Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Librarians: Reactionaries or Revolutionaries?

In his report on Dave Snowden's talk to ISKO UK on 23 April 2009, Jan Wyllie, an ISKO UK member and co-founder of the Open Intelligence blog raises some challenging points regarding the role of librarians and information managers. "The ISKO audience of librarians and information professionals seemed somewhat bemused as to what disintermediation and self-signifying data had to do with them, although I am sure that they did not like the sound of the word 'disintermediation'", says Jan.

Well, bemused they were not, because 'disintermediation' is an occupational hazard they have become familiar with, firstly with the arrival of the personal computer 20-odd years ago and more recently with the advent of the Web. In both cases, these developments were heralded by the technocratic sooth-sayers as spelling the end for the profession. But information professionals got over their discomfort, adapted to the changes and became all the stronger for it.

Jan goes on to say: "The opportunity that Dave is pioneering indicates that metadata itself has its own very valuable significance as an attribute of collaborative intelligence. Entertaining this proposition would require a complete change in the belief systems of ‘information professionals’ and ‘knowledge managers’ about why they are there and what is right."

Ironically, Jan is hoist by his own petard in this statement. In a polemic against interpretation, he uses his interpretation of what information professionals do, and one which is way off the mark. Any enquiry among information professionals would show, I’m sure, that in their intermediation between the information seeker and information resources, they are rarely, if ever, called upon to 'interpret' what those resources signify. Their role is to maintain resource collections and to devise systems and spaces to facilitate access by the end user to those collections. To think that they are there to advise the reader what a book, a journal or a recording signifies is to seriously misinterpret their role.

Jan does have a point to make though, and a serious one at that. It's the same point that Charlie Leadbeater made at the recent Unlocking Audio 2 conference at the British Library, reported by Charlie Inskip in CILIP's Library & Information Update, May 2009. Inskip reports that Leadbeater "encouraged libraries and archives to work with users rather than to or for them." and that "business models should develop, allowing users to 'Enjoy, Talk, Do'". Inskip also reports Leadbeater's view that "we should allow users to use the resources in libraries and archives to create new things, rather than simply absorb them" and that "successful organisations [are] those which engage users through participation and collaboration but also get people to the resources they need."

Jan's point would have been far better made had he avoided the temptation to attack a sitting target and had cast his critical net a little wider. To be sure, the selection of books for the shelves of the public library, the class marks assigned to them, the descriptors added to digital resources, the designation of records by records managers are all acts of interpretation of sorts. But no more so than the selection of consumables in the supermarket, radio and TV schedules, newspaper stories, court judgements and - dare we say it - the focal subjects of the Open Intelligence blog and the Categories provided for us to classify them. Jan's target should have been supermarket marketing strategists, journalists and news editors, maybe also authors of non-fiction - particularly historians and economists (although the latter's output is probably better placed in the realm of fiction).

Certainly, Web 2.0 and the possibility of accessing and acting upon collective intelligence in a spirit of mutual aid promises to be the latest nail in the coffin of the hegemony of baseless 'authority'. Whether Web 2.0 can sufficiently build upon the heritage of the likes of Godwin and Kropotkin, Goodman and Illich to become the nail which finally lays to rest the old paradigm of command-and-control, and to liberate the individual and collective intellects creatively in a new synergy, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: in any such development, information professionals will prove to be your allies, Jan, not your enemies.

1 comment:

Jan Wyllie said...

Susan Sontag's point is not that focus on interpreting content of literature (communication) was wrong, but that great value was being missed by ignoring the value of "descriptions of form".

The article, I hope, is in no way an affront to what the knowledge / library community is doing. It points them to an opportunity pioneered by Dave Snowden and Eugene Garfield in which metadata has a greater value than the ability to help in finding content. Changing (nowadays realtime)'descriptions of form' are significant indicators themselves giving the ISKO community a new subject of research, or perhaps a new business opportunity.

I can't help, but feel that Bob has misinterpreted what I said, perhaps on the basis of Susan Sontag's admittedly challenging title.

The real issues are around the differences between interpreting, and inferring -- an issue I plan to address in a forthcoming post.

The other thing is that Bob used a pre-publication version of the article. In the published version, all the stuff about librarians having to change their spots was removed -- for good reason.