i before e: my year of ontological balancing.

As anyone with visible tattoos, hairless cats, or a penchant for decorating with look-but-don’t-use vintage objects such as ornamental table napkins can attest: the more esoteric you are, the more you end up having to explain yourself. When your mystifying characteristic, animal, or possession attracts attention, you have a choice: A) explain clearly in a way that provides insight, B) explain inscrutably in a way that creates further confusion, or C) explain not at all, opting instead for frowns, rudeness, and so on. As a fierce and firm believer in pollyanism, politeness, and all other manifestations of posi-professionalism, I am (predictably) in favor of A.

People who work in information and/or technology-related professions know the explanation dance well, because our jobs are by nature esoteric. That is to say, programmers, librarians, and so forth do mysterious and confusing things with information (such as coding and classification) so that others can actually search and communicate without having to think about what makes this possible. By structuring, scaffolding, describing, organizing, and investigating data and resources, we facilitate access. And without access, there is no potential for the iterative creation and accumulation of knowledge.

Adaptation or Obsolescence

Belonging to the librarian species of the genus information requires an earnest and abiding dedication to access as a professional ethic. Our purpose is to encourage intellectual freedom, curiosity, and self-sufficiency among information users, in order to give them the means and methodology for pursuing their own interests. Librarians are the unique group of knowledge workers ready/willing to, confidentially, consistently, and free of the ever-encroaching profit imperative, support individuals and organizations as they discover why and how they might come to better understand their own needs and abilities as learners, knowers, and producers. And as interdisciplinarity becomes more complexly layered and scholarly communication shifts with technological landscape, librarians excel as “disciplinary discourse mediators” that facilitate connections between disparate academic and intellectual actors.

Librarians were wearing free/libre/open long before it became the new black. As the open information and privacy movements fight for traction, we represent a vastly well-established nonprofit network with the purchasing, outreach, and advocacy power to push for more systemic openness on institutional, corporate, and federal fronts. Despite this, it will not come as any surprise that, while the information genus is exploding, many feel that our species is under consequent threat of extinction, sure to be winnowed out by the malignant encroachment of digitization and various other developments in technology and literacy. As a result, librarianship is, by virtue of the radically shifting nature of the analog v. digital present (not to mention the general crisis facing the funding of altruism), shining an increasingly intense spotlight on the core of its professional purpose. This means that to some degree, every librarian is a walking, talking identity crisis. We are a group that has begun to ask ourselves more or less constantly if we are still relevant, and if not, how we can regain relevance in the face of a sea change. Some are true believers and others are skeptics, but all are aware of the stakes: adaptation, or obsolescence.


Which brings me back to explaining esoterica. For the past year, I’ve had the ambiguous-sounding title of ‘E-Learning Librarian’, an occupational moniker of such vagueness that it implicitly requires elaboration. Upon stating it to just about anyone inside or outside of the fold, I am met with something along the lines of, “Hm.” And if they are particularly nerdy, curious, and/or totally confused, this is followed by, “And what does that mean (read: what do ‘e’ and ‘learning’ have to do with libraries)?” To my mind, quite a lot: supporting the productive life of the university and individual learners via technologies and information skills that facilitate more successful and personalizable research and discourse.

However, this is so infrequently unintuitive that it speaks to the oft-cited epic fail that has occurred in communicating what it is that librarians actually do to anyone other than ourselves. Meaning, in effect, that obsolescence is less our challenge than plain old obscurity. I still have the feeling that the advances we are making are having a loop effect – more thoroughly lauded within our knowledge network than put to practice outside of it. I explain my title so often that I’ve realized it invariably requires exposing some of the hidden and/or nascent aspects of librarianship that I very much wish were common knowledge (e.g., ‘e’ and learning). While this pains me somewhat, I have also come to relish the outreach challenge of having one of those library/technology-oriented jobs that, even within my own profession, people cannot intuit what it is, exactly, that they are supposed to get.

Imbalancing Ambiguity

It’s become a fascinatingly reflective linguistic game to communicate the focus of my work, because it requires me to engage in two things: disambiguation, and ontological balancing. In most thesauri, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, controlled vocabulary is implicit. In Wikipedia, however, disambiguation pages are necessitated by the absence of formal subject indexing. Community-defined folksonomy, by virtue of its opposition to controlled vocabulary, gives rise to polysemic classification. Polysemy is the semantic condition of multiple definitions and/or meanings, which in a resource as vast and collective as Wikipedia is the natural and awe-inspiring result of countless ontologies clashing under a gigantic semantic umbrella.

An ontology can be broadly understood as a vocabulary that represents shared ideas, principles, or categories in a subject or subgroup. Ontology is the descriptive syntax of epistemology, which is the broader “creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.”  As you might gather, unfamiliar ontologies require disambiguation. To disambiguate ontology itself: in philosophy, ontologism is the pursuit of insight into existence, as in defining what is is. In computer and information science, it is the formalization of descriptive categories. An apropos example of ontology balancing might then be this: in librarianship, the notion of ontology could be likened to controlled vocabulary; in the sciences, to taxonomy; and in social media, to folksonomy.


In a vocational sense, ontologies are how we communicate complex and discipline-specific ideas amongst ourselves that are utterly incomprehensible to those outside our idea network (as in why, if you are a non-librarian, you have no idea what I mean by ACRL and LITA). The ontology of librarianship has long been in flux, which is why job titles like “E-Learning Librarian” are increasingly common. Ontology balancing is a slippery game of connecting concepts to memories to impressions to histories, and above all to considering what about your knowledge system aligns with that of another. Intriguingly, upon becoming more closely allied with the newschool, it has become somewhat more challenging to disambiguate my professional identity in this way.

As in many things, breaking wholly with the past is not an excellent  strategy – in so doing, you lose the cumulative experience and memory of those that have gone before you, and with it some of the ability and impetus to communicate to an outside world that a break has occurred. This makes me realize that I very much appreciate the tangible and interpersonal durability of the oldschool. Which is to say, while I love the instructional and information technology angles of what I do, over the past year I have also missed things like stamping and shelving and working closely with an academic department, all of which helped connect me to the core of my profession.

I’ve learned to explain concisely (and I hope understandably) what most would consider a nontraditional/newschool iteration of what a librarian can be, yet I have also lamented that beyond reference and instruction, my professional identity of late has not reflected at least a few more of these traditional/oldschool characteristics, which more often than not involve opportunities to create personal connections with library users. At Ohio University I worked an integrated service desk where I was able to answer reference questions as well as check out books, and was bibliographer for the School of Communications, both of which I loved doing. These gave me a practical context for perceiving ways developing library services and resources could be useful, not to mention usefully communicated. They also provided points of resonance with existing library perceptions that helped prevent full break syndrome from occurring.

When it comes to advocating for the future of libraries, I have come to believe that embracing the stamping and shushing as well as the e and learning will be crucial to helping us build a conceptual bridge between then and now: however skewed towards the oldschool perceptions may be, there is still considerable social capital wrapped up in the library/ian mindshare. Ontology balancing therefore becomes a process of gleaning what I can about someone’s information value system and describing the relevant aspects of my own practice as a librarian, technologist, and educator in a way that resonates with their personal experience. Ever mindful of the aforementioned stakes (adaptation v. obsolescence), I try to do so in a way that at once reflects tradition and pushes the relevance envelope.

Metacognitive Embedding

As of November 1st, at least one part of my job became a little more traditional, and by extension more intuitive. By ‘intuitive’ I don’t mean that it became easier to do, insofar as it became easier to describe. Upon the retirement of a colleague, I’ve taken on selection/liaison responsibilities to the UC Berkeley School of Information. Many librarians might remember the I School as among the first revisionist MLS programs to actively shift away from the librarian paradigm of information studies, losing ALA accreditation in the mid-1990s. In this sense, I might represent a curiously traditional (some might even say vestigial) role as their library liaison. Paradoxically, as E-Learning Librarian to the I School, I am once again a buyer of books – some digital, some very much printed. While selection is only one small part of the multifaceted work of liaising (which is yet another closely examined topic), it will undoubtedly give my “What is it you do again?” explainees a little more to grab on to.

Part of the professional ethic of librarianship is objective captivation with the research interests and information-seeking process, be it momentary (reference interaction) or ongoing (long-term research consulting or liaising). Along these lines, the fascinating part of being a selector, subject specialist, bibliographer, liaison – whatever you choose to call it – is something I think of as metacognitive embedding. Metacognition is thinking about thinking in order to understand one’s knowledge and abilities, while embedding is the act of becoming immersed in an authentic context. For the selector/liaison, working with/for a department and collection involves metacognitive embedding to develop critical insight into the research needs and information profile of an academic microcosm.

In this process, reflection is required in order to walk a familiar tightrope between specialization and generalization, to balance the interests of particular department against the macrocosm of scholarly communication within its broader discipline. One learns the publications, individuals, concepts, tools, movements, vocabulary, professional associations, and resources in order to faithfully make them available, useful, and utilized. This also becomes a process of resource balancing – time, a collections budget, institutional interests, the attention span of your constituents – in order to become an embedded human information resource. In liaising to the I School, I am faced with an interesting challenge: using the embedding process as a practical means of bridging the obsolescence/obscurity gap among those most likely to perceive it.

Disambiguating Librarianship

The inspiration for this post came last week during an I School Friday seminar on “data as evidence” (you can view my tweets from the event – sorry for the image, no hashtag used). At one point in his talk, Tom Moritz eloquently defined the three-part purpose of librarianship: to explore the ontologies/epistemologies of the disciplines, to encourage information sharing, and to preserve knowledge and access to knowledge. As I see it, these pursuits are indispensable, format/technology/era independent, and contextually malleable. I have lately been engaged almost exclusively in the latter two, but taking on the selector/liaison role gladly gives me the opportunity to again focus on the first: to become an active, engaged, and embedded information advocate and de facto knowledge management consultant to a specific community.

As luck would have it, I find myself handed a subject area in which I am avidly interested, and in which librarianship is on fertile ground for both disambiguation and adaptation. In this context, it will be a true challenge to pursue the metacognitive embedding process. I relish the opportunity to be in the position of shifting the library ontology in an extremely relevant microcosm while at the same time reclaiming a bit more of my traditional identity. Needless to say, it will be interesting to discover how to explain myself to this community in a way that, on an interpersonal and practical level, reintegrates librarianship in the broader epistemology of knowledge management. I look forward to, for lack of a better phrase, sussing out how to integrate into the discourse and dynamic of a discipline at the forefront of the information paradigm shift. To those who might have a more oldschool definition of librarianship, I hope to represent the profession as one that, as it evolves, is less in need of eschewing a perceived “past” than of more clearly and contextually illuminating its connections to the present and future.

Thanks to friend and cubicle farm-mate Lynn Jones for her insights on this post.

10 thoughts on “i before e: my year of ontological balancing.

Add yours

  1. This is timely for me. I’ve been trying to think about how I can present myself as a new liaison to some departments on campus, and I think your rumination here is going to assist my thinking as I figure out how to tackle that.

  2. Thanks, Char, for this reflection on your work and shifting professional identities – it was extremely helpful in teaching me more about what you groove on thinking about. As I grapple with what my students expect of me in the classroom and, as a historian of ideas, with the changing rules of access to ideas, all this is coming home. B

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