Time for the blue whale

Text developed from my presentation with Ludi Price, (@LudiPrice) for the CDP25 Career Development Day on Thursday 26th Feb 2015, in London.

The title of this text draws on the analogy with the Natural History Museum’s recent move to replace their iconic, and much loved (plastic) dinosaur skeleton, which greets visitors to the museum, with the real skeleton of a blue whale. The rationale is that although the dinosaur, affectionately known as Dippy, has been there a long time and evokes many fond memories, there is the question of whether it continues to be representative of the museum’s vision for promoting humankind’s contemporary, ecological challenges, and our hopefulness for the future. The blue whale is not yet extinct, and can embody values connected to aspirations of a bright and harmonious future for our planet, rather than those of prehistoric times. Whilst nobody is claiming that the dinosaur skeleton has not served us well, it may now be appropriate to redefined old paradigms, and to offer a more plausible platform from which inhabitants of the 21st century can build their relationship with the natural world, and indeed, their memories of London.

So too, perhaps, it is time for a re-evaluation of what we mean by  “librarianship”. A brief examination of relevant academic curricula and job specifications (UK/US), and of course, the Google zeitgeist, (search for ‘is librarianship dead?’), provides us with evidence that librarianship could be morphing into the soggier end of computer science, and that the need for anything resembling traditional library/information skills in a world of mobile interfaces and big-data analysis, has all but disappeared.

From those of us positioning ourselves within the field, there has always been a sense of dissatisfaction with the status afforded to the discipline and practice of librarianship, and the related information professions, but there is now a renewed impetus for redefinition spearheaded by the actions of a wider community. It is protagonists from other disciplines who are blending into, and consequently diluting, our universe. Even core components of librarianship such as information organisation and access are proving attractive to a wider audience, as we hear that ‘everyone is an information specialist now’. This is somewhat similar to the crisis felt by information science as few decades ago, as one of its core facets, information retrieval, mostly packed up and left for the domain of computer science.

If we believe that our discipline should survive as a unique domain, we may have to replace the beloved dinosaur definition of librarianship with a new entity. I doubt I am alone in thinking that a 21st century understanding of librarianship needs to push the information perspective further into related disciplines than is perceived by onlookers, many of whom are looking from within the profession.

The view that librarianship keeps collections of documents in a place called the library and that information science is concerned with looking things up for people using such collections, undoubtedly still has appeal. However, if we are to redefine the meaning of our professional moniker, I would like to suggest the combined definition of library and information science  (LIS) that we use at City University London, (Robinson 2009), which considers that LIS is concerned with the information communication chain. LIS works to an overall understanding of the procedures contributing to the journey of ‘information’ from its creation to its use.

creation > dissemination > management > organization/retrieval > use

The terms in the model can be readily expounded upon, but at a glance are seen to encompasses changes in authorship, publishing, management and policy, description/retrieval, information architecture and human information behaviour. In the current, rather gloomy climate, this model is worth revisiting, as it emphasises the scope of library and information science. Also worth reiterating is the concept that LIS underpins civilisation. Recorded knowledge is the basis of our society. Witness the continued presence in the news of book burning and destruction of libraries (Fadhil 2015).

To support the view that librarianship is not dead, but changing, here are seven modern problems, distilled from the wider news environment, which can be placed within the information communication chain, and which, should LIS professionals wish it, provide routes via which the information perspective can contribute to related disciplines.

• Privacy/Freedom of Information
• Digital Legacy
• Digital Preservation
• Future of the Document
• Information Literacy
• Information Organization and Access
• Library as a Physical Space

Privacy and Freedom of Information
Individual privacy battles against constant erosion, as social media goes into overdrive to gain person details to feed advertising revenue. Increasingly, use of social media engenders an almost blasé approach to privacy, in that it becomes seen as a necessary evil. Access to personal communications by government intelligence agencies is perhaps resisted more, but the number of our conversations, emails, texts, photos, videos, purchases and search histories which are committed to the network in perpetuity keeps on increasing. (MacAskill E, Borger J, Hopkins N, Davies N and Ball J, 2013)

On the opposite side, the right to find out about financial dealings or decisions which should be of public concern, is often fraught with difficulty, see Shear MD, 2015 for a discussion on Hilary Clinton’s use of personal email to avoid disclosure of state correspondence.

These issues of security of personal details and of openness have long been within the remit of library and information workers. Although technology has catapulted them onto a much bigger stage, LIS should have a key role in development of local, institutional, national or international policy, and in education to promote understanding of the implications we face.

Digital Legacy
Here we come face to face with digital ghosts. Once someone dies, what happens to their online presence? There have been calls for digital legacies, which state what happens to social media accounts when the owner dies. Facebook has recently allowed relatives to say what happens to a Facebook account for example. There are really two issues, firstly what happens to a personal digital presence, and secondly what happens to digital equity, such as ebooks or CDs. These, essentially archive queries fall within the remit of library and information science, and yet the game is played out by social media companies and funeral policy makers. See my previous post, for further consideration of digital legacies.

Digital Preservation
The potential loss of our digital heritage is often in the news. It is something that concerns many organisations, from national libraries to local societies. Each of us is concerned with the preservation of our own electronic resources. Somewhat linked to the concerns of digital legacies, we need to understand how we can organise, locate and keep safe, our digital documents. This is a modern twist on a core aspect of librarianship, and yet the main decision makers are from other, largely computing, industries and government. See Pennock M, 2015.

Future of the Document
The changing nature of the document has been of interest for librarianship from the earliest days of writing. Tablets, papyri, codices, printed works, electronic books for example. The incorporation of videos and CDs into library collections heralded a move to hybrid libraries and the management of collections of both print and digital materials. Latterly, we have all digital collections such as Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America.

But document forms evolve continuously, and the emergence of augmented and virtual reality technologies is challenging how we define a document. I have written previously on the concept of immersive documents, wherein the reader perceives a scripted unreality as reality. This builds on the ideas of many other writers, to elucidate an original view of VR from the lens of library and information science. We should be concerned with the description, storage and access, preservation, and use of these new documents. The input from LIS so far, however, has minimal, with the majority of the news coming from the technology industry and creative writers.

The domain of fan-studies is also relevant here. Yet again, very little interest in fan works from the LIS community. (Work with @LudiPrice on information behaviour of fans seeks to address this).

Let us also consider datasets; these newer forms of documents, accompanied by their analysis and curation processes (data visualization, data analysis, data mining and data curation)  are also well within the scope of LIS.

Information Literacy
There is a large body of literature from, and obvious connection with, the LIS community in regard to information literacy. However, the question remains could more be done? Every school and higher education institute now faces the need to ensure students are information literate. Beyond this, everyone needs to be information literate. There is also the link between information literacy and information poverty, and inverse correlation with the latter for economic growth and development. The role for LIS professionals is surely enormous. And yet, we seem a little reluctant to take on responsibility for communicating the basis of our discipline to others. Alternative fields such as educational technology, and distance learning providers have become key players in promoting information literacy.

Information Organisation and Access
Many documents are now born digital, and the move from bibliographic data, to meta-data and linked data is widely accepted. This work is about describing documents, and as such of primary interest to the LIS community.

Furthermore, the questions of discovery, and of the design and implementation of digital library platforms require significant knowledge of information resources and human information behaviour. However, design of library and information systems is increasingly attracting those with computing skills, and we have to consider the need for LIS to take on a more technological component.

Library as a Physical Space
The role of the library within society has been a fundamental tenet of library and information science for thousands of years. In the digital age, when remote access removes the need for a physical space, what purpose could the library serve? Is this question best left to politicians, publishers and e-book sellers? Does the LIS community have an opinion? (Morris S and Flood A, 2015).

Neither library and information science as an academic field, nor librarianship as a practice are dead. The skills and resourcefulness of members of our discipline are ideally suited to address the problems raised and faced by the 21st century information society. We do need to re-examine how we define and promote our theory and practice. There is obviously a need for a more technical foundation, to reflect the prevalence of digital information systems in our world today. However LIS addresses wider concerns than those solved by coding and programming. We suggest that the information communication chain model still serves us well as the basis from which our concept of LIS can evolve, and that we would be wise to focus on how we embody generic resilience for the future, rather than continuing to solely emphasize what we have done in the past. Time then, to bring in the blue whale.

Fadhil M (2015). ISIS destroy thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul libraries. The Guardian, 26th February 2015. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/26/isis-destroys-thousands-books-libraries

MacAskill E, Borger J, Hopkins N, Davies N and Ball J (2013). GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications. The Guardian June 21st 2013. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa

Morris S and Flood A (2015). Birmingham turns page on glittering new library as staff and hours slashed. The Guardian, 10th December, 2014. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/10/birmingham-turns-page-glittering-new-library-as-staff-hours-slashed

Pennock M (2015). Preserving our Digital Heritage: How are we really doing? British Library Collection Care Blog. 23rd February 2015. Available at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/collectioncare/2015/02/preserving-our-digital-heritage-how-are-we-really-doing.html

Robinson L (2009). Information Science: the information chain and domain analysis. Journal of Documentation vol 65(4), 578-591.

Shear MD (2015). Obama says he didn’t know Hillary Clinton was using private email address. New York Times, 7th March 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/us/obama-says-he-didnt-know-hillary-clinton-was-using-private-email-address.html?_r=0