Library and Information Science is, as scientific disciplines tend to be, a rather rational endeavour. We promote and study cognitive and domain specific information behavior, rational divisions of knowledge and productive organizational structures of document management and library activities. Little room is left for that which is lying beside these cognitive and rational aspects of life. In fact very little we do is about, well, life. I sometimes feel that as being a bit tiresome, especially when I look around and see how people so much depend on knowledge, ideas and traditions that goes beyond our rational structures of knowledge organization, ultimately based as it is, on an aristotelian world view.
Fritz Machlup, the renowned Austrian-American economist who was one of the first to recognize and analyse knowledge as economically significant, mentions five types of knowledge that in equal amounts blend into the lives of most people. Not all at once, perhaps, but over the span of a life time they all play their parts in formulating a whole human being. The five types of knowledge he mentions are:
1. Practical knowledge
2. Intellectual knowledge
3. Small talk and pastime knowledge
4. Spiritual knowledge
5. Unwanted knowledge
In LIS we almost exclusively address the two first categories. Even when we analyse spiritual knowledge, we do it in an intellectual manner, for instance in the divisions of religious movements and ideas in library classification systems.
Spiritual knowledge, however, seldom lends itself to such rationalization. Still it is to many people the foundation of their peronal knowledge systems, and still it is absolutely necessary to include sprirtual knowledge into ones life in order to navigate in this disturbingly shallow and yet complex society of today.
The other week, in preparation for our wedding, my wife ordered from San Francisco a package of Tibetan prayer flags. The company she bought them from operates from California, but trades with flags made in Tibet and Nepal. We decided to put them in the trees of our garden. Autumn and darkness is coming quickly now, and they will bring their colors into the season of no colours, but not just that. They will also bring strenght, compassion, peace and wisdom into the wind surrounding our home.
Tibetan prayer flags come in groups of five, mostly in colours blue, white, red, green and yellow. They represent the elements and the five pure lights: blue is for sky and space, white is for wind, red is for fire, green is for water and yellow is for earth. In Tibetan buddhist tradition, balance between these elements brings harmony and health. It is an easy, yet powerful way of putting a knowledge system to work, promoting other values than those we have to struggle with on the daily basis of our professional and economic activities. The structure of the knowledge system represented by these prayer flags is a reminder of the limitations of rationality and that it is important not to waste our lives focussing too much on it.
I think it is time for Library and Information Science to start looking in new directions in order to develop knowledge that is relevant to people in a more complete way, thus creating a deeper understanding of the roles different forms of knowledge play in the lives of humans (and other species – everything is tied together as one). There are several non-intellectual knowledge forms waiting to be explored in ways that fit their own requirements. In order to approach them, however, we need to revise some of our acquired theoretical and methodological preconceptions.
Prayer flags wither in the wind, thread by thread. When doing so, they don’t send off prayers with each thread. Instead they paint the wind with the knowledge that harmony and compassion will come to all beings sharing this same wind.
I imagine that Fritz Machlup would appreciate this thought, even though he was an economist. One can only wish that more economists would study his work, and if some of them would choose to put prayer flags in their gardens to paint their immediate wind in the colours of harmony, well that might just create some change. By all means, that goes for LIS scholars too.
Picture of prayer flags in our garden is taken by Lotta Hansson Löthgren/1811.nu