Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The cache of ideas and academic judgment

School starts in only a little over a month. I am enjoying the big slow-down so much, it is hard to imagine gearing up for a marathon again. Here are the dissertation ideas I have grown accustomed to entertaining:

1. Ethnography of the process of building a new library.
2. Ethnography of the process of building a copyright evidence base for orphan and public domain works (OCLC's Copyright Registry).
3. Ethnography of the process of creating Best Practices for Fair Use in Education (a Berkman Center project I just learned about).
4. Ethnography of the processes involved in envisioning the future of the book (not sure of the venue for this, but it could be a really visionary scholarly publisher/library collaborative). This one is not about e-books or e-book readers. It's about entirely new ways of envisioning communication of ideas. Actually, this one could be the story of creating an innovative dissertation, but it would also have to be the story of fighting to get to communicate in innovative ways. That would be too many stories...

All of these are interesting to me, but all pose significant challenges -- not intellectually, but rather, challenges to being acceptable topics to study and write about.

Challenge 1: There's no theory. I have no theory. I want to do inductive research. I want to explore and see what's there and tell a story about how things grew, changed and evolved at this time in the history of libraries and books and the ability to access and use information.

Challenge 2: I have no clue about who among the faculty would be interested in or support my working on this kind of project. I also would have to come up with a non-iSchool committee member. Again, I'm clueless.

Challenge 3: I'm not sure any of these will sustain my interest long enough to result in a "finished" communication. I am so interested in process, that I just am not sure I'll be willing to hang in there to perfect product when I think I have communicated sufficiently what I have learned.

Challenge 4: I'm worried about my colleagues' and faculty members' judgment that an ethnography is at best a tool, a method, not a goal in and of itself. I know my interest in ethnography to tell a story, simply to tell a story, will be insufficient in others' eyes, especially those who see qualitative studies as of little or no value to the academy.

Challenge 5: I can see doing these projects without being in school, or only very tangentially associated with school. I see the work, the process of discovery, as enjoyable and likely very fruitful, but the effort to structure it to satisfy scholarly criteria as tangential and superfluous. This stems from my increasing concern that I am not really cut out to be a scholar. I'm just someone who likes to learn, likes to study, and likes to convey what I've learned to help others. I thought that university life would be a good fit, but I'm increasingly concerned that it really isn't.

As I remarked earlier this summer as I pondered my future, not needing a degree underlies all of this ambivalence. If my goal is to investigate, learn, communicate and interact with others around the learning, there are plenty of hurdles to actually doing that, plenty of challenges, without adding on top of all the intrinsic challenges, the challenge of doing it in a particular, and rather precisely defined way, to satisfy some set of criteria that I'm not at all sure are relevant to me or what I want to do. I think I need to spend some time over the next 4 weeks talking to people at the iSchool about all this. I'm fast approaching decision time.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Back to the future of the library

It seems that as I mull things over, I keep returning to the idea of the future of the library. But I don't want to investigate it in the sense of running an experiment. I want to do an ethnography.

I took an ethnography class in the spring and I became fascinated with the process of writing up field notes. Actually, taking the notes is pretty fascinating too. One of the best parts of the process is that while you observe in the field you withhold judgment about what to expect, what to look for, what to see even, and you just try to see what's there. It's actually very Buddhist in that way. There's no pretense that it's objective or any bullshit like that. Clearly, two people sitting side by side taking notes while watching the exact same scene will notice different things, take different notes, and when it comes time to write them up, will see different patterns and ascribe to the events different significance. But it still puts you into the most open-minded frame of reference that it's possible for you to have.

So, here I am in Austin where our public library has obtained public support (a bond election) to build a new downtown, central library. What must they have to think about on the brink of such an undertaking? How do they imagine the Austin Public Library in 5 years and on into the middle of the 21st century (say, 25 years down the road)? How do they plan for the future of an institution that is so rooted in the physicality of the book? Can they let themselves imagine a future where a library might not exist in any form like it exists today? Could I somehow be a participant observer, or just an observer of the process of thinking through those issues, spend maybe 6 months attending planning meetings (who knows if they even have such meetings, or if they already have it all planned out) and then write up my notes. I don't know anyone who works there, only people who work for the foundation and friends group that support the library. I suppose I ought to start talking to them about this, to see if it's too late to get involved.

Ah I just checked out the Austin Public Library's Web page that describes the design process and it looks like the timing couldn't be better: the teams that desire to be considered to design the new building have just submitted their qualifications and the top 3 will make presentations to the City Council in October. This looks pretty auspicious. There's a little slide show you can access at the top of the left side-bar on the Web page that shows the Design Team Selection Process. The Library already specifies several aspects of what they want in the new building, so I better get started with some emails today. This might not be possible at all. I at least need to know what's do-able.