Wednesday, November 26, 2003

"That Mildewey Decimal Smell"

I've been spending a lot of time in the public library. I'm not interested in books, however; I'm interested in people. What are they doing there? For the life of me, I have no idea.

If I had to guess, I would say that people--primarily old white males--come to the library to read the paper all by themselves. Others--primarily Asian high school students--come to do homework.

Something else must be going on.

Luckily Dervin & Benson (1985) give us a taxonomy of various library behaviours?or helps [reproduced in its entirety so I never have to go back to the source]:

1. Got ideas and understandings.
2. Planned, decided what, when, where.
3. Got skills needed to do something.
4. Accomplished or finished something.
5. Kept going when it seemed hard.
6. Got started or motivated.
7. Got confirmation that I was doing the right thing.
8. Got out of or avoided a bad situation.
9. Calmed down or eased worries.
10. Took mind off things.
11. Felt reassured or hopeful.
12. Felt good about self.
13. Rested or relaxed.
14. Got happiness or pleasure.
15. Made contact with others.
16. Felt connected or not alone.

To be honest, Dervin's categories are a bit artificial for what I'm actually witnessing in the library. They do, however, seem like good criteria for the design of effective information technology. Although written in 1985, the categories perfectly describe what I want out of my computer. I use it to get stuff done, stay connected with friends, plan my weekends, and procrastinate... er, "[take my] mind off things". Given the tension in the literature between libraries and information technology, I find this resonance ironic. Given the popularity of the library's computer terminals, perhaps I shouldn't.

I previously expressed concerns that libraries are becoming non-places (see Olley, 1997 for original ref). I wonder if the imposition of information technology and the digital frontier--an emerging third space--into libraries--an impending non-space--can possibly save this public institution from certain demise. A recent column in the Philadelphia Weekly by Tim Whitaker takes a particularly bleak view:

"If anyone had any vision in this godforsaken city, they'd order the main branch of the Free Library at 19th and Vine streets gutted. Pull up a fleet of dumpster trucks to the front and throw in all the passe books written by the long since dead and decayed--books that nobody looks at anyway... Once the joint has been emptied (and fumigated to get rid of that mildewey decimal smell), another fleet of trucks would pull up. Out would come the computers. Thousands of them. They'd be carried in and set up on dozens of wall-to-wall tables lining the library floor. The computers would be plugged in, and a squadron of techies would get to work installing and downloading all the right programs before making them cable-modem ready." (Asshole 2003)

Is this satire? (nb. Satire: a literary genre evident in "books" like Swift's classic Gulliver's Travels) Perhaps it should be. But it's not.

So what are public libraries if Dervin's taxonomy is more applicable to my computer than my local branch library? Molz and Dain (1999) provide one description: ?agencies offering to the public the means of acquiring information, knowledge, education, aesthetic experience, and entertainment.? (pg. 2) So is that guy sitting over there dozing beside the paperbacks at the library for "aesthetic experience" or "entertainment"? He must be doing something in this place.

Other public spaces come with rituals. At church, we pray. At city hall, we pay our parking tickets or our taxes. At the arena, we either skate or we watch hockey. At the university, we attend classes or procrastinate... er, "[take our] mind off things".

So what is the ritual of the public library? the reference interview? searching for that last unoccupied table so we can be as far as possible from other patrons?

I suspect that Whitaker would tell us about the real ritual of the public library: getting our parking validated.


Dervin, B., & Fraser, B. (1985). How Libraries Help. Stockton CA: University of the Pacific. Prepared for California State Library, Sacramento CA.
Molz, R. K., & Dain, P. (1999). Civic space/cyberspace : the American public library in the information age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Olley, J. (1997). The Art of Reading. In M. Brawne (Ed.), Library Builders. Boston: Academy Editions.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Ideas on Ethics

Ethics is a tricky issue. There are just too many flavours: professional ethics, personal ethics, research ethics, institutional ethics, etc. And the recipes for effective research ethics aren't specific as to proportions and seasonings. I'm not even sure if a recommendation such as "two parts professional ethics, one part institutional ethics, with a dash of sympathy for the common man [sic]" would necessarily help. Instead, I just need to wrestle with some of these issues (nb. I'm already governed by a few flavours of ethical codes--ALA and Professional Engineers of Ontario--and institutional ethics!)

To better understand ethics issues I'm just going to play with them and kick some ideas around. It seems that many of my recent projects have revolved around social networks and communities of practice so I intend to analyze Flinders's (1992) ontology of ethics--utilitarian, deontological, relational, and ecological--using some of my newly discovered concepts and pull quotes.

Utilitarian Ethics

As Flinders notes, utilitarian ethics have been around for a while and provide a sound basis for ethical thought. The basic concept is utility i.e., the most potential benefit for the least cost. Jeremy Bentham is generally considered to be one of the fathers of utilitarianism and we shouldn't let his eccentricities bias our conception of utilitarian ethics (Bentham's head is embalmed and on display at University College London ). As Flinders notes, however, it becomes difficult to objectively determine the value of particular benefits since value itself is a subjective and socially driven animal. In the back of my mind I have two images floating about: the swimming tadpoles of Deleuze and Guattari's Rhizome Theory (1987) and the WWI trenches portrayed by Axelrod (2003 [1984]). The tadpoles merely swim around any obstruction--such as artificial constructions of value--while groups of individuals collectively and tacitly agree not to engage in particular practices (such as killing people in the other trench) despite the best efforts of authority.

Deontological Ethics

Many of our ethical concerns may be addressed by following codified rules such as those provided by institutions and professional bodies. Codified information, however, always poses reader-response type problems (see discussion in Barnes, 1994). Wenger presents another perspective:

"Any practice--even the most verbal--will have tacit aspects that are revealed by demands outside its regime of competence. By overlooking issues of boundary, schemes for classifying knowledge into types often place too much emphasis on individual cognition and thus on solutions to problems that do not take advantage of the landscape of practices." (Wenger, 1998 pg. 140)

As I write this, I realize that Axelrod and Rhizomes are again applicable. Rules and codes are inherently driven by a local context and are subject to the limitations of that context especially when practitioners are at the bounds of that context (as in the case of original research). As we span boundaries and stretch the limits of a particular context or field, the codes may or may not stretch with us.

Relational Ethics

I find relational ethics particularly interesting: we are to treat our subjects as if we have a special relationship with them. This concept somehow smacks of John Stewart Mill and individual liberty. Unfortunately, Marx did away with individual liberty in favour of power relations. Regardless, the concept of relational ethics inherently involves a network of individual actors with their own requirements and desires. Relational ethics may seem like a face valid construct but I feel that it rightly belongs as a subset of ecological ethics.

Ecological Ethics

Any network involves a crucial problem: bridging the epistemic gap through brokering:

"The job of brokering is complex. It involves processes of translation, coordination, and alignment between perspectives. It requires enough legitimacy to influence the development of a practice, mobilize attention, and address conflicting interests." (Wenger, 1998 pg. 109)

There's a whole body of literature on negotiating these gaps. Most of the theories, however, represent some sort of explicit thing like "boundary objects" (Bowker & Star, 1999) or "trading languages" (Galison, 1999) but many of the rules governing society are tacit. Hayek sums it up nicely when he says:

"In the kind of society with which we are familar, of course, only some of the rules which people in fact observe, namely some of the rules of law (but never all, even of these) will be the product of deliberate design, while most of the rules of morals and custom will be spontaneous growths." (Hayek, 2003 [1976] pg. 231)


So where does all of this leave me? I really don't know. I'm suddenly confused as to why we need ethics at all. Shouldn't our socially constructed practices be enough? Or do our codes of ethics only really apply to Dooley's "demented social researchers" (Dooley, 1990) who want to abduct us off the streets? This one is going to require some more thought...


Axelrod, R. (2003 [1984]). The Live-and-Let-Live System in Trench Warfare in World War I. In M. Hechter & C. Horne (Eds.), Theories of social order : a reader (pp. 273-282). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Social Sciences.
Barnes, T. J. (1994). Probable writing: Derrida, deconstruction, and the quantitative revolution in human geography. Environment and Planning A, 26, 1021-1040.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus : capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dooley, D. (1990). Social research methods (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Flinders, D. J. (1992). In search of ethical guidance: constructing a basis for dialogue. Qualitative Studies in Education, 3(2), 101-115.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Hayek, F. A. (2003 [1976]). Cosmos and Taxis. In M. Hechter & C. Horne (Eds.), Theories of social order : a reader (pp. 221-236). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Social Sciences.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.