A recent article, originally appearing on an Australian radio website and widely republished, celebrated the 16th anniversary of Wikipedia, suggested that traditional encyclopaedias were now worthless, as Wikipedia completed the process of organising knowledge begun by the Romans.
Well, up to a point. Wikipedia, however widely used it may be, is not the only online encyclopaedia in town. And it is interesting to compare Wikipedia with one of them, which might be considered its polar opposite: the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP). What is intriguing about this is that the two sources are different in many respects, and united only in their status as free to use online sources, each very popularity with their user groups.
First and foremost, of course, there is their scope. Wikipedia is general, SEP is subject-specific. I think it would be good if those us who are old enough the world before Wikipedia took a moment from time to time to reflect on the fact that we now an immediately accessible online source that gives us information on pretty much anything. I can recall that when I first gave a course on information resources I set the student a set of reference query exercises which varied from the ‘hard’ to the ‘almost impossible unless you know the answer in the first place’. Today, with Wikipedia, most, though not all, of them would be trivial. This sea-change in access to information across the spectrum, and its implications, is not always given enough credit. But, precisely because of its universal scope, Wikipedia encounters problems which are much less likely to be faced by a resource or more limited scope, as we see later. In particular, when the scope is closely defined, it is easier to control consistency and accuracy.
Having said that, the SEP covers a pretty wide variety of topics. I would not have immediately associated translating and interpreting, pacifism, republicanism, multiculturalism, friendship, marriage, molecular biology, sounds, or voting methods with philosophy, but they all have entries in the SEP.
As for the funding which allows free access to the sources, the SEP has an array of rather traditional forms of support for an academic endeavour: support from an institution, grants from philanthropic institutions, and an open access model providing added-value features for a fee. Funding for Wikipedia, and its supporting Wikimedia Foundation, comes largely from small donations from individual users – appeals funding from its users appear annually on Wikipedia – with some support from philanthropic donors.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two encyclopaedias is the way in which each is created and edited. In the SEP, all articles are attributed to named individuals, and control is exercised by a board of named editors, according to the traditional model of the academic encyclopaedia. By contrast, Wikipedia articles are anonymous, and may be created and edited by any user. Control is exercised by a body of volunteer editors, who are typically identified only by an uninformative user name, and overall policy decisions are taken by a smaller group of elite editors. Concerns have been expressed about the make-up of the Wikipedia controlling group: 94% of Wikipedia’s active editors are male, with limited geographic diversity, Africa and Central Asia in particular being very underrepresented.
Wikipedia entries may be amended frequently; such amendments, their dates, and any reasons and discussion, can be found only by looking on talk pages, ‘behind’ the entry itself. SEP entries are amended only infrequently; the dates of the original entry and of subsequent revisions are shown on the main page. Whereas Wikipedia notes that it is a continually improving ‘work in progress’, with entries at different stages of development, SEP entries are all of a consistent standard, and unfinished material does not appear. This difference in consistency also applies to what topics are covered: in the SEP, a balanced coverage is promoted by the editorial board, while in Wikipedia coverage of topics depends solely on the interests of the contributors. And also to how the topics are covered: nothing would be published in the SEP if it were not broadly in line with the source’s standards of scope and depth, while in Wikipedia great variation can be seen, even among articles on very similar topics.
Finally, the approach to supporting articles with citations differs considerably. All SEP entries are fully referenced. Wikipedia asks for supporting citations, but many entries lack these, and are noted accordingly by the Wikipedia editors. This is one aspect in which librarians have been very active in trying to improve Wikipedia, through initiatives such as #1Lib1Ref, and it generally agreed that this aspect of Wikipedia is improving, as I was reminded in a recent Twitter exchange.
So, in both cases it may be argued that quality is ensured by the encyclopaedia community; but the way this works out in practice is very different, the identifiable individual taking a much more prominent role in the SEP. And because of the process of creation and maintenance, consistency in much higher in the SEP.
The nature of the expertise of the creators is also very different in the two resources. The SEP relies on the justified expertise of its contributors and editors, whose academic status is publicly stated. Wikipedia relies rather on the communal expertise of its user groups, and its editors in particular. This is not to say that there is not considerable expertise involved in Wikipedia. On the contrary, one hears anecdotally that particular entries and sections are created and updated by expert individuals and institutions; but such expertise is not identified and foregrounded in the way that it is in the SEP. Indeed, Wikipedia explicitly states that “what is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor”.
This leads directly to issues of validity of information, of misinformation and disinformation, which have nagged at Wikipedia since its inception. Apart from the fear of errors being inadvertently introduced by inexpert editors, Wikipedia was being accused of harbouring deliberately false information long before ‘alternative facts’ became a thing, This was largely a matter of individuals or organisations improving their own story, or degrading that of opponents.
Then there are the hoaxes and April Fool pranks, all of which Wikipedia commendably tries to identify and list. [Some of them seem too good to be hoaxes: I think that the BBC really should have made a series of two of Olimar the Wonder Cat, just to keep the record straight.] SEP does not have hoaxes; or, if it does, no one has found them yet.
This is not to say that Wikipedia is careless of misinformation and disinformation. On the contrary, its editors are assiduous, if somewhat inconsistent, in rooting it out. It caused some ironic amusement to see the Daily Mail newspaper voted as a deprecated source by Wikipedia’s editors because of its poor fact-checking and sometimes outright falsification; both accusations which have been levelled at Wikipedia in the past, because of its assumption that, whatever erroneous material might appear would be corrected by the community. Numerous studies of the accuracy of Wikipedia over the years have led to little more of a conclusion that it all depends which bits you look at, and that it is generally improving. Fine for general interest purposes, but for something really important maybe we’d prefer something like the SEP.
Of course, it would be wrong to set these two sources up in some sort of opposition. Those who use the SEP for philosophical topics, no doubt use Wikipedia for other things. And there is no harm, for someone interested in philosophical topics, in having a look in Wikipedia to see if there’s an alternative viewpoint to SEP on your subject of interest; though personally I’d be cautious in reading too much into it if there is. And, for all its faults, the Wikipedia approach, with its inconsistencies and continual ‘work in progress’ status, is no doubt the only way of achieving such a comprehensive collection of information.
A recent article in Quartz online magazine claimed that the SEP has “achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of”, in providing rigorously accurate free online information. The comparison may not be a fair one, but it will be interesting whether Wikipedia, with the help of enthusiasts in the library community in collaboration, moves in the SEP direction. Or whether, as Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin suggested in a thoughtful article seven years ago, Wikipedia is indeed firmly in the tradition of the Enlightenment encyclopaedic tradition, updated for the network age; in which case, perhaps it will be the model for the future.
Few other materials have had such a revolutionary impact on the world. And few others have been forgotten so quickly.
(Ben Wilson, Heyday: Britain and the birth of the modern world, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2016, p. xxiii)
Describing gutta percha as “the vanished material that made the telecommunication revolution possible”, Ben Wilson gives it centre-stage in his history of Britain in 1850s. A form of rubber, gutta percha is derived from the sap of the the palaquium fruit tree, native to what is now Malaysia; if drawn off and exposed to air, it solidifies. If heated, it becomes a pliable latex, and can be formed and hardened into whatever shape is needed. The local people had used it for centuries for items such as utensil handles and vases. Although British travellers had noted its strange properties in the sixteenth century, it was not until 1832 that a government doctor, William Montgomery, realised the significance of its properties.
Within a decade a new industry had developed. The hard, pliable latex was washed, folded into blocks, and brought by ship from Singapore to London, and to the new, and by the standards of the time, very high-tech, factory of the Gutta Percha Company, at Wharf Road, Islington. A report of a visit to the factory by a journalist in the early 1850s appeared in the The Illustrated Exhibitor and Magazine of Art. He noted that “We enter a modest-looking doorway between a pair of folding gates, on which the words ‘Gutta Percha Company’ are printed, and we become speedily aware that a branch of manufacture of which we hitherto knew next to nothing is being carried on within”. In the manufacturing process, the gutta-percha was boiled, shaved by a cutting machine, boiled again, then kneaded at high temperature, cooled in another machine and rolled into sheets, to be sold to manufacturers around the world.” Gutta-percha became ubiquitous in mid-Victorian daily life, used in tents, clothing, shoes, jewellery, domestic appliances and furniture. Waterproof, and resistant to acids, salt water, and chemicals, it was invaluable to industry for many purposes.
Its significance for information history, is that it is not only strong and waterproof, but also does not deteriorate when submerged for long periods in salt water, it proved the perfect insulator for electric wiring for undersea telegraph cables. The first cross channel cable, laid by HMS Blazer in 1851, was made from 100 miles of copper telegraph wire encased in a tube of gutta-percha, provided by the Gutta-Percha Company; four lengths were twined together with hemp, and encased in galvanised iron wiring as a protection. In 1858 it was used to insulate the first (unsuccessful) trans-Atlantic cable.
Subsequently, the Gutta-Percha Company amalgamated with Glass, Elliot and Co., a maker and layer of cables, to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co. Ltd. (Telcon), who made the successful Atlantic cable laid in 1866. Its use in supporting the infrastructure of the communications revolution continued until after the end of the nineteenth century.
Gutta percha fell from widespread use during the twentieth century, replaced for most purposes by synthetic materials, particularly polyethylene. It is still, however, widely used in dentistry; a worthwhile use certainly, but perhaps a come-down for a material which played a major part in the instantiation of the modern information age.
The irony is that by now it was supposed to be perfect. For most of my working life in the library/information area, first as a practitioner and then as an academic, the emphasis was on providing access to information. Most of the time, whatever the topic, there was never enough information, and accessing what there was could be difficult. Then came the web, Google, Wikipedia, social media, mobile information, open access, and the rest. So that now, we should be living in an information nirvana, where we have ready access to all the information we could need, for any purpose. And indeed, to an extent, that is what we have.
But we also have, as Luciano Floridi has pointed out, a situation where we can carry a device in our pocket which gives us access to the accumulated knowledge of humanity; and we mostly use it to send each other pictures of cats, and to have arguments with people we don’t know. [Not that I object at all to pictures of cats, but you get the idea.] More seriously, we have fake news, alternative facts, a post-truth and post-factual society, filter bubbles, and all the other accompaniments of what seems to be a deliberate retreat from the rational, knowledge-based world that many of us believed we were naturally headed for.
What to do? Specially, what can be the particular response of the LIS discipline and profession, as distinct from political and social ideas to which we might individually or collectively subscribe. Some early thoughts on this were presented by my colleague Lyn Robinson, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Debate has, of course, intensified since then. What I hear are, for the most part, calls for more education, more information access, and more information literacy. Now, as someone who has been employed in education for nearly three decades, much of it spent researching, teaching and promoting issues of information access and information literacy, I am certainly not going to argue that we don’t need more of all three. But I have to say, I don’t think they are enough.
On education, I believe (and obviously have a strong personal interest in believing) that the more the better. But one cannot ignore the evidence that some highly educated people are rather stupid, and seem to delight in promoting extra stupidity; nor that many relatively uneducated people are rather wise. So I think that education, while an unarguable public good, isn’t of itself enough.
Information access? Yes, that’s good, on the whole, But, alas, we can see that misinformation and disinformation proliferates just as well as valid information. I was particularly struck by seeing this unfold in the Twitter responses to the Quebec shootings of 29th January, with false information repeated and embellished to meet the need for facts to suit pre-determined conclusions. Over fifteen years ago, Lyn Robinson and I argued, in a paper on libraries and open society, that providing a ‘free flow of information’, with access to all available and relevant sources, is necessary but not sufficient to support an open and democratic society. While only this month, a paper in The Information Society argues cogently that providing access to the ‘right’ information does not in itself bring about desirable policy outcomes. It’s also worth remembering that one of the few things that have been established beyond doubt by several decades of information behaviour research is that everyone – academics and politicians included – deal with information through satisficing and the principle of least effort. And what could involve less effort – physical, technical and mental – than getting from Twitter and Facebook a selection of news and information recommended to fit in with your prior beliefs. Full and unimpeded information access is a necessary precondition for improving things, but let’s not imagine that more of it will be any kind of solution.
Information literacy, then? (Or digital literacy, or metaliteracy, or media literacy, or whatever, it doesn’t matter.). Isn’t more information literacy the answer, getting people to choose good sources, and to reject misinformation and disinformation? Well, up to a point. But, as many people more qualified than me on this topic, have pointed out, it can’t be the full answer. If we take a rather simple understanding of information literacy – the ability to find, access and use appropriate information – then many of those who appear to embody the post-truth era are highly information literate; it’s just that they choose to regard as appropriate only those sources which support their own world view. Perhaps then we just need to focus more on the ‘critical appraisal’ aspect of IL? Not so; our post-factual friends will say, rightly, that they are highly critical of any information that doesn’t support what they know to be right. And anyway, as Lane Wilkinson has pointed out, the most widely-used information literacy frameworks and standards have almost nothing to say about ‘truth’ or ‘facts’. Asking “did media literacy backfire?”, danah boyd has given a thoughtful analysis of the failure of information literacy to enable people to cope with a ” very complicated – and in many ways overwhelming – information landscape”. While information literacy is certainly needed more than ever, it may need to change its nature if it is to make the impact it should.
Lyn Robinson and I have argued for the promotion of understanding, as much as the provision of information, as a remit for the library/information disciplines and professions. I think that this might go some way to overcoming the ‘alternate facts’ issue, but in itself it is not a panacea. We take understanding to be a coherently arranged body of truthful information, with the individual items linked by logical and meaningful relations. However, such understanding, if we remove the ‘truthful’ criterion, may be possessed by anyone who has given some thought to an issue, including conspiracy theorists of all kinds, and deniers of everything from climate change and the moon landings to the Holocaust. And these people will all be able to point to a set of coherent information sources to back up their understanding. Perhaps what is needed is the promotion of some form of ‘open understanding’; you don’t really understand something until you have genuinely considered the alternative viewpoints. I think Karl Popper, who argued that we should subject our ideas to the most severe criticism we can muster, would approve of that approach. It is hard work, though, for any of us, and probably unappealing to the conspiracy theorists and deniers.
So, what should we, the LIS profession and discipline, do now? I have no convincing answer; at least not one that offers an immediate quick-fix. Certainly, it will involve a combination of carrying on with our information access/literacy work, plus activities on a wider canvas, with a specific ethical commitment to opposing the post-fact/post-truth nexus. As Georgina Cronin says, in her wide-ranging analysis of what librarians can do in a post-truth society: “Educate. Vote. Protest. Whatever it is, do it”.
Perhaps one specific, and important, role for LIS, actually quite a traditional one, is to keep the information environment, or that part of it which may be to a degree under our influence if not control, in a clean, tidy and welcoming state. This will involve a variety of activities, from reporting abuse on social media, to helping to remove fake news, to adding citations to Wikipedia, and much more. In the new information environment this process, which Floridi has dubbed the moral duty to both clean and to restore the infosphere to a proper ethical status, is both very difficult and very important.
But I am not too disconcerted by the lack of any immediate quick-fix. If Luciano Floridi is right, then we are living through an ICT-led ‘fourth revolution’ (following those associated with Copernicus, Darwin and Freud), leading to a radically new ‘hyper-historical’ information-dominated environment; certainly that fits with the experience of those of us who have been around the information world for some time. And if that is so, then we should expect to have to take a while to work out our response: as danah boyd says, “the path forward is hazy … no simple band aid will work”. And Floridi has commented more than once that, precisely because the changes we are encountering are so great, so is the need to step back and think calmly, philosophically, and at length, about how to react, rather than seek a rapid response.
So, if we in LIS have no immediate answer to the problems of the new information environment, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, in being troubled how best to proceed we are reacting in the right way, and our ultimate contribution will be all the more effective. Immediate action certainly, but please let’s back it up by long term reflection.
I have always had an interest in mathematics. This is despite, or perhaps because of, never being very good at the subject at school, and avoiding it to the maximum extent compatible with getting a science degree at university. Not that I have any fondness for what is called ‘recreational mathematics’, which has always seemed to me to be a contradiction in terms, nor any desire to do substantive academic work involving mathematics, for which I am ill-equipped. My interest rather has been in the qualitative ‘meta’ of the subject: what is mathematics, and how does it relate to the real world. In particular, I always wondered about two points. Why are the mathematical concepts developed by humanity so useful in accounting for the behaviour of the physical universe; what the physicist Eugene Wigner called the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics. And whether mathematics was something independent of people, waiting somewhere to be discovered, or whether it was a human creation.
Quite a long while ago, I was given, for a Christmas present, a copy of John Barrow’s ‘Pi in the Sky‘, and account of the history and nature of mathematics, addressing exactly these issues. It also introduced me to the three main philosophical approaches to mathematics (of which I give only the simplest summary here). The Platonist approach holds that mathematical entities and relationships have an eternal existence, independent of humanity, in some kind of world of abstract ideas. The formalist approach believes that maths is created by humans, and is simply the manipulation of symbols according to arbitrary rules, without any associated meaning. And then there are a number of constructivist approaches, including inventionism and intuitionism, which hold that mathematics is created by humans under the influence of psychological and cultural factors. Barrow carefully pointed out the flaws in each of these, which mean that there is no consensus among mathematicians as to the very basis of what they are doing, and how, and why. Although Barrow was writing over twenty years ago, as I understand it the same is true today.
As I read Barrow, I was struck by what seemed, and still seems, to be a particular contradiction. When mathematicians describe what they do in creating new mathematics, they almost always do so in terms of discovery rather than invention. They think they are finding out things that exist independently of them, rather than creating them; and indeed the many instances when the same new mathematics is derived by several people in ignorance of one another seems to confirm this. And yet it seems self-evident that mathematics is a human creation, since we observe mathematicians creating it.
It occurred to me that one solution to this conundrum might be given by Karl Popper’s idea of World 3 of objective, communicable information. If we can agree that mathematical entities are inhabitants of World 3, as Popper said they were, then we can see how mathematics might be both invented and discovered. World 3 objects are created by humanity, but once created they take on, in a sense, a life of their own, with implications and consequences not necessarily understood by their creators. Mathematics is then indeed discovered, and mathematicians’ sense of what they are doing is not false, but it is discovered in the human-created World 3.
This struck me a particularly nice idea, and I was surprised that no-one else seemed to have thought of it.
Well, of course, someone had, though I only found out years later. Back in 1981, more than ten years before Barrow’s book appeared, the American mathematician and philosopher Reuben Hersh had presented the idea in a book co-authored with Philip J David, ‘The mathematical experience‘.
“Start from two facts”, Hersh wrote. “(1) mathematics is a human creation, about ideas in human minds; (2) mathematics is an objective reality, in the sense that mathematical objects objects have definite properties, which we may or may not be able to discover. Platonism is incompatible with Fact 1, since it asserts that maths is independent of humans; constructionism is incompatible with Fact 2, since there no properties until they are proved constructively; formalism with both, since it denies the existence of mathematical objects… Mathematics is an objective reality that is neither subjective nor physical. It is an ideal (ie non-physical) reality that is objective (external to the consciousness of any one person). In fact, the example of mathematics is the strongest, most convincing proof of such an ideal reality.
This is our conclusion, not to truncate mathematics to fit a philosophy too small to accommodate it – rather, to demand that the philosophical categories be enlarged to accept the reality of our mathematical experience…. The recent work of Karl Popper provides a context in which mathematical experience fits without distortion. He has introduced the terms World 1, 2, and 3, to distinguish three major levels of distinct reality. World 1 is the physical world, the world of mass and energy, of stars and rocks, blood and bone. The world of consciousness emerges from the material world in the course of biological evolution. Thoughts, emotions, awareness are nonphysical realities. Their existence is inseparable from that of the living organism, but they are different in kind from the phenomena of physiology and anatomy; they have to be understood on a different level. They belong to World 2.
In the further course of evolution, there appear social consciousness, traditions, language, theories, social institutions, all the nonmaterial culture of mankind. Their existence is inseparable from the individual consciousness of the members of the society. But they are different from in kind from the phenomena of individual consciousness. They have to be understood on a different level. They belong to World 3. Of course, this is the world where mathematics is located.”
“Mathematical statements”, Hersh concluded, ” are meaningful, and their meaning is found in the shared understanding of human beings, not in an external nonhuman reality. So mathematics deals with human meanings in the context of culture, it is one of the humanities; but it has a science-like quality, since its findings are conclusive, not matters of opinion…. As mathematicians, we know that we invent ideal objects, and then try to discover the facts about them ”
Hersh had stated the idea that I had, formulated more clearly than I could have done, fifteen years beforehand. Ah well.
Hersh has gone on to develop his ideas, though his more recent writings don’t reference Popper, but describe mathematics as being discovered in a human-created socio-conceptual world (which still sounds pretty much like Popper’s World 3 to me). His recent thoughts are nicely presented in a 2014 book, ‘Experiencing mathematics: what we do, when we do mathematics‘, in which he presents the socio-conceptual idea as an explicit alternative to the formalist, Platonist, and intuitionist approaches.
So, although I didn’t think of it first, it seems to me that the mathematical World 3 is a more realistic basis for describing what mathematics is, and what mathematicians do, than any of the alternatives. And also, another vindication that Popper’s World 3, though an idea which has fallen out of fashion to an extent, is still a fruitful concept for any disciplines which deal with abstract concepts at their heart.
Last Monday, I had the chance to attend the latest in the series of BL Labs annual symposia. The BL Labs were set up to “support and inspire the public use of the British Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways”, and the symposia series is designed to showcase some of the results. I reflected during the day that it might be reasonable to give this symposium a strapline of “data science meets librarianship meets social science meets fine arts”, as can be seen from the programme for the day. It was also notable that, in view of the increasing amount of data available from cultural institutions, including galleries and museums as well as archives and libraries, ‘openglam‘ is now a thing.
The symposium also saw the announcement of the release of a new collection of copies of BL datasets, very diverse in nature, in the hope that their general availability will promote new usage and users.
The keynote talk was given by Melissa Terras from UCL, who spoke about the use made of the BL’s collection of 60,000 digitised public domain books, by researchers and students. The challenge posed by what are typically very simple searches carried out over massive sets of text data has shown the need for changes in the architecture of the computer systems used. Melissa pointed out the potential for information specialists, including librarians, to offer data handling and analysis alongside more traditional services.
The rest of the day was given over to a series of short presentations, highlighting the very great variety of uses made of the BL’s datasets, and concluding with series of presentations from the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national data science institute, headquartered within the BL.
It was very clear from these presentations, that we have gone way beyond producing the ‘clever, shiny things’, that often characterise new digital applications, to a situation where the applications are about to become not merely useful but mainstream. Of the examples presented, I was particularly interested in
• a range of visual analytic methods applied to the British National Bibliography, to show relations between the items
• Elastic System an artwork celebrating the nineteenth century librarian Thomas Watts, based on BL collection data
• a number of applications using the BL’s image collection on Flickr, including the intriguing Fashion Utopias, an animation created to accompany a fashion installation sponsored by the British Council
• SherlockNet, a system for automatically categorising, tagging, and generating captions for images in the BL Flickr collection. The system uses a neural net, which was trained to categorise images into several main categories – buildings, people, etc. – with more detailed tags and captions derived from words on the pages around the images. This is still a research project, for now; any automatic indexing system using this approach would need to be combined with human annotation; but it gives a very clear indication of what will be possible in the future.
Of the many things I took away from the day, these were my main thoughts (in no particular order):
• Data science is now of becoming of major relevance to library/information science; not in the sense that LIS should become ‘data science-lite’, but rather that data science, like HCI, is an aspect of computer science which is of particular importance, and with which all information specialists should have some understanding. This is particularly so if assisting users with data analyses is going to become part of the repertoire of the information professional.
• Aspects of data science should feature in the core of all LIS education programmes; my own department is doing this in our Digital Information Technology and Applications module on our #citylis courses
• Data literacy needs to attain more importance, whether as a complement to information literacy, or wrapped within some over-arching meta-literacy
• Data ethics needs much more attention, as proposed by Luciano Floridi
• There is a need for more conceptual think around the idea of data (or dataset) as document, as opposed to the more conventional approach of thinking of documents as being made up of data; the insightful chapter by Jonathan Furner is a good start here.
All in all, a very impressive advertisement for the British Library’s move to accommodate digital data firmly within its remit, with credit due particularly to Adam Farquhar, the Head of Digital Scholarship, and Mahendra Mahey, Manager of the BL Labs.
Rafael Capurro’s body of writings encompass a wide and diverse set of issues of importance to information science, but within them one may identify a number of recurring themes. In this paper we identify and discuss three of these themes, basing our analysis of some of Capurro’s own writings and on a highly selective review of recent literature. We first, and at most length, consider the nature of information itself, following Capurro’s insistence on the importance of a clear understanding of this foundational concept, and focusing on epistemological aspects. We then examine the nature of the disciplines which have this concept as their focus, and examine Capurro’s advocacy of a conjoined discipline of library and information science (LIS). Finally, we look briefly at the way in which this discipline may develop in the future, again following Capurro’s imaginative and forward-looking ideas. It has to be said that Capurro’s ideas are not always easy to come get to grips with; but as Luciano Floridi, with whom Capurro has had a somewhat combative relationship, has pointed out (Floridi 2008), there is much of value to be found there, even for the less-philosophically inclined LIS scholar or student.
The nature of information
A constant theme running through Capurro’s writings has been that of the value of a clear understanding of the idea of information, as he sets out to “undertake the task of exploring the past, present and future of the concept of information” (Capurro 2009, p. 126). This recurs in a number of his publications, but is particularly focused in an influential review, ‘The concept of information’, which had been cited over 100 times by mid-2015 (Capurro and Hjørland 2003) and in an article derived from it (Capurro 2009).
The concept of information is widely, and increasingly, used in a variety of disciplines, many far removed from LIS. Capurro and Hjørland (2003) argue that it is important for LIS to consider the way the concept is used in different disciplines, not least because many of theoretical approaches in LIS have their origins in other subjects.
Capurro is in company with a number of other authors in noting the ways in which the word ‘information’ has been used over time; see, for example, Schrader (1983, 1986), Bawden (2001), Díaz Nafría (2010) and Furner (2013). A detailed analysis of the linguistic roots of the term, and of the usage of the concept since classical times, shows a change in its meaning, and in particular of a continuing duality between an objective and subjective implication of the term (Capurro and Hjørland 2003, Capurro 2009). This complexity in meaning has led to what has been termed ‘Capurro’s trilemma’, with three options for understanding the idea of information (Capurro, Fleissner and Hofkirchner, 1999):
● univocity: the concept of information has the same meaning in all contexts
● analogy: the concept of information has an original meaning in a specific context, and is applied as an analogy in other domains
● equivocity: the concept of information has different, but equally valid, meanings in different contexts
The implication of this is that a truly unified theory of information is impossible, since, whichever of these options is adopted, no satisfactory theory can result (Treude, 2015). The first option loses all sensible distinction, so that biochemical processes and the composition of an email are ‘the same’; the second relies of for unity on loose and perhaps anthropomorphic analogy, such that we may say that molecules ‘talk to each other’ in a manner analogous to that which people do; and the third abandons from the start any intent at unification.
In assessing the trilemma, almost twenty years on from its first formulation, it still appears to capture much of the difficulties of understanding the concept of information. The first option appears so reductive as to be of no value, and yet it is, presumably, the one which would have to be pursued in setting any single theory of information for all domains, at least in any scientific sense of ‘theory’. We must agree with Furner (2010) that the prospects for any such ‘one size fits all’ theory of information are not good. The second is undeniably true: there are original and clear meanings of information in specific contexts – the Shannon measure most obviously – and such meanings are indeed applied analogously or metaphorically. But analogy and metaphor, though they may aid understanding, are hardly components of any theory worth the name. The third, while defensible, necessarily ignores valuable insights into similarities between differing concepts of information, and results – at best – in a multiplicity of theories of information, all resolutely separate, and without hope of any cross-fertilisation.
One solution could be to declare one concept of information to be primary, and require all others to relate to it; essentially option two, but with the relations being more than analogies. Capurro rejects this idea, and prefers to accept, in option three, the existence, on equal terms, of different concepts of information in different domains, and then to establish their relationships through a Wittgensteinian language game approach, seeking family resemblances (Treude, 2015). More specifically, he recommends a concept of information that “connects, without leveling [sic] differences”, human and non-human angeletic phenomena” (Capurro, 2009, p. 137), ‘angeletic’ implying some form of message. He notes that this has some commonality with, without being the same as, Brier’s ‘cybersemiotic’ approach to a unified theory of information, which also emphasiszes communication and meaning (Brier, 2008, 2013).
This approach, while attractive in many respects, is limited to finding relations through use of language, and is therefore far from establishing any objective relations. The focus on messages is also not self-evidently appropriate in all contexts. While Capurro (2009) shows convincingly that objective measures of information, such as that of Shannon, may be understood in terms of messages, his suggested extension to thermodynamics, via the ideas of Weizsäcker, do not seem fully convincing, other than as analogies. There is a good deal to be said about the relation between information and entropy, complexity and similar physical concepts (Bawden and Robinson 2015a, 2015B), but it is not yet evident that this is best expressed in terms of messages and messengers.
A rather more general approach has been outlined by Robinson and Bawden (2013). This involves accepting, as in option three, the distinct information concepts in different domains, and then seeking to find relations – to bridge the gaps between concepts – by more than simply linguistic means. There are, it seems, two kinds of gaps: those between the concepts; and those between scholars who think it worthwhile to try to bridge such gaps and those who do not.
Two examples can be given of such ‘gap bridging’ attempts. Stonier, taking a general view of information as an abstract force promoting organization in systems of all kinds, proposed evolutionary links between information in the physical and biological domains, and then between information in the biological and social realms (Stonier 1990, 1992, 1997). Bates, again claiming an evolutionary perspective, related five information-like entities in the physical, biological and social domains (Bates 2005, 2006). She categorised these as:
● Information 1 – the pattern of organization of matter and energy
● Information 2 – some pattern of organization of matter and energy given meaning by a living being
● Data 1 – that portion of the entire information environment available to a sensing organism that is taken in, or processed, by that organism
● Data 2 – information selected or generated by human beings for social purposes
● Knowledge – information given meaning and integrated with other contents of understanding
While it is fair to say that neither of the approaches of Stonier or of Bates has met with general acceptance, they are an early indication of the kind of gap bridging that may be possible.
A gap bridging exercise of a rather different nature is Floridi’s Philosophy of Information. Starting with Shannon theory as a basis, this develops, by philosophical analysis, a general theory for biological, environmental and semantic information (Floridi 2010, 2011). Floridi’s ideas will be mentioned later, as the only current general model of information directly applicable to the concerns of LIS.
Despite his interest in other disciplines’ use of the information concept, Capurro invariably returns to a focus on how LIS should view the idea. This has involved a restriction on the scope of the information concept: “one thing seems to be clear: the notion of information in our field is explicitly referred and restricted to the human sphere. This means an implicit rejection of information science in the sense of a super-science whose object is information at all levels of reality” (Capurro 1991, p. 83). The most important concept within information science is not information itself, but the human being: information is a “fundamental dimension of human existence”, and its use to share knowledge is a “way of being” (Capurro 1991, p. 83). Information is what is informative for a given person, and the most important perspective for LIS is to view information as a constitutive force in human society (Capurro and Hjørland 2003). This is very much in line with the ideas of Hjørland, who argues forcefully against the relevance of objective conceptions of information for LIS, and hence against gap bridging models which incorporate such conceptions (Hjørland 2007, 2008).
Capurro has been generally critical of all the conceptions of information commonly used within LIS; this tendency to challenge common assumptions and models is one of the more intellectually pleasing aspects of his scholarship. Ma (2012), for example, identifies three leading foundational theories of information of relevance to LIS: the quantitative information theory developed by Nyquist, Hartley and Shannon; Popper’s Three Worlds epistemology; and the data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchy. Capurro has found reason to criticisze all of these at some time.
Capurro and Hjørland (2003) noted, seemingly approvingly, the overall tendency to regard the mathematical theory of information as a blind alley for LIS; and indeed Shannon’s objective conception of information sits ill with Capurro’s focus on human information, although he does, as noted above, include Shannon theory within his message-centric approach to information (Capurro 2009).
As regards the well-known data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchy (Rowley 2007), Capurro regards it as problematic, since it is unclear how each level emerges from the one below (Treude 2015). Similar criticisms have been made by others, such as Frické (2009), and Randles, Blades and Fadlalla (2012), who regard it nonetheless as a valuable metaphor.
The third foundational theory, Karl Popper’s Three Worlds ontology, stems from his ideas of ‘objective epistemology’ and ‘knowledge without a knowing subject’ (Popper 1979). This holds that all information-related entities, and for that matter everything else in the world, falls into three categories, which Popper terms ‘Worlds’:
● World I is the physical world, of people, books, computers, buildings, etc.
● World 2 is the internal, subjective mental state of an individual, including their personal knowledge
● World 3 is the world of objective knowledge, which may be communicated between people by means of information stored in documents.
This framework was adopted enthusiastically by Brookes, who announced it as the most appropriate philosophical foundation for the information sciences (Brookes 1980). The task of the information sciences was to understand World 3 of objective knowledge, as instantiated in World 1 objects – documents of all kinds – and its interactions with the cognition of the user, Popper’s World 2. Popper’s views were criticised, in philosophy generally and in their LIS application specifically, as an unnecessary ‘mystification’, introducing spurious and unnecessary complexity: see, for example, Neill (1982) and Rudd (1983).
Capurro (1991) and Capurro and Hjørland (2003) support Rudd (1983) in arguing that Popper’s World 3 is not needed to explain information processes. They note an overall tendency in information science to prefer Pierce’s semiotic viewpoint to Popper’s metaphysical pluralism; informative objects are signs (World 1 phenomena in Popper’s terms which trigger responses in other World 1 objects).
However, attitudes seem to be changing: as Nutturno (2000, p. 139 and 145) says “most contemporary philosophers regard World 3 as an unfortunate product of Popper’s old age: as incoherent, irrelevant and perhaps, if the truth be told, a bit ridiculous … [but] .. most philosophers who reject Popper’s theory of World 3 simply do not understand it”. Popper’s ideas have been shown to have value for LIS purposes (Bawden 2002, 2007, Abbott 2004), and are cited as foundational for LIS in recent textbooks and reviews (Davis and Shaw 2011, Ma 2012, Bawden and Robinson 2012). There is also a considerable similarity with the influential framework of Buckland (1991), which distinguished three aspects of information:
● information-as-thing, where the information is associated with a document
● information-as-process, where the information is that which changes a person’s knowledge state
● information-as-knowledge, where the information is equated with the knowledge which it imparts.
These have evident similarity with Popper’s Worlds 1, 2 and 3 respectively (Robinson 2015a). It therefore seems that Capurro, with other commentators, may have underestimated the value of Popper’s ontology as a natural conceptual framework for LIS.
Floridi himself claimed a close relation between his philosophy and LIS, which he described at one point as ‘applied philosophy of information’ (Floridi 2002). Although this idea met with some resistance, various authors have suggested that Floridi’s philosophy may indeed provide a valuable theoretical underpinning for LIS: see, for example, Robinson and Bawden (2013), Furner (2013), Compton (2015) and Dineen and Brauner (2015). Van der Veer Martens (2015) makes similar points, and further suggests that LIS may have contributions to make in developing the philosophy of information; a pleasing prospect for those who feel that LIS should be as much a lending discipline as it is a borrowing one.
In short, Capurro has provided analyses of the information concept, especially as it applies to LIS, which offer different perspectives and insights from anything else available. It would be particularly valuable if some clearer reconciliation between his viewpoint and those of Popper and Floridi could be obtained, as this could provide a valuable theoretical impetus for the LIS discipline.
The LIS discipline
The nature of the information disciplines, and LIS in particular, has been another recurring theme in Capurro’s writings, often closely linked to his thoughts about the concept of information.
He has, as noted above, argued that the central concept of LIS should not be information, but the human being. He does not suggest that a concept of information may not be essential for LIS, if we have adequate concepts of data, meaning, relevance, collection, access etc., as does Furner (2004, 2015). However, he does suggest that the concept of information for LIS cannot be considered in isolation, but must be related to other important concepts, such as documents and media (Capurro and Hjørland 2003). This viewpoint may be seen as linked with another of Capurro’s concerns: that LIS should have a strong awareness of its historical roots, and embrace a historical continuity of development (Capurro and Hjørland 2003). He equates information science, library and information science, and documentation as disciplines which all grew from the application of the computer to bibliography, and particularly scientific bibliography, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world (Capurro 2009). This might be seen as an endorsement of a focus on documents and documentation as a central concern within LIS, although Capurro does not seem to have made this link explicitly. Capurro and Hjørland (2003) note that information science, or documentation, was originally based more on specific subject knowledge whereas special librarianship relied more on education and training in schools of librarianship. They identify chemistry as having played an especially important role in the development of information science; this is undoubtedly true, and one might add also the pharmaceutical sector (Bawden and Robinson 2010). Nonetheless, Capurro has never sought to privilege the information science approach, but rather to argue for a conjoined LIS discipline. Information science should increase its awareness of social questions, and free itself from what Capurro sees as a one-sided focus on information retrieval technology. Joining with the tradition of library science, it should investigate the social phenomena associated with the communication of recorded information (Treude 2015).
As to the nature of this conjoined discipline, Capurro and Hjørland (2003) note that LIS is only one of a number of disciplines which are related to technology, systems and processes in the communication of information, and that further clarification and strengthening of the specific identity and goals of LIS is desirable. More than ten years on from publication of this view, the need for such clarification seems equally apposite; see, for example, Dillon (2007), Buckland (2012), Lugya (2013). Capurro has consistently sought to attain clarity by arguing that information science should be a hermeneutic-rhetorical discipline, centred on human beings rather than on technology or on an objective conception of information, and focused on the communication and interpretation of meaningful knowledge (Capurro 1991).
The focus of this discipline should be the production, collection, organization, analysis, interpretation, storage, retrieval, dissemination, transmission, transformation and use of information (Capurro and Hjørland 2003, Truede 2015). This has been described, though not be by Capurro specifically, as the information communication chain, presented over a long period, and expressed in various ways, as the central focus of the LIS discipline and profession: see, for example, Borko (1968), Duff (1997), Robinson (2009), Bawden and Robinson (2016).
It is, of course, clear that LIS is by no means the only subject with an academic and professional interest in the components of the chain: computer science and information systems, publishing and journalism, communication and media studies, and digital humanities are only some of these. Capurro and Hjørland (2003) argue that LIS’s distinctive contribution is provided by a social and epistemological approach to the information chain. The computational aspects of all the components are primarily the concern of computer science, although clearly there are overlaps.
Also interested in most if not all of the components of the chain are domain experts: doctors, for example, will be experts in the interpretation of health information, while chemists will have a particular insight into retrieval of chemical information. Capurro and Hjørland (2003) express the distinction here as one of LIS professionals, even subject experts, working in top-down mode from a knowledge of information sources in general, while domain experts must work in a bottom-up mode, from a specific knowledge to a more general understanding. This is helpful in clarifying matters, as more disciplines and professions become evidence-based and information-intensive, and take on a different relation to the LIS profession.
Capurro’s analysis of the nature of the LIS discipline is convincing, in particular his emphasis on the conjoining of the information science and library science perspectives, on the value of the historical perspective, and on the need for a continuing re-evaluation of what is needed for the discipline to have a distinctive stance and value. His disentangling of the LIS/computer science relation by avoiding a focus on what each discipline is “interested in” – very much the same things, in many cases – but by considering their respective perspectives, is also helpful.
However, his insistence on a hermeneutic-rhetorical basis for the discipline with a central focus on the human, and hence a firm location of LIS within the humanities sector, seems less helpful. This location for the discipline is probably the most common one, and can be seen as placed most appropriately within cultural studies (Furner 2015). However, Capurro’s categorization seems somewhat restrictive, inasmuch as it precludes some seemingly valuable approaches. It may perhaps be better to regard a conjoined LIS as a field of study focusing on recorded information and knowledge, an approach more open to the variety of techniques, perspectives and forms of knowledge needed to deal with the complexities of its subject (Bawden 2007, Bawden and Robinson 2012, 2016). Compton (2015) makes a similar point, suggesting that LIS will best survey changing times by maintaining its interdisciplinary character. If this means that LIS finds it difficult to establish a fixed position within the academic structure, as evidence shows to be the case already (Bawden and Robinson 2016), then so be it.
The future of the library/information sciences
A theme which Capurro has developed more recently is the need for a theory of digital ontology and digital hermeneutics, to facilitate understanding of the nature and consequences of the move to a digital world; a theme which has implications for the future of LIS, among much else. This overlaps considerably with Floridi’s ‘philosophy of information’ and ‘infosphere’ concept, and has led to robust debate (Capurro 2008a, Floridi 2008). Another notable similarity between the approaches of these two scholars is that both see ethical and moral issues as emerging as a natural and important consequence of their philosophies of information; see, for example, Capurro (1985, 2008b) and Floridi (1999, 2013).
Compton (2015) has analysed the differing ontologies of Capurro and Floridi. He characteriszes Capurro’s as continental, Heidegger-influenced, and oriented towards phenomenology and hermeneutics, and Floridi’s as analytical and formally logical, and concludes sensibly enough, that both perspectives are helpful. Floridi, who identifies his philosophy of information as spanning the analytic/continental divide (Søraker 2012), explicitly notes how Capurro’s Capurro application ofbrings the tools of continental philosophy to bear on information concepts, and how these as are potentially enriching study offor the field (Floridi 2008). This has been, until recently, an approach rather largely ignored within the information sciences (Cronin and Meho 2009, Serantes and Hoffman 2012), and it may be that calling attention to the value of this approach, over a long period, may come to be seen as one of Capurro’s longest-lasting contributions. Its significance was noted at a relatively early stage by Day (2005). The intention of the chapter authors is not to join in a technical philosophical debate, which they are ill-equipped to do, but rather to draw attention to the importance of these theoretical issues for the future of LIS.
Capurro emphasiszes that cyberspace is not separated or independent from the physical world, but on the contrary, is present in all areas of life (Treude, 2015). It is part of the everyday life of millions of people and integrated into their bodily existence, bringing great changes in spatio-temporal social experience, and moving participants further and further away from their familiar ‘life-world’ (Capurro 2010). And, at a relatively early stage, Capurro (1999) was recognising that these changes required a careful analysis of what is real, and what ‘real’ actually means.
While these considerations may seem entirely theoretical, perhaps even ‘academic’ in the worst sense of the word, we suggest that they will impinge on some very practical concerns for LIS in the near future. An example of immediate impact is the issue of information literacy (or digital literacy), which currently assumes considerable importance in the practice of LIS. Capurro reminds us that it is not sufficient to think of this simply as a matter of imparting a set of information skills; there is a need to based base the development of information literacy on a rigorous examination of the nature of information and its role in, and effect on, the lives of people (Treude 2015).
More fundamentally, as the digital environment develops, and as ubiquitous media systems become commonplace, this combination of pervasive information technologies, fully multimedia and multisensory interfaces, and increasingly interactive systems will lead to the development of immersive environments. These will offer their users, or rather participants, individual immersive and interactive experiences, whether for recreation, training, aesthetics, or purposes so far unimagined. If recorded and stored, such environments will be a new form of immersive document, potentially generating new forms of immersive behaviour (Robinson 2015a, 2015b, 2015c). These will become the concern of LIS, as has each new form of document in its turn. To deal with these effectively will require a sound theoretical understanding, and this in turn will mean that we address exactly the questions which Capurro posed: what is real, and what does real mean? Capurro, and also Floridi (2014), remind us that this new, and fully digital, environment, brings new questions: practical, conceptual and ethical. There are as yet no definitive answers, but it seems likely that these philosophical arguments will have real practical value in dealing with these questions.
“Ghostly technology is dreaming us … reality is vanishing” wrote Rafael Capurro some years ago (Capurro, 1999, p 8), ). Dramatic, and even far-fetched, though this may sound, it may come to be seen as a realistic description of a new information age, characteriszed by immersive documents of an entirely new kind.
If so, the kind of rigorous and imaginative conceptual analysis which has been a characteristic of Capurro’s scholarship will be of great value in helping LIS cope with this new environment, without, as Capurro reminds us, losing sight of who we are and where we came from. This stands, regardless of the ultimate place of hermeneutics and angeletics in the conceptual bases of LIS. If the LIS discipline is to retain its unique values and perspectives in the future, it will have to draw theoretical strength from the contributions of scholars like Capurro, while remaining open to those who, like Floridi, advise us from outside.
“Maybe” wrote Capurro (2009, p.137), “we are in the process of leaving the age of the book by going through the information age towards the age of messages and messengers”. If so, his concept of information, and the information communication chain, expressed in message terms, may be his most lasting contribution.
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“Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. … Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life.” (p. 233)
Any book-lovers looking for some non-academic summer reading, which still offers some intellectual bite, should consider Browsings (Pegasus Books, 2016), an enchanting collection of what the author calls ‘light essays’. Michael Dirda, a Pultizer-prize winning author, book reviewer and critic, wrote a weekly essay for the online American Scholar magazine. This book collects these essays, covering a wide variety of topics – education, government, art, grammar, gun control, travel, Christmas, publishing, history, and so on – but all ultimately having something to do with books and book collecting.
Sub-titled ” a year of reading, collecting and living with books”, Browsings is a paen to the joys of the old literary world. Dirda does not care for Kindles and iPads; he has a house filled with physical books, and fantasises about providing a proper home for them, ideally in the library of an English country house. He accepts the value of services like AbeBooks, one of my stock answers to those of my generation who find little good in the internet; but Dirda laments that using such systems is shopping, not collecting, and loses serendipity.
I am not always entirely in sympathy with what used to be called ‘bookmen’, feeling that their enthusiasm for the physical details of book as object, and their cultish enthusiasms for the small press as against the large publisher, sometimes wore a bit thin. Dirda stays, for me, on the right side of the line, and conveys his enthusiasms without ever becoming tedious. It helps that some of his interests – science fiction and fantasy, supernatural stories, Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes – align with my own; and I have to warm to someone who also appreciates Clark Ashton Smith’s “lushly poetic prose of almost hypnotic beauty”.
Dirda even tell us how to read the book; not more than two or three essays at a sitting. Normally, I rather object to this sort of instruction from an author, feeling that if I’ve gone to the bother of buying or borrowing the book, I’ll decide how to read it. In this case, however, I have to admit that Dirda is right; this is a book for dipping into, rather than continuous reading.
“All these ziggurats of books in the bedroom and on the attic steps and on top of the piano are future projects, awaiting the time when the stars are right. Then great Cthulhu will rise … No, that’s something else that happens when the stars are right. As I meant to say, each stack will sooner or later be transformed into an essay, article, or long review.” (p157)
In reviewing Browsing, Alberto Manguel, author of the excellent The Library at Night, writes that it is “a marvellous collection for serious book lovers, common readers, and all of us who take a guilty delight in the gossip of literature”. It is all of those things; but it is also an illuminating insight into a world that is passing. It is worth reading to be reminded, or perhaps for the millennial generation to be informed, of the value of the universe of the printed book. And it offers an inspiration for those us who also have piles, if not quite yet ziggurats, of books waiting to be dealt with.
This is a slightly revised version of a chapter contributed by myself and Lyn Robinson to a Festschrift in honour of our colleague Professor Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić, of the University of Zadar in Croatia.
We came to know Tatjana particularly through the LIDA conferences, of which she has been the inspiration and main organiser, through her contributions to curriculum development in LIS Europe-wide, and through her work on the editorial boards of the journals which we edit (Journal of Documentation and Alexandria). The chapter aimed to review changes in the information environment, and their significance for library/information science, with a particular focus on topics addressed in Tatjana’s published work. It has been published as:
D Bawden and L Robinson, Into the infosphere: theory, literacy, and education for new forms of document. In Ogledi o informacijskim znanostima: Zbornik radova u Čast Tatjane Aparac-Jelušić [Views on Information Science: Proceedings in honour of Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić], MD Ivanović and SF Tanacković, (eds.), Universities of Osijek and Zadar, 2016, pp 177-186
Introduction In this paper we outline two new developments likely to have a strong effect on the discipline and practice of library and information science (LIS) over the next decade. These are the development of the ‘infosphere’, a radically new information environment grounded in pervasive digital information, and the introduction of a new generation of immersive documents. These changes will require both new theoretical approaches to analyse and comprehend them, new models of information behaviour and information literacy to enable good use to be made of them, and changes in LIS education and continuing professional development (CPD) to equip the profession to make use of them. These concerns reflect Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić ‘s contributions to theoretical and educational developments in information science, but also her concerns with links between theory and practice.
New developments It is a truism to point out that great changes have occurred to the information environment over the past three decades, since the introduction of the personal computer and the origins of what would become the Internet. It is equally a truism to note that all commentators expect equally great changes to occur in the near- and medium-term future. These changes have provided both challenges and opportunities for the LIS disciplines and professions, and may be expected to continue to do so. Here we focus on two of these developments: the emergence of a new digital environment and the first indications of a new type of document within it.
The infosphere The first conception of a totally new form of information environment, resulting from the spread of networked interactive computer systems, was cyberspace. The term was first used in fictional writings by William Gibson, and later gained widespread use to denote the influence of digital information, and the Internet in particular, on all aspects of life. Analysing this idea from an information science perspective, Rafael Capurro argues that cyberspace is not separated or independent from the physical world, but on the contrary, is present in all areas of life (Treude, 2015). It is part of the everyday life of millions of people and integrated into their bodily existence, bringing great changes in spatio-temporal social experience, and moving participants further and further away from their familiar ‘life-world’ (Capurro 2010).
This concept has been developed by the philosopher Luciano Floridi into the idea of the ‘infosphere’, an all-encompassing information environment in which people are seen as informationally embodied organisms, ‘inforgs’, mutually connected and embedded in the infosphere, which we share with both natural and artiﬁcial informational agents. In the infosphere, the boundaries between online and offline environments merge, so that we live in a manner termed ‘onlife’ (Floridi 2012, 2013, 2014; Martens 2015). “The infosphere”, writes Floridi (2013, p. 10), “will not be a virtual environment supported by a genuinely ‘material’ world behind; rather it will be the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere.” Reality and unreality will blend.
Capurro and Floridi remind us that this new, and fully digital, environment, brings new questions: practical, conceptual and ethical. There is a need for good theoretical analysis here, in order to develop the conceptual foundations of the information sciences, so that they may make an effective contribution. Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić has drawn attention over a long period to the importance of the developing theory for LIS (see, for example, Aparac-Jelušić 1997), and the need for this clearly as great as ever.
Immersive documents Both Capurro and Floridi remind us that, in an environment such as the infosphere, there is need for careful analysis of what is real, and what ‘real’ actually means.
While these considerations may seem entirely theoretical, it is likely that they will impinge on some very practical concerns for LIS in the near future. On example of this is the consequences for LIS of the emergence of ‘immersive documents’. As the digital environment develops towards the infosphere, and as ubiquitous media systems become commonplace, confluence of technologies becomes important. We will see a combination of: pervasive information technologies; fully multimedia and multisensory interfaces; and systems offering full participation rather than just interaction. As these three trends develop and overlap, the feeling of being enveloped in information which is provided by a pervasive information environment, involving multi-sensory input, delivering a participative text, provides what may reasonably be described an immersive experience, going well beyond current ideas of virtual reality. The record of such experiences is an immersive document. Both the ‘raw’ text, and each experience of it, may be considered as a document, posing interesting issues for the organization, retreival and management of such documents (Robinson 2015a, 2015b, 2015c).
These documents will become the concern of LIS, as has each new form of document from when writing began. They have been foreshadowed by futurologists such as Shuman (1989, 1997), with his scenarios of libraries as ‘experience parlours’ or ‘ExperienCybraries’, providing interactive experiences in the same way that today’s libraries loan books or DVDs. One example which perhaps points to future possibilities is that of an American college library, whose annual ‘Harry Potter night’ uses games and simulations to create an “emotionally immersive [and] multisensory experience” (Broussard, 2013). Developments in LIS theory and practice will be needed to deal with them, as they have for digital documents over past decades (Aparac-Jelušić 1997), and we can see this a natural extension of the need for a “theory of information organization and retrieval in [the] digital environment as a base for future research”, which Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić advocated in an ASIST panel session discussion (Aparac-Jelušić, Ibekwe-SanJuan, Huvila, Ma, Jimenez and Warner 2013).
Information behaviour and information literacy As novel information environments and documents of this kind emerge, they are likely to generate new forms of information behaviour, which it turn will require new forms of information or digital literacy of people are to make effective and safe use of such developments. It is likely we may see radical changes in information behaviour, as information access becomes increasingly more pervasive, multi-sensory and, in particular, participative, in the same way that unexpected behaviours were identified in early uses of the World Wide Web (Nicholas, Huntington, Williams and Dobrowolski, 2004). Investigations of such new behaviour, at the earliest possible stage as the new immersive environments and documents develop, are highly desirable (Robinson 2015b).
Information literacy, and ways of effectively promoting it, have also been a topic on which Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić has contributed. New forms of behaviour with immersive documents will require new forms of information and digital literacy on the parts of their users, which we may term “immersive literacy”. While this idea cannot yet be described in detail, we can already see some of its features.
There are previous examples of new information environments leading to new forms of information literacy. For example, Paul Gilster’s original concept of digital literacy was devised in the 1990s, in response to the emergence of digital information in general, and of the internet in particular (Gilster, 1997). In the same way, metaliteracy was devised as a response to the social media environment (Mackey and Jacobsen 2014).
Some concepts have foreshadowed, in parts, the idea of immersive literacy. for example, the term transliteracy has been used to denote the knowledge and competences needed for effective reading, writing and interacting across a variety of media and formats (Lehmans and Cordier, 2015). Špiranec and Banek Zorica (2010) have remarked on the changes needed in information to cope with the hybrid and transient nature of information in a digital environment, while Karvalics (2015) has referred to the hyperpeople literacies required for the coming hyperconnected information world.
The idea of immersive literacy differs significantly from all prior information literacies, however, since it must include novel aspects such as multisensory transliteracy, the understanding of immersive narratives and digital storytelling, and the organising and accessing of immersive documents. An understanding of the information world is of great importance in the complex immersive environment, with its elements of unreality. This has been described as information fluency, an ability to cope with complexity and adapt to changing information technologies, environments, and contexts, and deal with all forms and formats information within those environments (Bawden, 2014).
An appreciation of the new information behaviours and literacies will be essential if LIS practitioners are to play a full part in the new information environment. This implies an increasing important role for CPD, as noted below, and as Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić has emphasised in other contexts (Petr and Aparac-Jelušić 2002; Aparac, Vrana, Badurina and Dragija 2001).
The information science discipline Ever since the subject became established as an academic discipline in the mid-twentieth century, there have been continuing doubts and debates as to the nature of library and information science, and of its two constituent areas, library science and information science; see, for example, Vakkari (1994) and Dillon (2007). Most commentators have stressed it variety and diversity, seeing it as a broad field of study, a meta-discipline, an inter-discipline, etc.; see, for example, Bawden and Robinson (2012, chapter 1) and Ibekwe-SanJuan et al. (2014).
This in turn means that LIS has to adopt a wide variety of theoretical perspectives and empirical research methods, and indeed there have been a number of over-arching paradigms: the systems paradigm, focusing on quantitative assessment of the operation of library and information systems; the cognitive paradigm, focusing on the individual and his or her state of knowledge; the socio-cognitive paradigm, focusing on the shared information practices in social groups; and others. These have been accompanied by a plethora of research methods, quantitative and qualitative, positivist, realist, constructivist and interpretivist. (Bawden and Robinson 2012, chapters 3 and 4).
In some respects this plurality is a strength, but the criticism has been made that LIS does not have a strong theoretical base of its own, and is too reliant on borrowing techniques and perspectives from a variety of other disciplines. This viewpoint seems to be changing, as there is evidence that other disciplines, particularly in the social and cultural sciences, are adopting some of the methods, results and theoretical perspectives of LIS (Bawden and Robinson 2016). However this concern has led to suggestions that LIS needs to be more focused in its concerns and methods.
Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić has been among those arguing for the wider vision of LIS, suggesting that “interdisciplinarity is a desired strength”, and that new frameworks of disciplinary theory are most likely to emerge from studies with the wider communication professions, in libraries, archives and museums (Aparac-Jelušić, Ibekwe-SanJuan, Huvila, Ma, Jimenez and Warner 2013). This fits well with the idea, expressed by several authors, that LIS should be seen as the discipline which studies the information communication chain: all aspects of the creation, organization, management, communication and use of recorded information, supporting the professional activities of the collection disciplines, including information management, librarianship, archiving and records management (Robinson 2009; Bawden and Robinson 2016). This leads to a broad conception of LIS, not tied to limited or traditional issues, but still with a clear focus, and hence well equipped to deal with the challenges of the new information environments.
LIS education and CPD As with the nature of the discipline, a long-standing debate has been conducted about the appropriate preparation required for library/information professionals, and in particular about the balance to be struck between initial formal professional education and career-long continuing professional develpment (CPD).
Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić’s commitment to formal university-level education in LIS, and her success in establishing the academic environment in which it may flourish, is too well-known to require elaboration here, though her particular contributions to education for digital libraries (Casarosa, Tammaro, Aparac-Jelušić, Gradman, Saracevic and Larsen 2009) and for digital heritage (Manžuch, Huvila and Aparac-Jelušić 2005) may be noted. It is also worth mentioning her strong commitment to CPD, so that LIS professionals may be kept up-to-date with the knowledge and skills which they need to remain effective as the information environment changes (Petr and Aparac-Jelušić 2002; Aparac, Vrana, Badurina and Dragija 2001).
This seems to us to be in accordance with what is needed if LIS professionals are to deal with new technologies, new forms of document, and new information behaviours and literacies. An initial formal education, based around principles and concepts and illustrated with currently relevant examples and skills, must be supplemented by continuing CPD, to show how the principles are applied in new contexts. Both are essential if the LIS profession is to remain relevant in the new information environments.
Theory and practice Another debate within the LIS discipline has been the relative importance of theory and practice, with the alleged gap between research and practice much lamented over many years (Bawden 2015). Views range from those who believe that it should be a primarily academic discipline with limited connections to its associated practical professions, to those who argue that it is primarily a vocational and skills-based discipline, with little room of theoretical analysis and research.
As will be clear from above, we regard the place of theory and research in LIS as centrally important, if the discipline is to thrive in the future. Equally however, we recognise that this should be rooted in, and contribute to, practice; there should be no mismatch, still less conflict between the two. This has certainly been the view of Tatjana Aparac-Jelušić, who has argued for the need for good theory in the LIS discipline (Aparac-Jelušić 1997), but who has also been involved in analysis and evaluation of issues of practice over a long period; see, for example, Aparac (1997)and Petr Balog, Aparac-Jelušić and Matošić (2015). A better integration of theory, research and practice is clearly an essential requirement if LIS is to play an effective part in designing and managing emerging information environments. This does not simply mean that researchers must pay attention to practice, but that practitioners should become more involved in research. And there are indications that immersive information environments may provide a good opportunity for them to do so; Hahn (2012), writing of augmented reality systems, a precursor of immersive documents, suggests that “The twenty-first century library is a laboratory of experimentation and prototyping”. This is certainly a positive and encouraging thought.
Conclusions The vision which emerges from this short analysis of the LIS literature, informed by a focus on topics addressed by Tatljana Aparac-Jelušić, is one of an LIS discipline and profession facing, as it has done for some decades now, major changes in the kind of information environments and documents with which it will have to deal. This challenge can best be met by a broad discipline with a strong base of research and theory, interacting with practice, and with sound formal education supported by continuing CPD. With these conditions in pace, we believe that LIS has a bright future.
References Aparac, T. (1997) The National and University Library is Zagreb: new building, old problems. Alexandria, 9(3), 185-199.
Aparac, T., Vrana, R., Badurina, B. and Dragija, M. (2001) How graduate library and information science professionals cope with constant need for updating their knowledge and skills: a Croatian case. In Delivering lifelong continuing professional education acriss space and time (IFLA Publications No. 98), B. Woolls and B.E. Sheldon (eds.). München: K.G. Saur, pp. 164-172.
Aparac-Jelušić, T. (1997) The library science in the last decade of the twentieth century [English translation] Vjesnik Bibliotekara Hrvatske, 1997(1/2), 139-152.
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Broussard, M.J.S. (2013). No muggles in the library tonight! Harry Potter night at an academic library. Library Trends, 61(4), 814-824.
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It is often said that a modern information environment came into being in the mid-nineteenth century. The virtually instantaneous communication of brief messages via the electric telegraph was paralleled by developments in printing technology which allowed the creation of massively increased volumes of printed materials, disseminated through newly established universal postal systems.
A vital, and sometimes underestimated, part in the communications revolution was played by steam trains and stream ships, which allowed much more rapid and reliable conveying of printed documentation. And not merely heavy and bulky newspapers, magazines and books; in the decades between the introduction of the telegraph and its development into a fully international network, ships played a vital part in carrying messages between telegraph stations, as well as in carrying the printed news and other reports of which brief synopses could be sent by telegraph. Ben Wilson’s new book on the 1850s decade, which shows how much the physical and electronic transmission of information went hand-in-hand in transforming the world’s communication systems, gives several examples of this. Most striking was the system in operation before the first successful trans-Atlantic cable was laid in 1866. News headlines and market information would be carried from London on ships bound for North American ports. The messages would be put into a airtight metal canister, fitted with a flag and phosphorus flare for visibility, and put into the sea off Cape Race, Newfoundland, retrieved by small boats and carried to the easternmost telegraph station in the Americas, for onward transmission saving several days in getting the news. A similar system operated in the other direction, with American news headlines dropped into the sea of the southern tip of Ireland from eastbound vessels. News from India was carried to Britain during the 1850s in a series of stages alternating the telegraph with the mail steamer.
So, steam ships were an important part of the information chain, and of the foundation of the modern information world. As is well-knowm, this year (2016) marks the 150th anniversary of the laying of the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, an earlier attempt in 1858 having failed to operate successfully. But this year also marks another anniversary; a major advance in the capabilities of steam ships; as information transfer agents as much as anything else. This was the first voyage from Britain to China of the steamship Agamemnon, of Alfred Holt’s Ocean Steam Ship Company.
By 1865, steam ships were challenging sailing vessels on many routes, having advantages of speed, and in particular of reliability, not being dependent on wind conditions. But the steam engines of the time were very inefficient, so that on long-distance routes the need for constant refuelling negated their advantages, and the amount of coal needed reduced the space available for cargo. This was the problem addressed by Alfred Holt (1829-1911), a marine engineer from Liverpool, and proprietor of the Ocean Steam Ship Company, later known as the Blue Funnel Line. [I am old enough to recall, from my childhood on Merseyside, the ubiquitous blue funnels of the Holt Line’s ships, in their last decades of operation.]
Holt designed a new form of ‘compound’ steam engine, which re-used the steam and hence worked much more efficiently, and incorporated it into a series of vessels, again of his own design, intended for the trade routes between Britain and China. These could steam for over 8,000 miles on their initial coal supply, enabling them to get to China with only one stop for refuelling. The first of these ships, Agamemnon, left Liverpool on the 19th of April 1866, and arrived in Hong Kong 65 days later, clipping 12 days off the previous fastest passage.
Compound-engined ships enabled fast and reliable steam-powered travel across all the oceans of the world, promoting not merely trade in goods, but equally importantly dissemination of information: mail, news, business information, government materials, and much more. People around the world were, as Ben Wilson puts it, “bound to each other by new, invisible and often unsettling networks of information exchange” (p.411).
Alfred Holt would not have thought of himself as a pioneer of the information age, nor of his Agamemnon as a device of information dissemination; but in a very real sense, he and his ship have a place in information history.
This is a slightly amended copy of a letter published in a special issue of ‘Knowledge Organization’ (issue 3 of volume 43, 2016), devoted to developments in thesauri and other formal vocabularies. The editors of the issue kindly invited me to speculate on how research in knowledge organisation should develop, and it also gave me the chance to quote the lyrics of my favourite songwriter.
“A point along a line”: moving knowledge organization to the next level
Our time is just a point along a line
That runs forever with no end
I never thought that we would come to find
Ourselves upon these rocks again (Al Stewart, Lord Grenville)
When any technique or technology has been in use for some while, it tends to reach a plateau stage, after rapid growth, and questions are asked about where it goes next, and what comes after it. To my mind, the formal vocabularies (FVs) of knowledge organization (KO) – taxonomies and thesauri – are at this stage, but I fear that the questions being asked may not be the right ones.
A first set of questions, in the early days, were about what these FVs should be like; how should they be constructed and used. These questions were largely answered many years ago, and incorporated into textbooks and standards, although there is always room for new tweaks.
A second set of questions were about how FVs related to other methods, such as categorization and free-term indexing. These questions were also answered satisfactorily decades ago, although oddly they seem to resurface regularly.
A third set of questions relates to how FVs can be used in new digital environments, bearing in mind that their basic forms were devised in an age of print on paper. These questions also have been answered in a general sense, although there is still work to do in the adaption of FVs to specific new formats, as they emerge.
It seems to me that those of us interested in FVs, and with a belief in their continuing value, have a tendency to continue to ask the same questions as we have in the past, and – not surprisingly – to find the same answers. This may help ensure that we are using FVs to the best effect in the ways we are used to, but it does nothing to move us on from the plateau stage to a new phase of rapid growth in use in new ways and new environments. There will be a continuing need to ask such questions in particular contexts, as consultancy or short-term applied research, but there is also need to move on.
I see three ways in which we can, and should, be asking deeper questions.
First, although there is already a substantial body of theory underlying concepts and classification in particular – much of it, one suspects, little known to many of those who work with newer forms of KO – there is still a need for studies of the underlying theory. In particular, when we ask whether, and how, FVs can be used in newer environments, we need a better understanding of how much they embody deep principles, and how much they simply a pragmatic response to the contexts of their time.
Second, we need many more domain studies, of the kind consistently advocated by Birger Hjørland. These would encompass both the nature of information and knowledge in the domain, and the ways in which users of that domain make use of, and find, information. This moves the research focus away from the traditional KO concerns, and into epistemology on the one hand, and information behaviour on the other.
Third, there is a need for convincing studies of the value and impact of FVs, and of knowledge organization generally. For example, a question asked from the earliest days was whether FVs or free text were more effective for retrieval; indeed, studies of this question still emerge from time to time. The answer, known for a long while, is that the best solution is to have both available; but that this is more expensive, and potentially complex for users. The complexity issue may be addressed by the domain studies of point two. The economic issue requires studies using the best available methods for assessing the value and impact of information services generally; for example, contingent valuation, vignettes/personas and critical incidents. We may well find that, as in many other areas, standard products will be largely automated, while ‘luxury goods’ justify expert human intervention; but research is needed as to exactly what this means.
That such a programme of research is urgently needed is evident, from the growing importance of organized knowledge, in fields as disparate as molecular biology and cult media fandom. This latter kind of ‘public’ application is likely to spread much more widely, as personal information management and ‘lifelogging’ become established. Convincing such communities of the value of the principles underlying taxonomies and thesauri is likely to be a significant for the future as convincing more conventional information providers of their continuing pragmatics and economic benefits. Both are essential, and both should figure in a research programme to move to KO to the next level.