One Truth, Data Space, and The Limits of Organization (RA 1/2; 1/3)

Last week I posted about research agendas. And a few days before that I posted about reading Bill Viola‘s Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space. And in the following seminar I realized that since grad school I have rarely talked with anyone about my core area of academic interest around libraries.

I say “core area of academic interest” because I’m hard pressed to choose if I prefer this topic over the practical issues associated with libraries, the pedagogical issues of instruction, or the strategic approaches to helping libraries be what they need to be. But, at the end of the day, the one that I’d likely lose myself in is the “academic” one.

So, for my own record I’m going to spend a few posts outlining that area here. In part to help me wrap my head around it. In part to see if any of you share a similar interest. And in part to help me tease out if there are any research projects that should accompany this interest. And, then, if it comes up again in any other conversations, I have a place to point to and the beginning of a discussion in place.

The Grad School Interest

My particular lens on this interest has shifted, but to make sense of it, I’m going to start that the beginning: the interest that was the driving force through grad school. And that is a bit muddy as it stood.

A large part of my interest in graduate school was centered around how the role of people in the discover, creation, and organization changed what it’s possible for the researcher to know. I was actually interested in this in college, and talked with a few professors about what type of PhD would allow exploration of this idea, but everyone said it was too hard to pin down a subject like this (now I realize they might have meant too interdisciplinary).

So, in library school, I took the library school angle. I looked at how the structure we impose on knowledge (Library of Congress, in most academic libraries for example) create the false impression that there is one true way to look at things.

The case study I explored most closely was how feminist science is often shelved with works related to women’s studies, which is no where near the science books in LC classification. Therefore, a science researcher browsing the shelves won’t serendipitously happen upon a feminist critique, and the feminists won’t necessarily see the science books that might include a discussion of feminist approaches amongst others.

Now, obviously, we needed a linear, hierarchical system when we only had paper books and linear shelves to place them on. The catalog changed that a bit, allowing books to be linked by subject headings rather than call number alone, so that it was possible to come across book in other sections that still discussed a topic enough to warrant a subject heading, so that was an improvement. And online catalogs made it still easier to find books formally classified in another section that were still pertinent to one’s primary interest.

Today’s catalogs often search more metadata, sometimes pulling in information from other systems. Amazon and Google Books allow you to search the full text of a book. Summon and Google Scholar allow the full text of books as well as articles to be searched. The problem today is not missing relevant information due to the limitations of searching, but rather the overwhelming amount of information you’ll have to filter through to find the most relevant information for your interest.

Over time I let this interest wane, in part because the writing is on the wall that we’ll have better and better search mechanisms in the online world that will make these former limitations seem as quaint as horse drawn carriages seem today.

Perhaps the more interesting thing to look at today is how one deals with the information they find. Once I realized I could access articles electronically, I went through a phase where I’d spend a lot of time finding and downloading articles, then I’d print a huge number of them. Today I don’t print them, and I only download them after I’ve read through the abstract, etc, but my organization is not what I want it to be. And I haven’t figured out the best way to incorporate them into my research process (often reverting back to printing once I get down to work).

Because once you’ve found the information and have it in your office, home, or on your computer, then the question is how do you find it again? What limitations are part of each of our own systems that make it easier or harder to find just what we need?

I’m going to roughly categorize this line of thinking into two phases (this is part one) and in this phase, there will be three sections (this is section one). Part one section two up next!

2 thoughts on “One Truth, Data Space, and The Limits of Organization (RA 1/2; 1/3)

  1. I’m looking forward to the rest of this exploration. I didn’t enter graduate school with a well-defined interest area, and as a newer librarian I’m still working on mine. Your discussion on what to do with the information you find and how to retrieve it is intriguing, and something I struggle with too. I recently read “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson ( and he talked about the importance of building a deep personal library of ideas/research to foster the formation of serendipitous connections. He mentioned a program he used called Devonthink which works on a semantic ontology to link ideas in all the scraps of information he inputs. I would hope that programs like this grow, develop and become available to the masses. It will be interesting to see how the proliferation of information in our current society impacts innovation in the future. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

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