Tag Archives: libraries

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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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.

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…….