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In a recent tweet, Professor David Lankes asked a seemingly easy question:

Lankes-whatisinformation

And he got quite a few responses:

lankes-whatisinformation-responses

There are quite a few more responses, but you get the drift: librarians don’t have a common definition of information in practice. Which is weird, given the primacy of information in librarianship. But, it’s entirely understandable. ‘Information’ is a tricky word and the responses to Lankes’s tweet further underscore that librarians mean all sorts of mutually exclusive (sometimes even contradictory) things about information. But, I don’t think it has to be that way and I’d like to recommend Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780199551378) as essential reading for librarians interested in the concept of information (for a much abbreviated version, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Semantic Conceptions of Information“).

The semantic conception of information

Luciano Floridi is sort of the architect of the philosophy of information and his Information: A Very Short Introduction is a great starting point for librarians interested in an account of information that coheres with the information types and processes we deal in. This rather slim, pocket-sized book is accessible to information novices, though the implications of Floridi’s semantic approach to information are relevant to library professionals at any level. Building off of an entry in the SEPInformation provides a “map of the main senses in which one may speak of information” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 discusses the nature of our current “information revolution”, defined as a “process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe” sparked by information and communication technologies (p. 12). And though Floridi isn’t naively idealistic like the more popular information technology pundits (e.g., Kurzweil, Shirky, Vinge, etc.), the chapter is still a bit of a diversion from the meat of the book: mapping the meaning of information. Chapter 2 is where you’ll find the conceptual heart of the text, and though it addresses several core concepts in information theory, I’ll just cut to the chase: here’s the general definition of information (GDI), presented on page 21:

σ is an instance of information, understood as semantic content, if and only if:

(GDI.1) σ consists of n data, for n ≥ 1;
(GDI.2) the data are well-formed;
(GDI.3) the well-formed data are meaningful.

Put another way,

Information is well-formed, meaningful data.

That information is a species of data is generally uncontroversial, though it’s helpful to adopt a coherent definition of data and Floridi provides a diaphoric definition of data: a datum is a difference or lack of conformity within some context (p. 23). You’ll probably note that this is a variation on Mackay’s (1969) “distinction that makes a difference” or Bateson’s (1972) “difference which makes a difference.” Really, though, it’s the ideas of well-formedness and meaningfulness that set GDI apart from the more technical conceptions common in electrical engineering. Floridi explains that to say that data is well-formed is just to say that “the data are rightly put together, according to the rules (syntax) that govern the chosen system, code or language being used” (pp. 20-21). And meaningfulness entails that “the data must comply with the meanings (semantics) of the chosen system, code or language in question” (p. 21), keeping in mind that semantic information is not necessarily linguistic (e.g., images can be meaningful). In fact, Floridi points out that GDI entails that “the actual formatmedium and language in which data, and hence information, are encoded is often irrelevant and disregardable” (p. 25). This result should be of particular interest to librarians, especially given the increasingly complicated and competitive world of information resources in our purview.

The remainder of Chapter 2 analyzes several key concepts and distinctions including analogue and digital data, binary data, and the various types of data and information that fit GDI. The latter discussion should be especially enlightening for librarians. You see, data come in a few varieties: primary data, secondary data, metadata, operational data, and derivative data. Primary data are “the principle data stored in a database” or document (p. 30). Secondary data are “the converse of primary data, constituted by their absence” (p. 30). Metadata are “indications about some other (usually primary) data” (p. 31). Operational data are “data regarding the operations of the whole data system” (p. 31). And derivative data are “data that can be extracted from some other data” through inference, deduction, or similar means (p. 31). It follows that we can describe semantic information in much the same way: primary information, secondary information, and so on. I highly recommend that we librarians pay close attention to these distinctions and, in particular, the distinction between primary data and secondary (and derivative) data can help make sense of the crucial distinction between something being information and something being informative. For example, in a series of blog comments on 3D printing (Hugh Rundle vs. David Lankes), the question was raised as to whether the plastic doodads created on a Makerbot are information and, if so, whether 3D printing is relevant to libraries. It should be clear that the 3D printed objects are not themselves primary information, though they do transmit secondary or derivative information. Whether libraries should be tasked with stewardship of all forms of information, or whether they should limit their domain to, say, primary data and metadata, is an open question and a clear professional dividing line.

“deciphering kryptos” by Luciano Bello on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The rest of the book

Whew! That’s a lot of theory. But the book keeps on trucking. Chapter 3 discusses non-semantic conceptions of information by way of discussing Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (which, by the way, is probably the most important paper in the history of information theory and shame on you if you haven’t read it!). Chapter 4 discusses various constraints and affordances of semantic information. Floridi raises the important question of whether semantic information is necessarily true, discusses degrees of informativeness, Hintikka’s (1973) “scandal of deduction”, and the Bar-Hillel-Carnap Paradox (1953). Whether information is necessarily true is a particularly interesting concern for librarians interested in information literacy, where evaluation plays a prominent role. Likewise, defining semantic information as well-formed, meaningful, and true data can help to make sense of misinformation and disinformation. Chapters 5-7 address physical, biological, and economic information as notable subsets of semantic information. Chapter 8 concludes the text with an overview of the ethics of information and, in a short epilogue, Floridi seems to advocate for treating information ethics as a form of “holistic environmentalism” (p. 119).

Though ostensibly a book about information in general, Information is really an argument for the relevance of the concept of semantic information. Floridi’s overarching division between semantic and non-semantic (i.e., Shannon) information is best laid out by analogy:

[T]he difference between information in Shannon’s sense and semantic information is comparable to the difference between a Newtonian description of the physical laws describing the dynamics of a tennis game and the description of the same game as a Wimbledon final by a commentator.  (p. 48)

Hey Newton, explain THIS!

Picking the “right” information

So, there are a lot of competing definitions of ‘information’ out there. Yet, as Losee (1997) explains, “most definitions of information refer only to the subset of information as studied in that particular discipline” (p. 254). So, what a librarian means by information and what an electrical engineer means by information are usually very different things. And both are quite different from the necessarily imprecise colloquial use of information. But, there’s nothing wrong with polysemy. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with imprecision in ordinary language: we have meaningful conversations about information all of the time and we don’t act like nit-picky trolls or pedantic jerks about it. Pieter Adriaans (2012) offers a helpful analogy:

The situation that seems to emerge [with the concept of information] is not unlike the concept of energy: there are various formal sub-theories about energy (kinetic, potential, electrical, chemical, nuclear) with well-defined transformations between them. Apart from that, the term ‘energy’ is used loosely in colloquial speech.

Anyway, what we need is a conception of information that addresses the types of information and information processes most relevant to the practice of librarianship. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of “what is librarianship”, so let’s just consider the normal information types to be documents  in the functional sense (à la Paul Otlet or Suzanne Briet)  and normal information processes to involve things like archiving, organizing, accessing, and preserving said documents, keeping in mind that documents are not necessarily physical and not necessarily linguistic. Broadly, a document is “any material basis for extending our knowledge” (Schurmeyer, 1935, quoted in Buckland, 1997). For more on functional documentation, see Michael Buckland’s 1997 “What is a ‘document’?”

Picking the “right” information for library science means picking a conception of information that comports with documents and related processes. This entails that we need a conception that is concerned with meaningfulness and with knowledge (cf. Schurmeyer). Non-semantic approaches like Shannon’s are useful for engineers and computer scientists, but they are inapplicable for library science insofar as they are concerned with signal transfer and computability, rather than meaningfulness. Basically, if things like documents, learning, knowledge, or meaningfulness are relevant to libraries and librarians, we need a conception of information that addresses meaning…and that’s the semantic conception. Thus, as an outline of semantic information, Floridi’s book is an essential reading in the philosophy of LIS and I urge you to pick up a copy. [And just as a reminder, you can read an abbreviated version of Floridi’s book in the SEP: Semantic Conceptions of Information]

bu quinn.anya on FlickrCC BY NC-SA

bu quinn.anya on Flickr
CC BY NC-SA

Stuff I cited

Adriaans, Pieter. “Information.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012).  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information/

Bar-Hillel, Yehoshua and Rudolf Carnap. “Semantic Information.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4 (1953): 147-157. [Link to JSTOR]

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Buckland, Michael. “What is a ‘Document’?” The Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48 (1997): 804-809. [Link to preprint]

Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hintikka, Jaako. Logic, Language Games and Information. Kantian Themes in the Philosophy of Logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Losee, Robert M. “A Discipline Independent Definition of Information.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (1997): 254-69. [Link to HTML on author’s website]

MacKay, Donald M. Information, Mechanism and Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

Shannon, Claude. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-656. [Link to PDF]

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The Enlightenment Room, British Museum (By Flickr user mendhak CC BY-SA)

About a month ago, I read an interesting post by Andy Woodworth wherein he argued that even though we have an obligation to provide access to the “junk food literature” our patrons demand, “that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices.” As you can imagine, more orthodox librarians in the comments jumped all over the suggestion, calling it elitist, snobbish, and condescending. After all, they argued, tastes are subjective, so all books are equally valuable, and it’s elitist and authoritarian to suggest otherwise…librarians should always remain passive, neutral providers. This line of thinking is as stupid as it is cynical, but it’s emblematic of the tension in librarianship between  those who view libraries as passive information and entertainment sources and those who want libraries to take on more responsibility for educating their communities. I mention this debate because I think it provides a helpful framework for understanding the value of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s new book Libraries and The Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012) which makes the case that, far from being neutral providers of information, libraries are “agencies of education and enlightenment” (p. 133) that embody the best of Enlightenment-era ideals.

Sapere Aude!

At its heart, this book is an intellectual history of the modern library. Bivens-Tatum begins with a brief survey (and adequate defense) of the Enlightenment era (Chapter 1) which he characterizes as being distinguished by “the emergence of a coherent set of values centering on human reason and freedom” (p. xi). The former of these values form the philosophical side of Enlightenment, characterized by the free use of reason and scientific inquiry in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The latter value forms the political side of Enlightenment and is the wellspring of democratic principles such as “individual liberty, equal rights, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to education and political participation” (p. 23). Subsequent chapters trace the influence of the philosophical Enlightenment on the rise of the academic library Enlightenment (Chapter 2) and the influence of the political Enlightenment on the public library (Chapter 3).

In discussing the rise of the academic library, Bivens-Tatum presents a well-researched historical overview that traces the concept of intellectual freedom from Kant’s 1798 Conflict of the Faculties, through the German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling, and Schleiermacher), and into Wilhelm von Humboldt’s sweeping education reforms, which form the basis of the modern research university. Academic libraries,  being “dependent on their parent institutions for their form and motivation” (p. 83), followed suit as necessary adjuncts. Public libraries, on the other hand, are presented in light of the political values of Enlightenment (i.e., equality, education, and other democratic ideals) to the extent that “the belief in the ability of individuals to improve themselves through self-education persists through the history of public libraries” (p. 99). Democracy requires an educated and informed citizenry, so libraries were built to educate and inform.

The remainder of the book focuses on the concept of the Universal Library as a larger, unrealized Enlightenment goal that is still with us today. The idea is of a library “for everyone in the world to be able to find and access every human document or form of information ever created from any place” (p. 141) and Bivens-Tatum traces this pursuit from Alexandria through Naudé , Diderot, and Bush, and on to Google and Wikipedia. Bivens-Tatum ends with an exhortation to librarians to look back at the philosophical foundations of the modern library and embrace the educational mission of libraries.


By Flickr user amodiovalerioverde

Why Enlightenment matters

I introduced this review with the issue of whether librarians should act as neutral information providers or as active educators and I think Bivens-Tatum’s book presents a compelling argument for the latter. As he explains (quite eloquently):

It should be clear from the brief history presented here that public libraries began as instruments of enlightenment, hoping to spread knowledge and culture broadly to the people…[but] the course of the twentieth century proved that no matter how high the purpose or grand the rhetoric of the public library movement, people just did not use public libraries en masse, and those that did use public libraries were primarily interested in entertainment. As a result, public libraries shifted from instruments of enlightenment to information and entertainment centers, and librarians shifted from purveyors of education to neutral providers of that information and entertainment. Instead of enlightenment and education, the goal eventually became to get as many people using libraries as possible, regardless of whether that use had anything to do with the traditional purposes of the public library.” (p. 133

If libraries are to survive the 21st century, we have to decide what role we play in our communities. Are we going to be providers or educators? Providers focus on satisfying patron demands; educators focus on satisfying patron needs. Providers measure gate-counts; educators measure community impact. Providers want patrons to read; educators want them to read well. What Bivens-Tatum offers is a reminder that libraries aren’t just there to satisfy their communities…they are there to improve them, to educate them, to enlighten them.

By Flickr user andyi

Summing up

Overall, this is a wonderful survey of the intellectual history of the modern library with very little to criticize. I could nitpick Bivens-Tatum’s interpretation of Kant, but it wouldn’t change the general thrust of his argument. Likewise I could point out the glaring omission of Hume, Reid, Hutcheson, and other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a movement equally as influential on university reform as German Idealism, yet more truly a part of the Enlightenment. But, this isn’t a commonplace book, so Bivens-Tatum isn’t obligated to cover every 18th century philosopher. In fact, the only substantive criticism I’ll offer is that the book isn’t really about libraries and the Enlightenment, per se. Rather, it’s about the 19th century interpretation of Enlightenment values during the Romantic era (in the case of academic libraries) and again during the second Industrial Revolution and into the Progressive era (in the case of public libraries). Basically, Bivens-Tatum hasn’t shown the influence of the Enlightenment itself on libraries as much as he’s shown the influence of certain post-Enlightenment movements. Yes, the Enlightenment influenced the modern library, but only by way of other philosophical and political movements, and it would have been nice to see the relationships made clearer. But, these are minor concerns that aren’t meant to detract from the value of Libraries and the Enlightenment. There are several recent books out there urging libraries to transform, and many include the call to educate or improve our communities. What Bivens-Tatum has provided is the context by which we can understand what it means fora library to educate in the first place.

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles: Library Juice Press. 2012. ISBN: 978-1-936117-42-0

$25.00 through Library Juice Press

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If David Weinberger is to be believed, the Internet hasn’t just changed how we access information, it has altered the very meaning of ‘knowledge’. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Weinberger claims that “for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument.” Supposedly, the networked, collaborative, and social nature of the Internet has changed our very understanding of knowledge to the point that knowledge is no longer tied to concepts of truth, objectivity, or certainty. Instead, as Weinberger argues in his recent book, Too Big to Know, “knowledge is a property of the network” (p. xiii). That is, the Internet has profoundly changed what it means to be a fact, to be true, or to be known. This book has been making the rounds among librarians, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain Weinberger’s argument and what librarians should–and should not–take away from it.

(more…)

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Image by naturalkinds
My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they
haven’t disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qual-
ities for me to use.
(Allen Ginsberg)
A few weeks ago, a philosophy of librarianship thing started going around [link] [link] [link] [link]. I started to write out my own philosophy of librarianship statement, but (1) I was distracted by a massive collection review project, (2) I had to finish a book chapter, and (3) I can’t write a succinct philosophy of librarianship statement. I found myself double-checking everything and running down far too many rabbit holes. So, in lieu of a philosophy of librarianship, I’d like to recommend what I feel is (despite its flaws) the most powerful recent statement of library philosophy: Charles Osburn’s The Social Transcript (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009).


My books piled up before me for my use
I’ve only seen a handful of previous reviews of Osburn’s book. Wayne Bivens-Tatum correctly notes that Osburn’s treatise is about “why the library exists rather than how it functions” and that “[w]hat Osburn tries to do…is uncover the larger philosophy governing libraries and their role in our culture so that we may see more clearly.” (p. 584). This really is a book about libraries as socio-cultural linchpins. And, as Mike Matthews has described it, Osburn avoids the common pitfalls of library philosophy “by emphasizing the study of the library as an object, rather than trying to articulate a library philosophy from a strictly subjective (i.e., librarian’s) point of view” (p. 90). This is not a “how-to” book heavy on praxis. This is a book written from the proverbial Archimedean standpoint, on the outside, looking in.

Both Bivens-Tatum and Matthews criticize Osburn’s overwrought prose and excessive use of direct quotations (something Osburn even admits, p. xii). And I agree: Osburn quotes from so many wildly varied sources that his argument is, more often than not, obscured by other voices. It’s excessive to the point that he veers dangerously close to plagiarism at points.* Still, the overarching message is powerful and instructive, regardless of whose message it really is.

Waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t disappeared
I’m going to try to reconstruct Osburn’s thesis and argument as best I can, though I may be taking some liberties for the sake of not-wanting-to-make-you-have-to-read-a-5000-damned-word-review.

The library, Osburn argues, is not so much a place, but a sociocultural function. From the Peripatetics of Alexandria through the monastic era and down to today, the library qua place has changed hands repeatedly, and each time with different political and social intent. Yet, the common thread that has carried the library through more than 2,000 years of Western society has been its function as the means by which we preserve the “social transcript”. As he writes, “the organization, differentiation, and integration of extant knowledge for use by humanity, now and in the future, constitute the abbreviated single function of the library” (p. 241).

Drawing on sociology, political science, education, evolutionary theory, and more, Osburn argues that history writ large is the story of cultural progress mediated by continued access to the cultural record. Humanity advances through millennia only by virtue of shared memories, values, imaginative creations, and intellectual achievements. Collectively, these shared artifacts form a “social transcript”, a means of preserving and transmitting our beliefs through time. Osburn defines the social transcript as “both oral and written communications that are passed on to subsequent generations as knowledge of many kinds, and therefore to be critiqued, accepted, rejected, or even ignored for the time being” (p. 134). Even more succinctly, Osburn offers this: “the social transcript can be considered culture in transit” (p. 135).

Osburn writes, “none of this is mysterious when placed in the context of the library as function, as a cultural technology. That function is stewardship of the social transcript” (p. 258). And I think I agree with him. Rather than start with librarianship, as most grand theories seem to do, it seems more fitting to start with the library itself. Librarianship thus exists as a response to the deeply ingrained cultural technology of “the library”, and not the other way around. By situating the library in society, Osburn provides the necessary starting point for understanding how librarians, library science, and librarianship should proceed as cultural stewards.

Time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use
Of course, Osburn’s book is far from perfect. As mentioned above, the excessive number of citations are incredibly distracting and are often of only marginal relevance. Further, Osburn is frequently inconsistent insofar as he presents a lengthy discussion of the social utility of aesthetic works (books, poetry, plays, etc.), yet reverts back to describing cultural progress strictly in terms of the transmission of knowledge. When it comes time to actually define the social transcript and its role in cultural progress, aesthetic considerations seem to take a backseat.

Finally, and most damningly, Osburn completely ignores the impact of the Internet on the social transcript. I’m no Twopointopian by any means, but to ignore the effects of digital communication and storage seems extraordinarily negligent…especially for a book published in 2009. I can already hear the digital desperadoes proudly retort that the digital world in general (and social media in particular) allows us to act as our own cultural stewards, obviating the need for libraries. “Who needs libraries when there’s Google?” There are plenty of good responses; I’m sure you can name a dozen off the top of your head. But, for Osburn to set the library up as a cultural steward, and then ignore the Internet’s challenge to the cultural record, is evidence of an incredible oversight. If anything, digital media are the largest challenges to social transcript theory, and Osburn has nothing to say. As far as his version of social transcript theory is concerned, books are the end of the line.

I’d like to explore social transcript theory further, because I think that the theory can, in fact, answer the tension between libraries and the Internet. In the next post, I’ll try to explain why social transcript theory offers a better alternative to other popular theories. I really do think that Osburn has the right idea, and I encourage you to get a copy of The Social Transcript, with the one caveat that, for all of the book’s research and erudition, the argument is, ultimately, left incomplete. But, that’s not such a bad thing. At least it gives us something to do.

Essential Readings in the Philosophy of Library and Information Science

  • Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 11, Issue 1, January 2011: 584-585.
  • Matthews, Mike. “The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy (Review).” Reference & User Services Quarterly, Vol. 50, Issue 1, Fall 2010: 90-91.
  • Osburn, Charles. The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009.

Image by nedcc, on Flickr

 * Yes, plagiarism is a serious charge to level at someone. But, for example, Osburn writes

Sponsorship of the library has changed hands frequently throughout history, moving from the nobility, the priesthood, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. Concurrently, however, the library increased dramatically in size, geographic ubiquity, and complexity; created for it was a body of rules and procedures as it evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly extended its clientele base. And through all that, as Jesse Shera points out (1973, p. 94), the library did not change its basic mission, “which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records”… (Osburn, p. 18-19)

Compare to Shera (1973):

The sponsorship of the library, then, has throughout history and during varying periods of time, been assumed by the nobility, the priesthoods, private benefactors, voluntary associations, business and industrial enterprise, and a variety of governmental agencies represented in the public sector. The library has increased dramatically in size and complexity, created a body of more or less standardized rules and procedures, evolved new patterns for its administrative control, and constantly widened its clientele, while not changing its basic mission, which is to maximize the social utility of graphic records for benefit of the individual and, through the individual, of society. 

I’m going to assume that this is just a case of sloppy scholarship, but it rides a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable use and it’s hardly an isolated incident. Here’s hoping the second edition is more accurate in its source attribution. 

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Courtesy of Duluth Public Library

So far as I am aware, librarianship is really in a critical condition…the profession itself is now unsure of what its functions are and unsure also of just how to go about performing whatever functions are assigned to it or that it adopts. This state of affairs seems to me to be entirely understandable in the light of certain developments that affect not merely the profession but our society as a whole (p. 295)

It’s a busy day at work so I’ll keep this brief…

As one of the core, foundational texts in the philosophy of librarianship, Abraham Kaplan’s “The Age of the Symbol” is a testament to the importance of appreciating the philosophical foundations of librarianship. Moreover, his discussion of the myriad problems facing librarianship are eerily prescient…new technologies, an explosion of information, external socio-political pressures…the same things you’ll see in the current literature. And how does Kaplan propose we respond to the challenges facing librarianship? Well, I’m not much for spoilers, so you’ll have to read the article yourself.

However, I will point out that Kaplan advocates a particular approach to library science. First, he argues that librarianship is a humanist enterprise. Second, he makes the case that librarianship is more akin to the “metasciences” of logic, mathematics, linguistics, and information science (p. 301) than to social or hard sciences. Given that most librarians believe that library science is a social science and most library research takes its cue from sociological research methods, the second point should raise some eyebrows, but I think he is spot-on. Library science is not a social science like sociology, anthropology, or political science. Neither is it a hard science like physics, chemistry, or biology. Library science is

not about subject matters provided by man and nature, but about subject matters provided fundamentally by our ideas about man and nature, or by our language, or by our ways of transmitting and processing the information that we have derived, and so on. (p. 301)

And later, he elaborates that library science

has thrust upon it, as its appropriate domain, the whole of knowledge, the whole of culture; nothing is supposed to be  foreign to us, and we ought to be prepared under suitable circumstances to be helpful with regard to any and every area of human concern. [W]e cannot even begin to occupy ourselves with the substance and content of this endless domain, but only with its form, with its structure, with its order, with the interrelations of the various parts. (p. 304)

I like this approach and I probably agree with Kaplan more than I disagree. If anything, placing library science in the meta-scientific realm places it at a more foundational level than the profession may realize. Hopefully I can return to Kaplan’s arguments in a future post.

Essential Reading in the Philosophy of Library and Information Science

Kaplan, A. (1964). The age of the symbol–a philosophy of library education. Library Quarterly, 34(4), 295-304.

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“Knowledge”, courtesy of Halans. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[An aide to President George W. Bush] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (Ron Suskind, 2004)

Social constructionism, constructivism, post-structuralism, standpoint epistemology, deconstructionism….ever heard of these? Chance are, if you’ve taken a look at some of the recent literature in the philosophical aspects of librarianship, you’ve come across these and/or similar theories. Variously lumped together under the aegis of postmodernism, these theories are distinct, yet they are united through a common belief that we have no epistemic access to a mind-independent reality. Some of these theories go even further and claim not only that we can’t know anything about the world outside of ourselves, but that there isn’t even an objective, mind-independent reality at all—reality is subjective. In effect, these theories advocate various forms of relativism. I’ve criticized this type of relativistic thinking in previous posts, but perhaps it’s time to clarify. Specifically, I want to explain why relativism, in all of its forms, is harmful to librarianship. This type of thinking is self-refuting, it impedes learning, it disenfranchises those who most need our help, it obstructs social progress, and it erodes the value of libraries in society.

Constructionism
The dominant form of relativistic theory in librarianship is constructionism. Generally speaking, constructionism is the theory that our concepts and beliefs about the world are constructed rather than discovered. Constructionist theories deny that the external, mind-independent world (if there is one) is the source of our claims to knowledge. Everything we think about the world around us is the product of some sort of constructive process. However, there are a few forms of constructionism, and I don’t want to mix them up. You see, the first big question for constructionists is “who is doing all of this construction”? We can make a neat division between social constructionists and constructivists.


Social constructionists believe that societies, institutions, or other social groups are the determining factor in how we construct our world-views. On this account, knowledge, information, and truth are determined by large-scale social negotiations and conventions. So, for example, the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true only in virtue of the fact that the scientific community has agreed that it is true. There is no external fact of the matter about electrons, there are only contingent social agreements.

On the other hand, constructivists believe that individuals, alone or in small groups, are the ones constructing knowledge, truth, and information. So, you accept the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true because you have chosen to agree that it is true (either agree with someone else, or agree with yourself). Your belief is constructed by conversation, communication, or some other discourse and it is entirely contingent on what you agree that reality is like. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”

In both cases, knowledge is constructed, rather than discovered, and an objective reality (if there is one) has no causal effect on what we believe to be true about the world. It is a separate question whether there even is an objective reality at all. As presented above, constructionist theories are committed to the view that our claims to knowledge are based in contingent, social or interpersonal agreements. But, some constructionists go even further and make the claim that reality, itself, is constructed. The idea is that there is not a mind-independent world “out there” at all. The distinction I want to make is between constructionism about our beliefs and knowledge and constructionism about reality and fact. Fact-constructionism implies knowledge-constructionism, but not necessarily the other way around.

Fact-constructionism describes those theories that hold that truth is a relative concept. This shows up quite often in conversation, for example, when you hear phrases like “that’s true for you”. The general idea is that there are no objective facts in the world and all truth-claims are relative to a particular culture, individual, historical period, or other source of subjectivity. It follows that the objects we talk about in the world (and the facts corresponding to them) are subjective constructs. To take an overused example, truth relativism requires us to accept that the geocentric model of the Solar System (with Earth at the center) was (or still is) true for many cultures, and the heliocentric model of the Solar System is true for other cultures. Because of this difference between the facts that different cultures (or individuals) accept, there is no independent fact of the matter. The truth of how the Solar System is arranged depends on your outlook.


Knowledge constructionism admits that there may in fact be an objective, mind-independent reality, but that there is no privileged way of accessing that reality. In effect, there are many competing yet equally valid forms of rationality. There is more than one “way of knowing”. So, Western science is just one of many epistemic systems, though there are others out there. For example, the Ptolemaic view of a geocentric universe was founded in an epistemic system based in scriptural authority. The Copernican heliocentric system was founded on the epistemic value of empirical evidence and a rudimentary scientific method. In deciding between scriptural authority and empirical evidence, proponents of epistemic relativism suggest that each is an acceptable means of describing the world, and neither is necessarily better than the other.

(I admit to painting in fairly broad brush-strokes here, but I think these are charitable interpretations of constructionist theory. If any constructivists or social constructionists would like to correct my descriptions, I’d be happy to include revisions.)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Why believe in constructionism?
Why is constructionist thinking popular among? I think Paul Boghossian is on the right track when he writes,

Ideologically, the appeal of the doctrine of equal validity [that all claims to knowledge are equally valid] cannot be detached from its emergence in the post-colonial era. Advocates of colonial expansion often sought to justify their projects by the claim that colonized subjects stood to gain much from the superior science and culture of the West. In a moral climate which has turned its back decisively on colonialism, it is appealing to many to say not only–what is true–that one cannot morally justify subjugating a sovereign people in the name of spreading knowledge, but that there is no such thing as superior knowledge only different knowledges, each appropriate to its particular setting (2006, pp. 5-6)

To post-colonialism, I might add that the history of oppression in the name of absolute knowledge also includes the subjugation of women, minorities, non-heterosexuals, and lower economic classes. Absolutist, objective facts are routinely pointed to as a means of disenfranchisement and maintaining power. So-called “scientific” theories about racial intelligencewomen’s ability to think rationally, or that homosexuality is a mental disorder are often held up as evidence that objective thinking has routinely lead to oppression. Since these theories have since been abandoned, so the argument goes, it must be the case that the scientific worldview doesn’t get things right, and therefore there is no “superior knowledge only different knowledges.”

Constructionist theorists often describe their positions as liberatory or empowering, and they portray themselves as a counter to the positivist, conservative, fundamentalist, oppressive, authoritarian theories that adopt an objective stance towards reality. Positivism, in particular, is often held up as the scapegoat for what ails society and constructionism is the only alternative. Is it any wonder that many librarians would want to gravitate towards “anti-positivist” theories?

Libraries and social constructionism
Libraries are at a watershed moment. The past two decades have seen a technological and informational revolution not seen since the so-called Gutenberg Revolution. The democratizing effect of the internet has found librarians shying away from their old roles as the archivists and arbiters of knowledge and the rise of social media has found us celebrating the participatory culture. Indeed, the new information landscape is so democratic, so participatory, and so complex, that it has lead librarians to reconsider the very meanings of the terms “true” and “knowledge”. How can there be a single, objective fact-of-the-matter to which libraries are somehow privileged, when the participatory internet seems to accept all claims to knowledge?

I think the fear is that if we adopt objective, realist theories of truth or knowledge, then we will be situating the library above the flow of information on the internet, thereby distancing ourselves from the information-seekers we depend upon. If librarians cling steadfast to objectivity and realism, we will be casting ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner of information, thereby standing in the way of a free and open information exchange. Here’s a sampling of this fear in the literature:

Without this suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political. (Labaree and Scimeca, p. 63)

Cultural diversity and recruitment practices within academic libraries are currently limited by the profession’s dominant worldview. Moreover, unmodified Enlightenment worldview values of rationalism and individualism necessarily condition the profession’s overall understanding of diversity and fairness. (Weissinger, p. 37)

By scientizing itself, LIS may be attempting to intimate a relationship with the so-called “hard” sciences. From a critical theorist’s perspective, this suggests that the claim to legitimacy by  service is being replaced by a claim of legitimacy that is inherited by relying on empirical method: an appeal to the a priori truth and universal application of  the methods. Moreover, social and linguistic distances are increased between user and LIS because reliance on technical performance to imply responsibility removes LIS from the role of a responsible agent. (Benoit, p. 463)

When one discourse takes up a dominant position in relation to others it potentially means that marginalized groups within, for example, an organization are forced to use tools that have been created to further the interests of other more “powerful” groups. (Sundin and Johannisson, p. 35)

The modern library experience for both librarian and user is structured by the values of order, control, and suppression…Such an experience is ultimately grounded in a positivist epistemology which renders the library an emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place. (Radford, 1998, p. 621) 

The recurring theme is that objective, fact-oriented approaches to knowledge are destined to lead to alienation and disenfranchisement. Information will be suppressed, collections will be decimated, cultural diversity in the workplace will suffer, LIS practitioners will abdicate themselves of responsibility, the powerful will continue their oppression, and the library will become an “emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place.” With this sort of characterization of realism in the literature, is it any wonder that librarians are attracted to constructionist theories? I’ll answer these criticisms of realism in the next post, but for now I’d like to turn my attention to the problems of constructionist thinking.

Where it all breaks down
What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer. Let me explain.

(1) Fact-Constructionism is self-refuting.
Let’s assume that fact-constructionism is the correct theory to adopt. The theory entails that there are no universal facts, everything is socially constructed. But, isn’t the pronouncement that “all facts are socially constructed” an absolute statement? The only way that fact-constructionism can survive is to admit that it is not a universal theory, thus allowing realists to continue being realists. Of course, this is the sledgehammer approach, Paul Boghossian offers a more precise and even more damning criticism: constructionism leads to a theory that “consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.” (Boghossian, p. 56). For example, look at Lankes’ Conversation Theory. His brand of constructivism  asks librarians to think of knowledge as “a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants” (Lankes, p. 32). So, the claim “electrons are negatively charged” is to be interpreted as “According to the agreement we have reached, electrons are negatively charged.” But, isn’t the description of this agreement an absolute statement? We can’t have that! So, we have to reword it as, “according to the agreement we have reached, there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” Oops! Still absolute! One more time: “According to an agreement we have reached, there is an agreement we have reached according to which there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” The infinite regress is unavoidable; at some point there simply have to be mind-independent, objective facts. Any theory that is based in acceptance, agreement, or assent as the foundation for truth will fail in this respect.

(2) Constructionism impedes learning
Paradoxically, knowledge-constructionism is purported to be a boon to education, even though it actively undermines the learning process. (I should be clear: there is a distinction between constructivist epistemology and constructivist or constructionist learning theories. This distinction is consistently ignored, which leads to some fairly significant problems.) Consider the student who comes to the reference desk inquiring after books or articles that prove that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can and should be treated (I have had this request). Assume that this student was raised in a devout Christian home, home-schooled, and has otherwise always lived within a community that believes that homosexuality is a a mental disorder. It follows from constructionism that this student knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder. His community of discourse has discussed homosexuality persistently and consistently, the relevant agreements have been reached, and so their belief constitutes knowledge. But, if the goal of education is to learn, and learning is knowledge creation, then I, as a reference librarian, would be acting against this student’s best interests if I provided anything that contradicted his “knowledge”. So, all I can do is hand him a pre-1974 DSM-II and a few articles from fundamentalist websites and send him on his way. Here’s my question: how can a student be expected to learn when everything he or she believes upon entering the library is already knowledge? Put another way, how do we define ‘learning’ without appealing to knowledge?
I suppose the constructivist might respond: “But, it’s about creating new knowledge.” But, this doesn’t make sense. If prior beliefs already constitute knowledge, why change them? Unless we adopt a realist stance and distinguish between “is true” and “is believed to be true” or “knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder” and “believes that homosexuality is a mental disorder”, all claims to knowledge are equally valid and there is no point in learning.

(3) Constructionism disenfranchises those who most need our help and obstructs social progress
Of course, as librarians, we must operate within the socially constructed bounds of our profession. Our social agreements with other librarians dictate how we are to act as librarians. Indeed, if constructivism is true, our entire code of ethics is a social construct. To that end, the desegregation of libraries during the Civil Rights Era must have been unprofessional and against our code of ethics. If our social group had agreed that public libraries should not be integrated (as was the case in libraries throughout the South), then any librarian who checked-out a book to an African-American was violating his or her responsibilities as a librarian. And the black patrons who sought to improve their own knowledge? Well, according to constructionism, they should have just “agreed to disagree” with the white majority and been content in their own indigenous knowledge. As Boghossian puts it, clearer that I can:

if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful (p. 130)

If it really is social agreement all the way down, and there is no privileged way of knowing about the world, then who is to criticize epistemic systems that are founded in tradition and scriptural authority? For the constructionist, there can be no substantive criticism of entrenched social agreement, hence there can be no social progress. And if there can be no social progress, the mission of libraries is reduced to little more than a warehouse of artifacts for maintaining the status quo. [Yes, this is what social constructionism and constructivism really entails. If you can’t tell how much this pisses me off, I think we’re almost at 2,500 words.]


(4) Constructionism erodes the value of libraries in society.
Since social constructionism and constructivism stand in the way of social progress, disenfranchise the oppressed, and impede learning, in the constructionist world these cannot be core library values. So, in their absence, what is left of the library? Well, the value that libraries provide as a source of entertainment is intact. Likewise, the value of libraries as a meeting place is maintained. But, these are hollow values and they make the library little more than a public park or town hall. These are good things, but they are a far cry from the once and future mission of the library as a place of knowledge and learning, a place where our community can better itself through education.

“Beach House” courtesy of skagman CC-BY 2.0

A library built on sand
I’m adopting this metaphor from Noretta Koertge’s 1998 A House Built on Sand, because I think it is the perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with social constructionism. For as fascinating as some constructivist theories are, and for as compelling as their social ambitions can be, these theories lack a meaningful foundation. In fact, that lack of a foundation is often a point of pride. But, once we start down the path of social construction, we have to give up any sense of the library as a place of knowledge, learning, or social progress. These are foundational concepts, and constructionism will not allow them to exist without being subjected to intersubjectivity and bias. Where libraries were once viewed as the bedrock for an enlightened society, constructivism erodes that cultural solidity and replaces it with shifting uncertainty. And that uncertainty opens the door to doubt, which I would hope libraries would like to avoid.

Surprisingly, one of the best defenders of the profound importance of objective knowledge and rational foundations is one of the architects of social constructionism: Bruno Latour. Yeah…that Bruno Latour. In recent years, Latour has turned his back on postmodern studies in general and social constructionism in particular, and he dropped quite a bombshell with his 2004 article “Why has critique run out of steam?” I started this post with a rather long quote from a Bush aide (thought to be Karl Rove), and I’ll end with another lengthy quote, this time from Latour:

I’d like to believe that…I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. (Latour, p. 227)

I realize that this is a long blog post, but I admit that it barely scratches the surface and it paints in rather broad strokes. But, after four hours, I think I’ll retire. I’d be delighted to defend my take on constructionism if any social constructionists want to step forward with particulars.

In the next post, I’ll try to defend objective knowledge as the most intuitive, progressive, and flexible approach to librarianship. Rather than take the constructionists at their word and believe that objectivity is undermined by hidden biases, cultural differences, power struggles, or whatever other social forces are out there, it is much simpler and liberating to understand that biases, cultural differences, power struggles, and other social forces are undermined by objective knowledge. This is the real power of libraries.

Some things I pulled off the shelf while thinking about this post


Criticism of social constructionism

  • Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Koertge, N. (1998). A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.

  • Meiland, J. W., & Krausz, M. (1982). Relativism, cognitive and moral. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Sokal, A. (2008). Beyond the hoax: Science, philosophy, and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sosa, E., & Villaneuva, E. (2002). Realism and relativism. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Windschuttle, K. (1997). The killing of history: How literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past. New York: Free Press

Social constructionism in library science
A short list of recent articles in scholarly publications. This is just what I’ve read in the past year, and I’m sure there’s more out there:

  • Andersen, J. and Skouvig, L. (2006). Knowledge organization: A sociohistorical analysis and critique. The Library Quarterly, 76(3), 300-322.
  • Benoit, G. (2002). Toward a critical theoretic perspective in information systems. The Library Quarterly, 72(4), 441-471.
  • Campbell, D. G. (2007). The birth of the new web: A Foucauldian reading of the semantic web. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 43(3/4), 9-20.
  • Haider, J. (2007). Conceptions of “information poverty” in LIS: A discourse analysis. Journal of Documentation, 63(4), 534-557
  • Huang, S. (2006). A semiotic view of information: Semiotics as a foundation of LIS research in information behavior. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 43(1), n.p.. [link]
  • Labaree, R. V., & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical problem of truth in librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 78(1), 43-70.
  • Lankes, R. D. (2011) The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Olsson, M. (2007). Power/knowledge: The discursive construction of an author. The Library Quarterly, 77(2), 219-240.
  • Radford, G. P. (1992). Positivism, Foucault, and the fantasia of the library: Conceptions of knowledge and the modern library experience. The Library Quarterly, 62(4), 408-424.
  • Radford, G. (1998). Flaubert, Foucault, and the Bibliotheque Fantastique: toward a postmodern epistemology for library science. Library Trends, 46(4), 616-34. 
  • Sundin, O., & Johannisson, J. (2005). Pragmatism, neo-pragmatism and sociocultural theory: Communicative participation as a perspective in LIS. Journal of Documentation, 61(1), 23-43
  • Weissinger, T. (2003). Competing models of librarianship: Do core values make a difference? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 29(1), 32-39.

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[Reposted on May 13, because Blogger ate the original.]

When I first caught wind of The Atlas of New LibrarianshipI was so excited that I think I peed my pants a little bit. According to the press releases, the author, R. David Lankes, had created a monumental survey of the theoretical foundations of librarianship. He was going to advocate “a new librarianship based not on books and artifacts but on knowledge and learning.” Early reviews by assorted library luminaries were glowing, and ACRL was making a big to-do about the book’s release. All in all, this book is a BIG DEAL. So, imagine my excitement when my copy arrived. Here I am, keenly interested in the philosophical foundations of librarianship (and information science) and I finally get to read the book that promises to set it all straight!

My initial reaction after reading this hefty tome can be summed up in seven words:
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

Allow me to explain…

Topography
In his introduction, Lankes offers this statement of intent:

The Atlas before you is an attempt to…look to the history of the field for the core and constant while looking to even deeper theory of how people know to help shape the future. (p. 3)

I like this. The future of librarianship will be shaped by our epistemological commitments. In moving from an artifact-based librarianship to a knowledge-based librarianship, librarians need to understand what knowledge is, how it is obtained, and how it can be used. In other words, philosophy matters to librarianship.

So, with an eye towards epistemology, Lankes offers a field-wide mission statement for librarianship. Something to guide the discipline into the future, come what may. And, here it is:



Awesome. I support the hell out of this mission. I’ve already ordered the ribbon magnets for my pick-up truck. The key, of course, is that libraries need to focus on knowledge creation rather than mere artifact collection. Historically, Lankes argues, libraries have been focused on artifacts: recorded knowledge, information-as-thing, books, media, technology, etc. However, the future will need librarians of a different sort. It will need librarians who can actively work within their communities to foster knowledge creation and learning, regardless of the available artifacts. 
Lankes returns to this point several times, and I agree with him. His discussion is often compelling and certainly worth a read. Unfortunately, when he turns his attention to knowledge creation (the new core of librarianship) everything breaks down. 
Knowledge Creationism
If you are reading the Atlas and hoping for a serious discussion of knowledge, you’re looking in the wrong place. Despite being the heart of his mission statement, Lankes’s treatment of knowledge wouldn’t pass a Freshman philosophy (or sociology or psychology or computer science) course. In fact, I’ll go so far as to argue that his reliance on constructivist epistemology works against his own mission statement and is ultimately more harmful to librarianship than beneficial (more on that in the next post).
You see, Lankes has adopted Conversation Theory as his conceptual framework for librarianship. In a nutshell, Conversation Theory holds that knowledge is constructed through conversation. If you think this sounds like a constructivist epistemology, you’re right. Lankes is explicitly advocating a form of radical constructivism as the epistemological foundation for librarianship. Knowledge, on this account, is socially constructed and refined through dialectic. As Lankes puts it, knowledge is “the requisite domain understanding necessary to converse” (p. 66). More formally,

Knowledge is a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants. (p. 32)

The terms ‘agreement’, ‘memory’, ‘language’, and ‘conversant’ are loaded terms for Lankes, and I don’t have the time to nitpick every little detail (though I will on request), so I will just point out that notably absent from Lankes’ treatment of knowledge are the concepts of truth, justification, warrant, objectivity, or other standard epistemic concepts. For Lankes, knowledge is a shifting, malleable set of “agreements”, each of which is founded solely in intersubjective agreement, rather than objective or factual reality. In other words, it’s epistemic relativism. To see just what this entails, Lankes offers the following conversation:

“So if two men having a conversation about a topic they know little about, can we truly say that knowledge is created?” “Yes,” I said. “For those two people, if they are willing to act on the agreements they have developed, it is knowledge.” “But what if they are idiots?” “It is still knowledge, although I would imagine that their knowledge would change if they tried out their agreement and it didn’t work.” OK, I realize I have just lost most of the positivists in the crowd, but please give me a moment to explain… (p. 117-118) [The subsequent explanation is question-begging.]

When asked to clarify his views, Lankes admits that even a false belief can be knowledge. It seems pretty clear that he is just confusing knowledge with belief, which is a regrettably common error. But, following the principle of charity, I’ll take him at his word and assume that Lankes is, in fact, claiming that knowledge claims are truth-independent.

But, I want to be clear here and avoid creating a straw-man. Lankes is advocating epistemic relativism, but he does not explicitly say that facts are socially constructed. For example, in his discussion of source amnesia he discusses the importance of avoiding factual error and even points to mind-independent, objective facts as epistemically relevant (“I [made an error] based on a set of agreements I attributed to an artifact, not what was in the artifact” (p. 42)). However, he is inconsistent throughout the book and there are points where he implicitlyappeals to a base fact-constuctivism. I know it’s an over-simplification, but fact-constructivism is a member of those relativistic theories to the effect that all truth is socially constructed, or that there is no objective reality independent of contingent human agreements. Given the well-established incoherence of this sort of straight-forward relativistic thinking, I can’t in good conscience attribute it to Lankes. [For a short introduction to the lunacy of relativism/constructivism, see Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge]

Relatively speaking, I’m no expert
So, Lankes doesn’t advocate a relativist position about facts, but he does advocate relativism about what justifies our beliefs. The epistemic relativism inherent in Conversation Theory manifests itself in the way the theory insists that our beliefs about the world are justified through a process of negotiation. Sure, there may be an external reality, but there is no privileged way of accessing that world: all we have are our conversations and agreements. We become justified in believing this or that because we have come to a “shared understanding” about the object of our belief. Our knowledge is not shaped by an external reality; in fact, we don’t even have access to any external reality. It’s internalized social agreements all the way down.

If this sounds postmodern, it is. But, it’s hard to tell if Lankes understands this. True, he does have an agreement supplement for “Postmodernism”, but it doesn’t add anything to his Atlas. He claims that postmodernism “reinforces the idea of constant change and adaptation” (p. 344), which is nice, but not particularly unique to postmodernism. So, how does postmodern thought influence new librarianship? Lankes picks out the reference interview as a particularly good exemplar of postmodern librarianship. He writes:

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, two main roles in postmodernism are the “expert” and the “philosopher,” both of which serve roles in the reference interview…by seeking to better understand these roles the librarian can become more comfortable and adept in the reference process.” (p. 344) 

Again, that’s nice, but not particularly postmodern. What’s worse, it’s a gross misreading of the SEP article on postmodernism. The SEP article is making reference to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984), where Lyotard describes himself as playing the language games of both a philosopher and an expert. (It probably doesn’t help that Lyotard admitted that for this book he just made things up and cited things he never read.) Interestingly, just a few lines past the misquoted text, the SEP includes Lyotard’s true pronouncement: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Lyotard, 1984, xxiv). How would that affect New Librarianship?

Lankes’ approach leads inevitably to the conclusion that knowledge is causally distinct from any external reality or facts. There may be  facts, but they don’t adjudicate between knowledge and other belief states. He even goes so far as to admit that this is the case. And his response?

There are critics of constructivism. They argue that it denies the existence of a true reality–that philosophically there are issues with creating a worldview of complete relativism…[but] in the context of new librarianship, we do not necessarily have to enter into the philosophical debate about constructivism because we are looking more narrowly at its concrete applications as a learning theory and at its application within the cosmos of librarianship. (p. 216-17)

That’s it? A theory of the theoretical foundations of librarianship, with knowledge-creation at the center…and the deep philosophical problems don’t matter? Moreover, the equivocation between constructivism as an epistemological theory and constructivism as a learning theory is not just philosophically sloppy, but grossly misleading. To propose a constructivist epistemology and then fall back on constructivist learning theory in the face of criticism shows a profound misunderstanding of both.

Straw librarianship

Lankes admits that his theory is a work in progress, going so far as to ask that readers “poke and prod at the framework” (p. 186) and acknowledging that “two different people reading this can come to different conclusions: Lankes is crazy or Lankes got it right” (p. 33). Of course, this self-deprecating humility does not extend to alternative accounts of librarianship. Indeed, on several occasions, Lankes shows his hand insofar as he tries to force the Bush “patriot vs. terrorist” style false dilemma. Either you agree with him, or you are part of the problem. This is, at best, philosophically sloppy and, at worst, intellectually dishonest. Consider the following quote:

The annoyed librarians of the world who seek the status quo and see their mission as recorded knowledge, the collection of artifacts, and the maintenance of organizations labeled libraries…They will cry foul against relativism and new age ideas (p. 172)

The rhetorical implication is that critics of Conversation Theory…those who “cry foul against relativism”…are stuck in an outdated, outmoded worldview. Hey, that must be me! But, this false “with us or against us” thinking is unnecessarily divisive. Granted, Lankes does encourage the debate between “bibliofundamentalists” and his proposed model, but only insofar as “it means there is a conversation, and we are learning” (p. 172). (Wait, so now librarians have to beg the question as well?)

The fact is that there are alternatives to Conversation Theory and there are alternative knowledge-based missions for librarianship. Lankes paints librarianship in an either/or situation. Those who look to librarianship in terms of collecting and making available information are referred to as “traditional”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”. Those who adopt his theory (he’s addicted to the rhetorical “we”) are “enlightened” and “fight against ignorance and intolerance” (p. 185). And no other options exist! What happened to pragmatism, empiricism, rationalism, critical idealism, existentialism, Marxism, or other philosophical theories? No compelling reason to accept social constructivism or Conversation Theory is to be found in the entire Atlas, you’re just “an annoyed librarian” if you disagree.


Even more unfortunate, this new mission for librarians has been discussed for decades, in various forms. That librarianship is about knowledge, rather than artifacts, is a common view in the metaphilosophy of Joseph Nitecki or the social epistemology of Jesse Shera as well as in recent work such as the hermeneutical phenomenology of John Budd and the social transcript approach described by Charles Osburn. There is a healthy, vibrant literature on the importance of knowledge-creation in libraries, but the Atlas conveniently ignores the lot of it, which is a shame because a great deal of the book would benefit from the more philosophically coherent existing literature.

Next time
Summing up, The Atlas of New Librarianship is pretty much a let-down. It adopts a relativist world-view, it is philosophically sloppy and it ignores the existence of any competing philosophy of librarianship. Of course, I realize that there are a few librarians who don’t see that there is anything wrong with relativism. So, in the next post, I’ll try to provide both arguments and examples of the dangers of relativistic thinking in library science. From impeding learning to reinforcing social divisions, epistemological constructivism is not the path we as librarians want to be taking. We need a better map.

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All of what is said here is, of course, subject to the judgment of the professional and scholarly community. Confirmation, correction, and dispute will be necessary for any progress to occur.  (p. 72)

I like this line. In one parting remark at the end of his most recent article, John Budd has shifted his burden onto other shoulders. And it’s a good thing, too, because there is a heck of a lot to think about in his brand, spanking-new “Meaning, Truth, and Information: Prolegomena to a Theory

Setting it up
I’m very interested in the roles of information, truth, and meaning in librarianship in general and information literacy in particular. Two of the goals I’m currently picking away at are (1) establishing the lack of a consensus among librarians about what ‘information’ is and (2) advocating a particular theory of information for librarianship. So, I was a little surprised to see John Budd’s contribution to the most recent Journal of Documentation, wherein he attempts to do the exact same thing! Damn it! There goes my paper. Yet, though Budd does a great job explaining the lack of a consensus, I can’t help but notice some substantive problems with his assessment of the meaning of ‘information”. Let’s take a look.

Librarians don’t know what information is
The thesis of Budd’s paper is that information “cannot be defined unless within the context of meaning and truth” (p. 56). Awesome. I couldn’t agree more. Later, he adds that “[a] reader from within or without IS would reasonably respond to the initial challenge of examining truth’s relation to information by stating that definitions of both are required before anyone can proceed” (p. 58). So, Budd begins with defining “information”. His analysis covers all the usual suspects (Buckland, Rowley, Hjorland, Losee, etc.) and ends with the observation that in the whole of information science, there is not yet a definition that “establishe[s] parameters that enable inquiring and praxis” (p. 60). Here’s a brief rundown of theories considered:

  • Buckland (1991) and the “information as thing” approach.
  • Kaye (1995): Information “is a central and defining characteristic of all life forms, manifested in genetic transfer, in stimulus response mechanisms, in the communication of signals and messages and, in the case of humans, in the intelligent acquisition of understanding and wisdom” (p.37)
  • Brookes (1974): information as that which modifies a knowledge structure
  • Eaton & Bawden (1991): “information is a dynamic force for change in the systems within which it operates” (p.59)
  • Rowley (1998): Information is a relational property.
  • Losee (1997): “information may be understood as the value attached or instantiated to a characteristic or variable returned by a function or produced by a process” (p. 267)
  • Bates (2006): “information as an agglomeration of matter and energy…that it can be encoded or embodied” (p. 60)
  • Bawden (2007): “information as embodied, as a self-organizing complex physically present entity” (p. 60)

Again, Budd examines each of these theories and finds them wanting. They simply do not provide us with a decision procedure for determining whether something is or is not an instance of information. He argues that this is sorely needed in information science and promises to suggest a workable definition. Following the thesis of the paper, it’s time for Budd to take a look at truth. But first, some housecleaning

Reference, Meaning, Truth
So, Budd dispenses with the available candidates for definitions of “information” (well, he leaves a few important ones out…more on that later). He is primed to launch into a discussion of truth, but first he has to take a detour through the concepts of reference and meaning…making a few surprising errors along the way.

Budd begins discussing the concept of reference by appealing to Donald Davidson and I’m not too sure about what’s going on here. Not only did Davidson explicitly hold a negative view of reference (cf. “Reality and Reference”, Dialectica, 31: 247-253. 1977) but Budd misquotes Davidson1 and later erroneously credits Davidson with introducing the concept of reference.2 So, what is Budd doing with reference anyway? I can’t tell for sure, but he discusses reference first in terms of aboutness and then in terms of discursive practice…though in both cases he seems to be talking about sense instead of reference. Whatever the case, Budd claims that information seekers have “quite an intellectual and cognitive burden to reach the point where reference is comprehensible” (p. 61) and he drops the subject, turning to an analysis of meaning.

Budd begins his discussion of meaning with the assertion that “reference is an essential element of meaning, but it is not the only one” (p. 61). That’s more like it! On to the discussion of sense! But…Budd never gets around to the sense/reference distinction, and I’m not sure what his angle is. His discussion of meaning touches on indexicality, the analytic/synthetic distinction, speech-acts, semantic prescriptivism, intentionality,3 and rhetoric. I like that he cites Predelli’s work on the context-dependence of semantic utterances as a good direction for information science, insofar as he argues that we need to understand in what ways “contexts are manifest in formal communication” (p. 62). However, the nagging question remains…what does he mean by ‘meaning’? Various technical issues in the philosophy of language are discussed, but meaning itself isn’t really covered at all. I can only guess that his definition of meaning is “that which is understood” which is far from technical.He ends the section by directing readers to Steven Pinker’s 2007 The Stuff of Thought which is a really great and important book on the psychology of language, but not exactly the best starting place for the philosophy of language. Anyway, he then sets up his discussion of truth…

But, is it a fair treatment of truth in the first place? I’m worried that it isn’t. Budd introduces Tarski’s Semantic Theory of truth but quickly dismisses it as “far too limiting for useful application to formal communication of the sort IS is concerned with” (p. 64). He goes on to address the canonical correspondence, coherentist, and pragmatic theories of truth, and finds them all lacking as well (though for rather strange and unconvincing reasons). Ultimately, Budd proposes that we “liberate ourselves from the notion that truth is limited to the meaning of words used in sentences” (p. 65).Yet, just a few pages later he reverses and claims that his definition requires that “any utterance or argument, to be evaluated for its potential truth, must first be meaningful” (p. 68). Granted, he could be saying that the concept of truth applies to both propositional and non-propositional content, but it’s unclear.

Back to information
So, what does Budd propose for a definition of information? Here it goes…

Definition: Information is meaningful communicative action that aims at truth claims and conditions.
Statement of Theory: Information is comprised of those communicative actions (and only those communicative actions) that can be evaluated by a population – defined as the intended or potential hearers of the communication – as meaningful. Meaning is not limited to pure semantics, but includes context and history within evaluation. Further, information is true in that there is warrant for the communicative action, that this action includes no deliberate deception or omission, has inherent evaluative components, provides evidentiary justification, and is fundamental to ethics. (p. 70)

So, there are three necessary and sufficient conditions: meaningful, communicative, truth-directed. Is this a plausible theory? Only if we are willing to accept the following:

  • Budd’s theory eliminates environmental information. Consider the dendrochronologist counting tree-rings in the middle of the forest. She determines that a particular oak is 147 years old and writes it down in her log-book. It would seem that she has gathered some information about the tree, though in the absence of a communicative exchange, Budd’s theory would say she has not.
  • Budd’s theory eliminates instructional information. For example, a recipe for a cake may include the instruction, “Slowly mix in the flour until the dough forms a ball.” Obviously, you can’t call this instuction “true”, so it fails Budd’s test for information. Indeed, the whole recipe fails the test because it is not aimed at truth claims.

There are other potential counterexamples, but I’ll just list the two. My larger concern is that I just don’t think Budd has established workable accounts of truth or meaning. He claims that meaning includes semantic content, historical context and a “phenomenological element” of intentionality, though he offers little explanation. In light of his discussion of communication, it almost seems as if he is confusing theories of meaning with the related, yet distinct, speech act theories. His discussion of truth is similarly vexing: truth is independent of semantic content and it is neither “naively objectivist” nor “entirely subjective” (p. 71). So what is it? Budd does not tell us, though he offers several competing theories we can reject. Perhaps that’s the takeaway. Budd’s analysis of information takes cues from so many disparate (and sometimes contradictory) areas in philosophy, linguistics, and psychology, that the end result winds up seeming rather confused. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume its just me that’s confused.

The takeaway
I’ll refer to Budd’s theory as the Communicative Theory of Information; I’m sure it will be fleshed out in more detail in the future, but for now we should treat it as just a sketch. But, is it a sketch that can inform library practice? Budd offers the example of information retrieval:

An individual asserts a query…which includes a finite set of elements. Most of the elements are unknown by the individual, but reside within some frames of known and potentially knowable bits. If the individual is seeking information as it is defined here, a search can be constructed that can…result in a set of items that are meaningful and true. That is, the items can be evaluated for meaning and truth. The individual, following the theoretical principles as stated above, has criteria to use in evaluating meaning and truth. Each item retrieved can be evaluated in such a way. That said, the individual is not likely to intuit the assessment mechanisms. In other words, the definition I suggest is usable only inasmuch as it is used by information seekers. (p. 71)

I don’t know what to make of this example, and, damn it, I’m tired of not knowing what is going on in this paper. I can at least make out that the example shows how the Communicative Theory of Information takes information out of the world of data and reduces it to particular discursive practices. But, hold up. Do we really want this? It’s good news for information seekers, but bad news for information systems. Yes, bad news for librarians. Though Budd’s theory may provide insight into search behavior and the social life of information, it is of no help for understanding the systems that collect, analyze, and organize information. Limiting information to Budd’s interpretation of communicative practices makes information too relational and subjective to effectively work with. In sum, we need a different definition of information in library science. I mentioned earlier that Budd left some important definitions of information out of his survey, and I’d like to advocate for one in particular: the Semantic Conception of Information. I’ll get a defense of the Semantic Conception up as soon as possible. Until then, I recommend you take a look at “Meaning, Truth, and Information: Prolegomena to a Theory” and see what you think.

Notes:
(1) Budd writes:

A truthful sentence is also a meaningful sentence. Davidson (1984), in his early writings, criticized this kind of connection: “any meaning of a sentence is what it refers to, all sentences alike in truth value must be synonymous – an intolerable result” (Davidson, 1984, p. 19).

Davidson originally wrote: 

Hence, any two sentences have the same reference if they have the same truth value. And if the meaning of a sentence is what it refers to, all sentences alike in truth value must be synonymous – an intolerable result. (my emphasis)

This is an important distinction. Davidson was criticizing a naive Referential Theory of Meaning. He was not criticizing the connection between truth and meaning, as Budd implies. In point of fact, Davidson’s entire contribution to the philosophy of language was based in his truth-condition of meaning; that to know the meaning of a sentence is to know the circumstances under which that sentence would be true.

(2) It was Frege (1879, and 1892)

(3) Though he seems to be confusing intentionality (the ‘aboutness’ of mental states) with the ordinary language sense of intention (a deliberate determination to act a certain way, and in this case to communicate)

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I was re-reading Michael K. Buckland’s “Information as Thing” and I realized that this should be added to my essential reading list. So, if you are interested in the philosophy of information, please check this article out.

Buckland, Michael K. “Information as Thing.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (1991): 351-360.


Buckland identifies three distinct approaches to the definition of information: as process, as knowledge, and as thing. He goes on to argue that the information-as-thing approach is the “only form of information with which information systems can deal directly” (p. 359). This is an attributive sense of information such that information becomes a particular sort of data: meaningful data. Moreover, he argues, we should not be confused by text, documents, sounds, images, etc.. These are all equivalent to data and their position as information is determined by their ability to inform. I like this. In particular, I like Buckland’s description of information-as-thing as similar to the way evidence is a thing: it’s a thing “from which one becomes informed” (p. 353). As information professionals, librarians can learn from the information-as-thing approach because it allows us to treat information with the sort of objective neutrality demanded by our professional standards. That is, it allows a systems-based approach to working with information in a way that knowledge and process information theories do not allow.

As a word of warning, it seems as though he is committed to an entirely physicalist approach to information: informative data are necessarily physical objects; information is supervenient on the physical.1 This is fine if you’re a physicalist, but not everyone is. In any event, it’s a great paper that foreshadows most of the current work in philosophy of information.

1 It isn’t clear whether Buckland is advocating a straight-up reductive physicalism or some sort of emergentism for information. Maybe it’s clearer in a later paper?

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Photo courtesy of KJGarbuttSome rights reserved.

There is a surprising amount of literature available on the philosophy of library and information science (LIS), but it’s hard to know where to start. What should a library philosopher read? Where’s the best place to begin? Part of the problem arises when we see that there are many, competing foundational philosophical approaches to LIS. Pragmatism, social epistemology, philosophy of information, Habermas’ universal pragmatics, post-structuralism…the list could go on for a while. Do we really have to study each and every one of these?

Here’s the plan. Since this blog is supposedly about philosophy and librarianship, the least I can do is attempt to build a list of suggested readings to aid the interested. Granted, I’m no expert, but I can at least start building a bibliography of the texts I think are most important to understanding the intersection of philosophy and librarianship at a foundational level. So, I’ve added a new page–“Essential Readings”–to keep track of foundational and influential books and articles. (And if you have a book, article, blog, or website you would like to include in a list of essential readings on the philosophy of librarianship, please let me know.)

Here’s the catch. I wear my philosophical leanings on my sleeve. Coming from the analytic tradition, I tend to look more favorably on social epistemology, philosophy of information, pragmatism, and other rational philosophical traditions in library science. Many of the so-called “postmodern” approaches influenced by Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Latour, and other continental philosophers strike me as irrational and too anti-egalitarian to be helpful in librarianship (‘relativism’ is a four-letter word in my house). So, my recommended books will be heavily geared towards realist, rational philosophy.

Well, enough of the jibber-jabber. Here’s today’s recommendation…the Winter 2004 issue of Library Trends.

The Philosophy of Information, Library Trends,
Winter 2004, 52(3)
edited by Ken Herold

As you may already know, Library Trends is a journal that specializes in thematic issues (how do you cite an entire journal, anyway?). Each issue features several articles entirely on one subject, and the Winter 2004 issue “The Philosophy of Information” is one of the best LT has published. In 16 articles, almost every core concern in the philosophy of LIS is explored by some of the leading thinkers in philosophy and librarianship, including John Budd, Don Fallis, Luciano Floridi, and more. In particular, this volume is absolutely indispensable for those interested in the philosophy of information as the foundation for LIS. Arguments for and against competing theories are advanced and the entire issue represents a fascinating snapshot of the current status of the philosophy of information in librarianship.

The impetus for this issue can be found in the work of Luciano Floridi, whose 2002 “On Defining Library and Information Science as Applied Philosophy of Information” set the groundwork for adopting the philosophy of information as foundational theory in LIS. It is therefore only natural that his afterword in the Library Trends issue is probably the best entry point, and a good summary of the philosophical approach that is both defended and criticized throughout this volume. Here is a link to the article on his personal website. Again, this issue is not a unified defense of a particular approach to the philosophy of information in librarianship. Articles run the gamut from analytic defenses of realism and epistemology to arguments for the importance of Hegel, Gadamer, and Habermas. Truly, there’s something in this issue for philosopher-librarians of every background. I, for one, find the analytical articles the most compelling, but the entire issue is of enormous value. Rather than ramble on about the importance of this issue of LT, I’ll end with a list of contents and brief descriptions of each article. Titles in boldface are those that I, personally, find the most compelling and useful.

Library Trends, Winter 2004, 52(3). Edited by Ken Herold.

  • “Information and Its Philosophy” by Ian Cornelius
    • Argues that Floridi’s work in PI is “innocent of LIS practice” and fails to recognize the myriad roles and responsibilities of actual librarianship.
  • “Documentation Redux: Prolegomenon to (Another) Philosophy of Information” by Bernd Frohmann 
    • A neo-Wittgensteinian call for a shift from discrete theories of information to descriptions of documentary practice as the embodiment of “informing”.
  • “Community as Event” by Ronald E. Day
    • Discusses the meaning of “information” in light of political philosophy an ontology. Draws heavily from the work of Negri, Heidegger, and Habermas.
  • “Information Studies Without Information” by Jonathan Furner
    • Argues that we do not need a separate concept of information, favoring instead an information-as-relevance approach designed to cut across philosophical distinctions.
  • “Relevance: Language, Semantics, Philosophy” by John M. Budd
    • Argues that the philosophy of language is invaluable in assessing the role of relevance in LIS.
  • “On Verifying the Accuracy of Information: Philosophical Perspectives” by Don Fallis
    • Fallis urges librarians to consider the epistemology of testimony as a means of understanding the role that information professionals play in knowledge creation. Draws heavily from David Hume and Alvin Goldman. Awesome.
  • “Arguments for Philosophical Realism in Library and Information Science” by Birger Hjørland
    • Some researchers in LIS love to throw around the term “positivism” as a catch-all for post-Enlightenment or analytic approaches to LIS; the label “realism” has even been thrown about as a sort of intellectual epithet. Hjorland shows that this is a terribly naive approach. He argues that LIS needs to embrace the explanatory virtues of realism as the only viable means for addressing issues in LIS.
  • “Knowledge Profiling: The Basis for Knowledge Organization” by Torkild Thellefsen
    • Uses Peirce’s pragmaticism (it’s not the same as James’s “pragmatism”) as a means for analyzing knowledge organizations such as libraries.
  • “Classification and Categorization: A Difference that Makes a Difference” by Elin K. Jacob
    • A look at the syntactic and semantic differences between classification and categorization and how these differences shape information systems and information retrieval.
  • “Faceted Classification and Logical Division in Information Retrieval” by Jack Mills
    • Argues that the nature of information requires faceted classification as the optimal means of organizing information for discovery.
  • “The Epistemological Foundations of Knowledge Representations” by Elaine Svenonius
    • Looks at operationalism, Wittgensteinian referentialism, and instrumentalism as competing theories of meaning that can inform us as we develop optimal retrieval systems.
  • “Classification, Rhetoric, and the Classificatory Horizon” by Stephen Paling
    • Uses Gadamer to provide a hermeneutics of information classification.
  • “The Ubiquitous Hierarchy: An Army to Overcome the Threat of a Mob” by Hope A. Olson
    • Argues that Hegel’s conception of hierarchy and Reid’s defense of common sense are the foundations for library classification systems such as Dewey and LC.
  • “A Human Information Behavior Approach to a Philosophy of Information” by Amanda Spink and Charles Cole
    • Looks at how a cognitive approach to information-seeking behavior can inform the philosophy of information.
  • “Cybersemiotics and the Problems of the Information-Processing Paradigm as a Candidate for a Unified Science of Information Behind Library Information Science” by Søren Brier
    • A poorly explained mess of self-contradictory, post-modern drivel. I have no idea why this was included.
  • “Afterword: LIS as Applied Philosophy of Information: A Reappraisal” by Luciano Floridi
    • A defense of the philosophy of information against critics. Argues that PI is a better foundation for LIS than its main competitor, social epistemology.

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