måndag 25 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 4: theorizing

One afternoon in 1997 (or 1998) I had a seminar on the study that eventually became my doctoral thesis. I can’t quite remember the discussion, but it must have concerned some rather theoretical issues, because I do remember my supervisor, professor Lars Höglund, sighing: ”but we must be able to tell something – it is possible for us to know things!!?”. I was a bit puzzled by this odd exclamation – that was really not the way I looked at what I did.  Of course he was right. When I started off in research twenty years ago it was not, however, self-evident that a young doctoral student would have that perspective. Postmodern theory was, at least in Library and Information Science, prevalent amongst the young, and we upheld some pride in taking in the ”new”.
Looking back now, however, I can see that maybe I never actually was as postmodern as I thought I was. At some point I definitely understood that I at least had left the postmoden irony-laden theories which I, to be honest, found quite tedious. Instead I see, through the whole of my work, a consistent theoretical underpinning relating to marxism (the ”young” Marx), neo-marxism and critical theory. The names I have followed and used in my research are, among others, Paul Ricoeur, James G. March, Chantal Mouffe and lately also Maurizio Ferraris. I have revolved around an axis which actually consists of a serious questioning of the postmodernity I thought I was a part of in the beginning of my scholarly path. What instead has guided me is the firm belief in society as something which really is ”out there”, possible to grasp and analyse, based on a materiality untouched by interpretation (often visible through its documentality) and without the binary relation of individual/context that so has fuelled contemporary Library and Information Science. The theory of mimesis by Paul Ricoeur was Aristotelian rather than Platonic; the ”new institutionalism” of James G. March opposed traditional institutional theory, based on simple behaviorism; the theory of agonistic pluralism forwarded by Chantal Mouffe gave me tools to analyse political processes which could explain why the often proclaimed death of ideologies was just an illusion; the concept of documentality, as formulated by Maurizio Ferraris, has made it possible to explain the legitimacy of social objects and insitutions through the documents and processes of documentation by which they are made visible.
These perspectives of course not only provide arguments for social critique, they may even be part of an argument for change. On the other hand, I don’t believe (anymore) that science will overturn the structures of power that opress the world today. Should the masses act on scientific knowledge, then we would for instance all be vegetarians, based on the fact that (a) we do not need to eat dead animals to survive, (b) the logic of the ”market” make the meat industry one of the most cynical and disgusting in the world.  But most people don’t act on such facts, now do they?
In Library and Information Science, we can establish the democratic significance of library services working in local society settings, as well as we can analyse the importance of a well working scientific communication – a prerequisite for development through knowledge. Not enough, perhaps, to turn contemporary society into a more worthy and humanistic one than that which we have today – but, enough to provide the basis for formulation of important questions that reach well beyond the influence (and interest) of the discipline.
In order to see the world, we need knowledge; in order to see the knowledge we have to document it; the documents need to be described and organized, they need to be made available and possible to retrieve; once so, we can internalize them and convert them into action, and out of this action there is (still?) room to achieve change. But, of course, the thought of redirecting social development requires an understanding of the very existence of social relations, not as ironies or discursive constructions, but as experiences of real people. In this way both studies of librarianship and documentation may in itself be legitimized from a materialistic point of view. Library and Information Science has indeed a lot of potential in this respect.

If any of my scientific writings should find a place for someone, somewhere, in the quest for social change and the role therein of documentation and librarianship, I would probably die a happy man. Before death, though, I might just keep doing this for, well, another twenty years.

söndag 24 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 3: writing

For twenty years now I have been paid to communicate abouth things I find important in writing. As I am not particularly fond of people in general, I see this as a privilege. As a scholar I am to a very high degree a writer, something which I feel seldom is talked about when it comes to research – one only rarely hear a social researcher talk about his or her writing process – focus is always on the ”results”. To me the identity as a scholarly writer has been essential. When I entered the academy it was with a large portion of curiosity of what I would be able to do as a writer within the confinements of science – both in terms of research, and in terms of more popular writings. All of my research output is very personal to me. When I see my list of publication, I do not see just a list of articles, book chapters, reports and books. I see an ouvre. Some might find that pretentious, and it is. I do believe that lack of pretention is a big problem today, in research, and in society as a whole. The original fascination for documentation and libraries that once made me choose to engage in Library and Information Science in teaching and research, has always been my main guidence in the choices I have made in terms of topics and form. To me, my work follows a fairly straight path (with a few exceptions), and each new project I have taken on has begun in my own private contextualization, were I ask myself where this could fit in to the overall structure of my work. Whether this is visible to others is completely uninteresting. I am only interested in the direction of my own inner compass.  If I follow that, I am confident I will formulate interesting things to say that will take on a life of its own and be a part of discussions and debates of various sorts. In many cases this has also been the case. Suddenly I see, or hear of, a text of mine in a discussion that I could not imagine – sometime several years after it has been written. To see the individual lives of my books and articles unfold before me is gratifying beyond words. It is very much the way in which I connect to the world. I have several times over the years been invited to discussions and debates relating to topics I have written about. For the most I decline such invitations – I do not feel comfortable talking in the context of a debate – it is really as simple as that.
My research is, as I said, very personal to me.  It is therefore very important to me to keep as much independence in my work as I possibly can. Once the text is out and about, it is for any and all to scrutinize and crucify, but I do not compromise with my ideas. This why I do not engage in searching for ”external funding”, as it is called at the university. As most external funding in Sweden is the same tax money that already give me my pay at the end of the month, this is of course just discourse. External funding, especially in a topic like Library and Information Science, is nothing more than a control system giving some research a political legitimacy, and other not. I am utterly uninterested in the political legitimacy of my work, and doing my research in the realm of my given slot of time as a scholar has always been important. The result starts by now to show – it is possible to develop and do interesting research without spending a lot of time applying for money that you will most likely not get. This system set to discipline the spirits of scholars is devastating for many good ideas or, at the very least, time consuming - time that could be better used doing research. The system of reward within the university in terms of symbolic power and influence is obvious. It does, however, not have anything to do with the quality of research performed.
Writing science is in itself a negotiation, in terms of peer review processes and the scrutiny at conferences. The important thing is that these processes come relatively late in the creative process, and primarily concerns (at least with peer reviewing) the presentation of results. I remember when I started off with my first articles in 1993/1994, how I felt as if I was learning a new language. It was like learning to write sonnets – without the correct rhymes, it will simply be something else. Soon enough I realized it wasn’t all that rigouros, and I have done some experimentation with forms - for better and for worse. It was, however, an important choice for me – if I wanted to communicate and reach out to people, this could very well be a way that was fruitful. The writing process still holds. I can work though a project, or dwell on a problem for a very long time (sometimes years) without even making notes. At a given time – or a deadline – I sit down and I… write, quickly, with the basic structure all set in my mind's eye. Sometimes a given argument or line of thought finds its form in this very late writing process as I tap away – sometimes I have had a formulation or a sentence in my head for a very long time. If it’s good, it stays, if it doesn’t hold, it’ll disappear never to come back.
Results of social research is always negotiations and interpretations. I have always wondered why individual writing processes are so seldom discussed within the universities – as if we only reported, as if we are not – first and foremost – creative intellectuals, authors of science.

lördag 23 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 2: teaching

Having worked for a full 20 years in academia, there has been a lot of teaching. I enjoy being in the classroom. I have never seen myself as a teacher – I still don’t – but I enjoy it. It’s a decent way to make a living. When I first entered a classroom in the role of a teacher in 1993, I had been employed at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS) in Borås for about three weeks, immediately after graduating at that very department. The new semester was just about to start and one of the most experienced teachers had, for reasons I have long forgot, failed to appear. I was told to replace him and at a three days notice I had to prepare a course in cataloguing and bibliography. I was given a copy of the Swedish cataloguing rules and a few articles and set off to work.  I quickly got a grasp of the rules (I had studied them thoroughly only a year earlier, as a student). What really scared me, however, was the idea of mantling the role of a teacher. Not ever have I had any urge whatsoever to lead anyone else, and a teacher is obviously a leader. I needed to get over this nervousness, so went to the bookstore and bought a copy of Karl Popper’s ”Unended quest: an intellectual autobiography” - don’t ask… For some reason it worked; when the students arrived I had prepared a series of lectures on cataloguing and bibliograhpic control. To my sincere surprise, I found that they accepted the authority I was set to uphold. Up until today I have since favoured the traditional lecture as my pedagogical vehicle. I find it simple enough; the only thing I want from the students is their full attention – as they can demand my full attention while giving my talk. If I find the group unattentative, I leave the room, as I expect my students to leave if they find me unfocused or ill prepared. We should not waste each other’s time.
In the mid 1990’s distance studies were not as common as they are today. At the SSLIS we had, interestingly enough, a group of students in Stockholm, some 400 km away. Several times each semester teachers went on the train, booked into hotels, and taught the same things as on campus. In between meetings assignmets were sent by mail – not e-mail, of course – real mail. It was, by today’s measures a clumpsy and not very efficient way of teaching, but it worked well. It’s easy to forget that such solutions actually did work, and that the new tools for distance learning has done nothing in increasing the quality of the work performed by the students – even though we have a whole learning industry feeding the denial about this. Technology is only just that  - technology – not something which increases quality in teaching or learning. What it has done, however, is impose a lot of previously unecessary work on the teachers. It has not done us much good.
In 2008, I shifted departments to my present one, at what now is Linnaeus university in Växjö. In terms of teaching I was put in a completely new situation. Leaving a large school with (topically) limited teaching assignments, I now had to teach ”everything”. Fewer students and less faculty doing the same job as at the larger department. I had to reconsider my view on how we best teach Library and Information Science. The discipline consists of a large number of disparate subfields, and it often requires both skills and patience to make the students see how it all fits together. Is it reallly necessary to cover it all? As I am a friend of deep study rather than of superficial overviews, I sometimes consider the order that was taught when a was a student myself; there were two lines of study. One that focussed on public librarianship, with literature, pedagogy, school librarianship etc. The other focussed on academic and specialized librarianship, and consisted of study in scholarly communication, advanced information seeking, bibliographic practices etc. As that was a division set to fit a vocational education of its time, it made sense. I wonder though, if perhaps it still would make sense, in some odd way. Would it be completely impossible to make indepth study into the different fields of the academic discipline, focusing on the relation to the (increasingly) various fields our students, for the most parts, are entering their educational programmes to reach?
There is no answer to this, of course, but today when we are more or less forced to simplify university courses in order to get every student to pass, it is important to question the development. Not everyone should study at university level, just as not everyone should be allowed to fly an aeroplane. A university should pride itself in offerning students qualifyed, indepth teaching and study opportunities.  Today that has become, strangely enough, more or less a utopia.  It is really sad. The bizarre trust put in technology, social media and other new ”tools” in teaching contributes – along with short-sighted funding terms and evaluation practices – to the eroding of the system. Pedagogical theory, based on these tools take us away from the essence of learning – the knowledge itself.  When I introduce a course, I tell my students that I, apart from their full attention, only expect one thing; that they read. Books and articles. In full. A lot. There is no way around it – small talk and web-based communication platforms can never replace slow and deep reading as a way of attaining new and durable knowledge. Does this seem hard? Well, take comfort in thae fact that I could never impose such demands on others if I had not imposed them on myself first. I skip the new learning platforms in my daily work as a teacher, as much as I possibly can. Instead I read. A lot. The order is really that simple – first we read, then we can talk. In the end, we might just learn something.

fredag 22 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 1: conferencing

This year I have worked within Library and Information Science for two full decades, and I have a confession to make: I never was one for conferences. Conferences are full of networkers, and I am not one of them. I take a very long time with people and I have severe difficulties with the shallow acquaintancies and polite small talk dominating most conference scenes.  I have, however done them, and I have become better at it over the years. I have even found a few conferences I like – small ones without much of the invisible codes of conduct, the hidden hierarchies and the disturbing power structures of the major, reoccurring LIS conferences and meetings. What has stuck with me, in most cases, are not the presentations, but everything else, the things that connects to (said he, pompously) life. Aspects connected to work or career tend to fade away very quickly in the turns of my bleak memory. But - I have got stuck in a snowstorm in Texas. I have been food poisoned at a vegetarian restaurant in Vilnius only to find myself giving a talk in an over-crowded room at the university the following morning, wearing a purple tie, pretending to be fine. I have discussed love and the construction of running shoes in an Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. I have heard an interpreter break down in laughter over a French professor’s desperate attempts to speak comprehensible English. I have been the judge in a competition where internationally renowned scholars created metatheoretical snowmen. I have been too drunk to attend early morning sessions. I have been called a ”communist” for questioning the ethics in studying the information behaviour of scientists working in animal testing plants. I have seen elderly professors sleep deeply while I presented a paper. I have slept deeply while elderly professors presented theirs. I have been in a barfight with a bibliometrician over the value of positivism. I have been guided by insomnia through long walks in nocturnal cities that I have not known. I have been yelled at by a drunk, angry Danish professor in a pink tuxedo in a small boat on a Finnish lake. I have flown across the Atlantic to give a five minute talk. I have been offered a modelling job for a British artist in her studio in Cyprus - after the conference I was sent a sketch showing me presenting, shaped as an alien monster. I declined. I have spent a break between sessions discussing the Wolverhampton mid 1970’s football team (which I saw taking on ”my” team, Malmö FF, as a child) in the shadow of the mighty Old Trafford. I have got lost in a dark basement outside of Tampere, filled with large, scary puppets, voodoo dolls and shrunken heads during a late dinner, just searching for the lavatory.  I have seen grown men and women choosing whom to talk to and whom to not, from a list of attendees. I have stood bewildered in a corner, fingering on my drink searching for a way out.

And, I have been in the presence of sheer brilliance. I have seen paradigms shift. I have seen people I did not expect anything of turn out to be quite bearable – often to my genuine surprise. 

When I started off as a doctoral student, attending conferences was of course part of the education and a way in to the research community. It was quite frustrating to feel that I couldn’t really crack the codes and make it work – within me. This part of the job has been a struggle. It is only during the last few years I have found a peace in myself which has allowed me to incorporate all of this into my life in a balanced manner. I now allow myself to be picky, I do not attend many conferences (internationally or nationally), but the ones I do, I go to because I have chosen to – for my own sake. I have reached a point where I know quite a lot of people; I do indeed take a long time in approaching, but by now some have actually been there quite a long time too. A qualified few I even dare count as some sort of friends. I am still cautions of attending the large conferences of my discipline, such as the CoLIS and the ASIS&T meetings. I avoid their formalities and keep a good look out for the symbolic power show-offs and submissive boot-licking practicies. I much prefer the closer environment of, for example,  DOCAM, which I started to attend regularly in 2009, even hosting the event at my university in Växjö in 2011. These annual meetings have emerged during the last decade as a calmer alternative to the larger conferences of the discipline. They put focus on the the presented studies, long discussions and the things people do – and not on who they are. They are informal, egalitarian and engourage writing, thinking and all that which make us intellectuals, in an academic environment which does not have the time anymore for intellectual endeavors. After all, that is what has kept me in this field for two decades now. If I had let the conference environment with its twisted social games seek me out, I would have been lost to the wolves by now – and it has been close. Instead I have stuck to my writing, slowly carving out the ideas that have emerged from my fascination for libraries, documents, documentation, collecting, and the strange occupation of librarianship.