Sunday, 31 July 2011

A poem on metaphysics

    O science metaphysical
    And very very quizzical
You only make this maze of life the mazier;
    For boasting to illuminate
    Such riddles dark as Will and Fate
You muddle them to hazier and hazier.

    The cause of every action
    You expound with satisfaction;
Through the mind in all its corners and recesses
    You say that you have travelled,
    And all problems unravelled
And axioms you call your learned guesses.

    Right and wrong you've so dissected,
    And their fragments so connected,
That which we follow doesn't seem to matter;
    But the cobwebs you have wrought,
    And the silly flies they have caught,
It needs no broom miraculous to shatter.

    You know no more that I,
    What is laughter, tear, or sigh,
Or love, or hate, or anger, or compassion;
    Metaphysics, then, adieu,
    Without you I can do,
And I think you'll very soon be out of fashion.

Written in 1897 by Lady Russell, grandmother and guardian of Bertrand Russell, as quoted in Earl Russell's (Bertrand Russell's elder brother, Frank) My Life and Adventure, London: Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1923. 

Friday, 22 July 2011

A DREaM of consilience

It’s been said that intelligence is the ability to make connections: to see why one event leads to another; to see how ideas link to others; to understand the impact one’s actions have on the world and other people. Academic research is all about making connections whether in the form of combining ideas in Hegelian dialectic or discovering the correlations between discrete bits of data. On Tuesday, I attended the LIS DREaM Project (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) Launch Conference in London and discovered one of its key themes to be the idea of connections: connections between people in the form of academic collaboration and connections between subjects in the form of cross-disciplinary research and consilience.

Connections between people

Bringing people together
Connecting people and creating networks was the main purpose of the event. In her introduction, Hazel Hall explained that the DREaM Project’s aim is to build a formal UK-wide network of LIS researchers working together to improve LIS research. She used the word ‘cadre’ to describe this network of committed individuals (“professional revolutionaries”) and explained how DREaM and the LIS Research Coalition would bring this cadre together through events and online networks.

These intra-discipline connections are important but the real emphasis of the conference was on making connections outside of one’s comfort zone. In his brilliant keynote speech, Blaise Cronin defined the comfort zone of LIS research by presenting an overview of the current state of the field. One concern is the danger of ‘cookie-cutter research’: doing research for the sake of doing research. This results in unoriginal and redundant studies particularly in the United States where a condition of an academic librarian’s tenure is churning out a certain amount of research. Academic research can also be further hampered by the tendency to work exclusively with people that one is familiar with. This may seem oxymoronic (‘how could you work with someone who you aren’t familiar with?’) but Blaise framed it in terms of the Allen curve: the phenomenon whereby one is more likely to work with people to whom one is in close proximity which shows that ideological similarities, shared research interests, or intellectual compatibility are less important to likelihood of collaboration than sitting in the same office.

Collaborating with people across disciplinary boundaries is one way to escape the comfort zone as well as the ‘echo chamber’ of LIS research. A theme of the breakout sessions was building connections through cross-disciplinary collaboration. One session gave the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration – new ideas, wider dissemination, new outputs, the building of trust – while Gunilla Widén’s discussed the importance of bridging the gap between theoreticians and practitioners, in LIS and in other disciplines. Cross-disciplinary collaboration can lead to exciting, original projects like Gina Czarnecki and Sara Rankin’s Palaces project: they are an artist and scientist respectively who are building a palace out of milk-teeth to highlight the potential use of medical waste in stem cell research. Gina and Sara talked about how collaboration often starts from shared beliefs such as the two’s shared belief in stem cell research. When people discover beliefs and ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries, working together across boundaries makes sense.

Connections between subjects

Barriers to research?
This leads to the second kind of connection: connections between subjects. Exploring outside the intellectual bounds of a single discipline is as important in escaping the comfort zone as collaborating with other people. Research can be hampered by the drawing of boundaries and cultural divides between subjects. Blaise used Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of minor differences” to explain the tiny ideological differences that lead to the kind of perceived cultural chasms that C. P. Snow talked about it in The Two Cultures. Academic territoriality and what Dylan Evans called ‘serial monogamy of subject’ is a poor way to conduct research: intellectual freedom requires skirting across subject boundaries and following lines of enquiry wherever they may lead. Dr. Evans demonstrates this through his career as a ‘philosopher psychologist’ / ‘psychologist philosopher’. His career path through linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and robotics shows the importance of flirting across disciplines. He provided a wonderful example of the kind of experimental philosopher that I envisioned in my undergraduate dissertation and I’m pleased that this kind of cross-disciplinary work is being practiced.

I went to the LIS DREaM conference for several reasons: because I can’t resist a clever acronym; because I’m considering PhD research; and, most importantly, because of my interest in consilience. Both of my dissertations were meta-research investigating how research is done and both were framed around the idea of consilience. I’ve written about consilience before – here, here, and lately in this essay I wrote for the British Wittgenstein Society. Consilience is the thesis that everything is connected and that making connections across all disciplines is the best way of describing the universe. The map of all links between all subjects creates a rhizomatic web at the centre of which “the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge) Consilience is thus the ultimate form of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

At one point during the breakout sessions, Biddy Fisher said that making lateral connections is the specialist skill of librarians. We make connections, we house materials spanning subjects, we classify, we create thesauri, and we use metadata to link items. Professor Cronin provides a good example. He may be the finest example I’ve ever met of the ‘librarian as polymath’: his talk drew on an astonishing breadth of knowledge and brought out dozens of fascinating interconnections between ideas. In order to provide a support service, librarians learn a little about a lot. I believe that support services like academic libraries and digital libraries have a great role to play in making these connections and fostering consilience (for more on this Consilience-Library Theory, please see Chapter 2 of my MA dissertation). Connections – between people and subjects – are important in academic research and therefore librarians with the ability to make connections are important to academic research. Hopefully as the DREaM Project continues, these connections will continue to reveal their importance.

Everything is connected

Monday, 18 July 2011

Thing 6 - Online networks

Thing 6 is all about social networks and online networking *. Social networking and the growth of online communities are uniquely new. We are now able to connect with and regularly communicate with people from across the world in an easier way than has ever been available before.

The time is close at hand when the scattered members of civilized communities will be as closely united, so far as instant telephonic communication is concerned, as the various members of the body now are by the nervous system.
'The Future of the Telephone', Scientific American, 1880.
Whether, as broadsheet writers would have us believe, social networks like Twitter have the power to democratise the repressed or foster revolutions **, they have certainly brought about new modes of behaviour, new psychological norms, and new codes of social etiquette (netiquette). It’s particularly interesting to look at how the implied intimacy and the control features of different networks affect their use and popularity.

Google+ is a recent example of new norms in a new social network. In Google+, users group their contacts in different ‘circles’ depending on which social group the user perceives the contact belonging to: I currently have ‘Friends’, ‘Family’, and ‘Library Peeps’ ( Now the attractive thing about circles is that only the user can see his/her circles so they provide a way of organising people without the publicity of, for example, Twitter lists. The user can then control which posts or status updates are shared with which circles. This allows a level of controlled detachment (or indeed controlled intimacy) that I find quite appealing and it demonstrates something about how the intimacy of a network affects how it is used.

My experience with social networking began with Facebook (well, technically it began with MySpace but I think it’s best to ignore those years, don’t you?). Facebook is perhaps the most intimate of the ‘big wig’ online networks: profiles tend to use real names, non-avatar photos, and to input a lot of personal information. And so Facebook tends to be used for connecting with friends, voyeuristically following the lives of people I didn’t like in school, and setting up in-person events. In other words, it’s to communicate with people I know quite well.

By contrast, Twitter and LinkedIn have different levels of intimacy between contacts. I was attracted to Twitter by the new etiquette whereby one can ‘follow’ someone without that person feeling behoved to ‘follow’ one back. Twitter is less personal, more anonymous, and leads to connecting with a wider range of people without necessarily feeling any particularly close connection with those people. It allows more control over how close people get: unlike on Facebook, it requires effort to build up intimacy on Twitter. This control over one’s own connections is very appealing and perhaps contributes to the network’s popularity. It also contributes to its use as a general, profersonal communications tool. LinkedIn by design implies a certain amount of professional detachment but compared to Twitter offers less control over the amount of information a contact sees: this informs its use for employment purposes and for serious CILIP-y discussions.

So the intimacy implied in a network *** and perhaps more importantly the control that the user can exercise over this intimacy contributes massively to the use of that network and/or its popularity. If I can make an unfounded conjecture: part of the reason that LinkedIn is not as popular as other online networks is because it doesn’t offer much intimacy between contacts and promotes a professional demeanour that it’s unappealing to affect in one’s spare time.   

...and control of personal space
Control is very important psychologically: in the form of safety/security, it’s the second level from the bottom in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. I did give some thought as to whether meeting someone online offers more or less control over intimacy than meeting someone in real-life: I think the most I can say is that the two experiences are different. But I think as norms and netiquette continue to change, these will affect all our interactions with other people. Google+ seems to be a useful social network because it allows the controlled detachment (excluding people without feeling awkward) of Twitter, the employment profiling of LinkedIn, and, if you want it, the intimacy of Facebook.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
Pablo Neruda quoted in The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

* Justification: In some sense, I’m hijacking Thing 6 to write about something that I’ve been thinking about writing about anyway. A central theme is my networks, what I use them for and why. So it’s all good.

** Mini-rant: Personally I think it’s rather patronising to suggest that movements like the Arab Spring could only come about through the application of Western technology. It strikes me as an insidious form of Western imperialism.

*** Mini-discussion-point: Intimacy is also implied by language. In descending order of implied intimacy: Facebook ‘friends’, Twitter ‘followers’, LinkedIn ‘connections’.

Friday, 8 July 2011

My two year librariversary

Two years ago today, I decided to become a librarian. This milestone seems to invite a self-reflective post about what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and where I’m going in Year Three. And so, WARNING: this post offers no useful insights into anything except myself. It’s an onanistic exercise that I don’t expect will offer anything to anyone. Normal service will be resumed shortly. 

Borges' Library of Babel. My favourite short story.
  • Finished my dissertation and thereby gained my Masters degree
  • Got a Distinction in aforementioned Masters degree
  • Moved into my own flat and lived on my own for the first time
  • Survived a year in my first professional post
  • (Survived a week living on an Army base as part of my training!)
  • Took over as Acting Manager (managing a whole friggin’ library)
  • Had two articles published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free
  • Had an article published in CILIP Update
  • Became a member of Voices for the Library
  • Campaigned for North Yorkshire’s libraries (met MPs, talked at community meetings, helped out local campaign groups)
  • Did several interviews for BBC Radio
  • Presented at the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference
  • Helped to run a stall at the Hay Festival
  • Co-presented a workshop at the New Professionals Conference
  • Met dozens of awesome library folk and other tweeters

    It feels great to have accomplished so much but it’s also overwhelming. If someone had told me one year ago that I was going to do all the things listed above, I would never have believed them. In a self-congratulatory, egocentric way, I’m amazed that I’ve been able to do all those things. In particular, the campaigning, the activism, and the interacting with people (so many people!) are things that I never would have believed I could do. 

    Part of this is to do with self-definition and self-identity. It’s only since I decided to become a librarian two years ago that I’ve really put my skills to use. But my identity – the Simon I see in my head – was forged in the wilderness years of 16-22 when I came to define myself as a gawky, socially-inept, eternally-confused philosophy student who had vague dreams of making a living by writing but who otherwise had no place in a world of materialism and banality. This was a childish expression of individuality and egoism: the youthful belief that one is unique and that no-one else could possibly feel the same way about reality. Nevertheless, that is the identity that was created and that I still project onto myself today. And so, the point I’m trying laboriously to make, is that the Simon in my head – Simon the geek, Simon the philosopher, Simon the (dare I say) loser – doesn’t match the Simon who is the progenitor of the accomplishments listed above – Simon the librarian, Simon the activist, Simon the (dare I say) success. 

    So along with the sense of pride at the accomplishments of Year Two, there’s a strange cognitive dissonance whereby, on a logical level, I have evidence of what I’m capable of but on an emotional level, I don’t feel capable to have done those things. Mingled with all this, there’s the odd recurring fear that in my transition from Simon-the-loser to Simon-the-success something valuable has been lost: some indefinable quality – perhaps innocence, perhaps potential – that has been lost as I have ‘regenerated’. 

    The big eye-opener lesson of last year therefore is that I am more capable than I ever thought. What now? Where am I going and what am I doing? This kind of self-reflection is also kind of terrifying. It feels like the bar has now been set for what I can achieve and there’s a certain amount of egocentric internal pressure to either match or surpass the accomplishments of Year Two. 

    As my writing about digital libraries suggests, I’d like to find a job working with digital libraries, repositories, or electronic collection management, ideally in an academic library where my work can help academic research. I want to continue writing: about library-related stuff and it would also be nice to pick up my fiction writing which has somewhat fallen by the wayside. I want to continue my library activism: I was nervous when I first joined Voices for the Library but it’s become one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. 

    Broadly speaking, I want to continue doing what I’m doing. I love librarianship and I’m happy working at it. Immediately after that graduate trainee interview two years ago today, I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I readjusted the course of my life to do it but I never expected it to be so rewarding and so fulfilling. A profession that lets me help people, that allows me to meet inspiring people, that gives me access to amazing books and amazing technology, that gives me the opportunity to write and have people read what I write, that lets me be logical, organised, and pedantic. Who could ask for more than that?

    On to Year Three...

    Tuesday, 5 July 2011

    Thing 4 - Current awareness

    Thing 4 for CPD23 is about current awareness and particularly about a few tools to help LIS workers keep up-to-date with the voluminous happenings from across the vast hinterland of the Web. 


    I already use Twitter! I’ve used Twitter since March 2010 and loved it since about April 2010. It’s become the cornerstone of my current awareness tools and indeed my web presence / personal brand (see Thing 3). It’s the main way I communicate with other people in The Profession and, along with my email, is one of the essential things to check whenever I get on the internet. I use the Twitter client Hootsuite which provides a decent layout showing the regular timeline, your @ mentions, and any lists that you may follow. In order to keep my list of followees down to a minimum, I group people into lists: new Twitter users can also follow these lists. There’s the annoyingly generic Library-and-Info-Pros which contains anyone working in a library and information job (for use of the word ‘pro’ in this context, see Thing 1); Library-and-Info-Pros-2 is a continuation of that list since Twitter lists can only contain 500 people; and there’s Met-in-Real-Life which is a substitute for my memory. Some essential tweeters to follow are: CILIPinfo, theREALwikiman, WordShore, PhilBradley, Girlinthe, ScrewyDecimal, ijclark, walkyouhome, and of course UKpling. There are also many more and the lists Annie_Bob (another essential followee) has put together are very useful.

    A simple explanation of RSS feeds

    I already use RSS! I use Google Reader to manage my subscriptions to blogs: instead of trawling all over the Web trying to remember my favourite blogs, Reader makes it possible to skim through the latest posts in a ten-minute break at work. You can see every item that I’ve ‘shared’ here: it’s usually library or technology related stuff or occasional comics about Batman. Reader also makes it possible to ‘follow’ me so you automatically pick up anything I share and I can see anything you share: some of the best stuff I read on Reader comes from the delightful Adrienne Cooper who is a prolific sharer.


    Prior to Thing 4, I had never heard of nor used Pushnote. I used to use StumbleUpon which I think is a similar website recommendation engine but I had to turn off the toolbar since it became too great a temptation to press the Stumble button and zoom around the Web like I'd engaged the Infinite Improbability Drive. Pushnote uses star rankings and comments: people you know can rank websites and share them. I've never been a fan of arbitrary ranking systems - value is subjective and qualitative - but Tim Berners-Lee is a proponent of 'ranking the Web'. I'm having a go at using Pushnote and seeing what other tweeters and CPD23 people suggest. If it becomes as big a distraction as StumbleUpon became, it will have done its job.