tisdag 18 mars 2014

On the documentality of future libraries

It is quite popular to predict the future of libraries, not least among librarians. Often we notice a kind of strange contradiction in these predictions, of simultaneously being obsolete and at the centre of a brave new digital world. In some cases this turns into a kind of institutional schizophrenia, which is at best amusing and at worst destructive. Most likely libraries will not be obsolete in the decades to come. Most likely some libraries will change quite a lot in the decades to come. This is of course a truism, but to understand the logic of future libraries, we must look at the basic legitimacy of libraries as social and intellectual institutions. This can be defined in many ways. One way of describing libraries – and librarianship – is in terms of documentality. Documentality is in itself not an unproblematic concept, but it is basically about what documents do and how they make us act. We may speak of documentary practices or of ontological documentality, where documents are what de facto constitute institutions. In this respect libraries are interesting, because they can be said to be built upon a double documentality; 1. Documents that legally and administratively constitute a library, and 2. Documents that constitute the library in terms of its holdings. Without these two kinds of documentalities combined, there would be no libraries, and there would be no legitimacy to uphold them as social institutions. The same goes for librarianship. As a profession it is defined by a set of documents; degrees from LIS educational programmes, codes of ethical conduct, institutional or personal accreditations, memberships in professional associations – all which are legitimized through the very existence of a specific documentality. Traditionally librarianship has also been defined by a specific (often custodian) relation to the holdings of a specific library, or a specific type of library.
 But, is it possible to speak of librarianship as a single profession? Yes, I do believe it is. Conditions vary though, between different library settings and types of documentary institutions, and so does the self-image fostered within them. It is interesting to see that the anxiety over professional identity and the future of libraries are very much tied to public libraries. In for instance academic libraries we don’t see these kinds of discussions. I believe that one of the reasons or this is to be found in the documentality of libraries and librarianship.
 Public libraries are a relatively new phenomena related closely to western democratic ideals, stemming from the 18th century Enlightenment movement. The legitimacy of public libraries are tied to a specific form of documentary practice that we find in 20th centrury democracies. The documentality of this form of democracy, that is the basic structure of its institutions, includes public libraries as providers of documents reflecting views and cultural expressions of these societies.
Academic libraries, on the other hand, relies on a much longer history and are related to a specific documentary practice, namely that of scientific communication. Scientific communication has gone through several changes during the last three hundred years, all related to technological innovation, infrastructure, methodological changes in research, and social demands on sharing of results. The ontological documentality of academic libraries are thus much stronger than that of public libraries. The structure of scientific communication is in thorough and rapid change, but still there are several components that safeguard a kind of documentality that secure the role of librarians and libraries. Academic libraries are not threatened by the future. Instead it may even predict it – even if predictions tend to stretch from a total collaps of the system to a maintained status quo, due to the conservative systems of scientific quality control and structures connected to social and academic status and benefits.
If we look at it from a documentality point of view this leads us into an interesting situation. Public libraries may suffer from decreasing public support, and thus being forced into developing into something that differ from the ”original” intent of librarianship. On the other hand, we don’t see the ”end of books”, we don’t see user behaviour that differ much from what we might describe as traditional. So the ontological definitions of libraries based on stocks and holdings and activities tied to these seem, at least for the coming decades, to be secured. The threat instead comes from the socially constitutional documentality where local governments and society as a whole will fail to recognise the significance of libraries in future political development.
Academic libraries, on the other hand, face a situation where they, through an increased significance to university management and evaluation practices (for examples through bibliometrical resposibilities) find their ontological documentality intact, but an increasingly lack of holdings. Already today many university libraries spend less than five percents of their media budgets on physical materials. The rest is directed towards licences and subscription fees for journals and publishing services that are placed outside the libraries. Contemporary academic libraries have never offered so much and had control over so few documents as today. The documentality of academic libraries are in a process of being de-institutionalised.
These things are of course not new. What we might anticipate, however, is a reinstatement of documentality as a basis of legitimacy for libraries in the future, when documents come into a more general sphere of interest in society. The retrieval of documents is not the same thing as the retrieval of information, and I believe we already see a shift toward a more document conscious environment, in libraries as well as in society. Information is not free flowing, it is not like air. It is always bound in documents. In a society overflowing with documents, the need for, and recognition of, insitutions that may use this to further scientific knowledge, cultural expressions, ethical diversity and democracy will increase, and libraries will have that ability. They will have it through a documentality that is both ontological and tied to practice. What form these documentary practices may take, however, is difficult to predict. Two decades ago, who would have thought we would be where we are today, with a web full of dynamic documents and thriving libraries - side by side?

måndag 10 mars 2014

iConference in Berlin or "Starving with Dinosaurs"

I am back in office after a week in Berlin, attending the iConference, the now annual meeting of the iCaucus, an international ”association” of Information Schools and Library and Information Science Departments. The iCaucus started off about fifteen years ago as an informal netwok between a number of US LIS schools in an attempt to find ways in which to address contemporary information problems and development. During the last few years the concept has spread internationally as well, and there are today 55 iSchools in the US, Europe and Asia. In Scandinavia, there are three member departments; at University of Borås, University of Oslo and Akershus, and University of Copenhagen.
My own department at Linnaeus University is not a member, but this does not stop us from having a lot in common with these schools in terms of interests and collaborations. The reason I attended the conference this year was much out of curiosity, as it was the first time it was held in Europe. I remember that the iSchool concept, when it first appeared, was hailed as something completely new and now I wanted to see for myself what it had to offer as an alternative to, for instance, the CoLIS or ASIS&T conferences. Not much, it turned out. A slight emphasis on ”the digital”, yes. A slight leaning towards the computational, yes. As a whole, though it proved to be a rather ordinary LIS conference, with pretty much the same people circulating the coffee tables as on CoLIS or ASIS&T, and by all means, that is not a bad thing.
None the less, the quality of papers and presentations varied significantly. At the welcome session, Michael Seadle of the hosting Humbolt University, mentioned that more and more papers are being rejected in the peer review process of the iConference. Normally that is a good thing, but as the days went along, I started to think about those papers that didn´t make it. Were they rejected purely on the basis of poor quality? If so,  there is quite a lot of really bad research out there right now. That might be, but here I do not think that is the case. I don´t think I have ever been to a conference that has suffered so much from the obvious need of, primarily American, demands of publication by numbers. There where several papers that held a quality no higher than that which I expect from my students at our LIS bachelor program at LNU. Typically, and sadly, most of these proved to be American doctoral thesis projects.  Presumably, these papers presented little snippets of more substantial studies, because a number of them were, to be honest, pure rubbish – limited exploratory, statistical or experimental designs with little or no ambition beyond the obvious outcome of the measures used. It really makes you wonder about the general state of US LIS research today. Needless to say, the doctoral students themselves are not the ones to blame. Instead one must consider the judgement of supervisors and departments. As it is likely that several of the papers, notes and posters that where rejected were both strong and relevant, the organizers really need to think over the review process for upcoming iConferences. A conference is never better than the reserach presented and in this respect iConference has quite a long way to go if they want to be in the same league as for instance CoLIS and ASIS&T, and I see no other ambition in the programme. 

Of course there were highlights. The two keynote talks, given in the wonderful Audiomax at Hegelplatz, where Albert Einstein once gave his famous public lectures on the theory of general relativity, were very interesting. Tony Hey of Microsoft Research Connections gave an interesting account of the development of Big Science and Open Data as the new challenge for companies and institutions of the magnitude of Microsoft and its likes. Melissa Terras of University College London held an intriguing talk on the possibilities of, and challenges for, digital humanities. Among the session talks I heard, Ronald Day of University of Indiana, Bloomington, stood out as the unique voice in LIS that he has been over the last fifteen years. He presented his forthcoming book Indexing it all: the subject in the age of documentation, information and data. I look forward to reading it. For my own part, I chaired a nice session on ”Culture studies and digital challenges”, discussing political bias in Wikipedia, the character of Edward Snowden, and Florida school libraries.

Well, so much for the session parts of the conference. The social events are as important and of course the iConference in Berlin was held in the most revered of academic environments, the Humbolt University, right by Unter den Linden in the city centre. The Conference ”dinner” was held in the beautiful Naturkundemuseum, in the world famous Dinosaur Hall, housing the largest dinosaur skeleton in the world. So far so good. Socially it was an excellent evening with many friends and colleagues on the conference curcuit present. It wasn’t much of a dinner though – the little pieces of nourishment offered by servants rushing through the crowds hardly qualified as snacks. Soon enough the joke was obvious, paraphrasing the old Kevin Costner flick Dancing with wolves: we were ”starving with dinosaurs”. Some suggested it to be a post-modernist conception of ”dinner”, giving precedence to the discourse of ”eating”, in the sense of discussing ”food” over that of actually eating it. Indeed, I think this was the first conference I have attended which did not offer one single meal sitting down. Well, well. One thing struck me as progressive enough. Vegetarian food was not treated as ”special”. Instead, half of the little lunchboxes handed out after the morning sessions were vegetarian options and the rest of them contained remnants of dead animals - nice gesture duly noted.


Was the iConference worth attending? Yes indeed. I see no reason not to consider it when planning my annual conference attendances. Perhaps I’ll even sign up for next year’s event – in sunny southern California.

1. The Audiomax auditorium during Melissa Terras' talk.
2. The conference "dinner" at Naturkundemuseum.
3. Dinosaurs. Two real and two in the making: Fredrik Åström and Joacim Hansson.
4. Hegel. No less.