Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Libraries as Conversations: Gorman, Hives and Catalogs

This is a disturbing ad.
This was my introduction to a twenty-minute talk on social cataloging and LibraryThing given at an ALA RUSA MARS (gesundheit!) session called "Harnessing the Hive: Social Networks and Libaries," with Meredith Farkas and Matthew Bejune. The meat of the talk—showing and talking about tags on LibraryThing—got all the attention (one blogger called it "jaw-dropping"). The introduction didn't, despite attacking a former ALA president and being something of a rant. Comments appreciated!

Gorman and Knowledge. Former ALA President Michael Gorman wrote a piece recently for the Britannica blog titled "Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason." He takes a curious starting point.
"Human beings learn, essentially, in only two ways. They learn from experience—the oldest and earliest type of learning—and they learn from people who know more than they do."
There is something attractive about this conception. Some people have experiences, and they pass it on, directly or through writing. Knowledge happens. We get it one way or the other.

But this has never been quite right. Learning and knowledge, at least important learning and knowledge, are a conversation.*

The education of scholar is an ascent through this conversation. We start with encyclopedias and straightforward books of facts—books that talk at us; certain books. We move to monographs, which seem at first like books of facts, but which we soon learn are really "arguments." We learn to write papers that are arguments too—"Don't just say what you know, have a thesis!"

At some point we discover academic journals, and our eyes are opened to just how complex and contentious and uncertain this certain thing is. And, if we go on long enough, we graduate to conferences, and we learn that knowledge is an actual conversation, with alcohol.

Conversations work because, at their best, they know more and produce more than their members. They work because the knowledge is in the conversation. It happens in the very interplay of ideas—asserting, contesting, extending, simplifying and complexifying the dizzying whirl of fact and opinion, creative and synthetic, smart and dumb, right and wrong, from this angle and that. Literature works like this too, but can be even more meaningless without "conversational" context—genre, alusion and immitation and so forth.

So, quiet or not, the library is a buzzing cocktail party—better and better the more people are there and the more they interact. It is already "hive" this session promises. It is, in point of fact, very much like the web.

I think Gorman is wrong. But there is a lot of productive debate to be had about what digitization, mass amateurization and similar trends "do" to knowledge. There are downsides and reasons for concern. But we should not forget that the greatest thing the library has to offer—has ever had to offer—is not the relative fixity and contested reliability some now stridently set against the web, but the bubbling river of conversation it embraces.

To go back to the beginning, Timon of Phlius mocked the "many cloistered bookworms twittering in the bird-cage of the muses." And he had a point. But today we rather admire the Library of Alexandria, with all its damned twittering.**

The catalog as conversation. If the contents of the library is a conversation, the online catalog is not. It is, at best, a tool to get you to the conversation. Is this the way it has to be? Can the catalog be a conversation too?

When I was a graduate student, I did not usually figure out what books to read in Classics by looking through the Library of Congress Subject Headings or going to the shelf and poking around. I got them from fellow graduate students, professors and from the books, reviews and articles I was reading.*** (Like many graduate students I occasionally read a book's footnotes looking for interesting reading suggestions and SKIPPED the text!) But I did—and do—check out the subjects and the shelf order for topics I know less about.

I think that, in finding books, we ascend through a conversation. The library catalog is too often an encyclopedia, talking at you. It's useful in the first staged of discovery. But as we ascend through a topic we gravitate to more conversational forms of discovery—reviews, articles, footnotes, bibliographies and the recommendations of others. And, I think, we leave the catalog behind. For some things, like finding new fiction, almost everyone skips the catalog right off, and reads reviews and talks to friends.

LibraryThing is called "social cataloging"—one small step toward the catalog as conversation. Let me show you what I mean....

*I'm channeling David Weinberger in much of this. Indeed, if there is one thing that irks me about his Everything is Miscellaneous it is the sense that "swimming in the complex" is new. Digitization has kicked things up a notch—made us more aware of the arbitrariness of categorization, the necessity of thinking for yourself and the value of conversations—but these are old lessons.

**I've removed the end of his quote, which hits the poets and scholars of the Museum—a sort of branch of the library—for getting paid. Still, the Library of Alexandria didn't merely gather Greek knowledge and art together. It kicked off the fanastically allusive—that is, conversational—creature known as Hellenistic Poetry. Suddenly, the books were all together and they started jabbering at each other non-stop!

Since we're on the topic, it also deserves mentioning that the Hellenistic Age saw a shocking increase in the quantity of *bad* writing. The barriers were lowered, and a lot of junk got through. In general, the good stuff rose and the bad stuff sank. The blogosphere anyone?

***I particularly recall how one of my professors tended never to know the *titles* of books she'd recommended to me. She'd say "that new book on Athenian demes by so-and-so." The authors were all colleagues and friends of hers. She had followed them for years. She was completely in the conversation, and it was about people and ideas, not book titles. It didn't help that the titles in academics are often bland affairs, "aiming higher" than their obscure topic in the hope of appealing to a broader audience—"Art, Difference and Culture" subtitled, "16th-century non-guild stonemasons in Malta," etc.

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Blogger Felius said...

Still reading it, but there's a broken link to the Hidden Peanuts blog post (a trailing %20 got in the way). Correct link is here: ALA 2007 - Harnessing the Hive: Social Networks & Libraries

6/27/2007 2:24 AM  
Anonymous Tinalles said...

"... the knowledge is in the conversation."

This is straight out of Weinberger, as you say, and it drives me nuts. I'm going to go off on a slight tangent here, in that I'm reacting to Weinberger much more than you.

For example, in a discussion of mailing lists during his recent talk at Google, Weinberger said "The list knows more than the participants."[1]

The reason this drives me nuts is that mailing lists (and conversations) do not do anything in and of themselves. The list is an aggregation of information; the conversation is a sequential series of statements. In both cases, it's the people that are doing things. People type, speak, read, and listen. mailing lists and conversations do not.

So it irritates me when people ascribe actions or motivations to mailing lists or such. When we say, "The list knows more than the participants," we're implying that the list is more useful, or more important, than the people who created it.

I understand that neither Weinberger nor you intended to devalue the people involved in the list, or the conversation. It's just that the particular words we choose to use greatly influences how we see reality. So we should be careful to avoid patterns of speech and thought that make concepts more important than people.

Even subtly. Even unintentionally.

[1] This is a paraphrase, since I didn't feel like watching the whole hour-long video again just to get the exact phrasing right.

[2] The comment form refused to log me into my Google account (Tinalles) so I'm posting without it.

6/27/2007 5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> never to know the *titles* of books

It might be for the reason you describe, however I often have problems with names (people, places, characters, actors, book titles, authors, etc) and, apart from close friends/collegues, will almost always think of someone in terms of what they do/did, rather than their name.

I am really bad with actors and will amaze my wife with my inability to know who anyone is.

6/27/2007 7:33 AM  
Blogger Sharon said...

"the Hellenistic Age saw a shocking increase in the quantity of *bad* writing. The barriers were lowered, and a lot of junk got through. In general, the good stuff rose and the bad stuff sank. The blogosphere anyone?"

Folks in science fiction fandom know this as [Theodore] Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

6/27/2007 7:47 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I was struck by the same line - it seemed so peculiar to think that libraries only work in one direction - from book-as-expert to ignorant tabula rasa - and that as a consequence there's no such thing as experiential learning in libraries.

I also have always thought of libraries in terms of conversations (Joan Bechtel has a famous essay on that subject). When I wrote about Gorman's essay over at ACRLog I quoted Michael Oakeshott who also has a way of thinking about learning as a form of play and as a conversation.

What I had never really thought of, though, was library catalogs as conversations. Have to mull that one over a bit.

6/27/2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

Gorman's statement is profoundly reductive. For example, we can learn from people who know less than we do; fables embody this idea of a negative example, allowing us to learn from greedy dogs and bitter foxes. Such learning does not only take place in literary compositions.

Second of all, there is an implied bootstrapping problem when we are limited to those two modes of learning.

Third of all, what about knowledge which is not experientially based, such as inductive knowledge? Aristotle went a little further with his first principles, but is three-ness something you learn from experience? Color?

Did the slave boy in the Meno "learn" geometry from Plato?

6/27/2007 10:41 AM  
Blogger Tim said...


I'm certainly with you on the need not to depersonalize language. I think the general thrust of the argument is exactly the reverse—to insist that knowledge has a lot to do with people, talking to people.

But I think that one can usefully talk about groups of this or that sort, when something is happening in the dynamics of the group that wouldn't happen as individuals. If juries didn't investigate and talk through verdicts, but were just random people sitting at home with "guilty" and "not guilty" buttons, there would be something hollow in talking about them "considering" or "investigating" something. But the jury system forces jurors to react against each other, examine topics and reach conclusions together. And that makes a corporate term not entirely pointless.

6/27/2007 6:02 PM  
Blogger Tim said...



You said what I said, but better—much better. I promise I hadn't read it before I wrote the intro to my talk. (Abby can attest that I was ranting to her about it too.)

Thanks for the Michael Oakeshot reference. I'll have to dig that up.


6/27/2007 6:06 PM  
Blogger Walter Underwood said...

On referring to books by title or authors: When Palo Alto had a branch of Stacey's technical bookstore, the software section was broken into two sets. The academic books were organized by author and the technical books "HTML in 7 Days" were by title.

This matches the human practice you mentioned. I don't know the title of "Aho, Hopcroft, and Ullman" and I don't know the author of "Java in a Nutshell".

On learning and conversations: You can go further, like Wittgenstein, and say that language doesn't exist without conversations. The odd thing is that we pickle some aspect of those conversations in books. That is really weird.

6/27/2007 7:20 PM  
Anonymous Amber said...

Nice to meet you at ALA, glad to disturb you with my nascent 'shopping skills.

7/01/2007 1:16 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...


I agree with you about knowledge being a conversation - in part, at least.

It seems to me thought, that to some degree, knowledge is also about content.

Obviously, a person might have a very strange way of accounting for all the data he or she experiences in the world - expressing it in a worldview that no sane person can identify with.

In other words, there are certain ways of organizing the world in our minds that simply don't work - that don't conform with reality.

If we hold this to be true at all, is not knowledge also to some degree about content?

For example, I think about the work of the science-philosopher Michael Polanyi. With him, the purpose of our cognitive structures in our consciousness is not merely to guide human activity in appropriate ways, as more radical proponents of social constructivism maintain - this is insufficient – but to make contact with and to represent the reality external to our selves.

Do you think this is accurate? Clay Shirkey said in his "Ontology is Overrated" article (regarding issues of categorization): “It all comes down ultimately to a question of philosophy. Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?”

Shirkey, of course, wrote much in that article about the dangers of categorization. I was not sure why he insisted on a strict "either -or" here, though.

Let me try to explain specifically why.

David Weinberger has said (while discussing tagging): “[it] repudiates one of the deepest projects our culture has undertaken over and over again: The rendering of knowledge into a single, universal framework. The rendering has been assumed to be a process of *discovery*: The universe has an inner order that *experts and authorities* can expose. But in a networked world we know bettter than ever that such an order is a myth of rationality..."

I am puzzled by this. Can we *discover* things at all? And if so, *how* are things discovered now, or will they be discovered, in ways that are different from the past?

I tend to think that discovery *is* a part of this. Involved are: Hard work. Curiousity. “Leather-foot” journalism. We make sense of the world, and *to some degree at least*, the world makes sense. Its not an either-or. I recently heard argued the following: Scientists, for instance, have treated the world as if it were a deliberate work of genius (having depth, harmony, precision, intelligibility, elegance, beauty, order, meaning), as one might approach the work of a great artist like Shakespeare, and they have been rewarded for it (resulting in things like the ordered, and hence useful, periodical table of the [chemical] elements). Although, Mendeleev through his powers of observation and creativity - and certainly conversations with others - made the table, he certainly did not create, but rather discovered, some sense, some order, in the world, right?

Likewise, when Thomas Mann talks talks in his most recent paper (Peloponesian War) about librarians creating and using tools to help people see “the whole elephant” *”with all the parts properly interrelated”* He is speaking in a similar way.

Lest, I am misunderstood here, I am not saying that there is necessarily "a single, perfectly differentiable order". (as Weinberger believes Aristotle, in his role as a metaphysician, believed). With the example of Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements for example, it is certainly not "the _single_ representation of how the elements are ordered" - as if there were not other useful ways of organizing this reality (Likewise, I am sure that Mann, when futher questioned, would not say that Library of Congress with its collective wisdom holds all the secrets of the world, but would almost certainly say that *even the LCC and LCSH* only offer some of the picture, not everything - as we are only human)

Weinberger recently wrote to me on his blog: "And some ways of ordering are better than others, given our purposes and our starting points. In fact, we come up with various orderings precisely because the world reveals itself differently to us depending on our purpose. As I say somewhere in the book, since order emerges based on our interest, the single order that our culture has looked for would only emerge if we approached the world without any interests…which is not a possibility."

I agree with what he says here, but what is the key? I think it is what does the word "emerge" mean? Is there room for the idea that the world, in some sense, makes sense - or is it *only* we who make sense of it?

Again - why either or? I think having knowledge includes both communication and *content*. Even if the Mendeleev's periodical table is not useful to me for the particular chemistry experiment that I want to do, it still represents an aspect of the world that is obvioulsy to a large degree true.

I would love to get your thoughts on this. Keep up the good, thoughtful, work.

7/10/2007 8:40 AM  

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