The Library As Text Part III: Or The Finest Possible Communication Apparatus in Public Life

Part 1/2

“But quite apart from the dubiousness of its functions, radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers.” (Brecht, p616, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication () in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook first published in 1932).

The heart wants what the heart wants. Woody Allen

Back to the title of this series: The Library As text. This is not a completely original characterization of the library, in fact it was suggested before in an interesting article by John Budd (“An Epistemological Foundation for Library and Information Science,” Library Quarterly, 65:3, 295-318). The article jives quite well with the “wrought manifesto” vibe I’m going for here, in that it calls for the Library and Information Science (LIS) community to consider engaging in a more intellectually textured way of looking at what we do, moving away from our positivistic roots and adopting a more playful, perhaps meaningful, approach in the direction hermeneutics and phenomenology (pick up a reader on Heidegger, Gadamer or Ricoeur and you’ll catch his drift).
Budd’s article operates on the level of a critique of methodology, of research methods, of what constitutes the LIS object of study, and what could promise to be a more socially “relevant” approach to the LIS interpretive arsenal. As an example, he critiques a paper that inquires into the remote use of a library’s online catalog (a fairly typical LIS object of study):

The questions asked center on whether there is remote searching of the catalog, when this searching occurs, and how remote use of the catalog compares to internal use…What is missing…is an understanding of the most basic motivation for turning to an entity such as a library at all. Much is taken for granted regarding libraries, their purposes, their reasons for existence, and how the thing itself is related to the contents of its collection. It is useful to know who is searching the library’s catalog and when this searching occurs, but without an understanding of the ontological purpose of the library – its essence or being – the empirical study of its function as an organization lacks a fundamental context. (306)

So, instead of researching how people use the library, why not research “why” the library at all? This direction provokes all sorts of transdisciplinary wanderings, some “axe to the root” organizational re-prioritization and re-direction of resources, and some good old fashioned risk.

On the surface, like Budd’s article, this is not a particularly “practical” or practice-oriented set of musings. Librarianship is already overly practice-driven when operating in its “vocational mode.” What I’m trying to do, like Budd and others, is simply contribute to a growing repertory of ideas, to chat in Camus’ revolving door and street corner, to expand the imaginative base that could inspire practices, maybe new practices. As I mentioned earlier, practice is never more than an extension of theory, and if one’s theory of librarianship is based solely on ideas like “neutrality” or “service” or “custodian” then one’s practice, and the organization in which this practice “happens,” follows suit. But what if one believed passionately that the library was better characterized as a “text,” rather than simply a repository for texts, or a ponderable and “necessary” place to get legit info. In building his argument for a hermeneutical approach to LIS, Budd adds: “The notion of ‘text’ is a fluid one that need not be limited to literary texts. If text can be taken as a formally constructed system of signs, then many things, and certainly libraries, qualify as texts” (307). What if, like Brecht, we recast the library as a “vast network of pipes,” and we began to look, very intentionally, at ways we could “step out of the supply business and organize our [users] as suppliers.”

One interesting example of this idea came about a while back by the Brian Eno of librarians (that’s a compliment), Daniel Chudnov, when he sketched out a “vast network of pipes” (a text) operating within what he called “Library Groupware for Bibliographic Management.” Much has already changed since the article was written in the prehistoric early web 2.0 2004 days, (and Chudnov continues to forge ahead) but the point is this: Chudnov’s thoughtful solution (practice) was obviously based a sophisticated view (theory) of the library as an authored, generative, and unfinished “text” made possible through the intentional architecture, mashup and deployment of “tools” (in this case, blogs, reference management and link resolution) explicitly designed to structure the research experience and interactions with library resources more vernacularly, showing concern for the widest possible range of human experience vis a vis the library. This “groupware” would inspire users to integrate their “bibliographic research more closely with communication — scholarly and otherwise, from private annotation to public discussion. ” In other words, they are already “coping” this way in the postmodern world outside the library, why not within at as well. The phenomenologist might say that these are not really tools at all, in the traditional sense we think of tools, but are better characterized as ways/mechanisms/theatres through which the world is “disclosed” to us or made knowable. Budd’s hermeneutical phenomenologist librarian might ask, where is this “need to know the world” acknowledged as a fundamental human motivation in our theory of the library? Does a particular well-intentioned policy or procedure, which might be “internally” coherent, impede or advance the likelihood of a possible eruption of “meaningfulness” in the user’s experience of the library? (in explaining John Dewey’s foray into defining the nature of experience, the IEoP, puts it nicely: “for it is in the enjoyment of the immediacy of an integration and harmonization of meanings, in the “consummatory phase” of experience that, in Dewey’s view, the fruition of the readaptation of the individual with environment is realized…Whenever there is a coalesence into an immediately enjoyed qualitative unity of meanings and values drawn from previous experience and present circumstances, life then takes on an aesthetic quality–what Dewey called having “an experience.” For the contemporary library, the library as text, the harmonization of meanings, qualitative unity of meanings and the readaptation of the individual with environment are the never finished goals from which never finished solutions extend. I guess I’m proposing that librarianship comprises a constellation of practices that are essentially creative, having more in common with the poet than the scientist, and like the poet, the creative cycle of a work is not complete without the reader’s “experience” of it.

The research process has always been a permanently unfinished mashup of sorts, so why not create ways to manage and encourage this protracted unfinishedness. What I find interesting about Chudnov’s idea is not the explicit references to particular social networking tools, but the suggestion that the library profession should be intentionally, intimately and originally involved in the architecture of this type of messy infrastructure. This groupware infrastructure is itself a solution, but also designed as a process that can, from the user’s perspective, generate, embody and shepherd solution-making experiences. In a society that has become so patently based on “information,” what these “infrastructures” present are new opportunities (theoretical and practical) within librarianship, a new series of characterizations of what we do and why, and a quest to be all mixed up in what Richard Lanham in The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts (1993) has called “ the construction and allocation of attention-structures” (227). Lanham explains that “[i]n such a society, the scarcest commodity turns out to be not information but the human attention needed to cope with it” (227). Chudnov wouldn’t mind (I asked him when I first read the article) me saying that this “construction of attention-structures” is at the core of the “group-ware” metaphor and this talk of “lifecycle management.” These type of services go beyond mere curatorial and access/delivery objectives (these are necessary too) often associated with library missions, and call for an active participation in the expansive development of tools that are not simply adorning research “tools” but all-out post-industrial “coping” mechanisms; theories, levers and pulleys that construct and allocate “attention-structures” or, as John Dewey might eloquently call them, “experiences.” The library as text means that the library is a place/space where the entire range of human experience is valued, the head and the heart. In a library that embraces its miscellaneousness and its “textness,” conversations about human motivations and good old fashioned human desire are welcome in library committee meetings, on task forces charged with coming up with some “solution,” a new service or a new collection. The library as text is all about post-industrial coping, and acknowledges that information seeking behavior no longer captures the “what” of users in the library. Rather we can confidently begin to expand our disciplinary language to speak of, for example, “meaning-engagement-practice” instead of “information seeking behavior.” (See, Mokros, Hartmut B., and Mark Aakhus. “From information-seeking behavior to meaning engagement practice: Implications for communication theory and research.” Human Communication Research 28.2 (Apr. 2002): 298-312).

Lanham explains that historically, in the West, rhetoric or the “art of persuasion” is what we can point to as a set of practices preoccupied with “studying how human attention is created and allocated.” He goes on to say:

“Whatever we choose to call it – and almost certainly our name will not be the now-discredited ‘rhetoric’- the construction and allocation of attention-structures will be a vital activity in our information society…In our present educational crisis, the popular clamor has been for more technological education. Doesn’t this miss the mark? Shouldn’t we be after a more generalized ability to manipulate symbolic realty? In our society, this symbolic reality depends on precisely the rich signal of mixed word, sound, and image…Teaching us how to live within this reality will be the job of a new kind of humanistic education. Perhaps we shouldn’t use the charged word ‘humanistic,’ since such an education will involve a new mixture of the arts and sciences altogether. But ‘technological’ or ‘technical’ or ‘scientific’ are not the right words either. They are all part of an old educational and disciplinary nomenclature that is as obsolete and confusing in an information age as the industrial bookeeping conventions prove to be. ” 227-229

Speaking of Brian Eno, check out this interview and think of the “library” when you read “music.” In many ways the library as text is a library that is “permanently unfinished” and is ok with it. We (librarians) and our users are permanent, mutually-supportive co-authors of the text. Eno calls for a collision of the vernacular and the formal in the world of digital music production, the result being an ontologically “new” experience of music. Like Chudnov and Budd, I’m suggesting we do the same within libraries to create an ontologically “new” experience of information, of research, of “library.” Maybe the reason the library catalog get’s dissed so much is not because its disorderly or deficient as a repository of metadata, but because it’s not mutable enough or miscellaneous enough.

In an analysis of Gary Radford’s use of the ideas of Michel Foucault in coming to terms with a “new” interpretive stance within LIS, Budd writes, “the library does not simply allow for the retrieval of content…; it also presents sets of possibilities through the patterns and arrangements inherent in library organization” (314). It’s important to note that these “patterns and arrangements” are what Budd refers to as “products of intentionality” that is, they don’t just emerge within a library but are based on theories, ideas, belief-systems at work in the heads of people in the organization and within the profession, theories that point to an organizational “ontology,” why the library exists and for whom. So a question (which has an an answer, I’m sure) is not should we put X in the catalog, but why should we have a catalog? I know this might be a heretical question, all good ones are anyway, but an answer I would give is: we need the catalog because it is “permanently unfinished,” because it is one of our most powerful “texts.” But, what if we could invite and facilitate ways for users to, for example, Text Arc the “texts” in the library, or Text Arc the catalog’s rich network of metadata? Like McKenzie Wark we could ask (of our “texts”): “Are there ways in which picturing the text, or more precisely relations within the text, might become part of the writing process?”

I’ll end with Foucault.

“Fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library, with its column of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight enclosure, but within confines that also liberate impossible worlds…The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the insterstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is a phenomenon of the library.” (The Fantasia of the Library.”p90-91, in Language, Counter Memory and Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews.

Coming up: Barthes, FRBR, and the virtues of incoherence…

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