Specificity vs. Abstraction: The Library as Mediator of Humanities and Technology Values

Specificity vs. Abstraction: The Library as Mediator of Humanities and Technology Values (Moveable Types of Information Literacy)

While deconstruction and postmodernism have challenged the traditional dusty-tome humanities methodology that aims to construct a specific “correct” text, by continuing to react against the ideal text, contemporary humanities scholarship reveals its dependency upon the central ideal. That ideal was itself made possible by a technological advancement — the invention of moveable type, which systematized the production of numerous identical copies of fixed works.

Computer science — the discipline that generates the technology under the hood of our information literacy efforts — aims instead for increased abstraction. In the open source software development model, particularly as described by Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” individual programmers contribute their labor freely to a common project made available to the general public for free. Raymond writes that he once approached programming with reverence:

I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like Emacs) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

But the striking success of grass-roots programming efforts that produced the Linux operating system (an alternative to Windows and the Mac OS) resulted in a striking paradigm shift:

release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity… No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here — rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

Given the financial pressures publishers of journals exert upon libraries, and the brewing rebellion against what some activists characterize as a cabal of print publishers (a roomful of Librarians hissed on Friday when the name Elsvier came up at the conference), some emerging electronic forms have radically altered the dynamics of the scholar-publisher relationship — without necessarily reducing the filtering value provided by peer-review.

The collaborative culture of librarians, who seem to swap and re-use each other’s ideas far more freely than composition or literature scholars might do (we’re so darn methodical about citing, citing, citing), seems a close kin to the open source philosophy. But isn’t collection development a filtering process, that establishes value at least in part by exclusion?

See: Outline