Tag Archives: librarianship

Problematic Solutions to Controlled Vocabularies……

Controlled vocabularies in modern classification systems were designed to assist in making information more accessible to library patrons and professional researchers. The very idea that vocabulary can be controlled finds its origins in Enlightenment ideology in which modern science was founded on the principles of ‘knowledge and truth’. Within the field of linguistics, this meant that the greater an understanding of the mechanics of language and the greater the accuracy and control over words, the closer one could come to truth. In applying this ideology to library classification systems, both the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System attempted to create subject headings under which library content could be listed. The claim that these systems are biased is no longer really in dispute as both systems have attempted in recent years to adapt to new emergent disciplines that have been marginalised due to the biases within the respective classifications. However, the continued attempt to regulate the classification of information through slightly more ‘flexible’ controlled vocabularies is detrimental to real innovation and creativity, not only in academic and scientific research, but also in terms of promoting real diversity and creativity privately and publicly in social, political, economic and cultural spheres. It is ironic that the very systems that set out to improve accessibility to information and to thereby foster greater innovation and awareness, has in fact lead to greater ignorance. The problem persists in so far as classification systems continue to be regulated by outmoded ideology in which classification ‘specialists’ take as their starting point the mantra that information can be classified in a coherent and organised way under specified subject headings. The truth is that until classification systems more fairly account for the differences and diversity that exists within singular texts, then these systems will continue to be biased, acting as an obstacle to knowledge as opposed to a medium to accessibility. The following paper sets out to explicate the problems created by controlled vocabularies in classification systems by discussing the issue from a poststructuralist perspective, specifically utilising Derrida’s work in Of Grammatology to explain the contradictions in traditional classification systems and to further critique some modern solutions to these problems.

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Borges (1952, 104) asserts that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural”. Borges identified that at the core of any attempt to classify or to organise objects through controlled vocabularies is the fact that this organisation is based on shifting premises that can be challenged from a point of difference. Beghtol (1986 ) illuminates the problem with traditional classification systems further by arguing that these systems are created through concepts of authority, status and control. In this sense, traditional classification systems become homogenous and hegemonic, leading to theorists like Shirkey (2005) to argue that classifications are, by their very nature, biased. Miksa (1998, 81) demonstrates that the problem with classification lies in its Enlightenment roots, arguing that classification is based on “the idea that somewhere, somehow, we can, or should try to, produce the one best classification system that will serve all purposes”. What is emphasised here is that there is one purely scientific system that pertains to truth in that this one system is complete in its ability to categories all knowledge. Miksa (1998, 81) goes on to highlight the assumption that “knowledge categories are by nature hierarchical and logical in a classical, systematic sense”. Any kind of hierarchy is established to deny real difference in a subject because everything that exists under that hierarchy must be shaped to fit into categories that the hierarchy dictates. If that hierarchy is Western, or North American, then there is naturally going to be a bias towards the ideological prioritisation for those demographics. Such systems, then, become too rigid and cannot adequately account for emerging disciplines or in fact, for the transferral of information across national and continental boundaries.

Theorists have developed the critique of traditional classification systems further to incorporate contextual elements into the debate. These contextual arguments all revolve around the idea that classification systems work to identify similarities between objects and to thus categorise them under related headings. Bowker and Star (1999, 131) suggests that “classifications that appear natural, eloquent, and homogenous within a given human context appear forced and heterogeneous outside that context”. Thus, extracting classifications from their original context within the system demonstrates just how biased the system actually becomes. Mai develops this concept further to highlight the prominence of ‘similarity’ in classification systems: “most bibliographic classification theory stipulates that documents are holders of concepts and concepts are context and human independent constructs and that classification brings together concepts based on similarity”. Lakoff (1987, 6) explains this idea of similarity further by explicating that since the writings of Aristotle, and following through the entire history of Western thought, objects were categorised based on whether or not they had ‘common properties’. Olson (2001, 116) develops the concept of similarity more to incorporate concepts of ‘sameness and difference’ in organising information: ‘once we collect this innovative material we try to organize it by gathering what is the same […] We build our classifications using these facets that bring things together according to some kinds of sameness’. However, Olson, like many contemporary theorists navigate more towards ‘sameness’ as a regulating principal of classification systems, ultimately, paying tribute to the dualism of difference but never seriously considering its significance comprehensively enough. Olson further relates the idea of sameness of that to ‘discipline’, referring to discipline as ‘the primary facet in our classification systems’. ‘Discipline’ is a word that implies an authority and strictness over controlling vocabularies and categories of information.

What is interesting is that any attempt by theorists to explain classification as biased through the concept of sameness, implicitly means using the concept of ‘difference’ as a critical hinge upon which to base those critiques. It is through this ‘hinge’ that solutions to the biases within controlled vocabularies start to emerge. Clare Beghtol (1982, 2), for example, suggests that “increasing multidisciplinary knowledge creation makes it critical to reconsider the traditional reliance on discipline-based classification and to try to solve the problems that orientation has created”. Olson (2001, 120) continues to highlight, in relation to English Literature classification, that this traditional mode privileges ‘colonisers over colonised’. She (2001, 118) further develops the importance of ‘difference’ in that she explains that “Recent recognition of the validity of oral literary traditions and the questioning of existing literary canons suggest that this definition of literature is exclusive rather than inclusive. It is defined by difference as much as by sameness”. It is through the importance of understanding difference in classification systems that some solutions to the biases begin to emerge. Olson’s solution appears to be more practical and achievable than many others. The problem is that Olson’s solutions (2001, 120-122) self-consciously lack real difference in suggesting change, preferring to base her solutions around ‘local control’ rather than any real radical changes. This means giving libraries, both regional and national, ‘notational options’ that allows them to make amendments to the subject headings so as to find vocabularies that are more suitable to the given context. Olson also suggests that “Flexibility can also be achieved by varying the citation order of classifications – shifting which samenesses get priority. It must involve rejecting at least some of the samenesses and differences of our classifications.” Olson justifies these changes by referencing postmodernism’s rejection of universals, seeing more local control as a disruption of traditional all-encompassing systems. However, she fails completely to really understand postmodern and thus poststructuralist concepts of difference and disruption. The suggested solutions simply replace one form of universal control with another more local version of the same thing. The solutions still rely on ‘specialists’ to assert authority over the vocabularies used to classify, taking the authority out of the hands of the users and placing it into the hands of individuals. It is as equally problematic as Mai’s (2010) concept of ‘cognitive control’ which allows for the continuation of the traditional system once it has been properly theorised, questioned and explained, so long as it is self-conscious to its own potential biases. The problem with this is that being self-conscious of bias does nothing to eradicate the bias, it is simply bias in a softer guise. And in any case, no matter how self-conscious we are of the bias, objects in our libraries will continue to be irretrievably buried under inadequate subject headings.

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What becomes clear, then, is that there is an awareness of poststructuralism’s influence through the referencing of the concept of ‘difference’ in attempting to understand and solve the problem of controlled vocabularies in classification systems. However, there is also a clear reluctance to engage with poststructuralism in a meaningful way. In fact, there is a clear misunderstanding of poststructuralism in the dualism of understanding ‘difference’ as the opposite of ‘sameness’. This suggests that there is an assertion of poststructuralist politics in promoting some ‘difference’ at local and national level, but that this politics is built on structuralist rather than poststructuralist linguistic foundations, thereby rendering it contradictory and self-defeating. All of the ‘solutions’ to classification bias are retained within a traditional mindset in which texts ought to be categorised into similar or related categories that are hierarchal in nature. No matter how much flexibility one allows within this model, or no matter how much ‘trustworthiness’ is achieved due to cognitive control, there still persists a traditional model that gives authority control to an oppressive few. The remainder of this paper will attempt to explain the real value of poststructuralism to this debate and will further attempt to demonstrate the radical potential of poststructuralism to not only disrupt traditional classification systems, but to disrupt them in a positive way that could lead to more meaningful solutions to the problem.

Part two, explicating how poststructuralist theory impacts upon classification systems, is coming soon…………

Part 3: The Semiotic Approach to Citation Indexing

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This brings us onto the final approach to theorizing citation indexing. This approach was termed by Chubin and Moitra (1975) as ‘phenomenological’ in that it looks at citing in terms of being a symbolic exchange. Small (1980) puts forward the idea that citations become markers or symbols which are indicative of theories, concepts, ideas or methods. Blaise Cronin has developed this approach in a more interesting way by looking at citations as both sign and symbol in his essay ‘Symbolic Capitalism’. Cronin (2005, 143) goes on to assert that a citation is a signaling device or action indicating that one is familiar with and have drawn upon a particular author and work. However, here Cronin once again places equal emphasis on the author and the work, meaning his semiotic approach draws more from structuralism than post-structuralism. The concept of the author becomes a regulating force over all future iterations of that text, meaning that the text can never be re-conceptualized leading to greater innovations having finally been released from the original hegemonic authorial context and given life of its own. Cronin is not alone in positing a semiotic symbolic relationship between texts. Wouters (1993, 7) suggests that citations act as two different signs, one that points back to the original text and one that refers to its own context. Warner (1990, 28) rejects this approach arguing that “the ambiguity of citation in aggregate form can be seen as a special case of the indeterminacy other written signifiers, such as words, can acquire when torn from their discursive context”. However, while there is some validity to this argument, Warner is still reliant on a citation being held within an original authoritative context. Cronin’s approach (2005, 156) is successful with regard to his focus on sign systems, arguing that “references and citations need to be unraveled in respect of their respective sign systems.” He (Cronin 2005, 159) goes on to suggest that this sign system is triadic in nature: “The referent of the bibliographic reference is a specific work; the referent of a citation the absent text that it denotes; in the case of large-scale citation counts, the referents are the cited authors.”

The problem with Cronin’s approach is that he views language from a structuralist perspective as is clearly evident from his triangular structure of language in which signs fall back upon an original context. But reference to Roland Bathes theory above demonstrates that signs do not necessarily operate in such a coherent direction. Rather, signs are dispersive entities that ripple out into the past, present and future thereby creating multiple contexts. They do not necessarily fold back upon the original text, but rather re-conceptualize that text pushing it into the future as a ‘new’ work. Baudrillard (1981, 150) would refer to Cronin’s sign system as the “mirage of the referent”. This essay supports Baudrillard’s concept of the sign becoming a kind of false referent that signals back to the original text. So, citations as signs do not really contain a past, rather, they only push past texts into a newly imagined future. In many ways, post-structuralism depicts citations as signs in terms of what Brian McHale (1987, 166) defined as heteroglossia, that is, “a plurality of discourse […] which serves as the vehicle for the confrontation and dialogue among world-views”. What this recognition must do, is destory any sense of hierarchy within the citation process. It can not only tear citing from their authorial and hierarchal structure, but it can also seriously undermine the normative approach that all theories appear to fall back into, nó longer allowing citations to be retained under a hegemonic capitalist scheme.

In conclusion, this paper has attempted to explicate the three main approaches to understanding and theorizing citation indexing. It has done this through a brief review of the literature available in the academic field. The suggestion is that citation indexing has become blinded to the hierarchy that now controls it. In this sense, Sosteric’s (1999) argument that hegemonic control over scholarship through the proliferation and globalization of citation practices in the wake of the technological revolution has well and truly been realized. This can be argued as we see scholars become blinded to the underlying capitalism that controls scholarly thinking by embedding scholarship within a fragmented and contradictory paradigm. Many scholars argue then for a more expansive theory through the interpretative, phenomenological, and semiotic approaches, but these become retained within authoritative contexts and ultimately collapse back into a normative approach. By identifying the persistence of an underlying capitalised structure, this essay has attempted to take a more holistic and ontological approach to the subject. It has also attempted to utilise some post-structuralist theory in order to develop the semiotic approach of Cronin. In doing so, this paper argues for the freeing up of Croin’s sign system to incorporate a more dispersed heterogenous theory that could ultimately create a freer, more authonomous citation system.

References

Baudrillard, J. (1981), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, London: Telos Press

Chubin, D.E. & Moitra, S.D. (1975), Content analysis of references: adjunct or alternative to citation counting? Social Studies of Science, 5, 423-441

Cronin, B. (2005), ‘Symbolic capitalism’, The Hand of Science: Academic writing and its rewards. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

McHale, Brian (1987), Postmodernist Fiction, New York and London: Methuen

Small, H.G. (1980), Co-citation context analysis and the structure of paradigms, Journal of Documentation, 36(3), 183-196

Sosteric, M. (1999). Endowing mediocrity: Neoliberalism, information technology, and the decline of radical pedagogy. Radical Pedagogy. http://www.radicalpedagogy.org/radicalpedagogy.org/Endowing_Mediocrity__Neoliberalism,_Information_Technology,_and_the_Decline_of_Radical_Pedagogy.html

Warner, J. (1990), Semiotics, information science, documents and computers, Journal of Documentation, 46(1), 16-32

Wouters, P. (1993), Writing histories of scientometrics or what precisely is scientometrics?

Part 2: The Interpretative Approach to Citation Indexing

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The second, and again, fragmented approach to citation indexing is best described as the interpretative approach which relies on the idea of citation as a communicative act that forms a relationship between texts. Firstly, May (1967: 890) suggests that citations are ‘deviants’ and are partly informed by the ‘scientific, political and personal motivations’ of the user. This has lead to citation indexing being viewed as a social science with the emphasis on communication between texts and also between authors. Mitroff (1972) questioned the normative approach in this way by suggesting that referencing relies on subjective behavior in the methods scientists use to cite. What this means, according to Gilbert and Mulkay (1982) is that citation behavior is context dependent. The problem with this approach was best summarized by Blackwell and Kochtanek (1981) who point out that while citation indexing is a communicable relationship involving two texts, it does not make it explicitly clear what the nature of the relationship actually is. This leads to the inclusion of psychological analysis in the debate. Harter, Nisonger and Weng (1993) suggest that there is psychological validity to citation usage in that they don’t always retain a clear topical relevance. However, little consensus was reached regarding what the texts are actually saying to each other given the rather slippery application of terms like ‘subjective’ and ‘context-based’.

Once again, as long as a fragmented, rather than holistic approach, is taken to the subject the real value of citation indexing, if any at all, will not be realized. For example, Stanely Fish (1989, 164) argues from a reader-response perspective that “the convention is a way of acknowledging that we are involved in a community activity in which the value of one’s work is directly related to the work that has been done by others; that is, in this profession you earn the right to say something because it has not been said by anyone else, or because while it has been said, its implications have not been spelled out.” However, Fish’s explanation only assesses the citation process through an insular relationship between two texts rather assessing qualitatively ‘why’ a specific cited text is valuable. His approach still falls victim to the idea expressed by Voos and Dagaev (1976) that citations function on the assumption that they have and equivalent value. In this sense, citations fail to distinguish between degrees of importance between differently weighted texts. This has lead to Czarniawska-Joerges’ (1998, 63) supposition that citations act as a “trace of conversations between texts”. In this sense, Merton’s (1977, 84) early argument that citations are too cognitively complex to be accurate and comprehensive in their citation behavior still holds true. However, this does not prevent Brodkey (1987, 4) and Bordieu (1991, 20) from falling back on the idea that there are normative procedures that regulate citation practices.

The key problem with the interpretative approach is that it takes the scientific tenet that the process of citing and the relationship between texts needs to be clearly defined. Post-structuralist theory can be useful in this sense in that it demonstrates that one cannot really assert clear definitions based around authorial intention onto context-based reading processes. Roland Barthes’s (1967) essay ‘The Death of the Author’ argues that understanding the intention of an author is neither useful or desirable when understanding textual referents. This is because language operates not as a circular reciprocal structure, but as a more dispersed set of signs. A citation marker then, cannot refer backwards to highlight the importance of an older text, but rather, a citation marker can only refer forward into the future of that ‘old’ text. This is because language does not work as a static system; in post-structuralism, language is a highly dispersive and heterogenous marker that pushes ‘past’ texts into the future while having the impact of re-contextualizing them in the process. The interpretative approach views language as something ordered and permanent. The fact that they cannot figure out what these ‘ordered’ citation markers are actually saying should act as a solid indicator that they do not engage in a conversation between the original cited work and the work that is citing, and that each time a work is cited it is transformed into a new context taking on new signification. In this sense, the author as an authority becomes irrelevant and dispersed in that he/she cannot possibly retain control of the original information. It is here where the academics theorizing citation indexing come unstuck. If they fall back upon a normative approach, then they must realize how ideologically corrupt that approach is due to the overarching commodification of education and research, not to mention the fact that the normative theory is an attempt to assert to control and authority in asserting predictable practices. However, if they embrace contemporary linguistic and culturally theory, then they must accept that they will loss control of the hierarchy altogether.

References

Barthes, Roland (1967), The Death of the Author, Aspen, No. 5-6

Blackwell, P.K. & Kochtanek, T.R. (1981), An iterative technique for document retrieval using descriptors and relations, Proceedings of the 44th American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting, Washington: ASIS, 215-217

Bordieu, P. (1991), Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Brodkey, L (1987), Academic Writing as Social Practice, Philidelphia: Temple University Press

Czarniawska-Joerges B. (1998), Narrative Approach to Organization Studies, London: Sage

Fish, S. (1989), Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham NC, Duke University Press

Gibert, G.N. & Mulkay, M. (1980), Contexts of scientific discourse: social accounting in experimental papers, in Knorr, K.D. et al (eds.), The social process of scientific investigation, Dordrecht: Reidel, 269-294

Harter S.P., Nisonger T.E. and Weng A. (1993), Semantic relationships between cited and citing articles in library and information science journals, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 44(9), 543-552

May, K.O. (1967), Abuses of citation indexing, Science, 156, 890-892

Merton, R.K. (1977), The sociology of science: an episodic memoir, The Sociology of Science in Europe, Carbondale: South Illinois University Press, 3-141

Mitroff, .I.I. (1972), The myth of subjectivity or why science needs a new psychology of science, Management Science, 18, 613-618

Voos, H. & Dagaev, K.S. (1976), Are all citations equal? Or did we op.cit. your idem? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 1(6), 19-21

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.

IT = Innovative Management System or Panoptic Hegemonic Control

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Fatat Bouraad, in ‘The Emerging Operations Manager’, puts forward the thesis that the increasing reliance on IT services and IT skills based staff needs a framework in order to develop new methods of management. This is because as IT becomes more prevalent, new methods of observing, evaluating and managing staff also emerges, allowing for shifts in management styles. However, I think it is important to ask whether we are managing staff through IT, or whether IT is becoming a mechanism for a more totalitarian style of management in which the machine allows for an even more strict top down management style?

I recently read an article by Mike Sosteric called ‘Endowing Mediocrity’ in which the author posits that IT in all forms comes from an increasingly prevalent surveillance culture within business, education and social media forms of expression. This surveillance is of course facilitated more easily through the use of IT, but rather than creating a more flat structure, it tends more towards a deceitful panopticism. Sosteric (1999) argues that “Panoptic systems thus function as systems of behavioural and ideational (hegemonic) manipulation and control.” So Bouraad may argue that IT allows for greater efficiency and a tendency towards a flat system, but he also argues for a framework through which this flat system should operate which is somewhat contradictory. There needs to be an understanding that as we move more into the realms of IT based systems, that all of our actions are constantly under surveillance by the hierarchy that we work within.

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Furthermore, modern communication systems were actually designed to create greater control over human targets. I use this language deliberately. Norbert Weiner is the father of modern IT based communication systems. He developed these as a way of controlling military missiles during flight so that they could become more accurate. The endgame was always to gain greater control over the end user/ target. The same system is now used in modern computing. In the ‘know how to be’ stage of regulating new operations management theory, Bouraad argues that employees must remain up to date in order to developed a continued propensity towards innovation. However, innovation rarely comes about within an environment of surveillance. Most companies are either trying to control employees or they are attempting to control the consumer habits of targeted customers. Information industries have been contributing to this manipulation of end user increasingly through the spread of Big Data and internet monitoring. These issues do have serious implications for libraries also as they move more towards digital and online forms of dissemination. We should of course embrace the many benefits that IT give us, but we should never lose sight of where this IT has come from and the negative impact it can have on the personal liberty of our information professionals and the public they serve.

‘Financing’ public libraries through permaculture

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Glen Holt’s article ‘Getting Beyond the Pain’ assessing the impact of funding cuts on US libraries and suggests ways in which these libraries need to adapt to not only retain efficiency with less money, but also to maintain their relevance in an ever-evolving information age. Holt points out that, ‘the point is simple: unless yearly income is rising faster than inflation, the library’s annual spending power erodes precipitously. When any political leader starts talking about “stable budgets,libraries need to watch out for real-dollar income declines”. Added to this problem of placing the library within an quantitive socio-economic framework, is the fact that the ALA have adopted a strategy in which they treat the funding of public libraries as local matter. He suggests that “he most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do”. In this sense Holt argues that libraries need to improve the ways in which they communicate their funding needs and their benefits to communities and society.

There is no doubting that libraries can do more to improve their services even with less money. Holt further points out that bureaucratic processes within a library can often lead to an unnecessary depletion of finances, especially at a time when the taxpayers are less willing to provide public funding for any public purpose irrespective of how good a cause it is. Finally Holt lists four ways in which libraries can retain their relevancy and their funding:

  • Need to demonstrate the critical need for youth services, adult literacy, help for immigrants, job preparation and economic development

  • Need to tell voters, politicians and civic leaders about the critical benefits they provide to their communities

  • Funding is not only a local matter because libraries are crucial to the nation

  • Library leaders need to focus much more on customers

  • Need to ask what role can libraries play in international information industry

I have no doubt that there is a lot of waste within public libraries, but there is also a great deal of potential. There is no doubt that libraries need to become more connected to a global economic and information framework and they can do so by connecting more directly to national and university library services, as well as partnering with information services abroad. A promotion and move towards Open Access can also open up new avenues for libraries to pursue. However, for now I would like to focus briefly on a principle borrowed from agriculture that could be applied to how libraries operate within a local community. These communities may not now be willing to give financial support to libraries through public funding bodies, but they should be encouraged to contribute in other ways. I believe permaculture practices can be applied to libraries in order to find ways of becoming more efficient, saving money, and also involving the community more. Permaculture originated as an agricultural movement that promoted permanent agriculture practices by mimicking nature. In nature, nothing is given away for free and wasted. What you have, on every level, is a kind of energy exchange. Patrons in libraries are not customers in a traditional sense in that they pay for the service through their taxes. However, at times when people are not willing to fund a library, they may be willing to contribute to the library community by giving up their time and skills in exchange for services. This principle is at the heart of permaculture in that rather than providing books for free, patrons exchange time and skills for the services. Basic services could be run in this way freeing up time for librarians to do more specialised work. It creates a stronger sense of community spirit and brings the library firmly to the centre of community.

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.