Documents and people, Otlet and Heidegger

book coverThis is an amended review of Ron Day’s new book, Indexing it all: the subject in the age of documentation, information and data (MIT Press). The full review will appear in Information Polity.

The significance and continuing influence of the documentation movement of the early twentieth century has become increasing commented upon in recent years. This new, and thought-provoking book, may be seen, at least in part, as a continuation of this trend. Its considerations are presented from the perspective of the library and information science discipline, generally accepted as the heir of the documentation, although the documentation concept itself is undergoing something of a renaissance. It therefore fits well into the scope of the History and Foundations of Information Science series, of which it is a part.

Ron Day
Ron Day

In the preface, Ron Day states an intention to give “a critical epistemic-historical account of the development of the modern documentary tradition and its mode of governmentality in the twentieth century and now in the twenty-first [and] an intellectual history of the modern role of documentary indexing”. While there is, necessarily, some overlap with other recent works, this is largely a novel perspective on the subject. The author suggests that this a “darker book” than many unduly optimistic treatments of new media and the new information age, but I am not sure that this necessarily valid, given the numerous published laments about the effect of the internet in particular; I certainly did not feel depressed after reading it. It is not, it has to be said, always an easy read, and readers accustomed to the norms of writing in information science and information society may find it intellectually bracing, in a good way.

The book is divided into five main sections, completed by an introduction and conclusion. The structure is clear, the book seems free from errors, and the bibliography is appropriate, although – as noted below – selective rather than comprehensive.

The first main section considers the relation between persons and texts, taking Paul Otlet and Martin Heidegger as representatives of two distinct viewpoints. Very roughly, and doing violence to the detailed arguments presented here, Otlet personifies the view of documents as containers of information, used to provide facts to meet specific information needs, while Heidegger is concerned with documents as providing personal understanding through a relation between book and reader. Information retrieval and fact checking versus close reading and hermeneutics, one might say. It is not entirely novel say that the former is in the ascendency over the latter at present, and that brings both good and bad consequences; but Day says it with more evidence and rigour than most. I confess to having some doubts as to the extent to which, in reasonably recent times, most readers ‘dwelled in’ most fact-based books, rather then scanning them for information; and there is little doubt that, as Otlet was one of the first to note, that a single source will be inadequate, and a network is needed. But there is no doubt that the philosophical scaffolding given here does support much current concern about a reliance on decontextualised facts and figures.

The second section focuses on indexing and ‘aboutness’, and then looks in detail at citation indexing, and its relation to objective and subjective identities and values. Here again Day focuses on an interesting dichotomy, personified this time by the traditions of Otlet and of Charles Ammi Cutter. The former sees information as an abstract quantity, to be found in documents to satisfy an information need; the latter sees information and documents as essentially synonymous. This debate has never been settled, although it has certainly been illuminated by the writings of Michael Buckland, given a deservedly central place in the discussion here, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect a settlement; it is certainly true, as Day points out, that library/information science is rather conflicted as to whether its concern is information or documents. The discussion of subjectivity and objectivity is interesting, though I think Day may over-play the distinction between physical science (objective) and social science (subjective). At a time when the sciences are dealing with quantum entanglement, eleven dimensions of string theory and seven kinds of multiverse, there may be scope for a more overlapping information concept. The third section follows from this, considering the idea of indexing, and how it is affected by social media and social networking.

Thus far the discussions have dealt with topics familiar to readers of the information science literature, though certainly examining them from a novel perspective. The fourth and fifth sections move away from this ground to a considerable extent, respectively dealing with through a consideration of android robots, where ‘document’ is understood as the operating instructions and interactions of such entities, and with the idea of document in the context of ‘big data’. Nonetheless, readers from this background would do well to note the issues raised here, as they are likely to press increasingly on the concerns of the library/information disciplines.

The book casts a critical, and generally unsympathetic eye, on the use of collections of ‘big data’ and ‘big information’; most particularly that gathered by government, wanting to know what its citizens are doing, and by commerce, wanting to sell things more effectively. The irony, as pointed out, is that the enthusiasm for the use of networked, geo-located devices in conjunction with social media is generating such profusion of such data that their users are making themselves into documentary objects. This is linked with a tendency towards crude “the data says …” theories and models, which Day, perhaps not entirely fairly, equates with data science: in my view, that speciality is capable of more nuanced treatment of data. This argument brings us back to Otlet, from whom it is suggested that our preference for skimming many sources (‘big information’) causes us to lose out as we abandon close reading and critical analysis. Well, up to a point. It is certainly true that being overwhelmed with snippets is not a good situation; concepts such as ‘informational balance’ may be useful in overcoming this. But those of us who old enough to remember what things were like before networked digital information, would not for the most part, I think, want to go back.

The coverage is generally thorough, although the treatment of some specific topics is rather cursory/ Information literacy, in particular, deserves a fuller treatment than it gets here; the ‘radical information literacy’ approach is surely relevant, and it is a pity that Andrew Whitworth’s 2014 book would have appeared to late for consideration. Luciano Floridi’s recent book on the Fourth Revolution is also very relevant to these issues.

In a age when those who wrote articles now blog, those who blogged now tweet, and those who tweeted simply post a photograph, this book is a well-argued plea for critical reflection, particularly through the lens of critical theory. While the application of critical theory is not new to the information sciences (see, for example, the collection edited by Leckie, Given and Buschman), this book gives a particularly clear indication of its value. It will repay reading and re-reading, preferably alongside other viewpoints on the same material, and can be recommended for advanced students and their teachers, and for those who like to reflect on the, often unconsidered, frameworks upholding the practice of the information disciplines.

Remembering the real old Foyles

Somewhat belatedly, I should record my pleasure at the opening of Foyles new flagship bookship on Charing Cross Road. Visiting it is not so very different from what it used to be, as they’ve only moved a few doors down the road, to get premises which can be laid out more like a shiny new retail store, and less like a rabbit warren. And, like others who have written about it in various places, from Diamond Geezer’s blog to the Daily Telegraph, I have slightly mixed feelings. Yes, it’s great that physical bookshops can still defy the Amazoogle, and open new venues in London’s traditional bookselling street; and no, it’s not really the same.

The shiny new Foyles
The shiny new Foyles

But I differ a little from those who lament some the loss of some aspects of the old shop. For I remember the real old Foyles, before it changed dramatically in 1999, with the death of its long-standing proprietor, Christina Foyle. The one where buying a book was a matter of three queues. Having chosen your book, you queued to give it to the counter assistance, who put it on one side and gave you a written note of the price. This you took to a cashier’s booth, where you queued to pay. You took the receipt back to the counter, where you queued to exchange the receipt for your book.
The real old Foyles
The real old Foyles

That was not the limit of the quirkiness of the real old Foyles. There was also their stock control, or rather total lack of it, combined with their lack of anything other than a very broad categorisation of subjects, and an inclination to store the books horizontally and frequently on the floor. The result was that their staff had no idea whether they had a particular book in stock, nor much idea where it would be if they did have it. Foyles was not somewhere you went, for preference, in order to find a specific book. As their own history admits “Foyles was bound to have what you were looking for, but neither you nor the staff had any chance of finding it”. Their nearest competitor (Waterstones in Malet Street, which was then Dillons and much better than it is now, but that’s another reminiscence) ran ad campaigns under the heading “Foyled again: try Dillons”. But to shop in the real old Foyles was the browsing experience par excellence. The lack of stock control meant that many out of print books stayed on the shelves indefinitely, and the lack of order meant that pleasing serendipitous discoveries were just as usual as displeasing failure to find what you’d come for.

That all went fifteen years ago, and we can hardly lament it. But, pleasing as the shiny new Foyles environment is, I can’t help wishing they could find room for a little of the old scruffy serendipity; clearly labelled obviously, in a tidy section of its own.

On being Library and Information Science

My colleague Lyn Robinson has recently written a blog post on the nature of library and information science in the 21st century. Showing how LIS is inextricably associated with the idea of the ‘document’, she points out how the nature of documents is changing, and how this affects LIS, and its relations with disciplines such as computer science, publishing, data science and digital humanities.

With this as a stimulus, I thought it would be timely to mention our newly formed Department of Library and Information Science at City University London. City has had a very well-known Department of Information Science for over thirty years, and has carried out teaching and research in the subject for over fifty years, as we have described in a journal article. It has to be said that this was named originally to emphasise the rather different perspective at City from the other departments at the time, a perspective which focused on technology application and on subject-specialist information work. Leaving the L-word out was seen as a good way to emphasise City’s distinctive nature, although many City students, then as now, went on to careers in librarianship.

So why now include ‘Library’ in our title, particularly at a time when similar departments are dropping it, to become Information Studies departments, i-schools, and the like. Partly perhaps because we like to take a contrarian viewpoint; if everyone else is going off in one direction, we feel an attraction to being different. But mainly because we believe in libraries, and in the library brand. Of course, just as the nature of documents, and the ways in which they are used, changes, so must the nature of libraries change. But we see a continuing value in the basic idea of the library, the curated collection of documents supporting the transmission of recorded knowledge across space and time, adapting to technological and social changes but maintaining is unique purpose and values.

So, when a restructuring of the university’s organization enforced some change for us, we took the opportunity to amend our name. We are now the Department of Library and Library Science, with an associated research centre, the Centre for Information Science (another name with a long history), within a large School which brings together City’s technical, mathematical and engineering activities. Library/information departments are well-known for appearing in many different places in the structure of universities, from arts faculties to business schools, from integration with computing and information systems to close links with education. We find ourselves now, in effect, the liberal arts wing of a technical school, but not inextricably tied to it; for example, we submitted our research to the recent UK Research Excellence Framework assessment as part of an integrated submission with colleagues from publishing and cultural policy. This strikes us a particularly helpful place to be, in order to form the links we will need to teach and research effectively in a rapidly changing environment.

image dlis jpeg
How long our new name will last, who can say? We cannot promise another 30 years without change, but we like it for now.

100 books

This is a modified version of a review to appear in Journal of Documentation.

Histories of things in 100 other things seem to be all the rage these days. The British Museum started it, with its History of the world in 100 objects. John Julius Norwich extended the idea to a history of England in 100 places, the Imperial War Museum got in on the act looking at the First World War in 100 objects. We’ve had the history of life in 100 fossils from the Natural History Museum, the history of the 20th century in 100 maps (another from the British Library), of London in 100 places; and the list goes on.
hob image jpeg
One of the latest, and certainly one of the best, example is the splendid History of the book in 100 books, by Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad, published by Quarto on behalf of the British Library. Ranging of cave paintings to manga and e-books, this gives a comprehensive survey of books of all kinds. Although a significant proportion of the 100 exemplars are the manuscripts and printed volumes which we might expect from the title, the authors commendably broaden out the scope of the work in three ways. They avoid a overly western focus, by including material from around the world. They take a broad understanding of ‘book’, including carved bones, Incas khipus, Indian palm leaves, text reels, and ‘antibooks’. And they include clear accounts of the, sometimes overlooked, techniques of book production throughout history, rather than simply focusing on the results in terms of their 100 exemplars

Somehow the subject of books seems to bring out the best in writers who seek both to provide authoritative scholarly information and also to produce an attractive and readable book in itself. The authors have succeeded admirably here, with a good choice of topics, clear and detailed text and excellent illustrations. Like David Pearson’s Books as History, also published by the British Library, this is a book which is equally suitable as a text for serious study, and also a high-class coffee-table book.

This book brings the message that the processes and products of documentation are not only important and valuable but may also be cultural, and beautiful, artifacts in their own right. Those of us at the academic end of the information and documentation disciplines sometimes, I think, forget this, and this splendid book is a timely reminder.

ECIL 2014

In late October, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL2014) in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to give a keynote talk. Those who have visited Dubrovnik (or watched Game of Thrones) will know how beautiful it is; others can find out here.

This is the second ECIL conference, the first having been held in Istanbul in 2013. This second conference was again jointly organized by the LIS departments of Zagreb University, Croatia, and Hacettepe University, Turkey. The organizers did an admirable job, with particular credit going to the local team of Sonja Špiranec and Mihaela Banek Zorica.

The ECIL conference: panel session
The ECIL conference: panel session
The proceedings of the conference will be published as a book in Springer’s Communications in Computer and Information Science series. In the meantime, detailed coverage of the presentations and discussions is appearing in a number of blogs, including the information literacy blogspot and Jane Secker’s blog.
With over 170 contributions, including presentations, posters, panels, workshops, etc., and a genuinely worldwide participation, it is not easy to summarise the main points of the conference, although the bloggers noted above have had a good try. One of my main impressions was that this is one of the few conferences at which there is a genuine balance, and interaction, between research and practice; this seems exceptionally valuable, and I hope it is maintained in future ECILs, and perhaps rubs off on some other meetings.

Distraction from the conference: the Adriatic at Dubrovnik
Distraction from the conference: the Adriatic and Dubrovnik
Among the issues which were discussed, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, were to what extent can we think of information literacy as a process, and as associated with problem solving; is it best thought of as an individual competence or as a social practice; and can there be a generic information literacy, or must it always be embedded in the context of a subject or domain. There was also concern as to how it could be extended beyond formal education, and particularly beyond the higher education setting, which accounted for most of the practitioner papers presented here. There was also a strong theme of radical, critical and political information literacy; particular well-expressed by Andrew Whitworth of Manchester University, in a presentation deriving from his new book.
Inevitably there were a profusion of names and concepts, new and old: digital literacy, media literacy, transliteracy, data literacy, archival literacy, metaliteracy, and the rest. My own suggestion to make sense of these, with a framework of three different levels rooted in an expanded idea of ‘information fluency’ met with interest from a very polite audience.

There was also debate as to whether information literacy should now be seen as a discipline in its own right, or whether it is better seen as a speciality associated with education or with library/information science. Louise Limberg gave a convincing exposition of the latter position.

The next ECIL conference, devoted to Green information literacy, will be held in October 2015 in Tallinn, Estonia.

Floridi’s Information Ethics

This is an amended version of a review which will appear in Aslib Journal of Information Management.

info ethocsLuciano Floridi is well-known as the leading active philosopher with a strong interest in information, and his latest book extends his contributions into the area of information ethics (hereafter, as in the book, IE).

IE became recognised as a concept in the 1980s, through pioneering writings such those as Koenig, Kostrewski and Oppenheim (1981), as Floridi notes. However, a main theme of this book is that such treatments, and those which stemmed from them, lacked a full philosophical underpinning. This, he seeks to remedy: “Today, philosophy faces the challenge of providing a foundational treatment of the phenomena and the ideas underlying the information revolution, in order to foster our understanding and guide both the responsible construction of our society and the sustainable management of our natural and synthetic environments, In short, we need a philosophy of information. [This] investigates the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its ethical consequences.” (p. xii)

Floridi sees the philosophy of information as a branch of philosophy itself, rather than as an adjunct to information and knowledge management or computer science. Information, in this view is “something as fundamental and significant as knowledge, being, validity, truth, meaning, mind, or good and evil, and so equally worthy of autonomous, philosophical investigation” (p. xii). And therefore, as with other branches of philosophy, ethics plays a major part. Floridi argues that considering the ethical problems of information, and its technologies, can lead us to reconsider some basic principles of ethics in general.

Luciano Floridi
Luciano Floridi
This book is therefore very much a work of serious philosophy, its task being “to contribute to [the] conceptual foundations of IE as a new area of philosophical research” (p. xiii). It is the second of a series of four monographs, entitled – just in case of any doubt as to the status of this work as academic philosophy in the grand tradition – Principia Philosophiae Informationis. It follows a monograph on the philosophy of information, and will be followed in turn by a text on the politics of information. Floridi locates this work in a merger of the rival traditions of analytical and continental philosophy, and places it in a tradition from Plato and Plotinus through to Augustine and Moore, with some relation to Spinoza, Confuscius and others.

The book’s arguments are situated in Floridi’s contention that we are living through an ‘informational turn’ or ‘fourth revolution’, following the scientific revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. This sees us regarding ourselves as informationally embodied organisms, ‘inforgs’, embedded in an informational environment, the ‘infosphere’, in which the boundaries between online and offline environments merge, so that we live in a manner termed ‘onlife’. The present book is therefore about the creation of a framework of ethics for inforgs, including humans, but also artificial agents, living in the infosphere.

The book opens with chapters setting the scene by describing the information revolution, and the nature and foundations of the IE which are needed as a consequence. Subsequent chapters explore the moral implications of the actions of inforgs in the infosphere, while the closing chapters with issues such as privacy, information and business ethics, and morality is distributed and global information societies.

Arguably the central idea, and one very different from that offered by other philosophical approaches to ethics is the any expression of Being, that is any distinct aspect of the infosphere, has intrinsic worth. This leads to the ‘four ethical principles of IE’:
• entropy ought not to be caused in the infosphere
• entropy ought to be prevented in the infosphere
• entropy ought to be removed from the infosphere
• the flourishing of informational entities as well as of the whole infosphere ought to be promote by preserving, cultivating, and enriching their well-being

(Entropy is here understood in both the physical and information theoretic senses: a ‘mixed-upness’ of physical or information systems.)

This book is not, as the author explicitly concedes, an introduction to information and computer ethics, nor a textbook on professional ethics. “IE is not immediately useful”, he tells us, “to solve specific ethical problems … but nor does a textbook on Newtonian physics solve your car problems. IE is supposed to provide the conceptual grounds that then guide problem-solving procedures” (pp. 313-314). However, there are some links to the sort of ethical issues that occur in information management; librarians’ codes of ethics get a mention, and there is a particularly interesting discussion of privacy from the infosphere perspective.

With commendable honesty, Floridi concedes that the book “is not a page-turner” (p. xiv). However, it is, in my view, about as clearly written as a book of this kind can be, and the author’s use of summaries and conclusions at the beginnings and ends of chapters – which he charmingly relates to the Battlestar Galactica series – are of considerable help to the philosophical tyro. It has to be admitted that those without a strong background in philosophy will have to take much on trust, and will probably need to skip some sections, but this is no excuse for not engaging with this excellent book.

cambridge handbook
For more immediate guidance on ethical problems in information management, the reader would be better consult the chapters in Floridi’s edited text on information and computer ethics, or the literature on library/information ethics summarised by chapter 11 of Bawden and Robinson’s textbook of information science. This monograph will serve an entirely different function: to act as a long-lasting source for debate on our profession’s ethical dilemmas, and to provide a novel basis for such debate.

The book is well-produced, seems free from extensive errors, and has an adequate, though not very exhaustive, index. It is also quite reasonably priced, by today’s standards, for a hardback book of this kind. It deserves to be widely read by advanced students and researchers in the library/information sciences, and by the more reflective kind of information practitioner.

Altmetrics, qualitative understanding and the Croatian seaside

The famous Zadar sunset
The famous Zadar sunset

The LIDA (Libraries in the Digital Age) series of conferences,initially annual and now biannual, has become something of an institution since it was established in 2000. Its location, now in the beautiful Adriatic city of Zadar, having migrated up and down the Croatian coast over the years, is certainly one factor in its popularity. Its enthusiastic organizing team, headed by Tatjana Aparac-Jelusic and Tefko Saracevic is another. But LIDA is also notable for its choice of themes, different each time, and generally an indicator of trends and developments in library / information research.

Tefko Saracevic, Blaise Cronin and the author enjoying LIDA
Tefko Saracevic, Blaise Cronin and the author enjoying LIDA
The latest LIDA conference, held in June 2014, had as a general theme “assessment” of library / information services. While assessment and evaluation have arguably gained in importance as services have come under increased scrutiny in hard economic times, this could have been a theme for any LIDA of past years. The two sub-themes were, however, an interesting departure: qualitative methods and altmetrics. I had the pleasure of chairing with qualitative methods theme, while Blaise Cronin of Indiana University chaired altmetrics. (Since Blaise is editor of Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, this was a good conference for LIS editors.)

Elke Greifeneder addresses LIDA
Elke Greifeneder addresses LIDA
The extensive set of invited and contributed papers is available online, and well worth perusing. Not only do they contain a good deal of interest in their own right, but taken as a whole I suggest that they signal something of a seismic shift in research into the effectiveness of information services. While it is clear that both altmetrics and qualitative methods have some way to go in establishing a fully validated set of tools in which we can all have confidence, it seems that they now provide a valuable set of new methods and perspectives, with which to find a much clearer and holistic understanding of system effectiveness, than has been possible with traditional quantitative measures. I particularly recommend Donald Case’s presentation to the conference as a particularly insightful account of the ways in which the assessment of information use and value has changed over the years. Other presentations, all available as presentations and/or text online on the LIDA site, which I think are especially worth a look are: Elke Greifeneder’s examination of the relative contributions of qualitative and quantitative data in seeing the ‘big picture’; Cassidy Sugimoto’s critical analysis of the ‘metric menagerie’ of altmetric measures; Sheila Corral’s advocacy of the inclusion of intangible assets in evaluation of libraries; the international comparison of a model for assessing school libraries by Polona Vilar and Ivanka Strcevic; and Jeppe Nicolaisen’s interesting musings about what metrics tell us about the nature of a journal article.

This is not, of course, to say than the more traditional quantitative methods – surveys and the like – no longer have value, still less that any one method, or type of method, is superior, or sufficient on its own. It is interesting that both I, introducing the qualitative theme, and Blaise Cronin, introducing altmetrics, used the same quotation from the nineteenth century physicist Lord Kelvin, to the effect that you cannot understand, or improve, anything until you can measure it. It does seem clear, however, that our ways of measuring must become more sophisticated and multi-dimensional, and that qualitative must blend with quantitative if we are to reach full understanding. And, as I have written in a previous blog post, we should follow Václav Havel’s recommendation that we should have “a humble reverence for everything that we shall never measure”.