Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Libraries and Children- Lore or Fact?

I was once a child in a library. I was actually a child in several different libraries: school libraries, public libraries, and my parents’ home library. Other than a passion for The Hungry Caterpillar, some art lessons, and my frequent pawing of a picture-book about a cat that made a home in the control panel for an industrial propane cylinder, I can’t say why I was there. Perhaps now that I have some perspective I can address the issue of the child’s need for the library.

Children have needs that are very different than adults. My wife—a child psychologist—tells me that the “job” of children is to figure out the world. Figuring out the world is a pretty big task and children have some particular handicaps such as limited linguistic abilities (McKechnie, 2000) that involve specific constraints for service provision (see Chu, 1999 for discussion on linguistic minorities). In addition, older children may have specific needs like vocational or educational guidance (Julien, 1999).

I suspect, however, that there is a different reason why I hung out in libraries as a child. I wasn’t looking for career guidance or any sort of specific information. Rather, I was engaged in a process of “Assimilation” and “Accommodation” (see Appleby, 1978 for discussion of Piaget); I was attempting to learn the behavior of the world around me and incorporate it into my world view. I read aloud to reinforce “narrative control,” gained mastery of my fears by reading some scary stuff, and grappled with my own personal interpretations of stories.

And I never touched a computer.

It’s obvious that libraries played a fairly important role in my processes of “Assimilation” and “Accommodation.” I have to wonder, however, how a computer would have changed my experience. Experts have indicated that exposure to electronic media is crucial for children overcoming socioeconomic barriers (Martinez, 1994) and that computers can play an important role for disabled youth (Robinson & Dowd, 1997). Detailed studies have even been conducted that elaborate how children respond to electronic portals (Large, Beheshti, & Rahman, 2002). I can’t help but feel that something is missing from these accounts: where are the stories? Where’s storytime?

As Bruno Bettleheim famously indicated, stories play a crucial role for children and provide a world where children a free from social pressures:

"Children preserve their stories in lands far away and times long ago before they finally surrender to the scepticism of their peers." (Appleby, 1978 pg. 52)

Will our current preoccupation with computers and electronic media in the library limit the role of story? Would I have wanted to go to the library for computers instead of stories? Probably… but I’m kind of a geek. What about “normal’ kids?

In addressing stories and computers I feel compelled to quote one of the great story tellers of our day. He wasn’t necessarily writing about children and libraries but I feel that his words are appropriate:

“The popularity and wide dissemination of the personal computer would, I imagine, induce a deep melancholia in Walter Benjamin, even if he were happy with his own PC. He, after all, held the view that information was the enemy of story. We now live in a world in which the sum total of accumulated human knowledge--plus any of its parts--can be accessible within a few minutes, or even a few seconds... Everywhere that's on-line, which is almost every-where, lore is being replaced by fact.” (McMurtry, 1999 pg. 106)

What should libraries give to our children: lore or fact? What do the children need?


Appleby, A. (1978). The child's concept of story: ages two to seventeen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chu, C. M. (1999). Literacy practices of linguistic minorities: Sociolinguistic issues and implications for literacy services. Library Quarterly, 69(3), 339-359.
Julien, H. E. (1999). Barriers to adolescents' information seeking for career decision making. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(1), 38-48.
Large, A., Beheshti, J., & Rahman, T. (2002). Design criteria for children's Web portals: the users speak out. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(2), 79-94.
Martinez, M. E. (1994). Access to information technologies among school-age children: implications for a democratic society. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45(6), 395-400.
McKechnie, L. (2000). Ethnographic observation of preschool children. Library & Information Science Research, 22(1), 61-76.
McMurtry, L. (1999). Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Robinson, C. A., & Dowd, F. S. (1997). Public Library Services to Disabled Children: A National Survey of Large Systems. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, 10(3), 283-290.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

A Side-Order of Questionnaires

My PhD research is looming and I’m suddenly aware of Power—not the Foucauldian power of Marxist discourse but rather statistical power. Where am I going to find all the people I need to fully explore [something to be determined at a later date]?

Several texts on survey design (Bernard, 2000; Hansen, Cottle, Negrine, & Newbold, 1998; Singleton, Straits, & Straits, 1988) seem to take a Field of Dreams approach: if I build my questionnaire (properly), they will come. Just so long as I train my interviewers in the lingo of the subjects, subscribe whole-heartedly to a guru by the name of Dillman-san, and ensure that my truth-de-jour can be divined from a self-completed questionnaire in 20-minutes or less, I am sure to be successful. Somehow, I doubt it. The Ghosts of Readings Past are clamouring in my head:

“Swirling around with Occam's razor, slicing away what cannot be categorized, leaves more than order behind." (Traweek, 1996 pg. 146)

"When one presents users with a long list of services and has them check off which ones they want, one has constructed a world for the users." (Dervin, 1992 pg. 64)

"A consistent finding of the history of science is that there is no such thing as a natural or universal classification system. Classifications that appear natural, eloquent, and homogeneous within a given human context appear forced and heterogeneous outside of that context." (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 131)

I suppose that some of our earlier work on the subjectivity of research and the construction of science should have prepared me for this. It is shocking—even for a reformed engineer—to learn that the nature of research can be so quixotic. It seems that the actual construction of my questionnaire (that “forced and heterogeneous” lance of inquiry) is less important than the number of windmills that I’m able to slay. The tenet of Statistical Power demands that I lay the corpses of as many windmills as possible at the feet of science.

So where do my windmills come from? How can I convince all of these people to participate in my adventure? Besides the heavenly-sent hordes of the “sampling frame” it seems that I have to rely on my ability to establish “rapport” with the interviewees (Hansen et al., 1998). It sounds like a sales job to me. Indeed[1], Phil Agre of UCLA’s School of Education and Information Science recommends to all incoming PhD students that they view think of themselves primarily as networkers and sellers of concepts (Agre, 2003)…

Thanks for the completed questionnaire. Would you like fries with that?


Agre, P. (2003). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students. Retrieved October 5, 2003, from http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/network.html
Bernard, H. R. (2000). Social research methods : qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind's eye of the user: The sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management (pp. xiv, 238 p.). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.
Hansen, A., Cottle, S., Negrine, R., & Newbold, C. (1998). Mass communication research methods. New York: New York University Press.
Singleton, R. A. J., Straits, B. C., & Straits, M. M. (1988). Chapter 3: Survey Interviewing. In Approaches to Social Research (pp. 59-82). New York: Oxford University Press.
Traweek, S. (1996). Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. In A. Ross (Ed.), Science wars (pp. 139-150). Durham: Duke University Press.


[1] I’ve noticed my increased use of the expression: “. Indeed,”. Am I becoming an academic writer or have I merely read too much academic-abbalah?

Taxonomies: So what?

How do we orient ourselves in a large set of documents? It seems that there are a number of ways: subject hierarchies, classification schemas, and meta- data. I’m intrigued by how the user is supposed to interact with these systems and if the systems are ultimately effective for what they are supposed to do. One of the main principles of the Dublin Core initiatives, for example, is the “dumb-down principle” (Hillmann, 2003). At what point, however, do our systems become too dumb?

In inspecting the documentation for the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, we learn that the initiative has several goals: simplicity of creation and maintenance, commonly understood semantics, international scope, and extensibility. Furthermore, the Dublin Core is to act as a “pidgin” to enable communication (Hillmann, 2003). As identified by the sociologist Peter Galison (1999), pidgins and Creoles have their limitations: they can’t communicate advanced concepts and are constructed for an express purpose to broker communication between two specific epistemic cultures. The Dublin Core, however, has been constructed to act as a global pidgin—a digital Esperanto. I wonder how effective it can possibly be.

As meta-data, the Dublin Core expressly applies to specific documents. What exactly is a document? After reviewing the work of the early documentalists like Otlet and Briet, Michael Buckland maintains that a document could be an Antelope, provided it was in a zoo (Buckland, 1997). Does the Dublin Core include and Resource Type of “Antelope”? Implicit in this document-centric view of the Dublin Core is the notion of literary warrant i.e., the resulting classification scheme is based on the collection represented. Both Dewey and the Library of Congress classification schemes are based on a particular collection (OCLC’s WorldCat and the Library of Congress respectively) (Svenonius, 2000). Literary warrant, however, has been expressly indicted as nonsense in the construction of taxonomies. On its list of taxonomy myths, the Montague Institute claims:

“Myth #6: A corporate taxonomy should be derived solely from the content in a repository.” (Montague Institute, 2002)

So what should we do? I find it telling that despite the Montague Institute’s recommendations for the construction of taxonomies, their own index provides a post-coordinated fall back: “Inktomi” [sic] (Montague Institute, 200?). In addition, descriptions of taxonomy construction make the whole process seem contrived and artificial (see Johnston, 2003 for an example). They make me wonder if the resulting classification is really any more useful than an alphabetical listing!


Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? Retrieved September 18, 2001, from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/~buckland/whatdoc.html
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Hillmann, D. (2003, Updated August 26, 2003.). Using Dublin Core. Retrieved October 3, 2003, from http://dublincore.org/documents/usageguide/
Johnston, R. (2003). Developing a Taxonomy of Intelligence Analysis Variables. Studies in Intelligence (Unclassified Ed.), 47(3).
Montague Institute. (200?). Public Index [of Montague Institute Site]. Retrieved October 3, 2003, from http://www1.montaguelab.com/Public/indexes.htm
Montague Institute. (2002). Ten Taxonomy Myths. Retrieved October 3, 2003, from http://www.montague.com/review/myths.shtml
Svenonius, E. (2000). Subject Languages: Introduction, Vocabulary Selection, and Classification. In The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge: MIT Press.