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.


Digital representation and realness. And Charlie and the chocolate factory.

Hearing the name “Foucault”  in the first DITA lecture gave me the warm fuzzies, as  a while ago I did a post grad diploma in post-structural feminist theory.  I still takes me forever to crack Foucault’s code and figure out what he’s on about (I finished that degree 12 years ago and haven’t picked up a text book since – apart from to shelve it of course), but it’s always a worthwhile process. The concept of the panopticon still frightens me, and I find it interesting that at Birkbeck where I work, they now use lecture capture technology called…panopto…

Ernesto commented in the first DITA lecture than when we digitise a thing it’s as though we atomise it, with the bits coming together as a digital representation of the “thing” on the computer screen. So one of the first things I found myself thinking about in DITA was Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Desperate to get “on” the TV he is shrunk by a ray and “atomised”, before appearing on/in the television screen.  And of course when he is comes out of the TV, he remains tiny.

This explained a lot to me as a child, how else, after all, did things appear on TV? It was one of those taken-for-granted technologies, just like “the Cloud” is today. (Has anyone else noticed then when most people talk about the Cloud they seem always to look up at the sky and wave their hands about vaguely? If only Roald Dahl was still around to explain it all to us).

The concept of the “realness” of digital representation interests me.  At Birkbeck Library, for example, when we order an article as an inter-library loan from the British Library, it will come as a Secure Electronic Delivery (SED) which is a link that can only be opened once.  The life cycle of this SED is this: the British Library scans an article from the hard copy of one of their books.  They email it as an SED to Birkbeck Library. Birkbeck then opens the file and prints it out again, before re-scanning it, turning it once again into a digital file. The link to this file then gets added to a reading list in a Moodle module.  The student then, more often than not, clicks the link in Moodle and prints the article again, I suppose for ease of reading.  If the article was Mike Teavee it would be absolutely miniscule at the end of this process.

The reason for all the palavar, is, of course, copyright, wherein the restrictions don’t seem to have caught up with the digital age.  The BL doesn’t want Birkbeck to willy nilly distribute the article online, however, printed versions can be photocopied to death, as has been the case for years.  Somehow the digital is more dangerous? And for the student, the printed copy more tangible?


Update to this post: the UK Government has actually made reforms to copyright low specifically to reflect the digital age: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-exceptions-to-copyright-reflect-digital-age.  Of particular interest to me is the way in which these changes have opened the options up for disabled students, as now any students with a disability are legally allowed to modify texts in order to improve accessiblity.

First post for DITA!

I have to admit, before the course began I was a little daunted by DITA.  Where new technology is concerned I veer towards being one of those “it will never catch on!” people until it reaches a critical mass – and then I meekly get on board with it.

Complicating this is the fact that I work in the e-services team at Birkbeck Library, University of London, where the sole purpose of our jobs is to remain abreast of information technology and figure out how best to present it to students (i.e. information architecture!).  I also job share as the Library Access Support co-ordinator, supporting students with disabilities and dyslexia, and assistive technology is hugely important for these students.

So, it’s clearly time for an attitude adjustment.  I’m looking forward to it.

I chose this specific blog template as it seemed the cleanest and simplest to read.  These days, I am thinking a lot about information architecture in the context of my work with visually impaired students.  I work with blind students who utilise software such as JAWS, which reads out loud to the user, and navigates a webpage using keyboard tabbing. This is all dependent on the behind-the-scenes structure of the website, how things are tagged and ordered and so on, and very quickly it becomes obvious which websites have been constructed with thought for the end user – all end users – and which have not.  Reluctantly I have learned to be impressed with Apple, who (despite the many problematic issues around the production of their products and treatment of human workers) create technology that can be navigated by users of all abilities.

In terms of the final look of my blog, in the end I was not very happy with the out of the box colours or size of the text, and I will be changing this down the track when I have more time.  Good information architecture is essential for widening participation in education and the democratic dissemination of knowledge!  All things that drew me to becoming a librarian in the first place.  So, teach me DITA!