Library as Agent of [Re]Contextualization

  1. 1. Vika Zafrin

    Boston University

  2. 2. Jack Ammerman

    Boston University

  3. 3. Garth Green

    Boston University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Rapid production, dissemination and consumption of
knowledge made possible in our digital culture is
often accompanied by atomization of information. Once
digitized, bits of information can easily be presented
in a de-contextualized manner. This is both good and
bad: any given datum lends itself more explicitly to being
used in different, perhaps unexpected contexts; but
without an originating context that is at least as widely
known as the datum itself, it is difficult to find in the first
In his Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the
New Digital Disorder (2007), David Weinberger has
presented three orders – levels – of ordering. First order
he likened to arranging books on a shelf, working
with the objects themselves. Second order is creating a
card catalog for the books – making objects to represent
other objects, where each representative object refers to
one and only one primary object (but the reverse doesn’t
hold: a book can have several catalog cards, filed by different
Third order does not presume an object to exist in only
one place at a time. “The problems with the first two orders
of order go back to the fact that they arrange atoms,”
Weinberger writes. “But now we have bits. [...] The third
order removes the limitations we’ve assumed were inevitable
in how we organize information.”
This breakdown of “degrees of separation” between the
things being ordered and the entities that order them is
hardly new. In the 13th century, Bonaventure presented
three possible “positions of thought”: extra se (the
mind views an outside object), intra se (a reflectio, or
a ‘thought about [an achieved] thought’) and supra se
(where we examine the principles behind our own classification
and organization of observed knowledge). [Itinerarium
1, 4 and Reductio 10-12] Bonaventure merely
systematized the tripartite structure of theology (sensible,
symbolic and speculative) that he had inherited from
such philosophers and theologians as Plotinus, Augustine,
and pseudo-Dionysius.
The compelling common aspect of the third order of order,
the supra se position of thought and the Absolute
Idea, is recombination, re-iteration, a multiple contextualization
of knowledge. Libraries have traditionally
dwelt in the second order of order. At Boston University
we have been playing with the notion of a library serving
as a locus for third-order processes. This paper is a speculative
discussion; we are re-conceiving library spaces
as workshop-oriented, and collection development as
a third-order activity based on the mash-up principle.
We imagine the library as responsible for three spaces
– physical, virtual and programmatic. This refashioned,
multifaceted institution is an entity that not only enables
research but engenders and even generates new knowledge
by way of a new physical and conceptual structure.
Programmatic Space
Faculty members have expressed the desire for community
in many places and contexts. What exactly do they
mean, and is this something to which the library can respond?
How do we create a physical community space
for faculty in a large institution? How do we get people
to engage with us and each other online?
Both the physical and the virtual spaces of the library,
discussed below, are necessarily informed by a programmatic
space – the conceptual framework within which
we implement the plan to refashion the library. This includes
both articulating goals (library as a space where
new knowledge is generated) and experimenting with
tools that may help us achieve those goals (user tagging
for online catalog items). By imagining an environment
that encourages direct interaction, and then suggesting
starting discussion topics, we employ conversation theory
(knowledge is created, and meanings agreed upon,
in conversation) to refashion the library as a place that
enables process as well as content.
Definitions and classifications have historically been
created by field experts, who generally work within
disciplinary boundaries, using disciplinary methods.
Collaborative knowledge-gathering technologies allow
definitions and structures to emerge from the materials
themselves, potentially without regard to their prior
classification(s). This emergent knowledge, created
within programmatic space, informs the way in which
reconceptualizing the virtual space will translate into
transforming the library’s physical space. Physical / Virtual Space
We put practical considerations such as funding aside for
the moment: before proposing a capital renovation project
to the university, we must have a clear idea of what
we are trying to accomplish.
Most library users associate the library’s physical space
with silent study. With clever layout planning — perhaps
re-shuffling stacks to de-emphasize them and minimize
sound movement — a library can accommodate multiple
spaces for quiet group discussion in addition to carrels.
Round tables are provided, with computers and largescreen
monitors for collaborative viewing and discussion
of online resources. The library becomes a constant
low-grade workshop space that makes both physical and
virtual materials equitably available.
We are currently creating two topical online resources,
which follow from our relatively new understanding
of the library itself as a pedagogical tool. Our History
of Missiology site [1] aims to present an extensive and
unique collection of letters, journals, biographies, travel
descriptions, and books written by and about protestant
missionaries. These materials will be of use both to theologians
and to social scientists, as they constitute the earliest
anthropological records of several cultures.
We are also gathering resources about the Personalism
school of thought, which flourished at BU in the early
20th century. It has played an important role in the development
of philosophical theology, but its implications
are far-reaching in their interdisciplinarity. Personalism
has not been adequately studied, and connections between
it and later philosophical thought have not been
explicitly drawn. By providing primary materials and
tools for discussion, we again hope to facilitate emergent
Collection Development and Cataloging
Approaching collection development as a third-order activity,
we consider the number of books on shelves one,
but not the sole, determining factor of the strength of
a collection. Programmatic restructuring of the library’s
physical and virtual spaces is aimed at gathering interdisciplinary
groups, which in turn will ideally participate
in collection development along with library staff. As
knowledge can be built up, mapped, by free (informed)
association, so library collections can be developed in a
similar way.
Thus, a series of meetings dedicated to the revival of
Personalism may attract theologians, philosophers, historians
and sociologists. Each scholar will bring knowledge
of different relevant resources to the table, and in
the course of discussion draw out a coherent and comprehensive
body of knowledge that the community believes
to be essential to its work. This is new in that we
aim to gather people in the library, both as a physical
space and as a concept within the larger structure of a
research institution, in a purposeful and sustained way.
Through this process we would create a more participatory
and connected relationship both between researchers
across their disciplinary boundaries, and between the
library and their respective research programs.
In the past few decades, with the advent of electronic
cataloging, libraries have been slowly moving towards
the third order of order. For the most part libraries still
catalog physical objects; it is only very recently that we
have been able to begin digitizing those objects, and have
had to face the existence of born-digital artifacts also in
need of cataloging. Momentum is difficult to influence:
even with digital objects, libraries fall into patterns of
cataloging typical of physical artifacts. Developing referral
systems, social tagging, etc. will be required for an
accurate representation of these complex and structurally
novel entities.
Moving Forward: Assessment and
In order for the project of refashioning the research process
to succeed, a crucial component is an outreach coordinator
who is also a scholar in the field. This would be
a person who rallies the researcher troops and continually
spurs conversation. Without such a constant external
stimulus, and with so many other demands on their time
and attention, researchers are less likely to participate in
– or initiate – discussion.
This sort of rallying can and should be institutionalized.
With a dedicated driving force behind them, brown-bag
seminars, lecture/presentation series and discussion lists
can be a thriving ground for exploring ideas. Such efforts
have so far been led by dedicated individuals (for
example, Willard McCarty in his stewardship of the
Humanist discussion list) and often at digital humanities
centers (the MITH Digital Dialogues, the Computers
in the Humanities Users Group at Brown, the Seminar
in Humanities Computing at the Centre for Computing
in the Humanities in King’s College London, and many
others). The library as an institution is well positioned
to join in as a venue for scholarly communication, given
adequate staffing and support.
How to actually accomplish all of these things? We will
present the challenges we have faced thus far, and our
approach to overcoming those challenges during the current academic year, by addressing several recommendations
from the final report of the ACLS Commission on
Cyberinfrastructure, released in 2006.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None