industry without ever addressing important fundamental questions about the underlying nature, impact and value of the work being undertaken. It also amazes me at how information studies academics continue to theorise while passively ignoring the poststructuralist theory that has been informing many other disciplines uninterrupted for the last 50 years. Reading Helen Shenton’s work has left me no less bemused.

Digital curation and preservation takes as its starting point the mantra ‘we must preserve’ without ever asking whether or not it is right, or indeed valuable to preserve. Poststructuralism has worked hard to ensure that history and culture are not controlled as homogenous entities, but digital curation is now threatening to undo much of that good work. Poststructuralism is a theory of language that denies words as static culture building objects, and instead views language as a highly dispersive subjective heterogenous experience. It is the theory that underlies so much of our achievements in the last 50 years. It lead to the feminist movement, to the reconceptualisation of history as a discipline, and to the destruction of periodisation in literature. With real world artifacts we still have the potential to make new discoveries about the past. However, with born-digital objects which only have a lifespan of up to 25 years, we will not have the capacity to re-write the past through new discoveries. As a result, the digital curators of today are essentially the historians of tomorrow. The files that they choose to save will create a static history that cannot be questioned in the future. Howard Zinn, a postmodern historian argued that history has traditionally been written by those who win wars. Digital Curation, which is funded by governments or private organizations, is in danger of destroying the culture it is aiming to preserve in what could be become a Big Brother like scenario.

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Helen Shenton’s work in ‘Virtual reunification, virtual preservation and enhanced conservation’ focuses on the digitisation of dispersed works. It is in many ways a hugely interesting project, but it needs to be taken to question about its real underlying value. It is disturbing that Shenton’s work has as its goal ‘reunification’. This word summons forth a whole litany of other terms like ’empire’, ‘colonisation’, ‘power’, ‘race’, ‘slavery’ and ‘control’ to name but a few. This word inherently references imperialism at a time when the breaking apart of the United kingdom has become a real possibility in the near future. The fact that some important texts exist in a dispersed format is in itself culturally significant because it is indicative of the breaking apart of empire itself. Bringing these texts together has the potential to create a false narrative and a homogenous cultural discourse, and in this sense Shenton, like many of her contemporary information professionals, uses an outmoded form of structuralism to inform her ideas. She argues, in relation to the Sinaiticus Project, that it requires ‘the production of an historical account of the document’ that needs to be objective. The very idea that a homogenous ‘objective’ narrative is being added to these documents is a regulating process that ignores the lessons learned in the arts through poststructuralism. Structuralism is also implicitly referenced in the layer of information in the form of digital links over the manuscripts, which again inherently asserts control and authority over the material. Shenton has not stopped to ask what is the cost of such a project. Nor has she asked why the British Library feel as though they have the right to oversee the reunification of material from different cultures around the world.

The British Library is not only collecting material, but they are seeking to play a role in culture building. I thought the function of a library was to provide non-judgemental access to information. Shenton talks about ‘enhancing’ culture through diplomacy insofar as cultural diplomacy can play a role in international relations. It shows that there is an implicit and dangerous politics behind these preservation projects. Questions need to be posed regarding for whom is the British Library attempting to play a role in international relations and to what end? This project seems to be going beyond simply collecting material, but is ‘using’ material to re-tell an old story of empire. It feeds into an attempt by governments to create and control fake grand narratives. Howard Zinn’s principle of postmodern history was a way of challenging power by telling history through dispersed narratives. Shenton’s digitisation project runs the risk of more easily cutting off avenues to the past for us here in the present, but more dangerously, for people in the future. It poses the danger of manipulating information in ways that reassert a new kind of imperialism, a new homogeny of information, and an oppressive future in which subjectivity is no longer valued.

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Narrative and compassion in management practice

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For many years now I have been reminding myself of the reasons why my studies in English Literature have been so important to my own professional development. Through this self-reassurance I have constantly re-affirmed the concept that if one can understand the way a story or narrative in constructed, then one can understand better how the world itself is created. In this sense, it is interesting that Peter Brophy draws upon theories of narrative and story to inform ‘Evidence Based Library and Information Practice’ (ELIB). However, I do feel as though there is one key characteristic that is missing from his theory and that is of primary importance to storytelling. This year, I have read a lot of information and management theory relating to managing, teamwork, collaboration and leadership among others, but nowhere in that material have I encountered reflections on the importance of ‘compassion’ in both management and teamwork. It is only through compassion that a narrator can effectively create characters in stories, and, in organisations, having compassion is the only way one can understand and work with people’s own subjective and personal circumstances that they bring to work with them everyday, as well as understanding and accepting employees’ and customers’ limitations, while finding a way to work within them to achieve goals.

Brophy, drawing from Eldredge, outlines that evidence based learning and practice is both quantitative and qualitative but that there remains an imbalance in which emphasis is placed more on objective quantitative measures. However, he argues that this positivist approach does not apply well to librarianship because it involves a social system with variables that cannot be controlled within human interactions. Brophy shows an awareness of the prevalence of poststructuralism in contemporary social, cultural and linguistic theory: “To add to the complexity, all we have to describe the world is language, which itself introduces ambiguity, bias and difference.” Poststructuralism dictates that signs are not word-images but are experiences which are directed towards other signs based on the context of the receiver. To then try and take quantitative measures and apply them objectivity is an impossible task. Even one can take objective measures, these still have to be related to other people who are free to interpret the findings based on their own observations, meaning there is never a complete consensus agreed about the evidence collected and how it is to be used.

This leads Brophy on to consider post-positivism and social constructivism as qualitative approaches the may inform EBLIB by affirming the prevalence of narrative in human interactions. He argues that “These approaches suggest that rather than emphasising the transmission of “facts” (accepted knowledge about the world), modern societies need to encourage learning which encompasses both openness to differing world views and the ability to relate new ideas to existing knowledge in meaningful ways, so that each of us is continually constructing, sharing, and reconstructing our understanding of the world in all its complexity.” Such an approach emphasises the value of narrative in developing a more complete understanding of contexts and that can lead to greater decision-making for managers. This is because narrative allows one to look at evidence in context through structures: Culture, Holism, In-depth Studies, Chronology.

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One practical way that this can be applied to a library’s ability to understand user services could be in the use of surveys. Surveys are, of course, a quantitative method of research. However, it is also possible to hold interviews with users about the survey itself in order to add a layer of understand to the results in which users have the ability to express their ideas in more subjective, less structured ways. This kind of evidence feeds into Brophy’s narrative approach. Of course, what it creates is a sequence of narratives which will still need to be gathered together into a coherent structure so that it can be applied to improving a service. In order to truly understand a user-group, one not only needs to create quantitative analysis of their habits and needs, but also to understand why they behave as they do, their motivations and their needs or desires. In order to successfully achieve this, managers need not only to know how to read graphs and charts, but also need to be able to read and understand people. And for this compassion is a quality that all good readers and subsequent narrators retain because it allows them to more fully understand the qualitative aspects to social interactions and systems.

Academia, Capitalism and Bibliometrics

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Many of the ideas/ concepts within academic scholarship are quite simple, however, they are often dressed up in quite complex discourses. This paper aims to reduce Cronin’s article to its more basic ideas and to then assess the validity and relevance of these. It is interesting that the article is framed by the title ‘Symbolic Capitalism’ and yet Cronin never makes explicit reference to the capitalist contradictions inherent in scholarship. All capitalism, no matter what tag or label you add to it, is concerned with a monetary system. Academics cannot claim to be interested only in collecting symbolic status because this status inevitably leads to greater monetary gain. Bibliometrics in this sense is an extension of a longstanding hierarchal system of the ‘economy of attention’ within academia in which politics overshadows the search for truth. Furthermore, Cronin’s semiotic approach cannot really add much value to the debate until he moves it more fully into a promotion of Open Access and Open Source modes of publishing.

Cronin is essentially attempting to validate the value of bibliometrics and citation indexes in assessing the significance of scholarship. It is for this reason that he draws a distinction between “enduring scholarly impact […] and, on the other hand, web-based measures of ‘transient group interest’”. The idea that citation and referencing provides a more relevant account of a scholar’s status than his/her media celebrity is accurate, however, there is no doubt that the two are deeply connected. Scholars sit in university chairs, but they also do consultation work across a wide spectrum of public and private enterprises. They sit on funding allocation committees, on external examining boards, on the boards of private companies and government advisories. They accumulate a media profile in much the same was as they do through bibliometrics and the one informs the other. Those academics at the top of their fields do hold quite a lot of influence over the career trajectory of those who are just entering the hierarchy. Citation in this sense then does not take place on the actual merit of scholarship, but on the necessity to network by acknowledging the work of those academics that might become influential in work being funded, published and promoted.

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The real contribution that Cronin’s article makes is in his semiotic approach to understanding citation and referencing. He suggests that citations act as signposts within a discipline to authoritative and meaningful scholarship referring to citations as “frozen footprints in the landscape of scholarly achievements.” This is drawn from Saussure’s structuralist approach to linguistics in that, like Saussure, Cronin views language as stable and static as in the structuralist tradition. Following on from this approach, Cronin can argue that citations retain ‘enduring’ characteristics in that they are quantitative in culture building. The problem here is that structuralist models were quickly replaced by post-structuralist principles within which language is no loner seen as permanent, rather, language is seen as dispersive and highly manipulatable. Or more metaphorically speaking, seasons change and alter the shape of those ‘frozen footprints’ if not melting them altogether. The Structuralist approach suits Cronin’s purpose in that he views academia as a closed off community in which cultural norms and significances are established by the participants. However, the politics of academia as mentioned above is one driven by capitalist gain in which citation indexes become a more globalized form of academic hierarchy. This happens because bibliometrics does not change the politics. A young scholar cannot get published within his/her discipline if they write a paper that does not reference the hierarchy of that discipline. Why? Simply because that work will be considered incomplete by the hierarchy itself. Structuralism will tell us that consistent referencing and citation leads to more authority in assessing an author’s contribution to a discipline. But post-structuralism will be highly suspicious of this word-game in that language becomes a tool of hierarchal control over a discipline to allow established scholars earn more money. Culture then is simply a construct of hierarchy.

In this sense, it does not really matter how Cronin dresses up bibliometrics in semiotic garb. It may add to the ways in which citations and references produce meaning, but only insofar as this meaning is retained within a closed academic framework. But of course, Cronin is acutely aware of this closed community and, in fact, supports it. He acknowledges that bibliometrics is playing a role in commodifying academia and that academia has always been a commodity. He goes so far as to compare scholarship citations to the stock exchange. It is in this sense that he draws on Stanley Fish’s idea of ‘interpretative communities’. Fish in particular relies on a kind of ‘ganging up’ in forming community. His theory posits that readers do come to a consensus about what texts mean. However, this consensus is often dictated by those within a hierarchy that wield more power. This issue is even more acute within a closed community group such as an academic discipline community within which scholars are clamoring for university chairs and research funding, and now, positions on citation indexes. In actual fact, Cronin’s use of Reader-response is antithetical to his structuralist approach. Fish is indeed a Reader-response proponent, but Reader-response theory is itself a highly dispersed field of study with often contradictory ideas contained within it. Cronin’s use of the term is far too general to be meaningful. In any case, Fish’s ‘interpretative communities’ don’t adapt very well to academia. This is because it is extremely difficult for those outside of academia to become contributors to meaning within it and the core tenet of reader-response is that more readers build greater consensus. This is because of the inaccessibility to academic scholarship and journals. These are expensive to access and are usually only subscribed to by interested bodies such as universities and research institutes. In order for, say, an internet blogger to enter the debate, they would have to somehow gain access to scholarship. A subscription to just one discipline in Jstor, for example, costs more than $6000 per year. And Jstor is only one of very many journals.

Finally, the structuralist approach adopted by Cronin, coupled with reader-response theory does allow Cronin to open up a new way of assessing and conceptualizing the validity of citation and referencing indexes. However, his essay really only moves to reassert the status quo within a hierarchal academic system. I believe that an adoption of post-structuralist theories, coupled with a move towards Open Access and Open Source scholarship is the only way of achieving scholarly work and a bibliometrics that is truly meaningful based on the merits of the work and not its political/ monetary motives. But this idea would not work within Cronin’s framework of ‘Symbolic Capitalism’ because it would deny direct monetary reward for academic scholarship and would open scholarship up to a new world of scholars that exist outside of the university/ research system, thus dispersing homogenous hierarchal systems and allowing real innovation to emerge through new contexts. This is self-evident in Cronin’s essay because his work is written for a traditional academic audience who might not be so quick to read it if it had put forward a pro-open access argument. I believe maintaining the status quo is one reason why scholars are quick to distinguish the ‘impact’ of altmetrics from the more ‘enduring’ effect of bibliometrics.

[Perhaps we should cease citing and referencing altogether, as a protest against ‘Academic Capitalism’]

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

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Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.

Information as ‘story’

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It is interesting that the past continues to steam roll into the present when you least expect it. I was sitting in a lecture on Information Theory when the literary theory of my past lit a fire in my mind once again. I had thought studying the MA in Library and Information Studies was a new departure into a different future, until I heard Dr. Lai ask “What is ‘information?'”. Of course, there was no response. We had just spent the last week reading theorists who had been studying the subject for decades and who had failed to come to a definite answer on the question. Dr. Lai answered the question for us: ‘Everything!’. That naturally did not really narrow it down all that much!

I have to admit I was frustrated by the readings that week. It seemed to me as a first impression that information theorists are stuck back in a time before post-structuralism, still theorising circles around each other in the pursuit of a definitive definition of the word ‘information’. And all for what? So that more regulation can be introduced. So that the word, the idea can be further controlled. There was a sense in all of the readings that each theorist believed they were being objective. I remember thinking, the more they try to narrow it down the more out of control and expansive the word becomes. That is because every attempt to define the word resulted in more being added to it. For me, the heterogeneity of the word is where its strength lies. Lets not try to tie it down. Why not let the word grow organically? Let’s explore its possibilities so as to create more space for innovation to emerge. Let’s finally learn that narrow definitions that lead to stricter rules and regulations actually destroy creativity.

And then, with those thoughts, came rushing back a new answer out of the past. Dr. Lai was right, information is everything. But, what is everything? The answer……’story’, or narrative. The key terms that define ‘information’ revolve around data, process, knowing and communicating. There emerged the idea in the lectures and readings that information is essentially manipulated data, that is, data used in specific contexts by people with a specific agenda. Poststructuralist linguistic theory determines that the same word spoken by two different people results in two different words. Why? Because words are not just lines on a page, or sounds vibrating through the air. Words are experiences with context and subjectivity build into them and that ‘experience’ of word changes in mid air and is transformed the moment it leaves the speakers lips. What it transforms into is another, different experience that depends on who is hearing it. It might sound strange, but no one word is the same. So in this sense, or more accurately, in my own sense, information is narrative, a never ending game of Chinese Whispers spiralling out of control because no two people in the game speak the same language…….