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From Cataloguers to Designers: Paul Otlet, Social Impact and a More Proactive Role for Knowledge Organisation Professionals

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Abstract

In the early 20th century, Paul Otlet carved out a role for bibliography and documentation as a force for positive social change. While his ideals appeared to be utopian to many of his contemporaries, his activism and vision foreshadowed the potential of the World Wide Web. This paper discusses the role that KO professionals could play in enhancing the positive social impact of the web of knowledge, and how our roles are shifting from the more passive role of descriptive cataloguers, to proactive designers of positive and productive knowledge environments.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.1. From Cataloguers to Designers: Paul
Otlet, social impact and a more proactive
role for knowledge organisation
professionals
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.2.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.3. Patrick Lambe, Straits Knowledge, 77B Neil
Road, Singapore 088903,
plambe@straitsknowledge.com
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.4.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.5. Abstract
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.6.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.7. In the early 20th century, Paul Otlet carved
out a role for bibliography and documentation
as a force for positive social change. While his
ideals appeared to be utopian to many of his
contemporaries, his activism and vision
foreshadowed the potential (for good and evil)
of the World Wide Web. This paper discusses
the role that KO professionals could play in
enhancing the positive social impact of the web
of knowledge, and how our roles are shifting
from the more passive role of descriptive
cataloguers, to proactive designers of positive
and productive knowledge environments.
1
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.8.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.9. I would like to thank the three anonymous
reviewers who made valuable suggestions and
comments in refining the argument in this
paper.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.10.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.11. 1. Introduction
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.12. I should clarify my intent in this paper with
some working definitions. By “cataloguer” I
mean a person who makes a systematic list of
items, often of the same type. The cataloguer
may add descriptive detail to enrich the list,
such as various characteristics and attributes of
the items in the list, or relationships with other
items within the same list or in other lists. But
eEssentially
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.13. the task of a cataloguer is a descriptive one.
The cataloguer describes the world as it is. By
“designer” I mean a person who plans the look
or workings of something prior to it being
made, by preparing drawings or plans. These
plans may also be enriched by descriptive
detail, but the task of the designer is a future-
oriented task, describing the world as it could
2
be, or in some cases as it should be. In this
sense the work of the designer can be
prescriptive and future-shaping in a way that
the work of the cataloguer is not.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.14.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.15. Those of us who entered the profession of
knowledge organisation from the library and
information sciences are formed in the
descriptive disciplines of cataloguing. Even
when we are tasked with designing, let us say,
a taxonomy for a given purpose, our
orientation is still a descriptive one. We gather
the evidence and warrant for how the domain
we are covering should be modelled based on
current practice and need; we apply standards
or we negotiate standards against the current
variation of language and structure. Much of
what we do is focused on identifying the seeds
of order and consistency in the domains we
supervise, and on stabilising and projecting or
amplifying that order (Lambe 2007).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.16.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.17. We do not typically see ourselves as
inventers of order but as its discoverers and
3
protectors, or as Brian Vickery would have it,
problem-solvers around the flow of
information and provision of knowledge in
society (Robinson and Bawden 2012). In a less
expansive frame, Vickery claimed that the
descriptive work of the information profession
should maintain a rigid separation from the
active work of knowledge creation and
organisation, represented by scholars and
encyclopaedists (Vickery 2008; Lambe 2012,
262).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.18.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.19. A designer’s orientation tends more towards
invention. A designer begins with a need or a
desired outcome. There are discovery
techniques to be sure in finding the most
fruitful pathway towards the desired goal, but
designers see the present not as a source of
order to be stabilised and amplified, but as a
collection of resources, affordances and
constraints to be exploited or overcome
(Alexander 1964; Gregory 1966; Simon 1969).
As Bucolo and Matthews put it, “Design brings
a different way of thinking, doing things and
4
tackling problems to generate novel solutions.”
(Bucolo and Matthews 2011, 354).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.20.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.21. The theme of the ISKO UK 2015 conference
is “Knowledge Organization - Making a
Difference: the impact of knowledge
organization on society, scholarship and
progress”. The world we live in is complex and
messy, and the domain we work in –
knowledge organisation – is itself growing in
complexity. In this context I want to argue that
in order to make a difference and have an
impact in the world as the conference title
suggests, it would be highly advantageous to
knowledge organisation professionals to adopt
more of a designer’s orientation and to acquire
design skills and competencies. This will be
challenging, because we are not typically
formed professionally as designers, and
because the world still needs, and constantly
reinforces the need for the cataloguing
orientation.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.22.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.23. 2. Can Cataloguing and Design
5
Orientations Coexist? The Case of Paul
Otlet
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.24. The cataloguing orientation and the design
orientation appear to be in tension with each
other. This is not to claim that they are, but
they are not incommensurate. We routinely
manage past, present and future orientations in
our personal lives. While we may have biases
in these orientations, we resolve them in the
everyday decisions we take in governing our
lives. This mechanism is less obvious in our
professional lives, which are often functionally
partitioned, either by accident or design.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.25.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.26. For anAn outstanding example of the
marriage of a cataloguing perspective with a
future-oriented activist perspective, there is no
more outstanding case that that of the Belgian
Paul Otlet (1868-1944), one of the fathers of
information science. He is outstanding for his
vision and prescience as well as for his
uncharacteristically activist stance for our
profession. Otlet’s life work was devoted to the
design of a new world order, and he worked at
6
every level of granularity, from the collection
of documentation and cultural artefacts, to the
development of cataloguing standards and
classification schemes, to cooperative
cataloguing networks, to institutional reform
and international institution-building
(Rayward, 2003; Van den Heuvel 2009; Wright
2014). Otlet saw cataloguing as fundamental to
design, and he saw the work of the cataloguer
and the work of the designer as not merely
congruent, but inseparable.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.27.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.28. However, Otlet was a positivist in the school
of Auguste Comte. As eloquently summarised
by Otlet’s great evangeliser W. Boyd Rayward
(Rayward 1975, 25-6): “The essence of
Positivism as developed in the middle of the
nineteenth century by Auguste Comte, lay in
the Law of Three Stages and the Classification
of the Sciences. The Law of the Three Stages
asserted that as the mind developed, it passed
through a stage of theological explanation of
the world, to a stage of metaphysical
explanation, to the final positive stage where
7
all could be explained in terms of scientific
truth. As the mind progressed through these
stages, it did so in a definite order of
disciplines which became increasingly
interdependent and complex. At the first level
stood mathematics, followed by physics and
chemistry, then came biology, and everything
that came before culminated in psychology and
sociology. Sociology, the queen of sciences,
was viewed as a «unifying» science. What was
of primary importance for the positivist
philosopher was the formation of a «subjective
synthesis» of positive knowledge as a way of
envisaging and directing the development of
society.”
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.29.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.30. Otlet, along with many fin de siècle
Europeans, shared this view of the natural
progression of humankind through the growth
and integration of knowledge. In the Comtian
view, the work of knowledge organisation and
integration (for Otlet, documentation was the
primary vehicle for this task) was integral to
supporting the progress of humanity towards
8
its higher destiny. Indeed, Otlet found in this
vision the motivation for most of his
foundational ideas in information science, and
he held to them notwithstanding the terrible
counter-evidence provided by the brutality of
the First World War. As a Belgian, Otlet saw
the War at first hand, and lost his younger sons
to it. In fact, in the aftermath of the War he
became more than ever convinced of the power
of knowledge integration to overcome what he
saw as the self-interested diplomatic
squabbling of governments (Wright 2014, 147).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.31.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.32. In this sense, Otlet’s activism and future
orientation was not consistent with the modern
view of design as an activity that creates a
desired future. It was much more about
uncovering the desired future, from an intrinsic
capability that was already implicitly present.
In the positivist worldview, the design in
question is a natural design built into the
structure of knowledge and of human society,
and the cataloguer does not so much create the
future as enable it. To put it another way,
9
Otlet’s positivism allowed him to perceive
order in the future through the present. The
work of cataloguing, collection development,
institution building, and envisioning of world
cities and transnational governments, were all
part of a hierarchy of activities geared towards
uncovering an order that was already implicit
in the present. This explains why the work of
cataloguing can could be framed as radically
future-oriented, in a way that now seems quite
foreign.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.33.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.34. Otlet’s activism and future orientation was
an idealist one and not a pragmatic, purely
inventive one. However, his positivist
worldview provided a strong connection
between the cataloguing role of the knowledge
organization professional and an activist,
future-creating design role. In our time, in the
absence of a positivist worldview, we need
another mechanism to make this connection.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.35.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.36. 3. What is the Role of Ethics in Knowledge
Organisation?
10
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.37. Alex Wright begins his biography of Paul
Otlet with a troubling vignette. He describes a
meeting in December 1940 between Otlet and
Hugo Andres Krüss, Director General of the
Prussian State Library, and member of the
Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce – the body
appointed by the Nazis to appropriate cultural
property from Nazi-occupied territories. Krüss
was responsible for the bibliographic arm of
the Taskforce’s operations, and he was meeting
Otlet as a prelude to the removal of Otlet’s 15
million item catalogue, the Universal
Bibliography, and a selection of documents and
ephemera of interest to the Taskforce. In the
process, the Nazis discarded and destroyed
sixty-three tons of material that they
considered “rubbish” (Wright 2014, 3-11;
Rayward 1975, 361).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.38.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.39. Hugo Krüss was no gangster. He was a
distinguished librarian (Schochow 1995). He
had played a leading role in the founding of
IFLA in 1927 (De Vries 1976, 8), oversaw the
production of the German Union Catalogue in
11
1931 (Bohrmann 1989), and was active in the
committees of the League of Nations, and in
international bibliographic congresses. He had
last met Otlet in October 1937 at a
Documentation Congress in Paris (Wright
2014, 3). Krüss had also been actively involved
in supporting the Nazi agenda, had vocally
supported the Nazi book-burnings of February
1933, and in 1934 spoke out against the
“Library of burnt books” (Deutsche
Freiheitsbibliothek) established in Paris as a
haven for the books banned and burnt by the
Nazis (Haase 2000, 87). This library would
eventually be destroyed by German troops on
the occupation of Paris in 1940.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.40.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.41. We have in fact a long history of professional
complicity in the destruction of, or restriction
of access to knowledge. The Chinese emperors,
beginning with Qin Shihuangde, routinely
eradicated the libraries and the scholarship of
the preceding dynasty, and established their
own, to be echoed in Mao’s Cultural
Revolution (Stille 2002, 52; Polastron 2007).
12
The eradication of knowledge as a form of
cultural or ideological control is a
characteristic of totalitarian regimes. While
there are many instances of library
professionals (and citizens) subverting the auto
da fé through preservation in secret, it is
difficult to see how the cleansing regimes
could have performed their tasks so thoroughly
without professional help, from those such as
Hugo Krüss.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.42.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.43. Let us take an example closer to home.
POPLINE is the world’s biggest database on
reproductive health, with about a third of a
million articles. It is funded by the federal
agency USAID, and managed by the Johns
Hopkins School of Public Health. If you do a
search in its database today under “abortion”
you’ll find over 7,800 articles. Between
February and April 2008, you wouldn’t have
found any articles.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.44.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.45. In February 2008, staff at USAID (which at
that time had a reputation for enforcing the
13
conservative anti-abortion views of the Bush
administration) contacted POPLINE
administrators to express concern about two
articles they had found on the database which
were about abortion advocacy. POPLINE
reviewed the articles, decided they didn’t fit
with the database’s collection policy, and
removed them. But it seems the database and
taxonomy administrators didn’t want to be
caught out like that again. So they then took a
decision of their own, to make “abortion” a
stop-word. A stop word is a word that a search
engine decides doesn’t exist. They were
introduced to help search engines ignore non-
meaningful terms like “and”, “the”, “of”. In
the case of POPLINE, the stop word tactic was
used to make a concept disappear. The rest of
the knowledgebase on abortion was still there,
but undiscoverable using the term “abortion”
in the search box.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.46.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.47. The library and research community took
some time to react. It was only at the end of
March 2008 that medical librarian listserves
14
started discussing the mystery. One of them
shared how one of their researchers had written
to POPLINE to ask about the mysterious
disappearance and got the following reply:
“Yes we did make a change in POPLINE. We
recently made all abortion terms stop words.
As a federally funded project, we decided this
was best for now. In addition to the terms
you’re already using, you could try using
‘Fertility Control, Postconception’. This is the
broader term to our ‘Abortion’ terms and most
records have both in the keyword fields. Also,
adding ‘unwanted w2 pregnancy’ in place of
aborti*. We have a keyword Pregnancy,
Unwanted and there are 2517 records with
aborti* & unwanted w2 pregnancy.”
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.48.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.49. The library community erupted. By early
April the New York Times was covering the
story, and reported that the Dean of the Public
Health School had ordered the database folks
to reintroduce “abortion” into the English
language, and was setting up an inquiry into
how such a decision had been taken (Pear
15
2008; Mai 2008; Walden 2008). Jens-Erik Mai,
a professor at the University of Toronto stepped
above the reflexive outrage of the library
community, and made this remark: “this
example highlight [sic] a more important
principle – the ethical dimension of KO.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the
politics behind removing the abortion category
and thereby eliminating the concept from the
vocabulary; one needs to ask what is wrong
and what is right in this regard – and more
importantly, one needs to ask, who or what
determines what is wrong and right.” (Mai
2008).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.50.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.51. And this is my point: without an ethical
frame, the work of knowledge organization
becomes a tool of whichever ideology is
powerful enough to coopt it. Without an ethical
frame, there is no reference that allows us to
reason in favour of compliance, protest or
resistance. We are left with visceral responses
and not reasoned ones. And the work of
knowledge organization is far-reaching. It
16
clearly has ethical dimensions.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.52.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.53. At the heart of Bowker and Star’s (1999)
magisterial book Sorting things out is a study
of the active role of classification in supporting
and enforcing the apartheid regime in South
Africa. In my book Organising knowledge, in
the cases of Victoria Climbié and Vivian
Alvarez I explore the dreadful consequences
that can ensue from failures in knowledge
organization (Lambe 2007, 50-7). We are
implicated ethically by the work we do,
whether we have an ethical stance or not.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.54.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.55. This is not a universally accepted argument.
While the literature is sparse on the ethical
implications of the more technical aspects of
our work (Shoemaker 2015), there is a broader
literature in the library profession, where since
the 1980s there has been significant progress in
developing professional codes of ethics (Foster
and Mcmenemy 2012). However even in that
domain there is a strong tradition of so-called
“ethical neutrality” (Foskett 1962; Hauptman
17
1976; Hauptman 1996; Branum 2014). In
Foskett’s famous words, “During reference
service, the librarian ought virtually to vanish
as an individual person, except in so far as his
personality sheds light on the working of the
library. He must be the reader’s alter ego,
immersed in his politics, his religion, his
morals” (Foskett 1962, 10).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.56.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.57. Now Foskett’s position was not in broad
terms ethically neutral. His exposition of a
“librarian’s philosophy” is rooted in
Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Librarianship, and
is implicitly ethical in its orientation of service
to community, employers and clients, and of
providing access to the collective memory. He
speaks passionately of librarianship as “the
very negation of the predatory society towards
which we are rushing, where all the old truths
have taken on a new, more terrible
significance: where it is every man for himself
and the devil take the hindmost, where the race
does go to the strong, and the weak do go to
the wall”’ (Foskett 1962, 13).
18
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.58.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.59. Nevertheless, the very fact that a debate
about neutrality exists is striking. When this is
combined with an ethic of responsive service
as distinct from proactive anticipation of need,
it is easy to see why there might be a certain
ethical passivitysm in the profession. The
activist librarian and cataloguer Sandford
Berman is a very rare exception. Absent an
activist, future-oriented stance, there is little
motivation or indeed personal or institutional
capacity to actively explicate and enforce
ethical codes of practice in the knowledge and
information professions (Wong 2004).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.60.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.61. Let us return to the theme of the ISKO UK
2015 conference, “making a difference”. Hugo
Krüss, Paul Otlet and the POPLINE taxonomy
administrators all satisfied the technical
meaning of that phrase. They all made a
difference. As a profession we need an ethical
frame in order to discriminate which kind of
difference we want to make, and whether it
should be considered beneficial or sinister.
19
Indeed, having an ethical frame is considered
foundational to the nature of a profession, and
this is normally embedded in a professional
code of practice (Abbott 1988, 9-20; Mason et
al. 1995). While many knowledge professionals
would not disagree with this claim, my
argument here is that having a generalized
ethical frame is insufficient to actually have
impact in the world, when that frame is
essentially passive in nature. As a profession
we need an orientation and a toolset that gives
us the both the rationale and the capability to
engage with the world to effect change.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.62.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.63. This is why a design orientation is important
to knowledge organization professionals,
because a design orientation is activist, future-
oriented, and geared towards desired goals.
Moreover, it delivers the skills to envision and
bring about a desired future state. As long as
our stance is a descriptive one, oriented
towards ordering and cataloguing the present,
we do not as a profession develop the capacity
or the skills to change the present in favour of a
20
desired, beneficial future. That capacity and
those skills are cultivated in the discipline of
design. Taking an ethical stance – if that stance
is essentially passive in orientation – is
meaningless without also developing the skills
and practices of design. Without these skills
and practices, and the capability for a more
activist ethical stance, we are vulnerable to
becoming the tools, through action or
omission, of whatever ideology happens to
control our purse strings or our institutions.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.64.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.65. 4. The World Wide Web: Otlet
Vindicated?
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.66. In 1991, as Tim Berners-Lee was working in
Switzerland to build the architecture of the
World Wide Web, pre-eminent Otlet scholar W.
Boyd Rayward gave a presentation at a
conference in Finland describing a number of
historical schemes to integrate and link
information resources for the benefit of society,
from the British John Dury in 1640s England,
by way of Leibniz’s Encyclopaediae Perfectae
and Otlet’s “Office of Documentation” to H.G.
21
Well’s vision of the “World Brain”. The
stimulus for Rayward’s three hundred year
historical traverse was the new potential of the
emerging hypertext and hypermedia systems to
fulfill the vision of these figures, and
specifically to unlock and connect the
information resources locked in the
professional siloes of libraries, archives and
museums (Rayward 1994a). And at face value,
Otlet’s vision of interconnected information
resources, comprising media of many different
kinds, available world-wide through common
protocols and standards, seems prescient
(Rayward 1994b; Van den Heuvel 2009; Van
den Heuvel 2010; Wright 2014, 268-294).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.67.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.68. Beneath the surface, however, there are also
striking differences between Otlet’s vision and
the manifestation of the World Wide Web. As
early as 1994, Rayward was pointing out that
Otlet, in sharp contrast to modern approaches
to information retrieval, “displayed little or no
interest in the user, other than in an extremely
generalised sense. He certainly gave little or no
22
sign of having a concept of user needs as we
now understand them. His orientation was, on
the face of it, completely different” (Rayward
1994b, 247).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.69.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.70. Otlet’s vision of the mechanics of knowledge
decomposition and recombination depended
upon a top-down system of scholarly validation
that is quite different from the demotic and
participative nature of the Web as we know it
today (Van den Heuvel 2009). And yet at the
same time, the vision for the Semantic Web,
and the instruments of Linked Data and RDF
triples echo some of “the instruments and
protocols envisioned by Otlet to enhance
collaborative knowledge production” (Van den
Heuvel 2009, 214). In fact, the very looseness
of conceptual and vocabulary control on the
Web poses serious problems for scholarship
(Van den Heuvel 2009, 215).: “Researchers in
the humanities and social sciences for the
greater part use small, heterogeneous datasets
that are often highly ambiguous in meaning.
Especially humanities and social sciences
23
scholars are often concerned with how
meaning is created, communicated,
manipulated and perceived. Therefore the
cyberinfrastructures around such datasets
require both sufficient information to
generalize findings and tools to put these into
context, for example by using annotation. This
requires an infrastructure that allows both for
critical mass and standardization and for
heterogeneity and contextualization.”
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.71.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.72. Both Paul Otlet and Hugo Krüss, in different
ways, embodied and enacted models of control
that are sharply at odds with the emergent
nature of the World Wide Web – for Otlet, it
was bibliographic control, and for Krüss,
control of the knowledge resources themselves.
The Web has manifested an additional
dimension, an information and knowledge
infrastructure that is uncontrolled or only
incompletely controlled. Lawrence Lessig has
written about the dynamic tensions in
cyberspace between openness and control. He
has described the initial emergence of the Web
24
as “the unplanned displacement of a certain
architecture of control” by heady visions of
freedom and anarchy, only to be followed by
the gradual establishment of a new and largely
hidden architecture of control (Lessig 2006, 2-
5).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.73.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.74. The tension between control and freedom,
between order and disorder, characterize the
World Wide Web in a manner unanticipated by
Otlet. It is here that the task of design in
knowledge organization comes into play. As
cataloguers we are, as was Otlet, exponents of
control. We are unversed in the landscapes of
emergence and lack of control. Think of the
vocabulary we use in our professional lives to
describe the range of our approaches to
taxonomies and classification schemes: pre-
coordination and post-coordination. In both
instances, we develop taxonomic structures that
either predict the placement of a concept in
advance, or predict the conceptual and ordering
framework into which a concept or entity
should fit when we encounter it. Neither
25
instance fully accommodates a wholly or
partially uncoordinated information
environment where meaning emerges
spontaneously from patterns of behavior (as
instantiated by patterns such as “people who
bought this book also bought …” or the
statistical correlations uncovered by so called
“Big Data” analytics).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.75.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.76. Designers, by contrast, are versed in the art
of creating meaning and function from a
disordered universe. The World Wide Web has
expanded our universe and we need to develop
the skills to match.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.77.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.78. 5. The Implications of the Web For Our
Work
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.79. The framework in Figure 1 attempts to
express the dynamics and tensions of the
information and knowledge environment that
we work within. Many of us work within
enclosed, organizational contexts. However,
since the 1990s, the changes in those internal,
mostly-controlled information environments
26
have been driven by the dynamics of the wider
environment represented by the World Wide
Web. The Web drives us, and the challenges of
design produced by the Web will drive the
skills and capabilities we will need in our
narrower organizational lives.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.80.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.81. The framework shows two sets of competing
polarities: on the horizontal axis, there is a
polarity between Disorder and Order.
“Disorder” refers to the absence of centralized
control, and so more properly means a domain
of competing orders, while “Order” refers to a
single source of active, centralized control. On
the vertical axis there is a polarity between
Sequestration and the Commons.
“Sequestration” refers to the enclosure of
resources for the purposes of control and
economic exploitation. The “Commons” refers
to the idea that certain goods are held in
common and should be accessible to all. The
relevance of having an ethical stance should be
clear from this vertical polarity.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.82.
27
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.83. Figure 1: A framework for thinking about the
role of KO professionals
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.84.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.85. Let us begin in the region with which we are
most familiar, the right hand side, the domain
of Order. As knowledge organization
professionals we are formed in, and work
mainly in an ordered domain, or in a domain
that we presume should be ordered. There are
varieties of activity here, depending on the
ends to which our labours are put, and we have
developed instruments that, deliberately or not,
enable either sequestration or the commons.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.86.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.87. 5.1 Dictatorships
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.88. Dictatorships are a social phenomenon
characteristic of sequestration and order. They
sequester resources for the exploitation of the
ruling elite, and they impose instruments of
order and control to those ends. In knowledge
organization terms, single-hierarchy pre-
coordinated classification schemes are the
instruments of choice in this domain, because
they are particularly amenable to the
28
expression of a single, privileged perspective
on the knowledge domain. Knowledge
organization professionals also serve in this
domain, and we might take Hugo Krüss as an
extreme exemplar.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.89.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.90. 5.2 Utopias
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.91. Utopias are a social construct expressive of
organization for the general interests of the
commons. That they have consistently failed to
produce sustained value for their members
does not diminish their attractiveness. The
language of the early World Wide Web,
coming as it did after the heady disintegration
of the Soviet bloc in 1989, carried particularly
utopian resonances. As Lessig puts it (Lessig
2006, 3): “The claim for cyberspace was not
just that government would not regulate
cyberspace—it was that government could not
regulate cyberspace. Cyberspace was, by
nature, unavoidably free. Governments could
threaten, but behavior could not be controlled;
laws could be passed, but they would have no
real effect. There was no choice about what
29
kind of government to install—none could
reign. Cyberspace would be a society of a very
different sort. There would be definition and
direction, but built from the bottom-up. The
society of this space would be a fully self-
ordering entity, cleansed of governors and free
from political hacks.”
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.92.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.93. Paul Otlet belongs firmly in the utopian
space, and it is no accident that he laid the
foundations for post-coordination in
classification schemes. The 1990s enthusiasm
for universal ontology-building also belongs to
this domain. Ontologies, and their less
sophisticated relatives, faceted taxonomies, are
instruments that explicitly enable the taking of
multiple perspectives on the same domain,
disabling the dominance of a single, privileged
perspective.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.94.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.95. “Utopian” is also often understood as a
synonym for “unrealistic”. Historically,
property held in common has always been
subjected to the pressures of sequestration,
30
because communities are not typically very
efficient in their exploitation of common
resources, a phenomenon known as “the
tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968). But
enclosure of resources for the purposes of
economic exploitation often poses strong
ethical dilemmas. For example,
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.96.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.97. Tthe enclosure of common land by big
landowners in Scotland in the 18th century was
on the one hand seen as a necessity for
enhancing the overall economic productivity
and prosperity of society, but on the other hand
resulted in ruinous hardship for dispossessed
tenants and labourers. The arguments for
sequestration are that it is necessary for the
requisite levels of control and investment, and
the arguments against are that left
uncontrolled, sequestration results in
permanent marginalization, dispossession and
alienation of a portion of the community.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.98.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.99. In the field of knowledge organization,
utopian schemes such as those of Paul Otlet or
31
the universal ontology proponents are similarly
disparaged for being unrepresentative of the
way the world really works. In 2001 Cory
Doctorow (2001) itemized seven “real world”
reasons why what he termed “meta-utopia”
was unrealizable (Doctorow 2001):
People lie
People are lazy
People are stupid
People are not good observers of their own behaviours
Schemas are not neutral
Metrics influence results
There are multiple ways of describing the same thing.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.100.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.101. If we move to the left hand side of the
framework in Figure 1, we begin to explore the
domains for which we are less well prepared.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.102.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.103. 5.3 Cooperatives
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.104. At the bottom left, cooperatives are a
social form that, if not exactly disordered,
express a preference for the community
without hierarchical systems of order and
32
control. The orientation of people in this space
is that of participative knowledge sharing, and
the knowledge organization form most
characteristic of this domain is the mid 2000s
enthusiasm for the folksonomy, an approach to
participative tagging using uncontrolled, user-
contributed keywords or tags (Smith 2008).
Socially exposing these tags on very large,
diverse collections of media can enable rich
serendipity, but as a mechanism for enabling
precision and recall in more focused
information seeking activities, they are
severely problematic, and they work not at all
on small, constrained content collections
(Lambe 2007, 240-4).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.105.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.106. As knowledge organization
professionals, we encounter this form most
productively as a source of potential
vocabulary (along with search analytics reports
on search query strings) for our controlled
vocabularies and taxonomies (Lambe 2007,
245-9). They give us evidence of how our users
think about the knowledge space, to be factored
33
into our considerations of order and control.
We give scant attention to the characteristics of
the environment in which they are produced,
and in particular the learning and design
opportunities afforded by distinctive patterns of
emergent behavior.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.107.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.108. 5.4 Competitive Oligopolies
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.109. At the top left the forces of sequestration
are in full play. A social form characteristic of
this domain is the competitive oligopoly, huge
businesses whose income exceeds the GDP of
many countries. In the context of cyberspace,
these are companies such as Google, Facebook,
Amazon and Apple. They have made it their
business to sequester data about human
activity, whether it be behaviours around
search, social interaction, geographical
mobility, purchases, software services, or
media consumption; having enclosed it, they
apply sophisticated data analytics algorithms
for their further economic benefit. In order to
attract the activity into their enclosed
platforms, these companies initially offer
34
services that are free, fast, cheap or superbly
designed.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.110.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.111.These oligopolies exist in other sectors too,
and the pattern is the same – to establish an
enclosed infrastructure where an economic
benefit can be derived from collecting and
analyzing user behaviours within that space,
quite apart from the first-order economic
transactions that may take place.
Pharmaceutical companies establish data
enclaves to justify their investment in R&D.
Manufacturing companies such as GE are
investing in the “Internet of Things” in order to
understand and exploit the behaviours of their
machinery on a vast scale. Retail chains such
as Target are analyzing shopping behaviours in
order to enhance the effectiveness of highly
segmented selling and promotions. Publishers
establish content subscription services,
research tools and collaboration platforms so as
to observe and further exploit the activities of
their users around their controlled content.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.112.
35
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.113. All of these oligopolies depend on
achieving a vast scale of activity, because it is
scale of activity that drives the detection of
significant and exploitable patterns in the data.
This has two consequences. The first is that
they are fiercely competitive, because they
need to grow fast;, and this drives secrecy
about their methods of data analysis and
exploitation. The second is that they crowd out
competition by securing economic advantage,
the implication being that diversity, and the
creativity and innovation that the Web initially
inspired, are gradually becoming eroded
(Lessig 2002, viii).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.114.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.115. This is the domain of Big Data, which is
driven by a need with which we are familiar:
the need to resolve variant vocabularies to the
same base set of concepts and establish salient
relationships for the purposes of aggregation
and analysis. However, while superficially
reliant on the same knowledge organization
tools as in the domain of order, the algorithms
and tools by which these analytics are
36
conducted are opaque and resistant to external
validation. That is the meaning of data
sequestration, and it is the reason why we are
largely inexperienced in its methods, except for
the breathless examples expounded in the
popular big data literature. And opacity,
combined with overweening faith in
technology, can cause life-threatening errors
when combined with scenarios such as in
healthcare and air travel (Wachter 2015, 127-
165; National Transportation Safety Board
2014, 127).
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.116.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.117.5.5 Finding Our Place
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.118. It is important to understand that what
we are describing in this framework is a
dynamic space in which the tensions between
polarities are being played out. An element of
sequestration is necessary for a market
economy to thrive and for productivity and
innovation to be enhanced. But if sequestration
results in severe erosion of the commons and
marginalization of significant sectors of
society, it is as unhealthy as a utopian and
37
unsustainable commune.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.119.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.120. Similarly, our rhetoric of order through
cataloguing and control must be understood as
only one pole of a dynamic that contains a
capacity for uncontrolled resources, because
that is the space in which emergence, learning
and innovation happen. Clay Shirky was
correct in his claim that “ontology is
overrated” but he and his fellow traveller David
Weinberger are wrong in their belief that, as
Alex Wright puts it, “the hive mind of the
collective will sort everything out” (Wright
2014, 279; Shirky 2005; Weinberger 2007).
The World Wide Web contains the dynamics of
order (embodied in the initiatives of the
Semantic Web and Linked Data) as well as
openness and disorder. They coexist, and they
coexist for a good reason. Our job, as
knowledge organization professionals, is to
find our place in the midst of that dynamic, not
at one of its poles. And because we are also in
a dynamic between benefits to the many (the
commons) and benefits to the few
38
(sequestration) we are also in a dynamic with
strong ethical implications. The orientation and
discipline of design is not a choice for us, it is a
necessity.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.121.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.122. 6. Examples of A Design Orientation
in Knowledge Organisation
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.123.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.124. 6.1 Knowledge Graphs
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.125. At the centre of the framework in Figure
1, I have placed a knowledge organization form
that is relatively new: the knowledge graph.
Technically and reductively speaking, a
knowledge graph is a representation of
relationships between concepts within a
knowledge domain.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.126.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.127. In their relatively recent application by
Google to enhance the quality and richness of
search results, knowledge graphs have become
a fascinating artifact of design, tracing
relationships beyond the constraints of the
conceptual schemas familiar to taxonomists
and ontologists. They , and connecting
39
concepts with data, with media, and with
curated information content. The knowledge
graph as represented by Google is a designed
graph of salient relationships supporting
identified user needs. Relationships are no
longer in-schema pathways between concepts –
they transgress their schema’s own boundaries
and become a means of connecting anything
with anything.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.128.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.129. How does this work? The Google
knowledge graph powers an “index card” that
appears at the top right of a search results page
when the search is for a known entity in the
graph – known entities include people,
organizations and locations. The index card for
Carl Linnaeus contains images representing
him drawn from anywhere on the Web; it
contains biographical data drawn from
Wikipedia, and links to saved searches on
geographical locations and persons of
significance in his life; it contains links to his
books, and it gives you suggestions for people
searches often associated with a search for
40
Linnaeus. Behind this index card there is the
standard taxonomist’s disambiguation of
alternative forms of his name. The index card
for University College London contains a link
to the Google maps database, a profile drawn
from Wikipedia, contact details and enrolment
numbers, a link to its profile and recent posts
on Google Plus, links to searches on notable
alumni, and frequently associated searches. It
also allows you to take follow up actions, such
as get directions, write a review or follow on
Google Plus. The index card for London
contains a link to the Google maps database, a
brief profile and key data on area and date of
foundation. It pulls data from a weather and a
time server to tell you the current weather and
time there. It gives a list of saved searches for
possible destinations, points of interest and to
academic institutions.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.130.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.131. Google kKnowledge gGraph is explicitly
and avowedly a work of design (Simister 2012).
The designs of the index cards for different
kinds of entities are based on analysis of user
41
queries associated with those entities (Singhal
2012). Statistical analysis is used to identify
salient associations of information and other
knowledge objects, to meet common needs. A
conceptual schema and rulebase in a form that
we would recognize as a KOS is built to handle
associations between concepts. Then the graph
is extended to leapfrog the concepts wherever
possible and go directly to the data that is
required, whether it is public sources
leveraging Linked Data, or proprietary data
from Google itself. The presentation layer – the
index card – is designed and refined based on
further analysis of user behaviours around it.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.132.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.133. Google kKnowledge gGraph is a
beautiful example of the marriage of the
domains of rules-based order, and disordered
empiricism (Gilchrist et al 2013, 5-6). As Gary
Marcus (2012) of The New Yorker put it:
“Google is becoming something else, a
rapprochement between nativism and
empiricism, a machine that combines the great
statistical power empiricists have always
42
yearned for with an enormous built-in database
of the structured categories of persons, places,
and things, much as nativists might have
liked.” And herein lies the clue to the potential
power in occupying the centre of our
framework between Order and Disorder,
between Sequestration and the Commons, and
in adopting a design orientation alongside our
cataloguing orientation.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.134.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.135. 6.2 Search Based Applications
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.136. Google kKnowledge gGraph – or rather
the set of index cards that it powers – is
essentially a generalized search-based
application. Search-based applications are
software applications that apply search
technology focused on retrieving specific
results for specific groups of people, from
specific (usually multiple) data sources for
specific highly contextualized purposes, and
often spanning multiple devices.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.137.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.138. Here are some examples:
In a factory, mobile devices monitor the geolocation of their owners, and when
43
they approach the location of a previous safety incident, the search based
application calls on an incident reporting database and a lessons learnt
database and sends an alert to the person.
In a hospital, a search based application supports a prescribing physician by
calling on commercial data from pharmaceutical databases, filtered by the
hospital’s epharmacy database for generic alternatives that are in stock, the
patient’s medical records system to check for contraindications and insurance
coverage, a lessons learnt system for local examples of adverse outcomes, and
a social sharing site on side effects and lifestyle advice.
In an inspection and compliance job involving site visits, a mobile application
checks the weather forecast for the next day, the list of upcoming target sites,
and uses a mapping application to map and schedule the optimal sequence of
visits for the next day.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.139.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.140. Like Google kKnowledge gGraph, the
search-based application is agnostic as to the
distinction between concept and content. What
the designer of a search- based application
cares about, is enabling productive activity, and
to do this, it is essential to understand the
nature and the context of the activity. In the
background is the knowledge organization
work with which we are familiar – the mapping
and resolution of similar concepts, the
44
mapping of relationships that are salient to the
task.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.141.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.142. There is also work with which we
knowledge organization professionals are less
familiar:
the design work of understanding the goals of specific communities of users
who are engaged in specific target activities, identifying contextual needs, and
pathways to meet those needs
the design work of developing intuitive interfaces
the experimental work of developing and testing prototypes
the knowledge organization work of leapfrogging concepts and mapping
directly to content wherever possible
the knowledge organization work of understanding the target data structures
and how they are interrogated
the technology work of understanding the search tools and how they work with
data sources, conceptual schemas and multiple devices.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.143.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.144. 7. Conclusion: The Ethical Challenge
for Knowledge Organisation Professionals
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.145.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.146. An ethical stance cannot be actualized
without a design orientation. Yet a design
orientation in and of itself is not ethical, any
45
more than a cataloguing orientation is. My
proposal in this paper is that the ethical stance
for knowledge organization professionals is
located at the centre of the framework in
Figure 1, squarely at the centre of the dynamics
between Order and Disorder, and mediating the
interests of the Commons against the economic
value created by Sequestration. We have a role
to play in achieving the marriage of our
traditional cataloguing orientation with an
empirical, activist design orientation that is
capable of exploiting emergent insights from
the domain of disorder, for productive use.
Beyond the technical competencies and skills
that this will involve, in the spirit of Paul Otlet,
we outline here a series of five structural and
institutional steps that professional associations
such as ISKO should adopt if we are to meet
this challenge.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.147.
1. We should explicitly endorse and work to promote the movements that seek to
counterbalance the sequestration of proprietary data: eg. Open Data, Creative
Commons and Open Source Initiative;
2. We should incorporate as far as possible into our professional work the
46
adoption of open standards that enable exchange and sharing of data and
information across the World Wide Web, such as Linked Open Data standards
and RDF, even where such standards are not immediately called for by the task
at hand;
3. We should actively question any commercial sequestration of data and
information that causes demonstrable social or economic harm to parts of our
communities;
4. We should actively sponsor and engage in research in empirical, verifiable
methods for big data analysis, and the development of open analytical and
visualization tools in this area; and
5. In our professional formation, through universities, further education, and
professional development activities, we should enlarge our curricula to cover
the technologies, standards and skills that are implicit in a design orientation
to knowledge organization work.
1.1.1.1.1.1.1.148.
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