Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nonlinear literacy and the dispersal of librarianship

ScienceDirect - The Journal of Academic Librarianship : Nonlinear literacy and the dispersal of librarianship (Vol 30, Issue 5, September 2004, Pages 416-419)
excerpt: I call this scattering the information objects around the digital landscape (i.e., the World Wide Web) 'information dispersal.' Borrowing a notion advanced by archeologists that enable them to piece together a broader understanding and description of an event, settlement, shipwreck, or historic site through the careful examination, organization, and inventory of items found in a specific area. The event cannot be understood by the identification of a single item or condition, but only through a careful reconstruction of how objects found might well relate to each other (if at all). Of course, the same kind of environmental scan is part and parcel of the recent popular interest in dramas that feature crime scene units and has a long tradition in the area of bibliographic instruction. But where such library techniques used to supplement the existing bibliographic structures of indexing, cataloging, and/or classification, this 'explaining, organizing, and preserving' different information objects is now the primary approach to understand, organize, and sustain a complex Web of dynamic information sources embedded in a nuanced global flow of information exchange. (John A. Shuler)
I've been thinking a recently about the significance of "context" to information. Does it make a difference, for example, if someone reads a photocopy of a journal article retrieved from the reserve desk as opposed to reading it directly from the issue of the journal in which is was published? Or, to carry the scenario further, does it make a difference if the individual makes her own photocopy to be read outside the library rather than in the physical context of the library's collection in which that particular journal is found? Certainly, retrieving a journal article online (as I did for Shuler's article) presents another twist. The reader didn't even have to go to the library to retrieve a copy of the article. Most of my reflection has been on the library user, or the reader of information that is collected by or contained in the library.

Shuler's fascinating article focuses more on the librarian, or more specifically, on the models for organizing information developed by librarians during the last 75 years. The bibliographic work of the librarian has focused not simply on assisting the information seeker to discover and retrieve information (usually a book or journal article), but to see that information in context as well. Shuler, a government documents librarian, speaks primarily about the organization of government documents. "By the early 1930s, government documents librarians began to incorporate into their traditions the idea they were not only responsible for the physical publication, but also the "public process, policy or service" the thousands of publications represented." (416) The classification system developed to organize government documents is designed to reflect that public process and to enable the information in a single document to be seen in its context.

Shuler claims "a new literacy is in town. It is 'nonlinear' and 'nonnarrative' 'reading' that chooses a form of internal organization not from an external author (or authority), but through an ad hoc assembly of persona, parts, objects, choices, and/or scenes chosen by an individual." (417)

The issue isn't whether this "new literacy" is good or bad. It is. And to assume that the same bibliographic tools we've used to organize information "linear" information may be a faulty assumption.

Shuler's article is a fascinating read and worthy of thought and discussion.