Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The value of LIS education

I just watched the Friday edition of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, which was about the increase of corporate money in university research in Canada, more specifically in Ontario. The discussion centred on the decade old debate of whether university research (and education) needs to have an immediate economic benefit to business and society. It was a great debate, fair and balanced and with some good insights (though not much new stuff). The debate is interesting to LIS because we seem to have a similar debate going on -- where some people would argue that the research and education that takes place in LIS schools ought to the directly tied to the practice of LIS, others would, of course, have a more loose understanding of what it means to be educated at a research university.

Michael Buckland asked us in '96 to consider which LIS books we would hand a university president who would be interested in understanding what LIS is about… most books in LIS are "how-to" books, and as Buckland says: "books that provide a general introduction to [the] scope and nature of LIS are not common" which is quite unfortunate because "the general emphasis on professionally useful education discourages interest in the field of LIS itself, in the nature of information and information technology, and in the intellectual history of LIS because there are always more apparently useful agenda".

The Agenda has a short discussion towards the end of the program about the value of liberal arts education, and Buckland asks us to consider if we could develop a liberal arts LIS education and he suggests that: "any view of LIS is incomplete and lacking in coherence if it could not include a liberal arts program".

I fear a bit that i) the majority of the LIS community would not even be interested in entertaining the idea of a liberal arts LIS education and ii) it would be tremendously difficult to develop a liberal arts education based on the current research tradition within LIS. The reason for this is clear: LIS education is seen as a place that merely produces workers for the library industry, and it is argued that the focus of research and education in LIS school should merely reflect today's needs and practices.

I think that is sad state of affairs. It is intellectually empty -- and it does a disservice to the library profession in the long run.

Then there is always the option of moving library education out of large research universities, as my colleague Juris Dilevko suggests. This would indeed be an interesting development, and one that would certainly force LIS departments to rethink their mission.

My sense is that we need to ensure that LIS education has relevance and value beyond the needs and practices of today's and tomorrow's libraries - LIS education needs to research based (as long as it take place at research universities) and the research ought to ask larger questions, be less focused on technical minutiae, and more bold as Andrew Dillon argued a couple years ago.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Good to remember...

Remember, that just because lots of people hate your ideas, doesn't mean that they aren't powerful -- in fact, the most powerful ideas will be hated as well as loved. Excellent post today at Indexed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The difference between men and women

Excellent article in the New Yorker [Nov. 30, 2009] about the Caster Semenya situation… a couple quotes:

"Unfortunately for I.A.A.F. officials, they are faced with a question that no one has ever been able to answer: what is the ultimate difference between a man and a woman? “This is not a solvable problem,” Alice Dreger [a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine] said. “People always press me: ‘Isn’t there one marker we can use?’ No. We couldn’t then and we can’t now, and science is making it more difficult and not less, because it ends up showing us how much blending there is and how many nuances, and it becomes impossible to point to one thing, or even a set of things, and say that’s what it means to be male.""

and later:

"There is much more at stake in organizing sports by gender than just making things fair. If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. Who gets to use what bathroom? Who is allowed to get married?"

Right, at the end of the day, reality doesn't come carved up into little chunks -- we have to make those chunks. That requires acts that are drenched in politics, ethics, epistemology, etc.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The recommend objective

We have in the past, oh, approx. 150 years had four basic objectives that we want to accomplish through the catalog. Often referred to as FISO (Finding, Identifying, Selecting, Obtaining). Svenonius (The Intellectual Foundation of Info Org., 2000, p. 18) rightly added Navigation. So FISON. I am wondering if time has come to add a sixth objective, recommending, so FISONR, or FRISON.

The basic idea in the original four objectives and also in Svenonius' Navigation objective is that people, aka users, come to the system with a desire, a need, a problem, articulate it, and retrieve something relevant (hopefully). That's very good. I think. It has served us well, and I suppose we will continue to develop systems that can accomplish what those objectives set out to do.

But I am starting to wonder if we can't do better and more than that… some would call it being proactive. That's where recommendation comes in; librarians and other information professionals have always done some recommendation, I suppose. Though Patrick Wilson did note, “the librarian not only has no politics, no religion, and no morals; he has no opinion on any open question. Librarians see their role as one of complete hospitality to all opinions” (Second-Hand Knowledge, 1983, p. 190)… despite this official position of the profession, I suppose that some librarians actually do have opinions and have recommend materials to people... anyway, I hope we are ready to take the catalog beyond the sort of liberal librarianship that Wilson talked about… whereas librarians might have made recommendations in the past, based on their knowledge of the material and the topic, I would hope that we in the future could harvest the insight, knowledge and inspiration of the people using and interacting with the material to help recommend and review the material to support other people's information quests.

Almost all information systems use some sort of recommender systems today; Amazon, Netflix, Epinions, CitULike, LibraryThing, Delicious, Last.fm, Connotea, Flickr, InSuggest, etc. etc. But no traditional library catalogs. Why?

As explained in this short piece in Communications of the ACM ("Just for you" no. 8, 2009), "The key thing with recommender systems is they're trying to help with discovery," . . . unlike search engines that "help you find something you already know you want."

Maybe it is time to move beyond just giving people what the already know they want, to helping people discover information, books, material.

Let's build recommendation into the catalog of the future!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Inspiration for the future?

So, I am prepping my intro to KO class for next semester -- and I just re-read Fran Miksa's review [LQ, 79(1): 131-143] of Lois Mai Chan's [Cataloging and Classification: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007] and Arlene Taylor's [Introduction to Cataloging and Classification. 10th ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006] textbooks on cataloging and classification... it is a splendid historical critique of textbooks (and education) in the area of cataloging and classification and their relation (or lack thereof) to practice in libraries, esp. in small, medium, public, and special libraries. Miksa finds that much of today's textbooks in the area focuses almost exclusively on the technical procedures of cataloging and classification and doesn't include anything that would inspire the reader to view cataloging and classification as "worthwhile, even inspiring, endeavors". He ends his review by saying:

"Finally, there is the matter of creating a unified rationale for cataloging and classification that would not simply recognize the past and the present but also offer reasonable inspiration for the future. Mention has already been made of the reality that no present text offers such a rationale. In this respect, the Chan and Taylor texts, despite all of their strengths, seem “tired” when it comes to eliciting such a vision. That they are is not so much a fault of the authors, however, as much as it reflects the contemporary climate of thought in library cataloging and classification. At some point between Mann’s text [i.e. Introduction to Cataloging and the Classification of Books. Chicago: ALA, 1930] and the appearance of new texts since the 1960s, cataloging and classification had already started down the road of being thought of only or merely as access mechanisms without the complications and implications that arise from their relationship to the origin, character, and organization of humankind’s knowledge. The latter is, to say the least, a striking social phenomenon in its own right, and given its extraordinary nature I cannot help but think how grand a change would occur in texts on cataloging and classification were they to capture at least some of that extraordinary character in their vision."

Is the tail wagging the dog? It does seem to me that the lack of imagination, the staleness of cataloging and classification, and the downward interest among students in this area in the age of the participatory social web, is our own fault. Many seem more keen on preserving what we have had instead of offering "reasonable inspiration for the future". We need to start by developing syllabi and curriculum that is inspiring and offer paths for the "future of the catalog"...

Speaking of "future of the catalog", I also re-read Nancy Williamson's paper from '81, "Is there a catalog in your future" [reprinted in CCQ 48(1): 10-25) - in '81, she said: "We have perfected the catalog which has existed for more than one hundred years without significantly improving the kinds of bibliographic and subject access that the catalog might provide. Nor have we experimented sufficiently with possible new approaches to subject retrieval of bibliographic items which modern technology could support" - and then she goes on to predict what the catalog would look like 25 years later, in 2006. My sense is that it is quite appropriate to reprint Williamson's paper... and then we can hope that we can accomplish in the next 25 years what wasn't possible to even touch in the past 25 years.