Research Libraries Group/OCLC Programs Talk, June 2007

Timothy Burke • Department of History, Swarthmore College
RLG Programs Meeting, Keynote Address
June 4, 2007

I taught a course this semester called the History of Reading. One of the student research papers at the end of the semester introduced me to a book I hadn’t heard of, but I suspect many of you have. Fremont Rider, The Scholar and the Problem of the Research Library, published in 1944.

I was pretty impressed to discover someone thinking so clearly about the problem of growth in research collections at that early a date. My first reaction to Rider, however, is that we now need to think less about how to manage growth and more to think about how to kill it.

In a 2001 article, Ken Herold of Hamilton College wrote that “the perennial duty of the librarian as midwife to the birth of knowledge has not changed appreciably with the passing of centuries”. If that’s so, I’d like to suggest a new duty to you: I want you to help me strangle some of the knowledge babies in their crib, and not just because we don’t have a home for them.

Both research librarians and academic researchers are confronted by some of the same crises at the present moment. Librarians have an advantage: they know that they’re dealing with some wrenching changes. Many academic researchers, on the other hand, are pretty clueless.

We misunderstand the current crisis when we portray it as caused by or defined by technology, as the consequence of the digitization of information. The technological changes of the last twenty years have sharpened and accelerated our problems, but the roots go deeper.

The issue is not how to manage some inevitable transformation of knowledge production. It’s deciding what kind of knowledge we want to produce in the future.

We have arrived at a moment in which our historic model of the academic research institution has outlived its productivity, or at the least, we are at a point at which its assumed monopoly over the production of scholarly knowledge needs to be trust-busted.

The German research model that first came to the US in 1876 through Johns Hopkins University emphasized the production of scientific and technological knowledge balanced by humanistic study, and divided research into increasingly specialized departmental and disciplinary units. It was less concerned with the cultivation of the self and more concerned with a functional output, with supporting the work of research and the dissemination of findings and publication.

This model connected the output of research universities with the technological and economic needs of an industrial society. It allowed students to learn concrete professional skills that had a direct connection to their long-term careers. It commodified knowledge in an era of mass production.

Scholarly specialization itself was an intrinsic goad to further productivity, something Adam Smith discovered about capitalism as a whole in The Wealth of Nations.

I teach at a small liberal arts college, and you would think that we have a different direction or sensibility. But we also departmentalize knowledge, we also organize ourselves into disciplines. Our standards when we hire, tenure and promote faculty give a good deal of emphasis to teaching (which is not always the case at large research universities) but they also emphasis research output in scholarly, peer-reviewed contexts. When we tenure a candidate, we reach out to colleagues at other institutions and ask them to assess that candidate’s research, and typically the people we reach out to are those who most closely mirror the candidate’s own specialization.

As we enter the 21st Century, this is the landscape of knowledge production that we inherit. The value we accord expertise, particularly within academic and semi-academic institutions, is set by specialization.

When a new area of study emerges, the clock immediately starts ticking: soon someone will try to establish themselves as the dominant expert in that field, attempt to define a disciplinary canon, impose standards over future knowledge production, and gain recognition for the new field through the creation of departmental or institutional programs dedicated to its study. New journals will emerge, new professional associations will be created.

One of my secondary fields of interest that I’ve become involved with over the years is the study of computer games and “synthetic worlds” (various massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life). While a lot of the academic researchers in this field have retained what I regard as an attractive resistance to specialization and disciplinarity, but it may only be a matter of time before scholars pushing in the other direction succeed in pushing work on these subjects in more conventionally organized forms: departments, institutes, with their own standards and norms.

Nor can I blame them for doing so. There are enormous practical benefits to specialization. When I am advising a graduate student interested in studying online culture in a genuinely interdisciplinary manner, I tell them to cut it out and pick an existing discipline and department. No one gets hired as an assistant professor in interdisciplines. If you want to encourage smart young researchers to pursue innovative topics and methodologies, you almost have to create a specialized structure that can reward them for doing so.

The problem is that this organizational structure has a lot to do with creating the crisis of growth in library collections that alarmed Fremont Rider back in 1944. It’s the reason why bibliographic control has become impossibly expensive and why authority-driven cataloging often impedes rather than assists users seeking information unless they’re already expert in both the structure of the catalogue and in the areas that they’re studying.

Even the physical and fiscal crisis caused by the sheer volume of information is a consequence of specialization, particularly the fatal intersection of the tenure system and specialization.

Intense subdivision goads research production by multiplying the number of discrete research “problems” which present themselves as requiring discrete projects and subsequent publication or dissemination of findings. You can only write so many books about the history of indirect rule in late 19th and 20th Century Africa as a whole. You can write more books about the history of indirect rule in French, British, Belgian, German or Portuguese-controlled territories in Africa. Subdivide further into specific territorial boundaries or regions and still more studies blossom. Again into specific districts or into ethnically-defined regions, and more again. The discipline of history hasn’t quite become so granular in its moves towards specialization that you meet people who identify themselves formally as “20th Century Johannesburgologists”, but it can get pretty close sometimes, and certainly there are discrete research fields with their own canonical works that are roughly that specialized.

But what causes projects and publications to appear in all possible subdivisions of disciplinary knowledge? I can identify a discrete topic or subject without feeling an obligation to publish about it, at least in theory. The problem is that the default incentives provided by the tenure system in most research institutions encourage publication or dissemination, and specialized publication at that. For the most part, successful completion of a highly specialized research project is the definition of academic legitimacy for a pre-tenure scholar.

Pursuing a more generalized project is enormously risky in terms of tenure: you expose yourself to a much wider field of potential critics, all of whom may act as gatekeepers to areas of specialization that are referenced or synthesized in a project of wider scope. This is a rhetorical gambit that most scholars can perform in their sleep: “This book is all well-and-good, but when it’s talking about my field, the details are completely wrong”. I’m not saying this isn’t often a legitimate objection when the author is making overly strong universalizing claims, but it’s also often a way to hold generalists hostage to specialist fields.

Before tenure, any scholar who walks into that particular lion’s den is foolhardy. After tenure, many scholars have been safely domesticated away from these kinds of risks. When you publish or disseminate in a narrowly defined and controlled field, you assure yourself of a steady if small flow of reputation capital guaranteed in part through reciprocity. You footnote my monograph in our mutual field of specialization, I’ll footnote your monograph.

Tenure, of course, doesn’t just reinforce specialization in dissemination of research, it also goads people to produce more and more research. Precisely because many research scholars do not read widely outside of their own specialization, they do not feel qualified to judge the quality of work by specialists in other fields when considering a tenure dossier. If you can’t judge quality, about the only differentiation left is quantity. Six cut-and-paste repackagings of a single short work of research tend to look better in a c.v. than a single carefully crafted essay when none of the people evaluating the c.v. are likely to notice or care that those six citations are in fact only one.

In a way, the current system governing most academic research is a chimeric combination of a market and a medieval guild. Research scholars often have to operate in an entrepreneurial mode in order to succeed, to shovel a lot of product out the door and self-promote as much as possible, but they’re also accountable to their disciplines, who goad other kinds of overproduction through their furtive monitoring of disciplinary outputs. Submit an article for peer review, and if you haven’t produced in sufficient quantity to win reputation capital in the field in question, you may see the article rejected regardless of its quality.

Research scholarship is also a subset of the larger domain of publication as a whole. The marketplace for information, the business of publishing, the advent of a mass society and the ability to consume information on an unprecedented scale have produced growth in the number and range of publications steadily over the past two centuries. But I think academic research faces unique pressures that have caused it to bloom like red tide algae in warm ocean water, and research libraries have been scrambling for the last fifty years to cope with the consequences of those pressures.

As I said earlier, the costs of storage, access and acquisition of this ever-growing flow of publications and findings almost strike me as secondary. Bibliographic control suffers from the same intellectual malady that specialized research does, because the two march in lockstep. As specializations proliferate and become more and more mutually unintelligible to one another, any practice of cataloging that is authority-driven is required to proliferate as well.

For example, if in southern African history, there’s a new consensus that the ethnonym “Tsonga” really should be “Shangaani” or that in fact both terms misidentify a group of diverse refugees who should not be classed as an ethnic group, the cataloguer needs to know that as well as the scholar, and both groups need to know not just the current consensus but the entire history of the nomenclature in order to make current cataloguing backwards-compatible. This isn’t just to please or accommodate the researchers in the field, though I’m sure plenty of research librarians have had to weather the scorn of a faculty member who decides that a current cataloguing convention is part of a “suspect discursive regime”. It’s a necessary part of maintaining a controlled vocabulary. But this means that we only add, rarely subtract, that knowledge becomes bigger and bigger without necessarily becoming smarter or more useful.

The key issue is that we should challenge the endless march to specialization not because of cost, but because its consequences at this extreme of that historic arc have become philosophically and intellectually objectionable, an impediment to knowledge rather than an enabling condition of it.

Enthusiasts for digitization and computer-mediated communication often argue that the many-to-many structure of online environments allows for a revolution against the monopolistic stranglehold of experts, against the archaic prerogatives of authority-driven institutional cultures. Wikipedians, unite! You have nothing to lose but your monographs.

At the risk of ending up like Alexander Kerensky in the Russian Revolution, e.g, a reformer who sympathizes with the revolutionaries but doesn’t really grasp that he’s next in line to be taken out behind the shed and shot, I’m pretty much in sympathy with the complaint about the established architecture of expertise.

But I think the digital utopians often misunderstand what it is that they are revolting against, or they misperceive their revolt as a consequence of technological change. It’s not authority qua authority that is the problem: it is a form of authority established through specialization, that asserts its prerogatives through institutional force and knowledge monopolies rather earns its authority through a persuasive connection to wider publics.

We should join the revolt because we are arriving at a point where the entire system of knowledge production is suffering from hardened arteries, where relatively little information flows between specializations, and when it does, we often do not recognize or reward those flows. Most of our work as teachers (both professors and librarians) should require that we translate from specialized knowledge into general knowledge. Most of our relationship to publics outside of our own fields, including to our colleagues, should require similar kinds of translation or synthesis. Morever, innovation in all disciplines often takes place at boundaries of specialized inquiry, or through recombinant fusings of existing bodies of knowledge. The fact is that most of us are quite bad at recognizing how often we engaging in that kind of recombination, and bad at institutionalizing that recognition.

Scholars like to complain about public ignorance, or about misleading interpretations of academic research by the mass media. This is blaming the victim, when we should be blaming ourselves. If knowledge does not circulate well in the democratic societies of the 21st Century, it is often our own fault. This does not just hurt our students and our publics. It hurts us. It is a problem with our skills: specialists who talk only to other specialists rapidly become illiterate recluses who are frightened of being in any situation where their incapacities might be exposed. It is a problem of missed opportunities to make useful knowledge by comparing and combining insights from different fields and specializations.

Conventions of bibliographic control that follow the logic of specialization are part of this problem.

When I spoke to the Bibliographic Control Working Group earlier this year, I said that as a user of research tools, I most acutely felt the absence of tools that recognize and even better, CREATE, conversations between discrete bodies of scholarship, the kind of thing that Amazon’s “people who bought this book also bought” tool does in its highly imperfect fashion.

I can’t help but turn to the example of my own first monograph, on the changes to the material culture of Africans in Zimbabwe that followed from the introduction of mass-produced consumer goods and advertising, focusing on soap and toiletries. At the time I wrote it, and since, I’ve seen the book as being a part of broader conversations in African, imperial and world history about domesticity, the body, beauty, consumerism, commodification, advertising and the impact of globalization. If you use the LC Subject Headings, here’s what pops up for Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women:

Soap trade — Zimbabwe — History
Hygiene products — Zimbabwe — Marketing — History
Rural health — Zimbabwe – History

If you found me using those categories, you already know I exist. They’re not incorrect categories, merely specialist categories. (I think I’m likely to be the only or nearly the only inhabitant of those categories for a very long time.) The Amazon already-bought listing, on the other hand, at various times connects me to Africanists of my generation; works on consumer and commodity history like Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power; works on the anthropology of globalization; works on the history of popular culture and mass media in Africa or the Third World; works on the history and anthropology of the body and beauty. All conversations that I saw myself in at the time I was writing and still commonly try to participate in through the research reflected in that book.

You are going to find those conversations a bit through my bibliography and footnotes, and more through later footnotes in other works that reference my book. You’re going to find them through taking classes (or even just seeing syllabi to classes), by looking at conference programs, by keyword searching, by folksonomies.

Tags at LibraryThing, for example:

Africa(3) African History(3) African Studies(1) box 8(1) by my professors(1) Colonialism(2) Commodification(2) Consumerism(1) Embodiment(1) Globalization(1) history(4) human goods(1) Hygiene(1) in oxford(1) Me(1) on shelf(1) Swarthmore-related(1) Zimbabwe

What we need, I think, is not just search tools but practices that pull specializations back into conversations or recognize conversations that are already happening. We need a different set of incentives in research communities that place high value on synthesis and connection. We need an economy of research that rewards quality rather than quantity, that works to increase the general signal and reduce the specialized noise.

This change is not going to come from tenured faculty. They are largely very secure in their own practices, and have very little endogamous reason to change. There are a few forward-thinking groups out there: the Modern Language Association’s report on publication and tenure from last December is really visionary, for example. But these outposts are the exception, and I expect them to remain that way.

This is where research librarians come in. Right now I think you have been cast, and perhaps sometimes cast yourselves, as doing service to researchers (and therefore accommodating the consequences of their practices) and as reluctant enforcers of budgetary and institutional limits to the size and scope of research collections. These are both thankless roles. The first casts you as tin cans tied to the bumper of someone else’s car, the second casts you as unwelcome scolds, one more addition to the list of administrative enemies of the faculty.

What I think research librarians could be doing is leading the movement towards the reconstitution of knowledge. I would say: stop accommodating specialization not because you’re running out of money, but because it’s a bad idea. Don’t abandon specialized authority-driven bibliographic control because you can’t afford it any longer, but because it enables the dysfunctionality of much current academic research. Don’t just accept a passive relationship to the in-flow of knowledge, but embrace an active duty to block off some of the spigots.

I think the way that libraries are one of the key sources of new kinds of incentives towards generalism and connectivity, and an important voice that could do a lot to convince researchers to reverse a century of movement towards the subdivision of knowledge. Research librarians control the architecture of knowledge, and knowledge is what constitutes expertise. In alliance with publishers, I think you can channel research and dissemination in new directions rather than have to go to university presidents as beggars and to faculty as the bearers of bad news.

The more wild-eyed digerati think that they’re overthrowing all the experts, all the tweedy legions of professorial authorities who have tried to monopolize knowledge. I think that’s wrong, but projects like Wikipedia, or the emergence of useful practices of folksonomy, have revealed the generativity of knowledge that flows readily between sources or nodes of expertise, have revealed what we have to gain through new kinds of networked knowledge production. I don’t think you have to surrender to the Web and dissolve yourselves within it, becoming only the keepers of a building where there are computer terminals. I do think you have to figure out how to be hydraulic engineers of information flow rather than the guardians of the fortress.

A small but powerful example that I came across through Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog: the University of Washington’s efforts to direct Wikipedia users to relevant resources in their collection through links in Wikipedia entries.

I agree with what Lorcan Dempsey wrote in a recent blog entry on categories of metadata, that all of the existing approaches need to remain part of the mix, including what he calls “professional” or authority-created metadata. But I think the balance has to shift very strongly towards what he calls “contributed”, “programmatically promoted” and “intentional” metadata. Not because we’re conceding defeat, but because these are favorable tools for the re-engineering and re-definition of knowledge production as a whole.

We cannot simply assert by fiat the superiority of expert practices. Our authority now has to be earned, and I think we’ll earn it together by being better generalists who publish, disseminate and catalog fewer but more carefully crafted works in order to earn authority over other sources of information, by conforming to the practices and needs of users and publics.

That’s what it means to me as a researcher to “make discovery easier”: it means I have to communicate better, more broadly, as a generalist. I think that’s what it means for you, too.

So: Lots of monograph-infanticide? Cataloging instruments that amalgamate and connect, that incorporate user practices? Sounds like a budgetary relief, or maybe to some of you, like a veiled threat of future unemployment?

No, for three reasons.

First, I think the work of generalization, connection and synthesis is in and of itself very hard work for both researchers and research librarians, and it is expert work in a completely different sense than the expertise of specialization. There is still and will always be a big difference between a whimsical autodidact editing a Wikipedia entry—a process that sometimes resembles listening to Cliff the Mailman on Cheers—and a scholar or scholarly librarian trying to work out a disciplined and erudite synthesis in an expert manner.

Second is clear in the metaphor of “information ecosystem” that some studies of information have offered. A relative emphasis on synthesis and generalism is not the same as the complete absence of specialization. In some fields, at some junctures, in thinking about some kinds of problems, specialization is the obligation of a researcher. A healthy ecosystem fills all niches. You cannot be a successful generalist without relying on and at some point in your life producing specialized knowledge. Moreover, what I mean by generalism is not what E.O. Wilson means by “consilience”. This is not a call for reunifying knowledge and research into some Enlightenment Eden. Any time an academic starts talking about “unification” in this sense, they usually mean “everyone should practice my discipline; all the others are unnecessary”. Heterogeneity in approaches, styles, methodologies and so on is a good feature of our current research landscape, and we should retain it.

But most important is a point that Merilee Profitt urged me to consider in this talk. It’s true that I want the norm in knowledge production to trend towards fewer works that work harder to connect disparate areas of knowledge for the benefit of wider publics. At least as I see it, that would weed out some of the overpublication coming from scholars themselves. But there’s another trend to consider, one that you all know very well.

As the scope and range of research within the academy has widened through specialization, it has also broadened in the range of legitimate subjects that could be studied, and as a consequence, the range of informational materials and evidence that might be important.

Consider: the progression of “legitimate evidence” in African history over the past fifty years. Fifty years ago, a historian studying Africa would have confined himself to working with imperial and historical records held in Europe, possibly combined with a small amount of archaeological or linguistic data. Forty years ago, historians and anthropologists began to seriously collect and in some cases archive oral traditions and to use the archives of newly independent African nations. Thirty years ago, some historians urged “the undefining of oral tradition”, to argue that any conversation with Africans might contain historical knowledge of importance. In the past two decades, historians of Africa have incorporated craftwork and artwork, advertisements, performances, medical data, photographs, rumors, letters, diaries, landscapes, migrations, slave ship manifests, and much more into their work.

In work on global popular culture, scholars now formally study and collect comic books, television programs, pornography, fan conventions, computer games, social software, instant messages, graffiti, family photography, and so on.

I was trying to think of any discrete social or cultural practice or phenomena that isn’t studied, and more importantly, of any kind of identifiable, discrete information which either exists or could be created which no one would ever or will ever expect a library or archive to contain. I couldn’t think of much. Even information that is presently confidential or private might someday be expected to be available in an archive, after the people to whom it pertains are dead.

This baby, at least, should not be thrown out with the bathwater of scholarly overproduction. In fact, it strikes me that the widening of information (as opposed to knowledge) is a precondition of some return to generalism in scholarly research, a force that erodes attempts to keep specialized categories and discourses pristine and controlled.

It’s obvious to you all that you cannot comprehensively collect any of these categories of information, even if there was a master plan that allocated to each research library a specific task. So the question should really be, “What is not being kept by anyone, and is unlikely to be made available within future cultural or informational marketplaces? How many materials of this kind does any one institution need in order to inform the production of knowledge?”

Prior to digitization and computer-mediated communication, the answer to these questions was really grim and depressing from the perspective of research communities. The list of useful sources of information that were unavailable to researchers was boundless, the prospects for commercial availability were grim, and the assumption was that if a library or archive did not comprehensively collect a body of information, it might as well not try.

I think now the prospects are much brighter. A scholar with an interest in the cultural history of comic books in the United States can buy or consult numerous republications of older works. The entire publication history of Spider-Man and other major titles is available on CD-Rom. EBay might help a scholar find an unusual title. Queries in various Web forums might help flesh out a scholar’s knowledge of obscure past publication histories and turn up “local experts”.

What does that leave for the research librarian? Collecting material with no commercial value but considerable potential knowledge-producing value, such as the papers and letters of prominent comic book creators. Material that is unlikely to have commercial value in the near-term (or maybe forever) future: comic books with obscure characters or from minor publishers, comic books and strips produced outside major cultural marketplaces. Material that it is vital not be enclosed from the digital commons. The key here is not that you hold exhaustive amounts of such material, but a representative amount of it, and that you defend or negotiate access to wider spaces of circulation.

It’s still a lot of material to collect, and still some huge challenges in many cases in terms of finding it, acquiring it, preserving it, accessioning it. But this is definitely not a mission that means the end of expert librarianship. Quite the opposite: only a highly trained research librarian could hope to distinguish between information soon-to-be available from some commercial source, and information that requires an active process of collection-building in order to available. Only a well-trained specialist in information can make sound judgements about what is representative within a larger range of evidence. But even here, “expertise” means something different than it once did, not specialized knowledge of a single category of information or evidence, but a widely comparative understanding of information marketplaces and sources across the entire span of 21st Century global society.

The trick here, obviously, is justifying the expense of that mission both to research communities and to wider publics.

I think you can expect faculty to be surly and uncooperative in the main when you tell them that no, you’re no longer collecting every bit of material pertaining to the practices of left-handed millenarian preachers in south-central Angola, and discontinuing the Journal of Late 20th Century Icelandic Haiku Studies–not because you can’t but because you don’t want to, because you’re taking a position on the kind of work they should produce in the future. I think you’ll have to work carefully so that university administrators don’t creatively misinterpret a desire to trim the production of knowledge as a voluntary submission to the budgetary axe.

Wider publics, however, I think will welcome a practice of expert generalism from research librarians, both for the reduction of noise and excess created by specialists and for the assertion of gentle custodial direction over some of the undomesticated spaces where information and knowledge now run amok. Moreover, knowing that research librarians are still watchful guardians of neglected information and protectors of the right of public access to knowledge strikes me as a more vital mission today than it has ever been.


Ken Herold, “Librarianship and the Philosophy of Information”. Library Philosophy and Practice, 3:2, Spring 2001.
Lorcan Dempsey, “Four Sources of Metadata About Things”, Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog, May 20, 2007,, accessed June 1 2007.