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.