Alan Harnum

Speech to 2015 Master of Incusive Design Intensive

17 Sep 2015

In June 2015, I left Toronto Public Library after nearly ten years there to take a position as a Senior Inclusive Developer at the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. In July, I was invited by Jutta Treviranus to talk to the students of the Master of Inclusive Design program during their two-week summer intensive about "something I was passionate about". I chose libraries. These are my speaking notes, with occasional inline commentary.

Good afternoon. I’m Alan Harnum, a senior inclusive developer at the Inclusive Design Research Centre, and I’m passionate about libraries (as some of you heard yesterday, I am a former librarian). I thought I would talk a little about libraries, my thoughts about them, and my experience working in them, and try to tie that back to some of the themes Jutta has told me you’ll be exploring in the program.

Can I ask for some volunteers to say, in one or two words, the first thing that comes to mind for them when they hear the word “library”?

The first person to volunteer called out "outdated". Bless their heart.

And a show of hands for anyone who knows a librarian or has worked in a library?

To give you an outline of my background and experiences, I have an undergraduate degree in English literature, a master’s degree in library and information science, and am a self-taught software developer who’s been working on and off in that field since 2002. My entire career as a librarian was at Toronto Public Library. From late 2010 to mid 2015, I was the senior developer and architect of the library’s main website and associated web properties. Prior to that, I spent a number of years working in frontline public service, including as a children’s librarian.

I used the words "self-taught", but the reality is that I've had lots of teachers in my career as a developer - I just haven't gone through any formal programs. I like the term "feral programmer", a la Chris Bourg's "feral librarian"

It’s no great secret that like many traditional institutions, libraries are undergoing both an identity crisis and a challenge of relevance in the wake of the rise of the Internet as a popular phenomenon. Libraries are also, as publicly funded institutions, and particularly as publicly funded institutions with an arms-length relationship to their funders (whether various levels of government or various academic institutions), especially vulnerable to resource challenges in a time when the dominant narrative of public funding is one of austerity, efficiency and “doing more with less”.

Yet at the same time, public libraries continue to be enormously popular, and academic libraries are in high demand to support student learning, provide study space, and support advanced graduate and faculty research. There is clearly some deep societal need that is fulfilled by libraries, however imperfectly and uncertainty in the age of the Internet.

Above all else, I personally feel it is the idea of free access to information, knowledge and recreation that is at the heart of the idea of the library and its continued resonance, and that that free access should take place in physical and virtual spaces that are safe, pleasing and overseen by expert, committed staff. Libraries are one of the equalizing forces in an increasingly unequal society. Anyone who is a member of the society (the society of the city, or the society of the university) is entitled to the use of the library, and most libraries are also strongly committed to providing some level of service to anyone who walks through their doors. This is a powerful, important, deeply necessary idea for a democratic society that cares about all its members.

However, as strongly as I believe this, I also believe there are significant ideological issues currently confronting libraries as institutions, and in the professional training that librarians receive to prepare them for working in libraries, designing library services, and serving the populations who may use libraries.

Ideology is a somewhat loaded phrase, but I’m using it here in the sense (via Wikipedia) of “a set of conscious and unconscious ideas which make up one's goals, expectations, and motivations”.

Basically, I think libraries have something authoritarian in their constituting DNA, and it comes down to some of the foundational ideas that make up the profession’s history, and are still taught to students today. Again, I’m using a loaded phrase, but it’s the best term I have based on my own experience and the experiences that colleagues of mine have described to me. On the whole, I think libraries and librarians have far too much respect and deference to authority, to elite opinion, too little respect for those on the margins, and a tendency to organize themselves and their work in almost pathologically hierarchical ways.

Jutta has told me that “order” is one of the themes of the program, so I want to talk about a related subject dear to the hearts of librarians: taxonomy, sometimes called classification theory. The most well-known example of this is the Dewey Decimal Classification, which orders the books on the shelves of nearly every public library in North America; after that, and probably familiar to you as students, is the Library of Congress Classification.

Many users of libraries (and librarians) behave as though these systems came out of nowhere - it’s just the way things are done. But historically speaking, like any system of thought and order, they originated with the ideas of individuals who promoted and marketed them, who had a particular ambition or goal, an ideology, a way of thinking of the world. Both are largely hierarchical systems of organizing information, originally developed in the late 19th century by white, straight, Christian, American men. I use those terms descriptively rather than pejoratively, though there are many things I could say about Melville Dewey.

At this point I believe I mentioned Dewey's getting kicked out of ALA for sexual harassment and his later life history running anti-semitic summer camps.

To my mind, hierarchical classification systems are an example of one-size-fits-all design. They have an implicit assumption that the world is a neat place of categories, or should be made into one. That things have their place, or should be put into their place. That the job of the professional is to encourage (or perhaps inflict) order upon chaos.

I would contrast two lesser-known systems of library classification to Dewey and LCC: the Colon Classification of S. R. Ranganathan, and the Bliss Bibliographic Classification of Henry Bliss. Historically speaking these systems come a generation or two after Dewey and LCC, and are in many ways responses to their limitations at describing knowledge. They are what is known as faceted classification systems, where items can be described in terms of their various significant characteristics, without any one characteristic being considered more important than another. While these systems have had little traction in North American libraries, the facet concept was influential on the design of many modern search systems designed to index and organize digital information. You see facets in many web search interfaces, often referred to by language such as “narrow your search”, “refine your search”.

In many ways, I think Ranganathan and Bliss were ahead of their time in thinking about the organization of information. They developed their systems at a time when information was contained in physical things, and a major goal of classification was simply keeping things organized on shelves and sections so they could be browsed and found. But in the digital era, when storage and retrieval of information are profoundly different, I think it is worthwhile to consider whether or not these systems have outlived their usefulness, and whether or not educating professionals and organizing collections around their primacy may be a contributing factor in a problematic mindset for our current age.

I’ll close with a quote that is often misattributed to Marshall McLuhan: “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. This is one of the quotes that’s at the forefront of my mind in thinking about my practice as a software developer and as a librarian. The choices we make in tools, as a broad category, shape the outcomes of our work into particular forms. If we wish a particular outcome for our work, such as radical inclusion, we need to always be conscious of this.