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.

fredag 22 oktober 2010

Special libraries - comments on a new report.

A few days ago I read a very interesting report by Kerstin Assarsson Rizzi on special libraries within the field of humanities in Sweden. It was published by the National Library of Sweden. It is a study of 31 special libraries outside of the university sector with the overall aim to see how they are doing in general, and how they can be incorporated into the research infrastructure of the country.

The report states that the public library system of Sweden today incorporates all kinds of libraries, except many special libraries. Most of these however are funded by public money. They are of many sorts and the institutions responsible for them are mostly not themselves parts of the library system, which may be an explanation for their often marginal existence. Examples of libraries in this study are the library of the Army Museum, of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, of the Swedish Film Institute, of the Maritime Museum, and that of the National Museums of World Culture. Furthermore a few historically significant private libraries, like the Skokloster library, are included.

The report concludes that the situation of many special libraries today is serious and problematic. A number of reasons are listed:

- The libraries lack a clear assignment or mandate in relation to the national library system. This puts them in the hands of the good will of the mother institution.

- Often, large collections are managed by very few librarians.

- Although a number of the collections complement the collection of the National Library they are not systematically and properly registered in the national bibliography LIBRIS.

- In many of the studied libraries visitors are few, even though they are open to the public.

- Knowledge of the existence of these libraries among the general public is often very low.

Suggestions on national co-ordination, support and further education of staff, increased bibliographic description and availability are made, and rightly so. Statements made that these libraries in most cases are of great value to humanistic research are important, but it require that students and researchers are aware of their existence and of what is actually in them.
The findings in the report also raise problems of a deeper and more complex kind. One such is that the value of these libraries often lies in the collections themselves. This is a main issue that differ special libraries from general (university or public) libraries. Unique collections have been built during, in many cases, a significant period of time – in some cases several hundred years – within a certain subject field or on a specific location. Today, when librarianship is fixed with usage figures and user friendliness, many of these libraries seem almost anachronistic. What possible value can a large library with a topically narrow collection, used by very few, have in today’s society? How can their value for (tax)money be defined and why should we bother to incorporate them into the general library system at – probably - substantial costs? Finding answers to these questions are not easy, at least not if we are to use the library discourse of today, so dominated by technological “innovation” and instrumentality.
If we look at libraries and librarianship from another angle however, the role of special libraries becomes obvious and without conflict: libraries as vital parts of society’s collective memory. There has over the last decade or so been an ongoing discussion among librarians and scholars alike about libraries as what is usually labelled as “memory institutions”, together with museums and archives. This is a good thing and an important perspective on librarianship valuing libraries beyond the often narrow and unreflected user oriented discourse. Special libraries are often well suited as bases for arguments in the discuission between userism and the view of libraries as memory institutions, giving far mor prominence to collections than the former. One of the most important aspects about special libraries is the completeness of the collections – defined either topically or historically. That completeness creates, in itself, a value which goes beyond the number of users. Discussing libraries in such terms, however, is often is often discarded as either old fashioned or romantic – or both . It is not.

Furthermore, the value of special libraries lies in their relation to research, not least within the humanities - without them a good deal of research could simply not have been done. It is a good thing that special libraries now get a kind of attention that may contribute to increase their status and to make them part of the national library system. Assarsson Rizzi’s report is both interesting and important. It is crucial that her suggestions are taken into serious consideration.

The report Humanistiska specialbibliotek: rapport från en kartläggning av 31 bibliotek utanför högskolan is in Swedish, and you find it here.

Pictures are from the Skokloster library.

lördag 16 oktober 2010

Uganda (re)visited - strategies for international co-operation

One of the most interesting and stimulating things about working in academia is building international networks. Academia is by nature international and a normal day at work often consists on communicating with people from several different countries. Linnaeus University is putting much effort into renewing and developing international cooperation among its departments and schools. Being a completely new university forms are not yet fixed and vivid discussions on how to shape new strategies for international co-operation is now taking place.
Not least at the School of Cultural Sciences, where my own department is situated, ambitions are high.
I have over the years had the privilege to be involved in several international projects and initiatives. As part of the new strategic ambitions of my university, I now take the opportunity to go back and re-establish some of my contacts and professional relations again. Thinking about how the Department of Library and Information Science could develop constructive contacts, there is one which stands out today - the East African School of Library and Information Science (EASLIS) at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
For several years I was working as supervisor of two doctoral students from Makerere University Library. As I moved from my former university college and entered my present position, I had to give up that, but the students continued and I am so happy that both made it and now have their PhD’s.
However, the contacts that were made during those years now make a foundation of what will be an important part of my department’s international strategy. Contacts with EASLIS have now been reactivated and hopes are high to find forms for both student and faculty exchange activities (both ways, of course), but not just that.
The Ugandan and East African library environment is of such unique character that it is of high importance that we develop research collaboration as well. With minimal material resources library activities are developing into crucial tools for literacy development, not least in the rural areas of Uganda. The National Library of Uganda is the present channel through which most resources in terms of international support are distributed. During the last few years the country has been actively rebuilding its library structure – with the National Library as the natural centrepiece - in order to achieve a strong base for both regular library activity and singular projects in all parts of the country.
At the same time Uganda has over a long period of time established EASLIS as a major educational institution among the African library schools. With a fine network of international contacts and a number of internationally renowned researchers it is a department of high quality. As such it is of interest for my department to work with, not least to give our students opportunities to go and study LIS in an environment which lies beyond the ordinary US/Europe axis, where we have the majority of our collaborations. By developing long term co-operation with a school such as EASLIS we will benefit both ways and be able to develop not just personal contacts and experiences, but library education and our understanding of librarianship as well.
As I write this first contacts has just been taken. It was a few years since we were in touch, but it seems promising - both here at my department in Sweden and at the EASLIS response are very positive. We want to work together, and that means that we will. Given the ambitions of Linnaeus University, chances are good that we will achieve both financial and institutional support for whatever form we choose to let this venture take.

Here are the dissertations of Jane Kawalya and Ruth Nalumaga, with whom I had the pleasure to work between 2004 and 2007.

Nalumaga, Ruth Ester L. (2009)
Crossing to the Mainstream: Information Challenges and Possiblilities for Female Legislators in the Ugandan Parliament. Borås: Valfrid.

Kawalya, Jane K. (2009)
The National Library of Uganda: its Inception, Challenges and Prospects 1997-2007. Borås: Valfrid

tisdag 12 oktober 2010

Libraries in the proposed new State Budget

Now that the proposed new Swedish State Budget is published we see some of the first actual results of the ambitions to create a new national library policy. The National Library is to be given a larger mandate as the authority responsible for collusion of all state funded initiatives for libraries in Sweden. This is a major step towards a unification of the Swedish library sector that many actors on the library scene in the country have wanted for a long time, and as a thought it is good. Social and technological development has gone so far that it is now reasonable to make a substantial change in a system of responsibilities and role distribution which basically has been untouched for almost a hundred years. The public inquiries that have been made during the last year have mostly been positive and constructive in their ideas and ambitions to create this new and, what many believe, stronger structure of the library sector.
However, when the budget now arrives we see that the ambition of the government is not wholehearted on this matter. A cultural collusion inquiry suggested the new distribution of responsibility in the library sector specifically requested that the National Library should take full financial responsibility for an increased state involvement within the sector, and that collusion between national, regional, and local levels should be facilitated by this. Now the government does not want this rather simple and transparent solution.
The National Library is not given full confidence in its new mandate in that it is specifically mentioned in the budget that it shall not distribute any funding to the regional library level. This simple fact will become a hindrance in the creation of a national library policy. The parts of the library sector will still be financed through different levels of authorities – exactly what the preceding inquiries wanted to get away from.
When differencing the national and regional level in this new structure, much is lost. It is quite possible that several activities that would have benefitted from a more centralised form of financial support now will suffer – most likely those concerning reading and literacy oriented initiatives.
The financial model now proposed by the government raises questions on how serious their ambition to see a reformed library sector really is. That it is needed is beyond doubt.

fredag 8 oktober 2010

Critical Theory for Library and Information Science

A few days ago, I got a book in the mail that I had eagerly waited for. Not because I happen have a chapter in it, but because it is collecting, almost encyclopaedia-like, a large numbers of theoretical frameworks that have influenced and will influence in the future, the field of Library and Information Science. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science, published on Libraries Unlimited, is the first anthology to gather theoretical frameworks – and theorists - that are developed in order to support research in working as part of society in terms of political and emancipatory activity. Each chapter consists of a presentation of a theorist and his of her theories with brief suggestions on their relevance for LIS research.

In many parts of LIS socially informed critique is still something controversial new. Theoretical constructs and claims have often been formed around empirical bases like “human information behaviour” or “performance measurement of information retrieval systems” without taking political or ethical values into consideration.
In the mid 90’s a discussion started about an often undefined social “context”. It was felt that contextual analysis would enhance the social relevance of theories stuck in a cognitive position which in many cases had reached a dead end for the understanding of the complex issues of information behaviour. The need for social legitimacy was pretty much the basis of the ISIC (Information Seeking in Context) conferences of the late 1990’s. Some of us remember well the pivotal key note speak by Dr. Brenda Dervin at the first ISIC conference in Tampere, Finland in 1996, where she described “context” as an “unruly beast”. Without doubt the contextual addition to traditional theoretical claims in information behaviour research made these more complicated, interesting and relevant. Still, the context must be filled with something if we want research within LIS to have a true social relevance.

With its roots in the Frankfurt School in the 1920’s, critical theory has today developed into sophisticated analytical frameworks suitable for research in most disciplines. What they do is basically that they mark a standpoint: as researchers we have a responsibility – our analyses serve a purpose.

The bottom line in all critical theory is Marxist theory, today developed into a large number of varieties (most of the contributors in the anthology do most likely not identify themselves as “marxists”). The editors of the book formulate the current points of departures very well: “The recognition of the complex heterogeneity of people is now a core idea, and the relationship between genuine multiculturalism and democracy was established. Furthermore, critical theorists have shown that the actions of professionals are implicated in power – asymmetrical relations based on class, race, ethnicity and sexual preference”. Accepting this as a basis for theoretical claims and construction - and empirical research - brings not only legitimacy, but it also places the researcher as an actor in the midst of society.

As a discipline LIS is very well suited to fill a space in contemporary social discussion. Focussing on issues crucial to late modern society dominated by communication technology and massive information consumption, we are able to go behind, study and reveal barriers of inequality and power structures surrounding us all – it is our job, and it is our responsibility. In contemporary critical theory tools are given and for LIS – with Critical theory for Library and Information Science – we have now a fine toolbox.


Critical theory also seems to stimulate creativity in many different ways. Enjoy this "critical theory rap" - in Danish!

Full reference for anthology:

Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: exploring the social from across the disciplines (2010) Eds: Gloria J. Leckie, Lisa M. Given and John E. Bushman. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Dr. Dervin's key note speach is published in:

Information Seeking in Context: proceedings of an international conference on research in information needs seeking and use in different contexts, 14-16 august, 1996, Tampere, Finland (1996) Eds. Pertti Vakkari, Reijo Savolainen and Brenda Dervin. London: Taylor Graham

fredag 1 oktober 2010

Debate on social media in libraries - simplifications and lack of knowledge

There have been some discussions lately on the use of social media in public libraries in Swedish media. Sharp dichotomies have been drawn between “books” and social media not least within the national daily press – the former is “good”, the latter “bad”. Librarians have been portrayed as enemies of “books” and deep aficionados of everything Internet-based social interaction. My colleague at Lund University, Olof Sundin, has in a recent blog post called for a more sophisticated and nuanced discussion. I agree with him.

The issue of social media in libraries is complex, and I think much of the difficulties that arise when discussing it is due to the fact that this is something completely new that we have not seen in libraries before. There is little doubt that many libraries plunge into social media without a thought through strategy on what to actually do with it. That does however not mean that they are doing anything that will overhaul the very concept of libraries as we know them.

In much of the literature on social media and libraries, often included in visions of the “library 2.0”, we often see a rhetoric which is hard and excluding of what we know as “traditional” library services. In this we can draw parallels to the mid 1990´s, when we see an equivalent in the discussions on how the Internet would affect libraries. The death of traditional libraries and librarianship was seen as imminent – by librarians, not by the users. It didn’t happen though. It will not happen now either.

When the use of social media finds its form and the fascination of what can be done is replaced by a mature insight into how it might be developed into existing library services, the fears and dichotomies will fade away - as they did when Internet matured into the everyday life of libraries and their users.

However, the debate today is important – as blunt as it is - as it points in a direction to where more research is needed. We need to know how use of social media affects the organisations, how it is integrated into existing service forms, how it is received by the users, and in what way it can increase the social roles of libraries. We do not know how it actually affects librarianship as a profession.

Social media is here to stay in libraries. We need to research it. We need to get get more knowledge to be able to go beyond the ever annoying journalistic simplifications that we have to live with today.