Marginalia 16: histories and futures

With the utterly predictable politics of competing US-based media companies fighting a cartoonish proxy war in Australia, it would be easy to dedicate a whole Marginalia edition to that. But frankly, it's boring, and there are just too many people being wrong on the Internet for me to shed much light or add much value. So here's some things to read about information histories and futures instead.

In December Seb Chan shared Looking backwards to go forward — words from talks in late 2020. It's a really interesting read and provides a great tour of the last few decades in museum technology. But Chan also has some observations about maintenance and deep contextual knowledge that unfortunately apply to all cultural institutions and probably plenty of other organisations.

Those with any technical knowledge or experience know that infrastructure needs continual maintenance. Maintenance is unforgiving but is a necessary byproduct of any organisational innovation. Knowing exactly how much maintenance is going to be required by a new system or process requires skilled staff with a deep understanding of what has been made and why, and its lifecycle. If those staff have been let go, outsourced, replaced, then the amount of ongoing maintenance a system needs can be vastly misrepresented and misunderstood. Maintenance needs to be operationalised, and systems always worked on and adapted.

...Capital is easier to raise from funders whilst operations are virtually impossible to secure increased funding for. It can quickly become attractive, in the short term, to seek outsourcing as way out. But once outsourcing begins, it starts an unstoppable process of skill erosion.

I too have seen this process over my career to date. In the case of libraries, it has included not just what most people think of as “technology” but even the “technical knowledge” that defines the profession of librarianship — the creation and maintenance of sophisticated metadata, ontologies, and new ways of organising and managing collections, whether physical or digital. Many days of the week it's pretty depressing, if I'm honest.

But sitting in my virtual pile of things to read or things I have read, there are some sparks of hope and intriguing possibilities for the near and far future. We can be informed by the past without wallowing in it.

Christian Lauersen wrote (also in December) about A new language for the value and impact of libraries, describing how Roskilde Public Library has used the Arts Council of England study Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experience in a Danish context. This looks like a really interesting way to both strengthen advocacy and keep track of progress towards multiple competing outcomes, which has always been a problem for libraries and especially for public libraries. I like the approach both in terms of how the reporting is done (in a visual chart that clearly shows where things may be unbalanced) and also the process of thinking through what it is that libraries do.

Another approach to solving knotty (and quite typical) challenges of advocacy and goal setting is the University of Western Ontario Library's approach to developing an Open Access statement. In 2018 Lillian Rigling, Emily Carlisle and Courtney Waugh shared the library's experience developing a “values based” statement by using Design Thinking principles. This is a really interesting article showing a very concrete real-life example of Design Thinking, and I really like how they centred the approach on the shared values of library staff rather than specific targets or techniques.

Last June, Dan Cohen shared some thoughts about “withness” in his fantastic Humane Ingenuity newsletter. I was really taken by the work of the Siempre Collective and how they though through how to work “with the grain” of our humanity when designing group communication tools. Sometimes the answer is to go “low definition” in order to achieve more connection and lower our own bandwidth.

At last year's Activity Pub Conference there was a fascinating (for lots of reasons) talk about Supporting topic-based content syndication & discovery in a federated environment. One observer cheekily observed “librarians try to re-invent the Internet every few years” and even though I doubt this work will ever be more than an interesting footnote, I really like that libraries and independent technologists are thinking about this sort of thing.

Finally, just as I was feeling quite despondent about the present and future of library technology, I sat down with a beautiful hardcopy of Logic Magazine's Care edition and read Rodrigo Ochigame's Informatics of the Oppressed. What an amazing article. Ochigame introduced me to Cuban information theory (led by Cuban librarians), something I'd never heard of before, and also to how “liberation theology” worked in practice. In the 1960s and 70s the Cubans were trying to resolve a problem that has become even more acute in the decades since:

...publication counts did not conclusively determine the “productivity” of authors, any more than declining citation counts indicated the “obsolescence” of publications... Traditional informatics was incompatible with revolutionary librarianship because, by treating historically contingent regularities as immutable laws, it tended to perpetuate existing social inequalities.

In Informatics of the oppressed we are encouraged to consider the conversations the Cubans were having and the problems they were trying to solve, and how these approaches might inform our own behaviour in relation to modern information storage, retrieval and metadata management:

Whatever the merits and limitations of this particular mathematical model, the broader story of Cuban information science encourages us to be skeptical of the claims attached to models and algorithms of information retrieval in the present. If yesterday’s information scientists claimed that their models ranked authors by “productivity” and libraries by “effectiveness,” today’s “AI experts” claim that their algorithms rank “personalized” search results by “relevance.” These claims are never innocent descriptions of how things simply are. Rather, these are interpretive, normative, politically consequential prescriptions of what information should be considered relevant or irrelevant.

And finally, a call to action:

we must develop more critical methods of information retrieval, continuing the work that the Latin American experiments left unfinished. In short, we need critical search.

We do indeed need “critical search”. And who better to help build it than critical librarians? It was just what I needed to read.