Friday, March 05, 2004

Librarians and Engineers

What exactly do we do in LIS research? One of my colleagues pointed out that we just reuse and reprocess old theories from other disciplines and apply the magic tag line: ?information?. The other disciplines do the hard work of hunting down the tough research questions and feast accordingly. We merely boil up the left over bones. My colleague felt that we boil the bones up into some sort of nutrient poor mush. I prefer to think that our boiling produces a type of glue. The real problem then regards what we?re trying to glue together.

We often want to claim that LIS is a social science and was a child of the Enlightenment like our other academic brethren. The truth is that our origins are considerably more recent.

Although special and academic libraries have been around since the Middle Ages (Burke, 2000), Public libraries had an inauspicious start. In the United States, they began in New Hampshire in 1833 and the Boston Public Library got its start in the 1850s (Shera, 1965). The founders of these early libraries were well-healed white males interested in improving themselves and engaging in that great parlour game of the time: educating the common man (Dain, 1975; Harris, 1973). Our own profession arose as a result of these initiatives. Note the dates. Linneus (and Botany) predated Boston Public by 100 years. The first scientific journal?Transactions of the Royal Society?began fully 200 years before Boston Public. LIS is a recent entrant.

One profession that emerged at the same time as LIS is engineering. While the drawings of engineers have been widely studied (e.g., Alder, 1998; Brown, 1999, 2000; Pannabecker, 2002), Amy Slaton provides a very interesting discussion of the field engineer (2001). Her portrayal represents the school educated engineer as someone who could take the rigour of the lab and bring it to the field thereby destroying many of the trade based power structures left over from guild days.

Like engineering, LIS is a school based professional discipline that attempts to bring rigour and structure for greater good of man. Further definition, however, starts to get fuzzy. Using the arbiter of definitions (Google?s ?what is? function), ?Librarianship? is ?the position of librarian? while ?Engineering? is ?the practical application of science to the problems of commerce or industry?. In the definition for ?Engineering? we perhaps find the sort of thing that our LIS theories should be gluing together: practical problems.


Alder, K. (1998). Making things the same: Representation, tolerance and the end of the ancien regime in France. Social Studies of Science, 28(4), 499-545.
Brown, J. K. (1999). When machines became grey and drawings black and white: william sellers and the rationalization of mechanical engineering. IA, The journal of the society for industrial archeology, 25, 29-54.
Brown, J. K. (2000). Design plans, working drawings, national styles - Engineering practice in Great Britain and the United States, 1775-1945. Technology and Culture, 41(2), 195-238.
Burke, P. (2000). A social history of knowledge : from Gutenberg to Diderot. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Dain, P. (1975). Ambivalence and Paradox: The Social Bonds of the Public Library. Library Journal, 100(3), 261-266.
Harris, M. (1973). The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History. Library Journal, 98(16), 2509-2514.
Pannabecker, J. R. (2002). School for industry - L'Ecole d'Arts et Metiers of Chalons-sur-Marne under Napoleon and the restoration. Technology and Culture, 43(2), 254-290.
Shera, J. H. (1965). Foundations of the public library; the origins of the public library movement in New England, 1629-1885. [Hamden, Conn.]: Shoe String Press.
Slaton, A. (2001). "As near as practicable" - Precision, ambiguity, and the social features of industrial quality control. Technology and Culture, 42(1), 51-80.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

BI- not Business Intelligence but the other one: Bibliographic Instruction

I'm stunned by "normal" people's inability to understand databases and information retrieval systems. Then again, I was trained as both an engineer and a librarian so my astonishment is perhaps not surprising.

After training a number of people on BI systems, I have some pedagogical ideas.

1. Train people on "formats" i.e., What's a book? What's a journal? etc. Without some recognition that various formats exist advanced BI just doesn't seem to work.
2. Teach people about parts of various works: title, publisher, author, serial numbers, indexes, tables of contents, etc. I think that people typically take these things for granted and are then unable to understand their significance.
3. Provide instruction related to subjects. It seems like a simple question: What's the work about? But people always seem to have difficulty. There are, of course, issues caused by epistemic communities such as polysemity but people should be able to describe a few concepts.
4. Booleans. I know that a number of people feel that we shouldn't have to teach people boolean logic and that our IR systems should obviate their need. Still, boolean logic forces people to experiment with concepts and this skill is crucial regardless of the system used.

Just some thoughts.
Nature of knowledge

While walking the dog last night I had some brief thoughts about the nature of information and knowledge. We take for granted that information and knowledge are different things. How we determine this difference, however, is a bit suspect. I once read that knowledge is value added information. The definition I prefer—despite its Information-as-Thing bias (Buckland, 1991)—is that information is inherently transportable while knowledge is socially situated with a given community (Kanfer et al., 2000).

Of course, to be transportable information has to be encoded as a document (another classic: Buckland, 1997). One of my former instructors—Bernie Frohmann—is adamant about this point. For a given community to develop some knowledge therefore requires both information and its precursor: the document.

Sometimes the documents don’t exist. A classic example is pre-literate or oral culture (see Ong, 1982). If a community lacks writing they obviously can’t create documents. How many of our other media, however, are more oral than they are literate? PowerPoint for example, seems more rooted in oral culture than it does in literate culture (see Tufte, 2003). Since the document is largely missing in PowerPoint (or is at least very poorly structured) can the higher levels of information exchange and knowledge creation actually occur? Are we just setting ourselves up for some massive failure?

On November 16 1532, Francisco Pizarro basically wiped out the Incan army at Cajamarca in the Andean highlands. He lured the Incan emperor—Atahuallpa—into an enclosed fort where Pizarro could use his horses and guns to completely overwhelm the Incan forces. According to Jared Diamond (1997), the reason for this incredible military victory was the Incan’s complete ignorance of writing and the strategic affordances it provides.

By adopting oral media over traditional documents, are we bound for a corporate Cajamarca?


Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? Retrieved September 18, 2001, from
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Kanfer, A. G., Haythornthwaite, C., Bruce, B. C., Bowker, G. C., Burbules, N. C., Porac, J. F., et al. (2000). Modeling distributed knowledge processes in next generation multidisciplinary alliances. Information Systems Frontiers, 2(3-4), 317-331.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word. London ; New York: Methuen.
Tufte, E. R. (2003). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press LLC.