Small Group Reflection – Knowledge Management

Okay, I know. We didn’t have a small group activity for this class. I did want to note, however, that I enjoyed the conversation about Josh’s workplace predicament. In work and in life, it’s easy to say one thing and expect another. There’s a tendency among management (and people, in general) to define their goal as one thing because it sounds nice when they actually have completely different priorities – perhaps less magnanimous but just as valid. They talk about wanting community because they know that people show up for community. What they actually want are people to show up at their website to get downloads and ask technical questions and maybe even see what software is coming next. They definitely DON’T want dissension and criticism, an important part of community.

As we become more and more responsible for high level responsibilities in our careers, it will become very necessary that we observe, interpret, and communicate with those around us. All the skills that we’ve been hearing about since birth (it seems) – listening, paying attention, thinking first, talking last – are vital to our effectiveness in whatever role we find ourselves.

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Small Group Reflection – Augmentation

For our activity, we actually did an exercise based on “activity theory.” Ironic, I thought. Our goal was to determine the components of an activity system. Briefly, our group chose to talk about TCP-IP as our tool. It was a fiasco, even though we had a good time creating our mess. Looking back, however, it seems to me that while we tend to give theories a lot of credence (rightly or wrongly), we may misunderstand their role from time to time. A lot of times, it seems that we give theories this power to explain everything. In fact, a theory, in my mind, should be more of a platform on which we can organize thought. In our group, we tried to use the activity theory to explain how TCP-IP is used to share information. Perhaps we would have been much better served to begin with our objective – what were we hoping to accomplish. I think the main failure in our system was that we were defining TCP-IP as a tool but were actually treating it as the objective.

From the activity, I learned that developing maps of an activity system can be useful but only when an objective is well defined. Although our map seemed to portray equal value for all the components (subject, tool, objective, rules, community, division of labor), the whole thing seems pretty pointless if there is no goal for the activity being described. During the class discussion, we also talked about another “activity system” (although I don’t think that’s what it’s called): H -> L A M -> T (human -> language, artifact, methodology -> training). This system seems to correspond, at least in part, to the top portion of the Scandinavian activity theory model (subject, tool, objective). I wonder if, had we used both theories, we might have been more successful in mapping our system.

Based on our activity, I also wondered how often the use of these maps has turned into huge management exercises that produced no useful or usable information. We were mapping what we knew. No new knowledge, in our case at least, was created. Instead, we found that we were struggling with knowledge that we already had, trying to make it conform to the model. Perhaps, this could be useful as a way to reimagine what we know – making more out of what we already have. I’m not sure. I think it’d actually require a lot more information and introspection to determine just what the role of activity theory and the mapping of activity systems means for us as librarians and, more generally, managers.

Small Group Reflection – Building a Thesaurus

For our small group activity, we had to take a list of subjects and create a thesaurus. According the ISO, a thesaurus must be composed of terms rather than phrases (which often characterized subject headings). Based on that standard and our assignment, one of the easiest parts of this exercise was determining what would be preferred and non-preferred terms in the thesaurus. Everything else about this assignment was hard. During the entire time, I kept thinking how much easier it would be to work alone or have a bunch of index cards with one subject heading on each one. That way we could manipulate our lists in a much more intuitive way. My reactions to the exercise made me realize just how much work creating a comprehensive thesaurus or subject heading index really is. Our list only consisted of about 30 items. LCSH contains hundreds of thousands of subject headings with relators. Despite all the criticism LCSH gets, one has to have a lot of respect for a list that works so well despite its obvious deficiencies and for the people who maintain it.

Small Group Reflection and the Red Books

I had to take a step back and think about what I learned from this small group activity. I suppose the most obvious thing was just using the Red Books. I’m familiar with LCSH and have used both OCLC and LoC Authorities for a variety of cataloging and classification tasks, but I’d never even seen the Red Books before last week. I was also impressed by the breadth of information contained in the books and disappointed by how inaccessible most of it seemed. Looking through so many subject headings, I was struck by how unnatural much of the language is and was continually thinking to myself that a novice library user would have a very difficult time (if they even bothered) finding what they were looking for. Although some things seemed fairly intuitive, others seemed very obscure and arbitrary. Maybe this is the natural product of something that attempts to classify the length and breadth of human knowledge. Another thing that struck me was the implication that layman don’t do their own research. As a librarian, I’m pretty used to books filled with gibberish that pass for professional library and information science publications. The LCSH doesn’t scare me, even if it leaves me wanting at times. For someone, even a serious academic, however, to be confronted by the Red Books, seems like a true injustice visited upon the library user. More than once I said aloud…if only we could use the computer. I think the overwhelming nature of LCSH has also been a driving force behind the development of completely different search mechanisms, specifically free text searching. All that criticism aside, I did find something relaxing about searching through the index. As I would search for one thing, I would find hundreds of other things. Searching through the Red Books was much like searching the shelves at a library or book store. Even if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for all the time, you WILL find something. Of course, sometimes nothing else will do. But sometimes, the stuff we find serendipitously is better than what we looking for (not in the case of a class assignment, however).

On a completely unrelated note, during this activity, I found myself playing the part of a peacemaker between classmates who don’t really like each other (can you imagine? librarians not getting along?). Although it was admittedly uncomfortable, it was nice to be able to put into practice some things from other classes and actually feel like I was accomplishing something management related.

Small Group Reflection – Classifying the Soap

Developing our own classification schemes was a fun exercise. Apart from being fun, however, it was a great experience to really get into the nuts and bolts of how different schemes are built. It seems like the differences between the results of each group really underscores the fact that classification systems, whether enumerative or faceted, are arbitrary. Another thing that I noticed was how much better the system was because more than one person worked on it. If I had been the only one developing our schemes, I would have missed things. Working together, each of us was able to voice concerns that led to refining our classification systems.

Doing this exercise with my group and thinking about what we’ve learned with regard to enumerative and faceted schemes, I’m beginning to get a more solid idea of how information is structured in libraries and in general. Although it’s pretty obvious that the classification systems we, as librarians, use have deficiencies, now it’s much easier to understand why those deficiencies exist. Now it is up to us, as professionals, to decide if there is something that addresses those deficiencies more thoroughly or if we just have to work with what we’ve got. It seems like it should be a no-brainer that a better classification system is needed. At the same time, developing such a classification system will be no small undertaking based only the work involved. That’s completely disregarding the diplomacy that would have to occur. Change is hard. Even if we were able to develop the best classification system, that’s no guarantee that it would be welcomed with the open arms of librarians everywhere. Even so, we need to be advocates, disciples, and educators about classification, so that others will even be able to see the value in finding improved schemes, whether enumerative or faceted (or both).

Small Group Reflection – Designing a Grocery Store

We had a good time designing our grocery store once we were able to negotiate a vocabulary. I noticed something interesting that happened during the process that has made me think hard about best practices in the library. During the exercise, each of us was pretty adamant about the veracity of our mental models of what a grocery store should be like. In the end, although we all agreed on certain fundamental aspects of the store…like the milk should be refrigerated and you couldn’t keep meat in a vending machine…the final product was more a reflection of things we thought were so ridiculous as to not challenge what we REALLY thought a grocery store should be like. In the same way, I think as forward thinking librarians, we should be very careful about trying to uproot our patron base from mental models with which they’re comfortable. Change is hard. That’s not a new idea…but it’s a true one. When we begin to circumvent traditional ways of doing things, we cause upset in the environment. Maybe we’re trying to upset the status quo, but often…that’s a very good way to make the people question if we’re worth their support. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a furniture rearranger and a wall painter. I’ve even been known to write on the walls. But even then, there is a sense of upheaval until other stakeholders buy in to the idea that this is a good change. In the library, maybe there is more room somewhere else for that collection, but patrons may wonder why, all of a sudden, everything is being moved around. Maybe a self checkout kiosk is cost effective, but some people might get pretty pissed off because they want to deal with a real person rather than a computer. We like to be in charge of our own mental models and internal categorization. When someone else says, “no..a circulation clerk is no longer a person. It’s not a computer” without our permission, it’s irritating. We, the professionals, need to recognize this in ourselves and in the communities we serve. Then we can work to mediate between our patrons and the environment, providing a sense of stability and continuity even as we work to innovate new ways for the community to access information.

Mental Schemes and Grocery Stores and Future Librarians – Small Group Reflection

The idea of this exercise seems fun.  For someone that truly hates grocery shopping, however, I was reminded repeatedly of the reasons for my acrimony.  At the same time, I did learn a few things (good thing, since we’re supposed to be learning things). 

First, as we were building the collaborative script, it became pretty obvious how similar we all are.  As humans, we tend to focus on our individual qualities – what makes us different from the rest of the pack.  Doing this exercise went the other way and pointed out the patterns in our collective behavior and even our though processes.  And even though we might differ on minor things, these differences were generally….well….minor. 

The next thing I learned was that in building a general script or collaborative mental scheme, we HAD to remove “self” from the equation.  In doing that, in removing the individual, we came up with a product that did indeed reflect the individual, but only in part.  The generality would be much like describing the features of a person as having two arms, two legs, a head with a face, and a brain capable of making creative decisions and recognizing itself.  I could apply that generality to myself and nearly every other human being.  At the same time, this general description would not allow me to differentiate between human beings.  In the same way, the general script we created doesn’t allow for differentiation between shopping trips.  Within the scheme, an endless number of shopping trips could fit.

Finally, I could see how these collaborative scripts lead into classification systems and how this can be a good thing and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing to have a general idea of what should go where, but there is a huge danger of relying on inadequate scripts and classification systems as build these mental boxes.  This isn’t really a fully formed thought yet, but going back to our discussions about the shortcomings of Library of Congress Classification and Dewey Decimal Classification, but these classification systems are built on schemes that were not necessarily general enough to stand the test of time.  Rather than being able to continually add emerging information to appropriate classifications, new things have been added in an ad hoc, “almost fits” manner.  Systems that probably made perfect sense to their creators in the beginning are now behemoth messes.

It will be interesting to see what we all come up with next.