The Observer or Seeing What You Mean

If you are new to my writing, my talks and work tends to resemble an entanglement of ideas. Sometimes it all comes together in the end and sometimes I know that I’ve just overwhelmed my audience.

I’m trying to be better at reducing the sheer amount of information I give across in a single seating. So for this post, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to say briefly before I tell you what I’m going to say in a more meandering fashion.

In brief, libraries would do better to acknowledge the role of the observer in our work.

Now, true to my meandering style, we need to walk it back a bit before we can move forward. In fact, I’m going to ask you to look back at my last post (“The Library Without a Map“) that was about how traditional libraries have library catalogues that do a poor job of modeling subject relationships and how non-traditional libraries such as The Prelinger Library have tried to improve discovery through their own means of organization.

One of the essays I linked to about The Prelinger was from a zine series called Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: The Prelinger Library.  The zine series is the only one that I know of that’s been named after a journal article:

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective
Donna Haraway
Feminist Studies
Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599
Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.
DOI: 10.2307/3178066
Stable URL:
Page Count: 25

I have to admit that I struggled with this paper but in the end I was glad to have worked through the struggle. To sum up the paper in one sentence: we need to resist the idea that there is exists ‘god-like’ vision of objectivity and remember that our vision and our knowledge is limited by location and situation. Or as Haraway puts it:

I want a feminist writing of the body that metaphorically emphasizes vision again, because we need to reclaim that sense to find our way through all the visualizing tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed the objectivity debates. We need to learn in our to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name. So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. All Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of the observer recently.

On my other blog, The Magnetic North, I wrote about how a world-weariness brought on by watching tragedies unfold on social media has led me to spend more time with art. I go on to suggest that being better versed in observing art without the burden of taste might help us better navigate a world that shows us only what we chose to see and perhaps even bring about a more just world.

But on this blog, I want to direct your attention to a more librarian-focused reason to be concerned with the matter of the observer.

You see, after I published my last post about how our library catalogue and how it poorly handles subject headings, I received a recommended read from Trevor Owens:


I found the paper super interesting. But among all the theory, I have to admit my favourite takeaways from the paper was that its model incorporates business rules as a means to capture an institution’s particular point of view, restraints or reasons for interest. It is as if we are recognizing the constraints and situation of the observer who is describing a work:

Following the scientific community’s lead in striving to describe the physical universe through observations, we adapted the concept of an observation into the bibliographic universe and assert that cataloging is a process of making observations on resources. Human or computational observers following institutional business rules (i.e., the terms, facts, definitions, and action assertions that represent constraints on an enterprise and on the things of interest to the enterprise)5 create resource descriptions — accounts or representations of a person, object, or event being drawn on by a person, group, institution, and so on, in pursuit of its interests.

Given this definition, a person (or a computation) operating from a business rules–generated institutional or personal point of view, and executing specified procedures (or algorithms) to do so, is an integral component of a resource description process (see figure 1). This process involves identifying a resource’s textual, graphical, acoustic, or other features and then classifying, making quality and fitness for purpose judgments, etc., on the resource. Knowing which institutional or individual points of view are being employed is essential when parties possessing multiple views on those resources describe cultural heritage resources. How multiple resource descriptions derived from multiple points of view are to be related to one another becomes a key theoretical issue with significant practical consequences.

Murray, R. J., & Tillett, B. B. (2011). Cataloging theory in search of graph theory and other ivory towers: Object: Cultural heritage resource description networks. Information Technology and Libraries, 30(4), 170-184.

I’ll end this post with a video of the first episode of Ways of Seeing, a remarkable series four-part series about art from the BBC in 1972. It is some of the smartest TV I have ever seen and begins with the matter of the perspective and the observer:

The first episode is based on the ideas of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which I must admit with some shame that I still have not read.


Art takes into account the observer.

I’m not sure that librarianship does.

But perhaps this observation is not sound. Perhaps it is limited by my particular situation and point of view.

The Library Without a Map

One of my favourite exercises from library school is perhaps one that you had to do as well. We were instructed to find a particular term from the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Red Books” and develop that term into a topic map that would illustrate the relationships between the chosen term and its designated broader terms, narrower terms and related terms. Try as I might, I cannot remember the term that I used in my assignment so many years ago so, here is such a mapping for existentialism.


Recently we’ve been spending much attention on the language of these subject headings as we come to recognize those particular headings that are reductive and problematic. For example, undocumented students are denied their basic humanity when they are described as illegal aliens. And as most of you already know, the act of reforming this particular heading was seriously hindered by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

A word after a word after a word is power.

As troubling as this interference is, this is not what I want to write about LCSH for you today.  For this post, I want to bring greater attention to something else about subject headings. I want to share something that Karen Coyle has pointed out repeatedly but that I have only recently finally grokked.

When we moved to online library catalogues, we stripped all the relationship context from our subject headings — all those related terms, broader terms, all those relationships that placed a concept in relationship with other concepts. As such, all of our subject headings may as well be ‘tags’ for how they are used in our systems. Furthermore, the newer standards that are being developed to replace MARC (FRBR, Bibframe, RDF) either don’t capture this information or if they do, the systems being developed around these standards do not to use these subject relationships or hinder subject ordering [ed. text corrected].

From the slides of “How not to waste catalogers’ time: Making the most of subject headings“, a code4lib presentation from John Mark Ockerbloom:

Here’s another way we can view and explore works on a particular subject. This is a catalog I’ve built of public domain and other freely readable texts available on the Internet. It organizes works based on an awareness of subjects and how subjects are cataloged. The works we see at the top of the list on the right, for instance, tend to be works where “United States – History – Revolution, 1775-1783” was the first subject assigned. Books where that subject was further down their subject list tend to appear appear further down in this list. I worry about whether I’ll still be able to do this when catalogs migrate to RDF. [You just heard in the last talk] that in RDF, unlike in MARC, you have to go out of your way to preserve property ordering. So here’s my plea to you who are developing RDF catalogs: PLEASE GO OUT OF YOUR WAY AND PRESERVE SUBJECT ORDERING!

I highly recommend reading Karen Coyle’s series of posts on Catalog and Context in which she patiently presents the reader the history and context of why Library of Congress Subject Headings were developed, how they were used and then explains what has been lost and why.

It begins like this:

Imagine that you do a search in your GPS system and are given the exact point of the address, but nothing more.

Without some context showing where on the planet the point exists, having the exact location, while accurate, is not useful.

In essence, this is what we provide to users of our catalogs. They do a search and we reply with bibliographic items that meet the letter of that search, but with no context about where those items fit into any knowledge map.

And what was lost? While our online catalogs make known-item searching very simple, our catalogues are terrible!dismal!horrible! for discovery and exploration.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is so much interest in outsider-libraries that are built for discovery, like The Prelinger Library.

This remarkable library – which is run by only two people – turns a collection of ephemera, found material and of library discards into a collection built for visual inspiration and support of the independent scholar through careful selection and an unique arrangement that was developed by Megan Prelinger:

Inspired by Aby Warburg’s “law of the good neighbor” the Prelinger Library’s organization does not follow conventional classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal System. Instead it was custom-designed by Megan Shaw Prelinger in a way that would allow visitors to browse and encounter titles by accident or, better yet, by good fortune. Furthermore, somewhat evoking the shifts in magnitudes at play in Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977) the shelves’ contents are arranged according to a geospatial model departing from the local material specifically originating from or dealing with San Francisco and ending with the cosmic where books on both outer space and science fiction are combined with the more ethereal realms of math, religion, and philosophy.

“The Library As Map”, Megan Shaw Prelinger & Rick Prelinger in conversation with Erin Kissane, from Fantasies of the Library.

Of particular note: The Prelinger Library does not have a library catalogue and they don’t support query based research. They think query based research is reductive (Situated Systems, Issue 3: The Prelinger Library).

Frankly, I’m embarrassed how little I know about the intellectual work behind our systems that I use and teach as a liaison librarian. I do understand that libraries, like many other organizations such as museums, theatre and restaurants, have a “front of house” and “back of house” with separate practices and cultures and that there are very good reasons for specialization. That being said, I believe that the force of digitization has collapsed the space between the public and technical services of the library. In fact, I would go as far to say that the separation is largely a product of past organizational practice and it doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Inspired by Karen Coyle, Christina Harlow, and the very good people of mashcat, I’m working on improving my own understanding of the systems and if you are interested, you can follow my readings in this pursuit on my reading journal, Reading is Becoming. It contains quotes like this:

GV: You mentioned “media archeology” and I was wondering if you’re referring to any of Shannon Mattern’s work…

RP: Well, she’s one of the smartest people in the world. What Shannon Mattern does that’s super-interesting is she teaches both urban space and she teaches libraries and archives. And it occurred to me after looking at her syllabi — and I know she’s thought about this a lot, but one model for thinking about archives in libraries — you know, Megan was the creator of the specialized taxonomy for this pace, but in a broader sense, collections are cities. You know, there’s neighborhoods of enclosure and openness. There’s areas of interchange. There’s a kind of morphology of growth which nobody’s really examined yet. But I think it’s a really productive metaphor for thinking about what the specialty archives have been and what they might be. [Mattern’s] work is leading in that position. She teaches a library in her class.

Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: Prelinger Library, Geogina Voss, Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger.

I understand the importance of taking a critical stance towards the classification systems of our libraries and recognizing when these systems use language that is offensive or unkind to the populations we serve. But critique is not enough. These are our systems and the responsibility to amend them, to improve them, to re-imagine them, and to re-build them as necessary- these are responsibilities of those of our profession.

We know where we need to go. We already have a map.

Ex Libris

Last week, as Europe staggered from the implications of the Brexit referendum, I was in Denmark on vacation with most of my nights free to read about the Existentialists and how their lives were torn asunder by the violence we now call history.

I enjoyed my copy of At the Existentialist Cafe very much and I’m hoping to pass it on to a friend or even my local library if they would have it. But before I do, I’m going to add my very own bookplate.

I don’t have any bookplates yet as still I haven’t decided on the design. I’m hoping to materialize a handful of ideas and choose the best one(s) for printing.


Years ago I suggested that every librarian should write a book. That was clearly too big of an ask. So I would like to use my first post here on my new blog to suggest that everyone should make their own bookplate for their books.

I am not suggesting that you should do so for the benefit of future historians, libraries, or book collectors.

I’m suggesting you do so because you have a history that is worth commemorating in your own expression.