Friday, October 10, 2008

PL 49/08: Putting statistics to work 2

Filed under: IFLA, statistics — plinius @ 7:51 am

In library statistics, our most urgent task is to shift our statistical systems from a paper-based – or industrial – model to a knowledge-based, digital model.

Snake-haired Medusa (right) was killed by Perseus.

This is a major undertaking, which may take a generation or more to be completed. Like all big development efforts, it will involve a combination of systems, skills and organizational development. Technology should not be a big issue, however. The tools we need to produce and study library statistics are coming fast. Cheap digital devices, both portable and stationary, are spreading rapidly in most countries of the world.

The barriers to change are social rather than technical.

Social and cultural barriers

Organizations and individuals must develop attitudes, skills and ways of working that are appropriate to a digital rather than an industrial environment. The next step in library statistics involves, as Bourdieu would say, changes in our routinized responses – or habitus.

Big conversions are rare. Most change is gradual.  We tend to move step by step from one mode of behaviour to another. I assume this will be the case for library statistics as well. The established systems must be reformed from within rather than replaced from without.

I also assume that our statistical authorities are willing to change. They are technicians rather than theologians. They provide the library community with useful tools – and should be happy to make the tools more useful.

The biggest challenge is cultural.

In the industrial world, we needed complex vertical organizations – traditional, paper-pushing bureaucracies – to collect, process and distribute information. In the digital world, information can be produced, processed and shared by anybody through the web.

Statistics are information goods. They must, like books and time tables, be understood in in order to be used.  If we apply 2.0 principles to library statistics, we can construct systems that are more transparent, more horizontal and more productive – in  terms of knowledge – than those we have today. But the new systems will require a different balance of power in order to work. The relationships between the stake-holders must be redefined.

Ordinary libraries and librarians need to develop their skills and increase their power. Central authorities must delegate responsibility – offering training and support rather than decisions ex cathedra.

Such changes within a social field (Bourdieu) affect the way we talk and listen to each other. Digital technology flattens both social and economic pyramids (Friedman). In a networked society, power and influence is distributed among many independent actors.

The game of knowledge

Our current elites rose to power in the industrial world. They often find it hard to accept the consequences of digital technology. The new game of knowledge – one might say – differs from the old industrial game. The rules of effective behaviour are different. Productive knowledge is like science: it grows by being shared rather than by being hedged, monopolized and controlled.

This changes the way we confront and discuss library issues. In digital environments, formal positions carry less weight, while professional insight carry more. Distances between ranks and roles are “flattened”. Conversations become more egalitarian – and more professional. I would even say more reasonable. In the knowledge economy, what you know is more important than who you know. Knowledge is the new capital. It resides in persons and networks rather than pyramids and positions (see Resources).

These are general statements. They apply to all fields that are deeply affected by digital technology. This is definitely the case for the library sector – and even more true for library statistics.

I therefore take it for granted that this tiny corner of the world must be rethought and reshaped on digital principles.



Classicist Greg Crane of Tufts and Perseus fame spoke of many aspects of “Humanities in a Digital Age.

Perhaps his most intriguing point—one echoed by others during the conference—was that the digital humanities allow for a far wider participation in the process and products of scholarship than in the age of paper. Crane fascinated the audience by showing how his undergraduates actually contribute to, not just read about, classics, by adding to a “treebank,” or linguistic database and concordance that Crane and others are building. In other words, in a digital age classics need not be the sole province of the Great Professor/Editor of volumes of Greek and Latin.

Crane also spoke of the enormous potential of automated translation and large-scale computational analysis to address complex questions such as the influence of Plato on the Islamic world, a topic that requires language skills and a breadth of reading that few professors, if any, possess.

Source: Digital Humanities and the Disciplines, Day 2


1 Comment »

  1. […] 49/08. Putting statistics to work 2. How to reason more with statistical […]

    Pingback by P 8/12: News from the North « Plinius — Sunday, March 4, 2012 @ 10:33 am

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