tisdag 21 december 2010

Document Studies - an alternative "paradigm" in Library and Information Science?

Do we see a shift in focus in Library and Information Science today? Is it possible to speak of the emergence of a new “documentation movement”? Should we speak of Library, Information and documentation studies? Are there “neo-documentalists” within the discipline, changing its pace into something new and exciting? Well, some think so.

Labeling research “movements” is of course difficult, and perhaps not even necessary, but more and more scholars today feel the need to define what is seen as a new kind of research that has emerged during the last six or seven years, and that either explicitly or implicitly is visible as something other than the information behavior centered mainstream of LIS that has dominated research for so long now. What is the perhaps most common denominator in this research is that it puts the “document” in focus of problem statements rather than “information”.

“Information” and “Document” are two of the most fundamental concepts that LIS is building upon, and the study of information/document use is at the core of the discipline together with the organization of information/documents. At first glance it might seem that the two concepts are synonymous, but they are not. It does matter which one is in focus.

To organize documents is quite a different practice from organizing information, and to use documents is something very different from using information. LIS has been so fixed by the “information” concept that it (the concept) has lost most of its meaning and thus become more and more uninteresting to work with; the widespread term “information behaviour” is on the verge of becoming nonsense. In this situation, document research comes in with a fundamentally material foundation for research which gives a whole different set of prerequisites for the formulation of problem statements.

What about the “neo-documentalists”, then? Well, I actually picked this term up from a conversation I overheard at the latest DOCAM conference in Denton, Texas in March 2010. The “neo” in neo-documentalist refers back to late 19th century when Paul Otlet started his bibliographical project. His pivotal Traité de Documentation from 1934, together with for example Susanne Briet’s Qu’est-ce que la documentation? from 1951 formed the basis of the European documentation movement, working with the materiality of the document, trying to solve problems that we since the late 1970’s have been trying to solve with “information” research. The assumed new documentation movement build upon the works of these people, taking it far into the documentary environment of today.

At the beginning of the new century several happenings and publications occurred that would mark not only dissatisfaction with the state of LIS, but also openings of new perspectives that might take us a few steps further in our understanding of our discipline by defining new research problems. One such occurrence was the founding of DOCAM, The Document Academy, in 2003. A central publication was an article, “The social life of documents”, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid published in First Monday in 1996. Another was the publication of Bernd Frohmann’s important book Deflating Information - from Science Studies to Documentation in 2004. There can of course be more titles mentioned, but I hold with these.

DOCAM has now become institutionalized with its annual conferences. Its reputation has grown slowly, and it is today considered to be one of the most original and vital arenas in LIS, with its open doors not only to academia, but also to the arts. Frohmann’s book was perhaps not the first to question the dominating mainstream research in LIS, but it managed to formulate a frustration felt by many in the field over the dominance of a research on information needs seeking and use that rapidly was turning increasingly redundant, but still claiming paradigmatic hegemony. Parallel to this, leading scholarly journal Library Trends published in 2004 a theme issue focusing on “Information and its philosophy” tying the problematic information concept to the fact that LIS is basically a material science building upon documents rather that the abstract “Information”.

What themes then dominate document research today? Well, some of them are

- document use (in daily settings)

- bibliography

- the role of documents in research and scholarly communication

- document architecture

- studies of document based institutions such as libraries, archives and museums

- document genre theory

There are more, but these are all examples of areas where the number of empirical studies are now growing. None of these areas are new, but taken together, they gain a kind of collective significance that they have not yet been acknowledged with. However, if one is to argue for a new line of research, or a new “paradigm”, one has to show where this research takes place and not least important, who does it. This is not always easy, as there is no program, no manifesto, no connecting conferences - DOCAM could perhaps be it, but in order to gain real significance it has to establish a routine for publication of the conference contributions. One way of finding “neo-documentalism” or documentation studies or document studies is of course to go through the literature. No major literature review has yet been made, but there should now be enough works out there to be able to formulate this research as a movement away from the traditional mainstream of LIS. This is not the forum for such a review, but I might well call for one.

It is important to recognize the amount of work that is being done within a “document paradigm”, as we must be able to present it to our students in a comprehensive manner, both on graduate and under graduate levels. It is indeed asked for.

A few interesting references and web pages:

"Document, documentation and the Document Academy", by Niels W. Lund and Michael Buckland, founders of DOCAM, in Archival Science 2009.

Interesting article on Susanne Briet and her contibution to the French documentation movement by UCLA researcher Mary Niles Maak.

French web page on Paul Otlet's Traité de documentation.

Pictures are of Susanne Briet and Paul Otlet

onsdag 8 december 2010

Dewey vs. The Public Libraries of Sweden - comments on a new report

In 2008 the National Library of Sweden decided to change its classification system into the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and soon thereafter Swedish Library Association made a statement urging all parts the Swedish library sector to adapt and use the same system. The initiative basically came from a few academic libraries already using the DDC, but as the question came up more and more institutions and individuals felt that this might be an appropriate time to make such a change which in both size and scope is of major historical significance. However, one part of the sector has remained skeptical all through the process – the public libraries. In most parts of the world, DDC is a classification system for public libraries. Academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification or the Universal Decimal Classification. There are many reasons for this, not least from a theoretical point of view – DDC is simple and rigid compared to both LCC and UDC. In Sweden, academic libraries obviously see DDC as the best option available, while the public libraries mostly seem to have been left behind in the discussions preceding the decision of the National Library – until now.

Just a few days ago an eagerly awaited report that finally deals with the DDC and public libraries was published by the Swedish Library Association. The title of the report is En svensk övergång till DDK – vad innbär det för folk- och skolbibliotek? [A Swedish transition to DDC – what will it mean to public and school libraries?] and hopes where that arguments for why at all public libraries should bother to take part in the transition to DDC would be presented in a convincing manner. If indeed that was expected, the report is a major disappointment. No argument whatsoever is provided that may convince public librarians why they should take on the complex task of leaving the current nationally well established SAB-system. I’m not surprised. During the last few years that the issue of DDC has been up for discussion the public libraries have been a major concern.

The report makes one thing clear: we are not dealing with a pedagogical problem getting public librarians to “understand” the point of it all.

The perhaps major argument for the whole transition is the development of the international bibliographical environment and the increased ability to make bibliographic exchange on the international market. This is indeed a strong argument for academic libraries. To most local public libraries, however, this is of limited interest. Instead we are treated with a number of relevant issues and activities in local librarianship that need to be changed in order to make DDC work.

Conclusion: we will now implement a classification system that is inferior to the one now in use and in order to make it work at all, we need to change the way we work.

Librarians are expected to do a lot of additional work leading to most uncertain results. Why and how this is to be done is not mentioned - probably because no one knows.

The lack of constructive conclusions in the report is excellent as it can make a good basis for a serious discussion that sooner or later has to come. It is not the skeptical public libraries that are the problem – without doubt do they have reason to be careful here. Nor is it the National library. Instead, the most problematic agent in this situation is the Swedish Library Association itself, having so strongly advocated the shift to Dewey for all kinds of libraries. Advocating bibliographic systems and routines that are clearly inferior to those presently used in public library may put its credibility at risk. That would be serious as the library sector needs a strong organization to support its societal claims.

All this said, my own position in relation to this matter is relatively neutral. All bibliographic systems have their weaknesses, and therefore changing from one to another is, most likely, a case of exchanging one set of problems for another. The arguments for changing systems in academic libraries and in the national library hold. Concerning public libraries, the problems and obstacles pointed at in the report are all well known to anyone working with classification and thus easily foreseeable. The question now is how to handle them. Maybe this is an issue where strive for unity among all libraries should not be seen as an overall goal.

I hope this important report will trigger discussion and debate among librarians of all kinds.

The report En svensk övergång till DDK - vad innebär det för folk- och skolbibliotek? is available at the the website of Swedish Library Association.

The issue of introducing DDC in Swedish libraries was up for discussion 90 years ago as well – the situation was surprisingly similar. I wrote about this in an article “Why Public Libraries in Sweden did not Choose Dewey” in Knowledge Organization, Vol. 24(3), 1997, pp 145-153.

onsdag 1 december 2010

Digital libraries - why not?

What is a digital library? The issue of definition has been more or less dead now for several years. Not since Howard Besser published his definitional essay in First Monday eight years ago has there been a real serious discussion on how actually to define - and thus make visible – the most novel and innovative library type that we have seen since the emergence of public libraries. Somehow digital libraries are just “there”. But what are they? The library at my university is today approaching a 80 % acquisition rate of digital documents. Only about 20% of what is bought today are printed books and periodicals. Still we hesitate to call this a "digital library". If the same numbers would concern the buying of manuscript, we would most likely talk of a “manuscript library”; if 80% of the acquisition would consist of periodicals, we would talk of a “periodicals library”. Libraries are defined by the character – not just the content – of the documents of which they consist.

When have a library crossed the line between the “traditional” and the digital? Is it even possible to talk of established libraries as digital libraries – or are they something substantially different, and if so, of what does these differences consist?

These questions may seem simple. The answers waiting to be found are intriguingly complex.

onsdag 24 november 2010

Public libraries sctrutinized - how do they respond?

In Sweden we have, during the last few weeks, been exposed to a very interesting public debate on the role of public libraries. The core issue is that some libraries, among them Stockholm Public Library, the largest in the country, have out-sourced a large amount of the collection development to a commercial net book store owned by the largest publishing concern in the country. As such this is unprecedented in Swedish library history and the significance of this step should not be underestimated. However, I will not argue here on the issue as such, but instead focus on an aspect of the debate itself which is interesting and, when the waves of discussions and emotions have come to rest, will lend itself to thorough analysis.

Usually when discussions and debates on public libraries arise, the libraries are the “victims” – of bad economy, of evil politicians or of some other force outside themselves that is trying to impose on their democratically defined mission in society. This time, the roles are reverse – the librarians are the “bad guys”. This gives a certain flavor to the discussion as representatives of the libraries cannot count of the support of the public. This is something that the library sector is very unaccustomed to.

Much discussion has been taking place – as so often today – in great many places, not least in “public” fora that still are private. Facebook has been one arena of debate where several librarians have suffered severely (in terms of arguments) from hard attacks from not only authors, but also from the general public. I will have to return to these comments in another way than this as I do not wish to take discussions outside of these “private rooms” (that so paradoxically are the new favorites of public libraries, all in the name of “user communication”). The conventions of citing such foras are still uncertain to me. However, we can stick to the debate that is increasingly visible in public daily media. What is clear is that the library sector is not ready for the critique that is now directed towards it. A good example is a short comment on the role of public libraries published in Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, today. It is written by Inga Lundén, Head of Stockholm Public Library. The thing is that Lundén is not only that - she is also the chair woman of the board of Swedish Library Association. Her sitting on two chairs may become a problem here not only for her, but for the library sector as a whole.

Lundén´s comment is politically correct and an abstract defense of the widely accepted thought of libraries as important institutions safe-guarding certain democratic values etc. We have heard it all so many times before. In no aspect does she meet the very clear and issue related critique of “her” library. But do the public believe her? I doubt it. And of course it is important to ask – as what is she responding, as head of Stockholm Public Library now under such heavy fire from so many directions, or as the highest representative of Swedish library sector?

Lundén’s comment is interesting in itself, but even more as a representation for what might be seen as a new kind of library discourse in public debate. The defensive way of responding to critique of concrete changes in the policy of public library seems typical for many of the librarians now scrutinized. It is clear that this debate creates massive unease among public libraries. If public libraries of today are to go through with an ideological change of unprecedented significance and size, taking them into a position where sales values become more important than social responsibility, they might do well to study some conflict management.

Without doubt such a change is rapidly taking place now. Actions are taken, but the arguments are not there. Instead we see a sector hiding behind old familiar slogans that it obviously does not believe in any more. Analytically this is interesting. Politically it might, in the end, turn out to be devastating.

fredag 12 november 2010

Change in academic libraries - comments on a new report

Public libraries are often in focus when it comes to discussions on change in the library sector. Today their nervous relationship to social media is a constant matter of concern. The question is, however, if the changes we see in public libraries come anywhere near the complexity and profoundness of those today being seen within the academic libraries. Being an integrated part in higher educational systems in great flux these libraries seldom get the space they deserve in discussions of library development. In a new report published by the Swedish Library Association conclusions are drawn from various sources on the condition of today’s academic libraries, and the expectations of those of the future. It is a good and thought provoking read. Three areas are hightlighted as more interesting than others, in terms of change and development:

- User relations. Traditionally, academic libraries have served researchers, but today students are the prime user group. This makes it necessary to rethink the very mission of the academic library.

- Relations to universities. Development has gone from libraries being a central part of the universities to them being more and more integrated in the core activities of the university – teaching and research.

- Technology. New technology has for long now been the most overwhelming change factor in academic libraries. With it comes not only new forms of documents and document distribution, but a whole new way of scholarly communication, in which libraries traditionally have had a very clear role.

None of these findings are new, nor unexpected. It is, however, when they are brought together that we can clearly see the massive change that is taking place in academic libraries today.

One of the things that is mentioned in the report, but not thoroughly discussed, is the relation between academic libraries and other parts of the national library system. This is something of a core issu, which has bearings into all three areas mentioned above. The dramatic increase of students at under graduate level – most notably perhaps distance students – makes it necessary for public libraries to handle the same users as the academic libraries. In itself, it is an old problem, but there seem to be no real will to discuss it seriously today.

Organisational change has made academic libraries increasingly dependant of the activities of the local university. Not only do libraries develop its traditional roles as support to diciplines, but they also tend to be a more engaged part in research itself, for example as physical hosts for research groups etc. This becomes important as, for instance, issues like inter-library co-operation both locally and nationally, may be complicated – if there will not develop some kind of structure for this in the library sector. It is important that both relations to other libraries and to the local university are cared for. The report claims that the development we saw about a decade ago, where public libraries and academic libraries became closer and closer not least in organisational terms – think joint use libraries – now seems to have more or less stopped. This is interesting as the areas where the different forms of libraries intersect today is more obvious than ever. Academic libraries become increasingly “popular” due to the mass acceptance of students, and public libraries has to serve these students in more and more sophisticated ways. The common denominator we find as library educators is the increasing demand for pedagogical perspectives in formulating the “new” librarianship in our LIS programmes.

Despite all, academic librarians seem to be a happy group of people, as they experience no threat to the existence of the library, although user behaviours tend to decrease the value of libraries as we know them. The fact that today’s academic libraries do not look at all like those from only a few decades back – mostly due to the new user patterns and the new technology - does not seem to bother anyone. Can we expect anything but a similar speed of change in the future to come, and if so can we in just a few years time speak of these libraries in the same terms as we do today – or that we did just a few years back? Is such change necessarily a good thing?
No doubt, we here see a sector that embraces change for the sake of change itself – as do public libraries. The difference is that change in academic libraries aims more to the very core of their activities as in public libraries change is taking place around them. Well - that may be a discussion worth returning to in another entry of this blog…

The issues discussed in the report focus on the Swedish situation, but they are in most cases genuinely international – the same developments can be seen in most parts of the world.

The report, Universitets- och högskolebibliotek – nu och i framtiden [University and university college libraries – now and in the futeture] is in Swedish, and you find it on the website of Swedish Library Association.

torsdag 28 oktober 2010

Slow Scholarship - a different attitude to academia

“Academia seems more and more like Hollywood: too many channels and nothing on”.

The quote is from a 2008 entry in Anthropology blog Savage Minds and is part of a discussion on the value of slowing academic writing down. On Facebook there is a group called Slow Scholarship celebrating the process of scientific inquiry and writing rather than getting into the rat race of publication numbers.
The world of academia is today dominated by a turning away from some of the characteristics that have been significant for scholarly activity for centuries; reflection, deep reading, substantial writing and meaningful results. Instead it is dominated by a “publish or perish” ideal supporting researchers in publishing as much as possible – all the time. Out of this attitude towards research two things come - redundancy and mediocracy.
Systems of research funding all over the world are today formulating high demands on quantity of publications rather than quality of research. In Sweden this way of looking at research is relatively new, but it is now coming at us with full speed.
Talking from the point of view of a humanistic scholar, this development is very problematic. Social and human problems seldom benefit from high speed research. They do, however, benefit from deep, calm reflection, most beneficially published in the form of monographs (if one has to promote a certain form). Monographs take time to write.

I see my self as an intellectual. I see my colleagues as intellectuals. I do not see myself – or my colleagues - as part of a “knowledge industry”. As intellectuals we have a very distinct role in society. We are the ones to make the deep analyses, to summon knowledge, we shall be better read and, yes, we shall be erudite in relation to those outside our sphere. Our work require reflection and reading – lots and lots of reading, not just research writing, but all sorts of literature, because we need to make the kind of connections that no one else make when looking at society and human endeavours. Based on all this we also have the duty to take part in discussion and critique within the realms of society that lie within our field of expertise. That might sound pretentious to some, but then, one of the major problems with contemporary university life is just that - the lack of pretention.
The Slow Scholarship group on Facebook proclaims that it “places a high value on the process of scholarship, without the rush towards publication and without capital-intensive research. It savours in-depth thought and celebrates broad knowledge. It eschews competition and fosters enjoyment and cooperation in research.”
Is that pretentious? I don’t know, but there is probably no field in society where the oppositional relation between quality and quantity is more obvious than in that of academic writing.
The extreme over-production of “scholarly” journal articles and the redundancy that comes with it is a threat to the very core of academia – reflection and well grounded analysis.
If we as professionals engage and accept these current systems of funding and hyper activity, we also send the signal to our students that those are ok. The result is reluctance to read long texts (books), the constant search for quick fix answers, the lack of reflection and the ever occurring questions about “exactly what pages to read” in a book for the task at hand. If we want to foster our students in the spirit of good scholarship, we need to slow ourselves down. We need to focus on the process of research and the process of writing and let go of the politically and economically defined demands of quantitative productivity. We need to show our students that calm, extensive reading is valuable, that reflection is necessary and that, if they want to get the most out of what ever they are studying, they need to grasp the complexity of their topics, not just the “answers” to this week’s task.
So, what to do then - shall we stop writing articles? Of course not. Are ten thousand books necessarily better than ten thousand articles? No, not necessarily. Shall we not encourage our students to search for information sufficient enough to solve this week’s task? Yes we shall. Shall we submit to some kind of “recluse” ideal instead of engaging ourselves in society? No.

What is called for is a whole new attitude towards scholarly writing and academic life – and perhaps most importantly, knowledge itself. The idea of Slow Scholarship is growing (slowly…) and it is a movement which is clearly political and ideological. Ignoring quantitative demands and instead prioritise to work on the terms of research itself is a highly subversive thought for many, especially those benefitting from the present system. As academic scholars we are parts of an erudite profession with a long tradition. The political and economic forces of today – in many countries – try to deny us the right to work in that tradition. We do not need to let them succeed – we can just slow down.

An interesting LIS article related to the idea of Slow Scholarship is this one:

Cain, Amanda (2002) "Archimedes, Reading, and the Sustenance of Academic Research Culture in Library Instruction". Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(3), 115-121.