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CLIR, Kakutani, and Career Oblivion

The Council on Library and Information Resources, the organization which funds my project, recently convened a symposium in Washington, D.C. for its 2008 and 2009 grant recipients. It was an extremely exciting and invigorating conference, but one of the presentations that I found most engaging was the keynote address given by Francis X. Blouin, Director of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. In his speech on hidden collections, Blouin focused on the “archival divide,” which he sees as a divergence between information professionals and scholars. He pointed out that, historically, information authorities (experts, specialists, scholars, etc.), partly by way of their association with established institutions, held an exclusive power to interpret and disseminate information. Now, however, narratives are increasingly created “from below,” posing a challenge to the supremacy of the institution and the ability of its associated professionals (archivists, librarians, catalogers, subject specialists) to maintain control over describing and disseminating information. Blouin went on to say that there is a new kind of authority bestowed on the subjective knowledge of the individual as our culture (academia included) has begun to value “identity, experience, and memory” as a valid sources of information.
As I listened to Blouin speak, I was thinking about the article that I had printed out and read on the train ride down to D.C. About a month ago, Michiko Kakutani, literary critic for The New York Times, wrote an article titled, “Texts Without Context,” which examines how the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies have changed the way users search for, analyze, and utilize information. Kakutani makes several provocative points, in particular that as information users/consumers we are losing (or have lost) sight of the big picture; through “power-search” capabilities and the quick access and delivery that the Internet and Web 2.0 provide, we have traded a macro view for a micro one where content is fragmented and removed from the context of complete bodies of work. She also acknowledges, as Blouin did in his address, that authoritative content is increasingly created from the bottom up, but her take (albeit offered through the lens of a media professional) offers a more pejorative slant:
“The web’s amplification of subjectivity applies to culture as well as politics, fueling a phenomenon that has been gaining hold over America for several decades, with pundits squeezing out reporters on cable news, with authors writing biographies animated by personal and ideological agendas, with tell-all memoirs, talk-show confessionals, self-dramatizing blogs and carefully tended Facebook and MySpace pages becoming almost de rigeur.”
Kakutani goes on to quote artist/computer scientist Jaron Lanier who, “says he fears that for ‘the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers’ it simply means ‘career oblivion.'”
In Blouin’s address, he recognized that this fear of “career oblivion” pops up periodically among information professionals, but he offered a more pragmatic outlook by saying that it is our responsibility to “shape the knowledge environment” and that we must reposition ourselves and our institutions as mediators between information and our users rather than authorities or experts on particular subjects or collections.
I’ve been thinking about the overlap between Blouin’s address and Kakutani’s essay for the past couple of weeks and I keep coming back to a couple of key intersections between the two. While Blouin defines the “archival divide” as existing between the archivist and the scholar (or as he says, “those who curate and those who use”) and Kakutani’s divide manifests itself in the separation between content and context, it seems that both dilemmas can be resolved through similar methods. Blouin’s solution to bridging the archival divide—that we should begin to act more as mediators than as authorities—I think can offer a comparable result when attempting to bridge the divide between content and context. Kakutani notes that, “online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.” This is true to an extent, but from Blouin’s perspective, archivists as mediators can attempt to rectify this issue by aiming to provide not just the information sought by researchers but a framework for that information. One of our main functions as archivists is to create descriptive tools that allow researchers to situate knowledge within a larger informational structure while providing enough detail to make “power-search[ing]” targeted and useful. The value of our professional expertise lies in offering tools that aid researchers in contextualizing knowledge, not necessarily in our own authoritative knowledge of a subject. This is where things like recording provenance, maintaining original order, and value neutral description come into play. Blouin took an even broader perspective, saying that it is becoming less and less important for institutions to “have” collections; instead, we should focus more on our ability to “pull information together.” Again, the value lies not in our authority as an institution or our exclusive hold on a particular collection, but in being able to illustrate the relevance of our holdings to a larger body of work as well as our institutional relevancy to culture at large. I would add that as mediators we should be able to do this across disciplines and outside of the confines of our own subjective interests in order to serve an increasingly diverse research community. Universities exist primarily to serve their own community of faculty and students as well as outside academic scholars, but as information becomes easier and faster to access our constituency inevitably broadens. Furthermore, as disciplines splinter or cross-pollinate, it is important to keep in mind that the definition of “scholar” is continually evolving—a scholar isn’t necessarily an academic in the traditional sense anymore, she may also be a designer, performance artist, documentarian, musician, genealogist, etc. To do this we have a responsibility to actively engage scholars, both traditional and otherwise, that might not be aware of what we have to offer.
So how do we assert ourselves in the research community in a meaningful and useful way? While Kakutani laments the loss of chance academic discoveries afforded by the ability to physically browse “stacks of material,” I think this complaint ignores the fact that the digital experience, including the social aspect of Web 2.0, allows for a wide range of discourse with a vast online community that can often provide further context as well as those serendipitous revelations. Yes, the interactive nature of Web 2.0 encourages subjectivity; whether it is patrons commenting on blog posts or tagging photos on Flickr, or archivists detailing the realities of processing archival collections on blogs or sharing articles that play into their own particular interests through Twitter, all information users, as well as information managers, describe and analyze data subjectively in one way or another. But if we as mediators can provide context for that subjectivity, then we open the doors for scholars to consider how that framework shapes their outlook. As we examine how to go about actively engaging our users, it only makes sense that we reach out to them in the digital environment. And here it is worth pointing out what most of us information professionals already know: scoffing at the challenge that the digital environment presents to information’s physicalities—whether books, archival materials, photographs, or the very infrastructure of the repository itself—is increasingly futile. To paraphrase Blouin, though the digital domain currently seems supplemental to the physical institution, we may be nearing a point where the institution will seem supplemental instead.
Taking advantage of the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies is one of the simplest and quickest ways to increase our visibility among the research community while providing more avenues for them to access information concerning the collections, books, materials, etc. that we manage. Rather than fear “career oblivion,” we need to continue to re-imagine our roles as information professionals by acting as intermediaries rather than authorities. We should hold onto the tools that govern our profession and encourage objectivity—best practices, processing manuals, descriptive standards, etc.—but we should continue to evaluate and adapt those tools to accommodate a reshaped information environment. Programming, instruction, open houses, and welcoming scholars of all stripes through internships, fellowships, and work study positions are all methods of outreach that have worked successfully for our institutions for years. Access to institutions and their holdings through online exhibits, encoded finding aids, digitization, interactive research guides, and the use of social networking tools are newer strategies that have increased access and encouraged engagement. I think we in the archives/library world are already doing a lot to embrace new opportunities offered through the digital realm; however, we should emphasize our commitment by strengthening our digital skills so that technical barriers don’t prevent us from competently managing our digital presence on our own. As we move forward, we should continue to look ahead to innovations and examine how we can utilize those tools for our own purposes. Coupling traditional tactics with a systematic approach to outreach in the digital environment should result in a dynamic professional space for us in both the physical and digital world. Doing so will inevitably contribute to bridging Blouin’s “archival divide” and perhaps help put the text back into context.
Incidentally, I think The Onion was way ahead of Kakutani with this. Next blog post, I promise—more bullet points and images, less text.
Jillian Cuellar
Processing Archivist, CPUSA records

4 thoughts on “CLIR, Kakutani, and Career Oblivion”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A fantastic post that brings up a lot of interesting ideas. As an archivist with no MLIS but 2 subject masters (and an archives certificate), I’ve thought a lot about the ‘subject knowledge’ debate. In response to this: “The value of our professional expertise lies in offering tools that aid researchers in contextualizing knowledge, not necessarily in our own authoritative knowledge of a subject” I’d have to say that, in a reference setting, when I don’t have subject knowledge it makes it harder for me to provide contextualize knowledge. That said, I’d say my goal is always to provide context, but I’m not sure that the “Mediation” function and the “Authority” function are inherently at odds with each other.
    I don’t actually know that many archivists who consider themselves as having “authoritative” knowledge, because if there’s anything working in archives teaches you it’s that knowledge is never fixed or absolute.

  2. Jillian Cuellar says:

    Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that “mediation” and “authority” are not mutually exclusive, so thanks for the chance to clarify that position! I definitely agree that a thorough subject knowledge can be of great benefit to any information professional. I would say though that an archivist without practical archival skills and experience will have a harder time providing good service (or context), and I believe that today’s practical archival skills most definitely include technology skills.

  3. Anonymous says:

    If archivists are to improve their technical skills in order to better “mediate”, then I hope researchers and scholars will do the same. We can’t assume users (of any generation) are tech savvy when it comes to the tools we develop. Getting user input during the design processwould definitely be key, IMHO.

  4. Jillian Cuellar says:

    I think user input is something that we information professionals should maybe try to focus more on as a whole. How often do we ask users for feedback on the tools we provide them with, whether that be paper based finding aids or navigating our websites? Asking for user feedback and input will only make our tools more effective.

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