Brown and Duguid. The social life of information

This is the 8th book for my 12 Books, 12 Months Challenge.

Short version: Librarians, and others in any “information industry,” should read it and ponder its critiques of “information fetishism.”

I bought this book back in May 2005 and finally got around to reading it. I am following it up with Nardi and O’Day’s Information Ecologies which I bought in May 2006. Where this book focuses on the binary rhetoric of “information,” and thus of information technology, Nardi and O’Day focus on the binary rhetoric of “technology.” Nardi & O’Day is 1-2 years older, is cited by Brown & Duguid, and I am hoping they’ll make a nice complementary pair.


  • Preface: Looking Around
  • Introduction: Tunneling Ahead
  • 1 Limits to Information
  • 2 Agents and Angels
  • 3 Home Alone
  • 4 Practice Makes Process
  • 5 Learning—in Theory and in Practice
  • 6 Innovating Organization, Husbanding Knowledge
  • 7 Reading the Background
  • 8 Re-education
  • Afterword: Beyond Information

This book lived up to what I thought it might be after seeing so many references to it over the last 6 years. Originally released in 2000 (my ed. from 2002) I would say that it has held up quite well. Although I would love to see it updated, I truly doubt that much of the analysis would actually change. But with the changes in higher ed, and all of the mergers of massive media conglomerates over the past decade plus, it would be interesting to see if and how their take on the issues might change.

Optimism and pessimism “are both products of the same technology-centered tunnel vision. Both focus on information and individuals in splendid isolation. Once agents are set in a social context, both conclusions—sublime and despairing—seem less probable” (xi).

“This book is particularly concerned with the superficially plausible idea … that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people. We think of this as “information fetishism”” (xvi).

“Our underlying argument in the discussion of education and the common thread that runs throughout … this book is that change is not necessarily occurring where, how, or when predicted, nor for the reasons most commonly cited. Hence, we suspect, many people have become increasingly unhappy with the binary simplicities of predictions about new technology” (xxii-xxiii).

Ch. 2 is primarily about bots, ch. 3 about telecommuting, ch. 4 business process reengineering, ch. 5 knowledge management and learning, ch. 6 knowledge as sticky and leaky, ch. 7 paper and documents, and ch. 8 higher education.

Ch. 7 “Reading the Background” provides excellent examples of what documents do, of the social roles they fill, and of the societies that they help to create. Seeing as I approached this primarily as a librarian that is the area I will focus my excerpts on.

“Among many things relegated to history’s scrap heap by relentless futurism have been, …, paper documents. Here, focus on the information they carry has distracted attention from the richer social roles that documents play—roles that may sustain paper documents despite the availability of digital ones. … …, we believe that documents, like other older technologies, probably will not be replaced (when they should be) or augmented (when they could be), if their richness and scope are underappreciated (xix-xx).

Argues that until we understand what documents do—physically and culturally—we will not understand what they are and how to replace or improve them. A narrow focus on the information that documents carry will fail to result in useful change.

“Documents not only serve to make information but also to warrant it—to give it validity. Here again, the material side of documents plays a useful part. For information has trouble, as we all do, testifying on its own behalf. Its only recourse in the face of doubt it s to add more information” (187).

“So documents do not merely carry information, they help make it, structure it, and validate it. More intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social groups to form, develop, and maintain a sense of shared identity” (189).

“Documents then contribute not only to forming and stabilizing the worlds but also, …, to reforming, destabilizing, and transforming them. The presence of heretics reminds us that the “information” is not the sole contributor here. The orthodox and the heretics both form around the same information or content. They are distinguished from one another by their unique disposition toward that information” (193-4).

“The political scientist Benedict Anderson provides yet another example of the way groups form around documents. He considered networks so large, so diverse, and so spread out that individual members could not possibly know one another. They nonetheless may develop a sense of membership and belonging if they can create an image of the group as a single community with a single identity. Anderson described the communities as “imagined” and claimed that shared documents play an essential part in this imagining.

Anderson argues that such a document culture made a key contribution to the creation of independent nations” (194).

This is an important work and is still highly relevant. I am going to let it simmer for a while in the back of my mind. But I do think it fits well with my slowly awakening thesis that “information” as a foundational concept for libraries and librarians is a dangerous one.

The Profession’s Models of Information – some comments

Green, R. (1991). The Profession’s Models of Information: A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis. Journal of Documentation, 47(2), 130-148.

I read this at the coffee shop one morning a couple of weeks ago and, as usual, was quite impressed. She shows that a model of communication is mandatory for information science but that one of information seeking is optional. She also critiques the overuse of ‘information’ and makes the “radical suggestion” that we need a whole new language for library and information science (143). Yes, yes, and yes! [Was cited by Dick 1995; see below for citation. Or this blog post: 2 articles by Archie Dick]

Based on a linguistic analysis of phrases including the word ‘information,’ randomly sampled across a 20-year period from Library & Information Science Abstracts (LISA: 1969-Sep 1989), “establishes three predominant cognitive models of information and the information transfer process” (130, abstract).

Outline of article:

  • Introduction
  • Related Cognitive Models
  • Method
  • Results
  • Analysis
    • Focus of models
    • Compatibility of models
    • Direct communication model
    • Indirect communication model
    • Information-seeking model
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix A
    • A. Direct communication (DC) model
    • B. Indirect communication (IC) model
    • C. Information-seeking (IS) model
  • Appendix B. Syntagms evoking general frames
  • References


In trying to determine the cognitive models within the field the author made two basic assumptions: “(1) the literature of a field incorporates the cognitive models common to the discipline; and (2) linguistic analysis can be used to ferret out what those models are” (131).

Related Cognitive Models

Green discovered three models, two of which take the perspective of the information system and one which takes the perspective of the information user. The first two fall under the critique of

“the traditional paradigm of information transfer criticised by Dervin. In what she refers to as a positivistic or information-theoretic framework, information is perceived as a self-existent and absolute entity, independent of human minds. Information is stored within a variety of types of information systems, which users may approach in order to extract information relevant to their needs” (132).


Pointing out that the phenomena of the information transfer process “is the key event around which library and information science is built,” Green states that

“If the positivistic model of information transfer observed by Dervin is truly representative of the thinking of the profession and if that mode of thinking is as dysfunctional as Dervin suggests (which, no doubt it is), library and information science educators and researchers would have some serious overhauling and restructuring of their cognitive models to accomplish” (132-33/133).

I adore her all over again for that “which, no doubt it is” aside.

There are a couple limitations of the method used that are listed (134). One of them, which is only a possible limitation or less of one than is suspected, would be partially answered if this study were repeated for the period 1990-2010. I would love to see that comparison.


As one can guess from the outline of the article above, the three models found are: Direct communication (DC) model, Indirect communication (IC) model, and the Information-seeking (IS) model (135). I will leave it to the interested reader to delve further into this paper on their own if they are interested in these models and the specific support found for them via Dr. Green’s analysis.


“As noted previously, communication models and information-seeking models are not inherently incompatible. Given that information transfer is the basic phenomenon around which library and information science revolves, the discipline must have a model of communication from information source to information user. Since the information user is often the initiator of the information transfer, we may have (and in general we would like to have) information-seeking models, too. Thus, a model of communication is mandatory; a model of information-seeking, although desirable, is theoretically optional. The upshot of this recognition is that the discipline’s models of communication are more crucial than its model(s) of information-seeking. … Sadly, our models of communication provide little insight as to how information transfer is actually effected” (141, empahsis mine).

While I will leave the concept of “information transfer” stand for now, this idea of a “transfer” is also to be rejected. Nonetheless, whatever fills the role of this so-called “information transfer” will still be “the key event around which library and information science is built” (132-33). Thus, a proper theory of communication is the basis for all that we do in library and information science, whether theory or practice.

Did the information-seeking model that was discovered accomplish its aims? No, it did not. Although ostensibly focused on the user, the IS model still emphasized the information system far too much, along with paying more attention to quantity vs. quality of the information retrieved (recall vs. precision) (141-42).

The issue is that

“the cognitive models of the user are not considered. Moreover, the cognitive models embodied in the information retrieved are also ignored; the relevance of information to a user’s need is defined solely in terms of shared ‘aboutness’, without respect to compatibility of underlying cognitive frameworks. Consequently, matching information retrieved to information needed is perceived mechanistically” (142).

This provides a an exceptional argument for domain analysis and a focus on epistemological relevance and viewpoint. Just because some source is ‘about’ a topic does not mean it will meet the needs of a user; any user much less a specific user.

The next paragraph warmed my heart to no end:

“Unfortunately, such a view of information retrieval, which is in the same vein as the positivistic or information-theoretic framework as criticized by Dervin, is, one may argue, built into our understanding of the word ‘information’. … This leaves us with the question why we have adopted such heavy use of the word ‘information’ throughout our discipline when the cognitive models associated with it are in at least some respects incompatible with what we are trying to accomplish” (142).


“Shortcomings discovered in the analysis … highlight the areas where our focus of research should be: the cognitive structures of texts; and how readers perceive them, re-mould them, and integrate them with the cognitive models they possessed at the outset of the interaction” (142, emphasis mine).

The question of integration is actually the foundation of all of these questions, as it is of the question of communication.

“A second recommendation stems from the observation that the word ‘information’ predisposes us to think of the retrieval process in a mechanistic sense, which goes counter to our modern understanding of how the process should be viewed. (Ironically, the word ‘retrieval’ also carries this bias.) … The recommendation offered here is a radical one: we need to change the basic inventory of words we use to communicate about our field. We should be more concerned with learning and knowledge than with retrieval and information” (142-43).

Change our language? Yes, yes, yes!

This article provides me the following:

  • A theory of communication is mandatory for LIS
  • A theory of comm is prior to a theory of information-seeking
  • An argument for domain analysis and epistemological considerations
  • A critique of ‘information’ as the basis for my discipline
  • A call to radically change our language within the field

Dick, A. (1995). Restoring Knowledge as a Theoretical Focus of Library and Information Science. South African Journal of Library & Information Science, 63(3), 99.

Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information or Communication? – article comments

Dervin, Brenda. 1976. Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information of Communication? (Part One of Information: An Answer for Every Question? A Solution for Every Problem?). Journal of Broadcasting 20, no. 3 (Summer): 324-333.

I quite enjoyed this Dervin article.  But what I did not enjoy was not having access to any of the 30 citations!  [A rant on this head is in the works as a separate post.]  This is a mid-70s critique of the influx and impingement of the concept of ‘information’ on the field of communications, the misplaced overemphasis on it in everyday life, and the assumptions behind this which redirects research to the wrong questions.  Also addresses why so many of the things seen in communications research contradict what they assume or are even told is important by subjects.

The main article focuses on 10 assumptions and their ramifications “which have unwittingly hindered efforts focusing on the information “needs” of average citizens” (326). These are:

  1. Objective information is the only valuable information.
  2. If a little information is good, a lot must be better.
  3. Objective information can be transmitted out of context.
  4. Information is acquired only through formal information systems.
  5. Information is relevant to every urban need.
  6. Every need situation has a solution.
  7. Information that is not now available or accessible can be made so.
  8. The functional units of our information systems equal the functional units of users of those systems.
  9. Time and space can be ignored.
  10. The connections between external information and internal information can be assumed (326, direct quote).

Again, not really a review.  I pulled out some choice bits, for my purposes anyway, and added some commentary.  My goal in these article commentaries is to give you enough that might entice you into reading them for yourself if they fit your research or interests and not to make it so you do not need to.

“Directly or indirectly, each of these scholars has begun to take the scientist’s dilemma of “creation versus discovery” and pull it out for review. Does humankind discover reality (and, therefore, simply collect information about it)? or does it create and invent reality?

The question is not answerable. But, we behave as if it is. Despite the relativistic nature of our empirical findings, we continue to assume that objective information about reality is obtainable. We assume that only if we work hard enough, long enough, we can have complete knowledge and that knowledge is orderable.3 We assume there is a given order and we are but discovering and confirming it. …

… This view of knowledge essentially posits homosapiens as a totally adaptive creature, using information about reality to adapt to reality. Yet, the history of humankind is marked … by creation, invention, and control of surroundings. Humankind at least in part, creates its own reality” (325) [some formatting issues left in].

The above addresses a fundamental disconnect between communication theory and reality-as-observed.

A “three-type formulation of information is suggested as potentially more useful than our current cybernetic denotation of the term10” (326).

“Information1 – the innate structure or pattern of reality; adaptive information; objective information; data” (326). [Only included as this kind comes under critique below.  If you want to know all 3 read the article.]

The following will address bits and pieces from the sections on the 10 assumptions.

A1 : Misses a “great deal of information-relevant behavior because it appears in unexpected places” (327).

Exactly!  Information science (IS) is just as guilty of this.  Well, truthfully, IS is guilty of all of these, or certainly was in 1976.  We, as well as Comm, have made some progress I would like to believe.  Our theories are beginning to back away from these seriously limiting assumptions but I see little evidence of that theoretical progress informing the design of our systems.

A1 : “Instead of positing the use of advice, rules, and interpersonal help as an informing function (information3), we label this high use of informal sources as a “law of least effort” that operates in the acquisition of information” (327).

Reading this was like the hard slap in the face that I needed.  Besides the (seeming) general insider superiority of one uttering the “law of least effort” I was also bothered by it for reasons I could not put my finger on.  But this so-called law has simply been a smoke screen for our (and Comm’s) unwillingness to tackle the complexities of behavior and situations “covered” by this law.  It is not a law; it is simply laziness on our part.  And damaging laziness at that. Please realize that I am not saying that no one takes the road of least effort on occasion, myself included, but that much of what is covered by this “law” is not that. It only looks that way to us as we, as researchers, have taken the same road and have not adequately theorized the divergent behaviors we have lumped together under this “law.”

A2 : “Yet, if individual knowing is some unknown combination of objective reality plus personal reality, then being informed is not the same thing as having information1. We have focused on the “information” and not the “informing”” (328).

We are so utterly guilty as charged here.  As is much of society, popular and scientific, which seems to think that having or supplying information is the same as being informed/informing.

A3 : The assumption of objective information mapping to reality and that this is orderable leads to certain approaches to education and the mass media.  “We are bombarded with isolated facts. Because each fact is assumed to have a proper place, each fact is assumed to have informing utility” (328).  But this approach leads to much information being “rejected and ignored as being irrelevant and meaningless” (329).

There is also a tie-in to information literacy (IL) instruction here due to the fact that “our education system is geared primarily for the transmission of information1 rather than instruction and practice on how to become informed” (329).  If our educational system did focus on these important areas of becoming/being informed then there would be less need for IL at the college-level, or perhaps it could focus primarily on library-related systems instead of the ridiculous breadth of topics IL instruction is trying to undertake today; particularly ridiculous given the extremely limited amount of time instruction librarians have with students.

A6 : “We equate having solutions [which is “(after all, the raison d’être of the the system …)”] with being informed, being able to construct one’s own reality, being able to develop personal answers20” (330).

But see work on medical communication and seriously ill patients frustration with the system.

A8 : “As citizen’s begin to use information1 systems “designed for them,” they collide with those systems. The citizens, on the one hand, are asking for functional units that are meaningful to them. The systems, on the other, are protecting the functional units in which they have vested units” (331).  Kapitzke also had a critique on this head as it relates to IL, although I did not address it in my post.

A9 : While we have acknowledged that people are embedded in social situations, we have been on a quest for situation-free generalizations. … Yet, we continue to search for enduring personally traits, enduring information processing strategies” (331-2).

A10 : We assume the connections between external reality and internal reality must exist based on the assumption of an ordered universe. But we do not study them. “Thus, we know little about how people do inform themselves and make connections30” (332).

I apologize for not being able to tell you what those superscripts refer to.  Keep watch for a rant on that topic.  Soon.

Cited by:

Dervin, Brenda. 1977. Useful theory for librarianship: Communication, not information. Drexel Library Quarterly 13: 16-32.

Information Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of Outformation – article comments

Kapitzke, Cushla. 2003. Information Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of Outformation. Educational Theory 53, no. 1: 37-53.

I wrote on the paper after finishing it, “provides a valuable critique of entrenched views (positivist?) of knowledge, information, and learning; but assumes postmodernism and the digital age have changed everything, when in fact, these critiques have existed for a long time and ought be fully applied to a non- or pre-digital world also. Thus, ahistorical.”

I think this article does provide a very valuable critique not only of the assumptions behind and motivations driving information literacy but also of entrenched views of knowledge, information, and learning in the educational system, libraries, and librarianship (and by extension, in information science).

The article is situated within the context of school education, professionally trained media center specialists and teacher-librarians and employs a poststructuralist theoretical perspective (37).

Article outline:

  • Libraries as Contexts for Literacies
  • Information Literacy as Panacea
  • Information Literacy: Defining the Indefinable
  • Information Literacy: A Poststructuralist Critique
  • Toward a Hyperliteracy
  • Conclusion

“My thesis is that, because of its positivist philosophical orientation, the information literacy framework is incompatible with emergent concepts of knowledge and epistemology for digital and online environments” (38).

As I stated above, these emergent concepts have been emerging for a while; in some cases, quite a while. But the point is still a valuable one and should be taken seriously.

“In sum, the notion of being “information literate” was the library profession’s response to technological change and to the proliferation of information. [19] Perhaps it is timely to consider whether a preoccupation with technologization has caused them to overlook less tangible but more profound developments around issues of knowledge and epistemology” (42).

[19] Sorry, this footnote is too long and has too many sources for me to type here.

I think the first statement there is an overstatement. It is certainly one way to spin the story but it is certainly only one of many, and it is overly simplistic. Perhaps just as, or more, relevant would be the search for professional relevance. No doubt, there are others.

“Furthermore, resource and information use in schools is framed within the discourse of positivism and based on three misconceptions: (1) the school library provides a neutral service, (2) the library user is an autonomous individual, and (3) language is a transparent conduit for the transmission of meaning in information” (45).

Clearly, all of these are highly flawed views. For general information on positivism see the Positivism article at WikipediaThe Enlightenment also receives a fair few lashes of the rhetorical whip in this article, some of which is justified.

Again, these critiques are valuable and generally spot on, but they also precede the poststructuralist/postmodernist. Postmodernism invented little, or nothing, that did not already exist. It only collected many of these, tossed them all together as if in doing so they could cohere in a sense that was hauntingly similar to the sense of coherence of knowledge that they were critiquing.

“Library practice and the discipline of information science are deeply rooted in Enlightenment notions of Western science. Library science literature shows how the spatial organization of knowledge in libraries contributed to the institutionalization of scientific knowledge through the classification and physical arrangement of collections into orders of hierarchical materials [32]. These materials—served historically to construct and privilege disciplinary and curricular boundaries. Librarian and library user alike viewed print collections as reifications of natural and social realities and of the research practices for defining and objectifying those realities” (45).

[32] John M. Budd, “An Epistemological Foundation for Library and Information Science,” Library Quarterly 65, no. 3 (1995): 295-319.

No argument from me on this one.

“Libraries are one of the “most visible and important temples” erected by society to the positivist belief in an ordered world that can be described and classified according to a set of universal principles” (46).

I would argue that this belief seriously predates positivism.

In describing the tension between order and disorder, Kapitzke takes a particularly cheap shot at librarians by mentioning that, “Classical and popular literature alike, …, provide memorable cameos of stereotyped, repressed librarians, victims of their own fetish for organization and order [37]” (46). I am really unsure what this is supposed to do in support of the case being made.

[37] Gary P. Radford and Marie L. Radford, “Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” Library Quarterly 67, no. 3 (1997): 250-267.

Here are some quotes showing what I think is a lack of correct application of the critique being made, and/or an overemphasis on the poststructuralist critique and the digital:

“Linear and hierarchical approaches to thinking and learning are inadequate for the webbed cyberspace of information” (47).

No, they are inadequate, period.

“Within the present context of an information glut, librarians and users spend their time not so much searching but interpreting, filtering, and value-adding by creating relationships among ideas across a range of media” (47).

This should happen glut or no, digital or no. And, I would argue has applied for centuries, if not millennia. And, of course, if one wanted it can be, and has been, argued that an information glut has existed for almost as long as humans have recorded information. Regardless, even in some mythical state of being involving the perfect amount of information (whatever that might be), the primary purpose of librarians and users of libraries ought be “interpreting, filtering, and value-adding by creating relationships among ideas across a range of media” and whatever other description you want to add that adds up to the creation of meaning. Searching, even for librarians, is never an end in itself.

One more example of this myopic view of the digital and the new:

“The proliferation of chaotic digital information, and the increasing disparity of end-point textual products and knowledges, have created a situation where knowledge is located not so much in the text as such, but in the co-construction of situated meanings among learner, teacher, and media center specialist” (48).

It has always been thus; we have just pretended otherwise.

The author’s suggested solution is a “hyperliteracy.”

“The concept of “information literacy” privileges the role of information in learning and teaching” (50). I agree with this but would also argue that this is due to the prior privileging of information and, thus, the problem is much larger than information literacy.

“A hyperliteracy approach draws from and extends two theories of literacy pedagogy: multiliteracies and intermediality [50] Hyperliteracy represents approaches to text, authorship, and knowledge that are located within a postpositivist paradigm. They seek to problematize their own assumptions and practices” (50).

[50] The New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” in Multiliteracies, eds. Cope and Kalantzis; and Ladislaus M. Semali and Ann Watts Pailliotet, eds., Intermediality: The Teachers’ Handbook of Critical Media Literacy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).

If you want more information on this topic see the article or perhaps those sources, which I doubt I will be tracking down. [That is not meant as a statement or critique of those sources but just that this is not my arena for now. At the moment, I am far more interested in the critique of the concept and practice of information literacy than in any suggested cures.]

“Disciplinary logics and rationalities different from those imposed by Aristotle, Melvil Dewey, or the Library of Congress are now possible” (53).

Um, yes. And they have been for *a very long time.*

All in all, I think this article provides a very valuable critique of information literacy and continuing established views of learning, knowledge and atomized information. But its biggest fault lies in the importance that it overly attaches to the poststructuralist/postmodernist critique. This fault does not invalidate the critique in any way, but it does cast a pallor over the rhetoric employed to make its points.

2 articles by Archie Dick

In the last two days I have read two papers by Archie L. Dick.  Yesterday I read “Epistemological Positions and Library and Information Science” and this morning I read “Restoring knowledge as a theoretical focus of library and…”.  [OK, we all know that is not its title but more on that later.] [Really were read 30 & 31 Aug.]

As of now, Archie Dick is my newest intellectual crush!  I thoroughly enjoyed both of these papers and look forward to finding and reading more of his work.

Dick, A.L. 1995. Restoring knowledge as a theoretical focus of library and… South African Journal of Library & Information Science 63, no. 3 (September): 99. doi:Article.  

Dick, Archie L. 1999. Epistemological Positions and Library and Information Science. The Library Quarterly 69, no. 3 (July): 305-323.  

“Epistemological Positions and Library and Information Science” addresses “the general neglect of epistemology as a topic of professional and methodological concern” (305) and advocates for a holistic perspectivism.

The sections of this paper are:

  • The Unknown Influence
  • Getting to Know How We Know in LIS
  • General Complexities of Examining Epistemology in LIS
  • Specific Difficulties of Examining Epistemology in LIS
  • Ways of Knowing in LIS
  • A Way to Go for the Ways to Know in LIS
  • Holistic Perspectivism
  • Conclusion

As one may guess from that outline, the metaepistemological framework that Dick argues for is one of holistic perspectivism.

“Holistic perspectivism therefore recognizes that several epistemological positions (perspectivism) provide the bases for justifying a range of knowledge claims related to social wholes (holism) in LIS. As a purportedly valid perception of some aspect of LIS, each perspective or epistemological position provides, in essence, a partial view on that aspect. Dialectical tension with other perspectives or epistemologies facilitates the continuous growth of valid knowledge in LIS” (318).

This is certainly not an “anything goes” relativism, though.

Dick states that there are “[t]wo central questions that epistemology in LIS seeks to answer” (without exhausting the scope thereof) (306). These are: “(a) How much of what LIS claims to know on the basis of its modes of professional practice and research traditions can indeed be justified on the basis of evidence for its claims? and (b) What type of knowledge is bibliothecal knowledge …?” (307).

As is the case in any endeavor, but especially in one that professes to be a profession, and perhaps even a science, “the intentional or unconscious espousal of an epistemological position holds definite implications for how they practice their profession and conduct scientific research [20]” (307).

In the section “A Way to Go for the Ways to Know in LIS” he discusses processes of epistemology substitution and epistemology elimination, which, for me, has some definite similarities to W. McNeill’s critique of myth destruction in Mythistory.

This then leads us into his views on holistic perspectivism, which I find a convincing discussion of the sort of pluralism we need to actively embrace in our field.

I was led to this article by Smiraglia (2002) which I had meant to blog but may well not get to now. Recommended reading though.

Smiraglia, Richard P. 2002. The Progress of Theory in Knowledge Organization. Library Trends 50, no. 3 (Winter): 330-349.

[20] Harding, Sandra. 1988. Practical Consequences of Epistemological Choices. Communication & Cognition 21: 153-155.

“Restoring Knowledge as a Theoretical Focus of Library and Information Science” is concerned with the shift from knowledge to information as the theoretical basis of library and information science.  Using this context he also explains the shift from the myth of library as place to the myth of the electronic library.  Considering that this article was published in 1995 I see this piece as highly prescient.  And, again, I see a direct connection with McNeill as Dick is using “myth” in a sense similar to McNeill and not in the late 20th century derogatory sense of “myth.”

I found this article excellent, prescient, and highly valuable to my developing critique of “information” as a basis for librarianship (and information science).

The sections of this article seem to be:

  • Introduction (unlabeled)
  • Different responses
  • Value of conceptions of knowledge in the context of LIS
  • Approaches to knowledge
  • Divergent conceptions of knowledge in LIS literature
    • Knowledge as an interrelated, dynamic unit
    • Knowledge as differentiated into distinct types
    • Knowledge as exosomatic and publicly accessible
    • Conceptions of unrecorded knowledge
    • Knowledge–information relationship
      • Equivalent
      • Hierarchical
      • Dichotomous
      • Continuum
      • Knowledge as a Dialectical process
  • Conception of knowledge supporting the meaning of information in LIS
  • Knowledge as a theoretical focus in LIS’s future
  • Conclusion

Regarding myth, he also provides the most blatant explanation of the ‘origin myth’ of information science that I have yet seen.

I will leave that discussion and the following brilliant critique of the conception of knowledge and information that that leads to to the effort of the interested reader. This discussion leads to another critical reason why it is that professional librarians and information scientists must be epistemologically aware of their commitments, theoretical and practical.

This article made my day! If you have any itch to be scratched regarding the importance of epistemology in LIS you would be hard pressed to do better than beginning with these 2 articles. If you desire further suggestions for reading on this topic do not hesitate to contact me as I would be more than glad to provide some suggestions.

Regarding the elided title and the seeming sectioning: Library databases have been giving me fits lately. Part of the problem is that now that I am 10 hours away from the wonderful LIS collections of UIUC I have to get a lot of older stuff electronically that I could have easily photocopied.  Or even, heaven forbid, ILL the article and suffer someone else’s horrible job at photocopying.  These assorted gripes may have to wait for a separate post.  But back to this article.

I had to get this electronically, and thankfully it is available in some form, from EBSCO Professional Development Collection.  The only option is a full-text HTML file.  This file has absolutely no pagination indications, except for the starting page number listed in the article metadata section at the top of the page, and the title as I typed it at the top of the page. Also, the HTML markup of sections is not at all clear as to the actual hierarchy of the sectioning as, no doubt, the print version’s typography would have made abundantly clear.

EBSCO finds this scholarship so important that they provide me no real means of citing a paper that I find exceptionally important, and they even elide the article title in the provided metadata. Apoplexy, I have it.

The Ethics of Information Organization

I am at The Ethics of Information Organization conference in Milwaukee for the next two days and I am really looking forward to the presentations.

Hopefully I will find time to blog about this soon; unlike so many other things. With any luck the conference site will have wireless available. It is in the public library. If so, and I can find power, then I may be tweeting it with the hash tag #EIO09. Update: Seems they want #IOETHICS

More importantly, though, I hope to learn a lot and be given lots to think about.

Pathways for communication : a mini-review

Foskett, D. J. 1984. Pathways for Communication: Books and Libraries in the Information Age. London: C. Bingley.


I read this lovely little book [128 pages] last week. In many ways it has a lot in common with John Budd’s Self-examination and with Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power. All in all, it falls in a sort of middle ground. Budd’s book is both broader and narrower, and certainly far longer, while Wilson’s is much narrower and about the same length. Oddly, this book, though 16 years more recent than Wilson’s essay, feels far more dated. More on that in a bit.

Its chapters are entitled: Information and understanding, Communication and chronicles, Communication and society, Information and the psychology of users, Keepers and finders, Technology and culture, Theory and practice, Memory and anticipation, Looking for answers, and A reading society.

As I said above, this book feels a bit dated. Strange things is, though, I did not read that book. Early on when I noticed its datedness I asked myself what would Foskett say about that in the context of today? And somehow I managed to do that throughout the book. In fact, I got so good at it that I often just seemingly read what I think that answer would be. Thus, I may not even be qualified to comment on the book as such since that is seemingly not the book that I read.

In that regard, I think this is an important and an excellent book. Or, at least it is for one who can also manage a similar trick. For the unimaginative who can only read what is printed on the page then perhaps the book would be less valuable. I will say that if I ever teach an LIS course where some or all of this book would fit it will be assigned reading with the explicit goal of having the students update Foskett’s views; that is, apply Foskett’s criticisms and analysis to the contexts in which we find ourselves today. That, I venture to bet, would be a valuable exercise for all but the most dull among us.

Much of this book spoke to me regarding debates, discussions and contexts in which the profession finds itself today. One of Foskett’s primary critiques is that of confusing means for ends. One particular piece which I happened to note [and wish I had marked others] was the following:

The opposite of progress will occur if our effort are stultified by nonsensical theories leading to stupid practice. If ‘information’ becomes reified into a commodity subject to the laws and forces involved in commodity production and distribution, there is a real danger that quality will be sacrificed to quantity, and the information industry will produce and process large quantities of rubbish in order to prove what vast quantities it can process. We do not belong to the dismal and defeatist school of ‘more means worse’ if we wish to oppose the apparently attractive but actually meretricious school of ‘we must do it because we can’. Once more, means are in danger of becoming ends (111-112).

Communication, that is, human communication, looms large as the title would suggest.

There is also a lot of reference to the ‘paperless society,’ as that was a leading concept of the time. But it also one which still has pundits and while the term is rarely explicitly referenced anymore nonetheless it has significant impact on the thinking of many.

Another theme is the danger of contrasting the ‘librarian’ and the ‘information officer.’ In essence, they both deal with knowledge of source materials, whether or not their favored sources are physical objects.

As dated as this book may seem to some, I maintain that it is of immense relevance atill as the opening of the chapter, ‘Theory and practice,’ demonstrates:

The headlong progress of computer technology over recent decades has carried along all those of us engaged in communication at an exhilarating pace. Learned societies, publishers, librarians, have all become convinced of the necessity of making publicly available every last thought, no matter how commonplace or trivial, so that it may be indexed, abstracted, put into machine-readable form, and displayed on a visual display unit.

The benefits of the new technology are indeed not to be denied, and it would be foolish to try to keep it out of libraries. But if technology is not to become the master, then library and information science requires an advance in its theoretical foundations, and this must play an important part in the preparation of future members of the profession (75).

As I said, perhaps I did not even read the book in front of me; I read a different book. I am not sure how or why I managed to read this book far more forgivingly than many others I have read. But read it I did. I also recommend it as a valuable exercise for those who can generously apply Foskett’s critique to a more up-to-date context.

I highly recommend this book but with the caveat that you attempt to read it as if it were written today. And with that, I want to leave you with one more quote, this time from the final chapter.

What is much more dangerous is that the whole concept of Information Technology in this narrow sense means the development of a society which is thoroughy superficial in its attitude to knowledge, and which has no stability because its existence depends, not on the security of the shared points of view which add up to a cultural heritage, but on a continuous flow of separate bits of information. The individual will have no time or opportunity to digest and assimilate all these separate bits, or to build them into a coherent and integrated structure. Society will become a behaviourist paradise, and human beings will behave as if they were machines only able to act in response to external stimuli. Power will reside in those who provide the stimuli, and unless they have the time and the will to form considered judgements, progress in the global village will consist in a succession of crisis responses to the latest bits of information, no matter what their source or validity (123).

Some things read this week, 20 – 26 April 2008

Sunday – Thursday, 20 – 24 Apr 2008

Lodge, David. 1992. Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. New York: Penguin Books.

Wasn’t sure if I was going to continue this but I read it on and off on Sunday and made a big dent at dinner in the Alley on Monday. I’m 66% of the way through so I imagine I’ll finish it and then shift back to more serious things.

Finished this Thursday afternoon. I guess it was OK as it had some moments but I can’t recommend it overall.

Wednesday, 23 Apr 2008

2007. Running & Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind. Malden: Blackwell Pub.

  • Ch. 17 : “Where the Dark Feelings Hold Sway”: Running as Aesthetic Experience by Martha Nussbaum
  • Ch. 18 : The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill by Michelle Maiese.

Only one chapter left to go. Good book.

Friday – Saturday, 25 – 26 Apr 2008

Guarino, Nicola and Christopher A. Welty. “An Overview of OntoClean.” In Staab, Steffen, and Rudi Studer, ed. 2004. Handbook on Ontologies. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Actually a fairly good article, but I have major concerns over their explanation of rigidity. It has certainly been a bit since I last read Kripke or any other relevant literature on rigidity … but they blow it in their explanation, IMHO.

I think they have it right in the end. But. Their presentation is confused. They use a highly questionable example and then make several implicit assumptions in its use and description. It might actually work if they spelled out all of their assumptions but there must be better examples.

I ran it by one or two people and would read a sentence and they’d say, “See, they’re assuming such and such and they are right.” Then I’d read the next sentence where the assumption seems to be reversed and they went, “Oh!”

Lest you think this is nit-picking—it may be but I do not think so—I also have the same complaints about many of the examples used in the cataloging and classification literature. These examples are critical. Many of these concepts are extremely difficult and nuanced. Crystal clear and meaningful examples are a must. Also, in today’s world, quit with the culturally-specific examples. I fully realize that The Wizard of Oz is fairly international by this point. I also realize that there may be few to no fully international examples available, but with a little care I do think excellent examples could be found for anyone who might be reading this kind of literature in the first place.

Recommend. But read carefully.

Saturday, 26 Apr 2008

Frohmann, Bernd. 2008. Subjectivity and information ethics. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 59, no. 2:267-277. (Accessed March 2, 2008).

Recommended if you are into information ethics at all.

Some things read this week, 2 – 8 March 2008

Sunday, 2 Mar 2008

Toolan, M. J. (1996). Total speech: an integrational linguistic approach to language, Post-contemporary interventions., 337. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

  • Read Ch. 4: Further Principles of Integrational Linguistics, or, On Not Losing Sight of the Language User


Sunday – Friday, 2 – 7 Mar 2008


Aitchison, J. (2003). Linguistics, Teach yourself. (6th ed), 257. Chicago, Ill: McGraw-Hill.

  • Ch. 1: what is linguistics?
  • Ch. 2: what is language?
  • Ch. 3: the study of language (Mon)
  • Ch. 4: deciding where to begin (Mon)
  • Ch. 5: sound patterns (Mon)
  • Ch. 6: words and pieces of words (Tue)
  • Ch. 7: sentence patterns (Tue)
  • Ch. 8: meaning (Tue)
  • Ch. 9: using language (Wed)
  • Ch. 10: language and society (Wed)
  • Ch. 11: language and mind (Wed)
  • Ch. 12: language and style (Thu)
  • Ch. 13: language change (Thu-Fri)
  • Ch. 14: comparing languages (Fri)
  • Ch. 15: attitudes towards change (Fri)

This book is great fun. Not great fun as in to read it, but as in to make fun of it and to explicitly see how strictly orthodox and, thus, simplistic (and wrong) textbooks and textbook-like texts are as they follow the party line.

Here’s a nice absurdity:

In fact, it is quite impossible for anybody to form sentences and understand them unless they realize that each one has an inaudible, invisible structure, which cannot be discovered by mechanical means such as counting (20).

All I can say to that is “Seriously, what the hell!” So a 5-year-old child learning their native (or even a 2nd) language must “realize” that each sentence “has an inaudible, invisible structure” before they can form or understand any sentence in their language? What kind of idiot makes a claim like that?

Human bigotry gets us this comparison:

Human language is innately guided. Human infants are not born speaking, but they know how to acquire any language to which they are exposed. They are drawn towards the noises coming out of human mouths, and they instinctively know how to analyze speech sounds. Bees present a parallel case: they are not born equipped with an inbuilt encyclopedia of flowers. Instead, they are pre-programmed to pay attention to important flower characteristics … (21-22, emphasis mine).

Humans know, bees are programmed. What a crock! This may be the opposite of anthropomorphizing, but it is just as bad.

Thursday, 6 Mar 2008

Solomon, P. (2002). Discovering information in context, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 36(1), 229-264. Retrieved March 6, 2008, from

Friday, 7 Mar 2008

Ellis, D. (1992). The physical and cognitive paradigms in information retrieval research, Journal of Documentation, 48(1), 45-64.


Saturday, 8 Mar 2008

Sundin, O., & Johannisson, J. (2005). The instrumentality of information needs and relevance. In F. Crestani & I. Ruthven (Eds.), Context: Nature, Impact, and Role: 5th International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Sciences, CoLIS 2005, Glasgow, UK, June 4-8, 2005 ; Proceedings, Lecture notes in computer science., 3507 (p. 250). Berlin: Springer.

Some things read this week, 24 February – 1 March 2008

Monday, 25 Feb 2008

White, Alan R. Introduction. In White, Alan R, ed. 1968. The Philosophy of Action. London: Oxford University Press.

This edited volume on the philosophy of action includes articles by J. L. Austin, Danto, Davidson, Anscombe, and others (some classics). I probably won’t read much more of it and I think I grabbed it when I saw it in the stacks due to … oh, who knows why I grabbed it a few days ago. ::shrug::

The Introduction was fairly interesting. He primarily covers:

  • A. The nature of action
  • B. Descriptions of action
  • C. Explanations of action

The first part gives an overview of action by pulling apart ‘do, ‘action’, and ‘act’, as they are not the same thing. It then quickly narrows to focusing on human action. The last section addresses the following questions:

(i) How does each of these explanations actually explain? (ii) How are the different explanations, and the various factors that occur in each, related to each other? (iii) Are some of these kinds of explanations mutually exclusive? (iv) How many, if any, of these explanations give an explanation of a causal kind, or, if this is different, of the kinds which are found either in explanations of human characteristics other than behaviour or in explanations of inanimate nature (13)?

Here’s an example sentence from the section addressing question (ii) above:

To give the motive for a deed is to indicate that desire for the sake of satisfying which the deed was done, provided that what was done was not itself the deed which was desired, but a deed which the agent thought would bring about or would amount to what was desired (14).

Either excruciatingly painful, pure mental masturbation, or both, depending on your temperament.

Black, Alistair. The information society: a secular view. In: Hornby, Susan, and Zoë Clarke, ed. 2003. Challenge and Change in the Information Society. London: Facet.: 18-41.

Critiques the “near-paradigmatic status” of the information society. Argues that the discourse around the information society is a mirage. It is also exposed as a ‘regime of truth” whose “legitimacy, [and] sustenance, is drawn from a wide array of interested parties who, albeit perhaps not in any conspiratorial way, stand to gain social or professional recognition, if not material reward, from establishing the information society as a ‘given’ phenomenon, as an incontrovertible ‘fact’ (19).

Yes, that certainly implicates librarians and libraries.

Demonstrates that the information society fits within modernity and that there have been equally important ‘information ages’ previously.

The information society cannot be conceptualized as a post-industrial, post-modern phenomenon, for its essences – scientific progress and individual and social emancipation among them – are surely rooted in the modern societies which have flowed, over the past three centuries, from industrialism, capitalism and the Enlightenment project (33).

Also touches on the utopianism of the information society. Quite interesting and recommended.

The book includes sections on: The information society: fact or fiction? (3 chaps.); The information society and daily life (3 chaps.); The information society and policy (2 chaps); and, The information society and the information professional (4 chaps).

Tuesday, 26 Feb 2007

Read 2 more chapters and the Introduction in the above information society book.

From the Introduction:

Our idea from the outset was to let the authors have their own voice and to allow debate and discussion within the text and between the authors.

This book is intended for those people in professional practice and in the field of academic study and research who have an interest in the information society and its impact on the profession. We hope that this collection will enable the reader to consider different viewpoints and aspects of the information society (xiii).

Cornish, Graham P. Freedom versus protection: the same coin or different currencies. P. 169-183.

Discusses “three basic concepts in the information world which appear, on occasions at least, to be at odds with each other: the right of freedom of expression, the right of freedom of access to information and the right to protect what we create (mostly copyright) (169).

Brophy, Peter. The role of the professional in the information society. P. 217-232.

Discusses the impact that the information society is having in the information professions, professionalism, and professional ethics.

Tuesday, 26 Feb 2008

Abbott Andrew. (2007 preprint) The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research.

Recommended to me by Nathan in a comment in Oct 2008. I finally got around to reading the Peter Brantley article, The Traditional Future, on 2 December. I immediately and dutifully saved the Abbott preprint and printed it as soon as I could do so double-sided (easily).

Dr. Abbott is coming to GSLIS in March to give the Spring 2008 Windsor Lecture.

The title of his talk is “Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century.”

I have known that he iss coming for a while now and have held this article for reading until closer to his visit. I’m not a standard social science researcher nor a traditional library researcher (although much closer to library researcher) so I may not be qualified to comment on some of this but it seems fairly plausible, if admittedly somewhat schematic. I also do not enjoy his use of the computing metaphor. The world faces enough issues from analogizing practically everything to computers.

All in all, fairly interesting. I will enjoy going to his lecture more prepared than most. There were also a couple of connections to the rhetoric of science and division of labor, which are important ideas in my current work.

Wednesday – Thursday, 27 – 28 Feb 2008

International Society for Knowledge Organization, and University College, London. 2004. Knowledge Organization and the Global Information Society: Proceedings of the Eighth International ISKO Conference, 13-16 July 2004, London, UK. Ed. Ia McIlwaine. Würzburg: Ergon.

  • Green, Rebecca and Lydia Fraser. Patterns in verbal polysemy. 29-34.
  • O’Keefe, Daniel J. Cultural literacy in a global information society-specific language: an exploratory ontological analysis utilizing comparative taxonomy. 55-59.
  • Binding, Ceri and Douglas Tudhope. Integrating faceted structure into the search process. 67-72. (Thu)
  • Mai, Jens-Erik. The role of documents, domains and decisions in indexing. 207-213. (Thu)

I really liked the Green and Mai articles. Mai, especially, will be valuable for my CAS paper as a widening of the concept of domain analysis.

Wednesday – Saturday, 27 Feb – 1 Mar 2008


Toolan, Michael J. 1996. Total Speech: An Integrational Linguistic Approach to Language. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.


Began this again. Read about half in the back half of December but had to put it aside to finish my bibliography and a new semester and ….

  • Introduction.
  • Ch. 1: On Inscribed or Literal Meaning (Thu)
  • Ch. 2: Metaphor (Fri-Sat)
  • Ch. 3: Intentionality and Coming into Language (Sat-Sun)

Thursday – Friday, 28 – 29 Feb 2008

Skare, Roswitha, Niels Windfeld Lund, and Andreas Vårheim, ed. 2007. A Document (Re)turn: Contributions from a Research Field in Transition. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

  • Ørom, Anders. The Concept of Information versus the Concept of Document. 53-72.
  • Frohmann, Bernd. Multiplicity, Materiality, and Autonomous Agency of Documentation. 27-39.
  • Drucker, Johanna. Excerpts and Entanglements. 41-52.

Saturday, 1 Mar 2008

McGarry, Dorothy. An Interview with Elaine Svenonius. 2000. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 29(4):5-17.

Sent to me by Bryan Campbell back in mid-Jan; finally found the time to read it. I knew Svenonius had done “some things” in our field, but I simply had no idea!

Saturday, 1 Mar 2008

Mai, Jens-Erik. 2005. Analysis in indexing: document and domain centered approaches. Information Processing & Management 41, no. 3:599-611.

This article appears to be the formal, published representation of Mai’s ISKO article above, The role of documents, domains and decisions in indexing. It will be used to expand the concept of domain analysis, primarily, and perhaps also in my commentary on applications of Integrationism to LIS, in this case indexing.