DH Reads

DH Read: “Standard practice: Libraries as structuring machines”

Emily Drabinski’s “Standard practice: Libraries as structuring machines,” originally posted on Parameters, is a piece that connects to some of the same issues I discussed last week with the article “For Google, Everything Is a Popularity Contest.”

Drabinski starts out by arguing that, “Libraries are highly organized spaces, defined and produced by standards that determine everything from where a book sits on a shelf to the thickness of the paper in those books; from the placement of the reference desk to the organization of digital lab equipment.” Library classification systems reproduce social power structures, marginalizing certain religions or treating certain sexualities as medicalized and deviant. So what does all of this mean in a digital context? Are these issues still relevant?

Standards are not, of course, wholly determinative. Even when paths are clearly marked, walkers will move as they want to. As Adler argues, readers in libraries make their own meaning from the rigid designations on the shelves, reading “perversely” to tell stories other than those told by the classification schemes. And in digital spaces, search and retrieval is not bound by the same kinds of conventions as traditional library systems. If the card catalog enabled patrons to search only by author, title, and subject, the database expanded search to include keywords. Once the internet arrives, search and retrieval sidesteps completely controlled vocabularies and categories structured in advance. On the internet, we can sustain a fantasy of freedom.

And yet, digital spaces are constructed just as much by standards, though the stories they tell may be more difficult to parse. In the library, we can begin with the standards documents themselves. The classification of religious materials in DDC makes clear that the knowledge organization scheme used in the majority of public libraries in the United States is a Christian one. In digital spaces, the standard is code, challenging for the non-specialist to interrogate. While critical code studies works to surface the ideology inherent at the level of code-as-linguistic-sign, this analysis requires significantly more specialized knowledge than that needed to read the standards documents that construct the analogue library.

Students and scholars have always worked in the highly constructed contexts of libraries and archives, but I find danger in our ability to “sustain a fantasy of freedom” on the internet, as Drabinski puts it. Online search tools, including online library catalogs, too often masquerade as neutral tools, and the code that must be analyzed to truly understand them is typically beyond the comprehension of the average user (or else deemed proprietary and obscured entirely). Drabinski’s piece argues that the reality of digital spaces, far from rendering the library and librarians obsolete, makes them all the more necessary, and I agree. I really think students need training in online search (library catalogs and otherwise) that teaches not just the mechanics of how you change your options and filters but also how to think critically about what the search algorithm is doing, what information it’s prioritizing, what it’s obscuring, and why. These aren’t things that can be taught in a one hour library tutorial, so getting students to a point where they are no longer passive users of search tools clearly requires buy-in from professors as well as librarians. Everyone should be empowered to be critical users of the digital tools that they use on a regular basis.

Read the original post here.