Two worlds?

Sometimes it’s easy to see libraries, archives, museums etc., and by extension library and information studies, as somewhat of an outdated concept. Many feel that they are part of a previous, analogue age in which everything was physical, with very few computers involved in day to day processes, and as such are irrelevant to today’s electronic, virtual data world. This feeling is sometimes expressed in less than diplomatic terms. When I was first researching information studies with a view to starting this course, I came across this article from Forbes. The bold headline, proclaiming contemptuously “No. 1 Worst Master’s Degree For Jobs: Library and Information Science” isn’t exactly the kind of thing a budding information professional wants to see. Yet, when you dig deeper, the actual reasons for this pessimism turn out to be the fact that a) librarians work in libraries (umm…) and b) information professionals ‘only’ earn “$57,600 mid-career”. Well, I think we can all safely say that we didn’t decide to do this to get rich!

Some ways of filing physical objects are more glamorous than others...
Some ways of filing physical objects are more glamorous than others…

To a very limited extent, what the article implies is quite true; archives and libraries do indeed still deal with lots of the old-fashioned physical processing of information in the form of artefacts. Whether it’s a 16th Century painting or a book about knitting, they all need to be stored somewhere, in a real place, so that curators or researchers can find them and handle them. Yet, the idea that this can take place now without the concurrent use of modern data techniques is laughable. The information about the artefacts still needs to exist in a virtual environment as well as a physical one, exactly in order that they can be catalogued and found by those researchers. Indeed, it can be done very efficiently in this way because new technology is always developing. Yet, what is the foundation of this way of organising data into information? Yep, organisation and classification techniques of exactly the kind used in ‘traditional’ library and information studies.

Some may argue that libraries are in decline. I see them flourishing more than ever, evolving into ‘information hubs’ where a variety of tasks can be performed, both analogue and digital. Indeed, this is despite the very political decisions being made in certain quarters that seek to marginalise and de-fund libraries simply because they are considered unprofitable. I see more people on the hunt for information which Google alone – useful as it is – simply cannot provide, or can only provide in limited form. The work of information professionals of many stripes, working both on the front line and behind the scenes, is still vital in this endeavour.

This idea of there being two worlds – one of cutting edge technology, databases, programming and complicated computer code, and another of dusty shelves, filing cabinets and huge storerooms of neglected artefacts – is tempting. Yet, in my view, these two worlds are not separate but complementary. In the end, it’s all about organising knowledge and information – taking raw data and making sense of it for users so that they can find what they need efficiently. It’s also about adding to repositories of information in an organised way in order to further develop and enhance our knowledge about the world. This is not only the raison d’être of any archive or museum, but is also the avowedly utopian ideal of linked data proponents such as Tim Berners-Lee. This shows you that these worlds are not shut off from each other as the writers at Forbes would suggest, but rather are feeding and augmenting each other with the values and methods used in each domain.

A simple, yet tasty, E-R model.
A simple, yet tasty, E-R model.

This symbiosis has become more readily apparent to me whilst studying my two tandem modules this semester – Databases and Knowledge Organisation. There are some interesting parallels between these two areas, particularly when it comes to creating a thesaurus for a controlled vocabulary and planning out an entity-relationship diagram for a database. For both activities, you need to decide which terms or entities are related, sometimes physically in the ‘real world’ and sometimes semantically in terms of abstract ideas or concepts. You also need to show these relationships in structured ways dictated by the use to which the information system will be put. User requirements for finding information in a scientific archive, for example, will differ greatly from those for a more general archive, therefore this is reflected in the controlled vocabulary used. Similarly, user requirements for a database behind a commercial shop website will be vastly different to those for a company HR database, for example. Therefore, as with the controlled vocabulary, different types of relationships will need to be reflected in the database structure. There are probably more and deeper similarities that I haven’t come across yet, but it’s striking just how similar these activities are on first viewing.

So, I’m heartened by this, because this is exactly the reason I chose to study this subject – the ability to transfer the knowledge gained into many differing areas which require the organisation of information. Far from being some kind of ‘weird’ domain of non-existent, musty, old-fashioned, technology-averse hermits, library and information studies is at the heart of many diverse areas of life. In the end, the physical space and the digital space are of course two aspects of the same world, both equally valid, interesting and useful. Above all, for me, information organisation is the tool that allows us to interpret and understand things around us, which I think is something that’s always good to aspire to.

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