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.