Who gets to structure knowledge? Thoughts on non-Anglocentric information retrieval.

One thing I learned from our third lab exercise is that I’m not very good at constructing useful spreadsheets. Diving straight into the exercise, by the end of the lab, the cells in my spreadsheet were filled with a whole lot of qualitative data, which wasn’t particularly easy to understand at a glance – surely missing the entire point of the Excel spreadsheet.

Information retrieval, on the otherhand, is definitely something that I am interested in, and I started thinking about it terms of my previous job when I worked in a youth library in Aotearoa/New Zealand and taught information literacy to kids. As I discovered, most children don’t have the time/patience for Boolean searches, and as much as I would strain to guide them to the library catalogue, invariably they’d end up doing a natural language search on Google. And often, they’d find what they needed.

The Boolean search and structural search constraints in general obviously have their place, particularly in postgraduate research, but this is not the least because we are better able to be critical of the structures and constraints themselves. But consider my position at this youth library. The community the library served was mostly made up of Maori and Pacific Island people, and obviously, we were in New Zealand. I remember shelf-tidying in “Geography” one day when I first began working in the youth library, and suddenly noticing that the Dewey Decimal System was structured in the way a world map is when viewed from a British-centric perspective. So for example, when these kids were doing projects on Aotearoa we’d have to tell them to go all the way to the end of the shelf, right in the corner, and there “we” were, the last outpost before Antarctica (the collection began at Britain, of course). This annoyed me. On world maps you buy in Aotearoa/New Zealand, our country is generally placed in the middle, with Europe and Africa to the left the Americas to the right and the Pacific Ocean the first thing your eye is drawn to.

One of the strengths of the unstructured, browsing style queries these children at the library often used, was that (not withstanding the hidden hierarchies and politics that no doubt exist behind the Web), they tended to retrieve results that were more relevant to their ontological world view, with less chance of their knowledge being squeezed through some Anglo-centric structure of organization. Of course, this was then followed by the task of guiding them through the screeds of material retrieved by a natural language searches, and then invariably it was back to Dewey to finding the books they need on the shelf. But still, the control that they had in shaping their initial queries, getting the search engine to work for them, was important.

Researching information retrieval in terms of indigenous, non-Anglo/Euro structures, I found this article, Indigenous Knowledge Organization: A Study of Concepts, Terminology, Structure and (Mostly) Indigenous Voices (Lee, 2011) which looks at initiatives in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and the US to create databases and taxonomies relevant to indigenous knowledge. This article highlights exactly the kinds of issues I was thinking about in terms of Maori and Pacific children attempting to obtain information from a system that has little do with their own understanding of the world. Discussed is the “Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways”, a database founded in north-eastern Australia by elders of the Kuku Thaypan clan, which is user-centred and structured around browsing. The database shell has the functionality to be modified by other clans to reflect localised vocabularies. As the article makes clear, this is important, for example in the case of one particular clan using the database who have a vocabulary that reflects the fact they are a rainforest culture, which is meaningless to a desert-based clan, who use their own words to refer to particular animals. The article also brought to my attention to Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku/Maori Subject Headings, which is an initiative to provide a structured path to subjects relevant to Maori users of the library. This information is fed into general public library catalogues and databases, and so unlike the Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways, seems to be more interested in integrating knowledges, which perhaps reflects the position of indigenous people in Aotearoa/New Zealand as opposed to Australia.

Just a quick side-note about my blog: I have changed the theme, as my original theme had a very narrow text box which seemed a waste of space, and I thought the colours of the Widget fonts were not bold enough.  I got rid of the search box for now, as there is not enough content to warrant it, and I didn’t want Widgets for the sake of Widgets cluttering up the look of it.  At Ernesto’s suggestion I have added a creative commons licence; as a long-time zine maker and distributor I am very happy to give people permission to re-use any of this blog.  I should also have said in the first post that the picture at the top is Rangitoto, an inactive island volcano and one of Auckland’s major landmarks.  I guess I like to have it there as a reminder that everything I learn and read  on this course is always filtered through my experience of being an immigrant to the UK, and builds upon things I learned growing up in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

References: Lee, D. (2011) Indigenous Knowledge Organization: a study of concepts, terminology, structure and (mostly) indigenous voices.  Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 6 (1). Retrieved from: https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/viewArticle/1427/2089#.VEO5b1dWiVq.


8 thoughts on “Who gets to structure knowledge? Thoughts on non-Anglocentric information retrieval.

  1. This is a great post and very interesting. I work mainly with the Chinese collection at SOAS, where we’re putting out a new online catalogue. A lot of the indigenous script was just not showing up in this new catalogue, and some people were of the opinion that if the catalogue shows the transliteration it wouldn’t matter because the information would still be there. It has taken AGES to get people to realise that native speakers to NOT read their own language transliterated, and that to native speakers transliteration is thus virtually useless. My point being, yes, you’re completely right, we can be way too Anglo-centric in our approaches to information retrieval, and I think it would be nice if LIS as a whole started thinking outside of the Anglo-box. 😉

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ludi, that’s really interesting – and a bit disturbing to think that transliteration would be deemed acceptable by librarians! As well as being a prime example of ango-centrism, I’d think that transliteration would be somewhat imprecise also? It also seems to me that the question of just who the information is for is being left out of the equation there…!


  2. Really thoughtful post Melissa. Makes the case so clearly of how the way that we organise and access information is so culturally-specific. I’m definitely going to read more about Indigenous knowledge organisation – it’s also interesting to consider the role that Indigenous languages plays in the construction of knowledge, perhaps particularly in Australia where there are still so many different languages spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be really keen to hear more about your Australian experiences with education and libraries, Ali. Certainly interesting to compare it with NZ; I guess there are a lot of factors influencing the way indigenous knowledge is considered in either place, with as you say, the diversity of languages in Australia playing a big part, and also the commitment of the government to be inclusive!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for point us in this direction and making sure we think beyond this island. I can’t wait to dig deeper into English-but-not-in-England and there-may-even-be-other-languages (thanks, Ludi) as we think about the cultural centers of embedded in the systems. Nice one!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like this post – in my previous job I spent a lot of time cataloguing and classifying books, which made the bias inherent in the DDC and LCC systems obvious. I also read a very entertaining 1960s book by the radical librarian, Sanford Berman, called “Prejudices and Antipathies” which discusses the extensive biases that existed (and many still exist) in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. A PDF version of the book is hosted on his website if you or anyone else is interested in reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

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