Alan Harnum

Holistic Technologies for Libraries

These are the speaker’s notes of a talk I gave I gave at the ninth Code4Lib North meeting, which was held May 10-11 this year at OCAD University, my research group’s home institution. It was an honour to be on the organizing committee this year and help bring the meeting to my university - Code4Lib people were always my favourite library people when I worked in the field, and remain so after I’ve left.

The slides from the talk are also available.

All page references are to the expanded 1999 edition of The Real World of Technology.

It was pointed out to me on Twitter afterwards by John Fink that Sam Popowich has written a take on the book. There’s a bit of Twitter back and forth that’s an interesting addition to the talk.


Towards Holistic Technology for Libraries

A Talk Inspired by Ursula Franklin

Good morning. I met many of you yesterday and I know others of you from many a code4lib beforehand, but for those who don’t know me, my name is Alan Harnum. These days, I’m a design researcher and software developer at OCADU’s Inclusive Design Research Centre, just south of here on Richmond Street. I work together there with developers, designers, researchers, advocates and volunteers to envision and create a world where emerging information technology and practices consider the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.

But prior to joining the Centre in 2015, I worked for a decade at Toronto Public Library as a librarian and software developer. And I said I’d do a talk here along with being on the organizing committee, so here I am, doing this talk.

Very honestly, one of my less favourite things when I worked in library technology day-to-day was to go to a library conference and listen to talks about how libraries aren’t keeping up with something in the latest technological developments. Particularly so from someone who worked in a library once but doesn’t any more.

So instead, this is a talk about how you should be aware (if you are not) of a book that will be 30 years old next year, and how the insights of its author have helped me think with more clarity about technology in many contexts of my professional and personal life. The book is The Real World of Technology and the author is Ursula Franklin. Can I have a show of hands for how many are familiar with Ursula Franklin?

Franklin had a much more remarkable life then I could talk about in a presentation ten times as long as this. She made significant contributions as a scientist to areas such as dating archaeological materials using modern scientific techniques, taught at the University of Toronto for over forty years, and was a significant Canadian activist for peace and nuclear disarmament.

But the main thing I want to talk about today is a book she wrote, The Real World of Technology. All of my page references are to the 1999 edition of the book, which originates in Franklin’s delivery of 1989 Massey Lecture, also called The Real World of Technology. At least at the moment, those 1989 lectures are available to listen to on the CBC website, and I think they are well worth your time.

This talk grew, perhaps like wise Athena from the head of the often wrathful, often intemperate Zeus, from another talk I was thinking about doing. That talk would have been titled Library Science Has Failed Us! Library Technology is a Ruin! Now is the Time for the Library Arts!

This is arguably a provocative title, and arguably a clever one, but I think I probably said what limited things I had to say on that topic yesterday in my lightning talk. There is another longer talk I may be able to do someday on making art from library materials - not just the physical materials, but the materials of library culture and history - as a means of making change in the library world, but I shall walk away for now from that topic with a quote from another Ursula (n.b. that was this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin).

Incidentally, I note it seems we are losing various important Ursulas in recent years, and I think this is very unfortunate.

What I am going to try and do with this talk is fairly simple:

  • I want to introduce you to some of the main currents of thought in Franklin’s Real World of Technology, as I understand them.
  • I want to discuss, briefly, how I think these currents of thought are applicable to the “real world of library technology”, as I understand it.
  • I want to offer what I consider to be some possible ways forward.

If I can interest some of you enough to read The Real World of Technology (or listen to the original lecture series) and otherwise acquaint yourself with Dr. Franklin’s thought, I will consider this talk to have had some success.

What Is Technology?

Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters. Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individualized material lo components. Technology involves organizations, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

RWT, p. 2-3

So when we talk about technology in Franklin’s sense, we are not talking merely about material (or digital) components, but about the broader systems and structures of thought, organization and procedure around them - what Franklin calls at various times “practice”, or “how things are done around here” - something she considers necessary to “save us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake. Technology is part of cake itself.” (RWT, p. 9)

So not just MARC strictly at the level of the technical standard and the software systems that work with MARC records, but the systems and practices that “MAchine Readable Cataloguing” enables, supports and shapes of centralized cataloguing, outsourced cataloguing, the exchange of cataloguing records between institutions and vendors, etc. The critique of thinking that “library technology” can be separated cleanly from the rest of library work (what in more traditional thinking might be called the “real” work of the library) is one I think most of you are probably familiar with and I won’t go into it at length, so let us just be clear that when we talk about technology in Franklin’s sense, we are talking in a broader sense than software or hardware.

Prescriptive and Holistic Technologies

A major distinction in The Real World of Technology is made early on between what Franklin calls holistic and prescriptive technologies. As she defines them:

Holistic technologies are practices associated with ideas of craft and individual work. They are product-oriented and leave the person doing the work in control of major aspects of the work. Think of the individual potter with their wheel and small kiln.

Prescriptive technologies are associated with mass-scale production and control. They are process-oriented and attempt to break down work into discrete, repeatable steps. One of Franklin’s main examples of early forms of this technology are bronze-casting foundries in ancient China, which she did archaeological work on.

It is important to recognize that what Franklin defines as tools can shift between holistic and prescriptive usage depending on the broader context of thought, organization and procedure. Franklin uses a word processor as one example of this, which can be a holistic technology in the hands of the individual writer, or networked together into a prescriptive system of control in an office environment - we may consider trends here in employee surveillance, such as the tracking of keystrokes and time spent away from the computer.

Franklin also contends that most development in technology, especially since the Industrial Revolution, has been driven by prescriptive forces, and the result has been the socialization of people into cultures of conformity, especially in the workplace. She acknowledges that prescriptive technologies can have enormous power for production and scale, but also that they can be dehumanizing and alienating, and they can result in societies and workplaces organized around the technologies, rather than around people and their needs.

Franklin identifies five broad periods in new technology - again, this is not just a particular tool, but the new processes and systems of thought around it.

  • Invention, when enthusiasm is high and the liberatory potential of the technology seems promising. Invention may even begin before a technology enters the “real world”, in the realm of science fiction.
  • Growth, Acceptance and Standardization as a technology becomes more and more ubiquitous in a context. The technology often goes from optional / nice-to-have / beneficial to a requirement. When a technology becomes dominant, options and alternatives to using the technology recede or are eliminated completely. Franklin uses the automobile as a major example of this; in the library context, we can consider automation in general as containing many examples of this, such as the move from the physical card catalogue to the computerized one.
  • Finally, Stagnation, when a technology is dominant. Franklin talks about how competition becomes “ritualized” in this phase - there are no alternatives!

It is my opinion that while there is great vitality in many areas in the library world, in many other areas we are in this phase of stagnation. My own list would include much of the scholarly publishing space, the increasing consolidation of vendors in the automation space, etc.

Writing the revised The Real World of Technology in 1999, Franklin saw society in the throes of an excess of prescriptive technologies. She had some hopes for the possibilities of the then-emerging Internet, but believed it would likely prove to follow the same historical trends as the power of prescriptive technologies shaping society exerted themselves. I fear that this is coming true, or perhaps has even come true at this point with the predominance of walled garden entities such as Facebook.

What Is to Be Done?

What needs to be done cannot be done as a dictate from on high but will come as an inescapable consequence of movements from below… I have long subscribed to what I call Franklin’s earthworm theory of social change. Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain. Social change will come through seeds growing in well prepared soil – and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil. We also seed thoughts and knowledge and concern. We realize there are no guarantees as to what will come up. Yet we do know that without the seeds and the prepared soil nothing will grow at all.

RWT, p. 121

Franklin saw the antidote to the distorting predominance of prescriptive technologies in a turn towards more holistic approaches, focused on individuals and their needs, working together in reciprocity rather than to command-and-control processes.

It is my opinion, and I hope to someday expand on this at more length and really think through it, that the realm of software - my field - may be uniquely amenable to shifting from the prescriptive domain to the holistic domain. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part.

Having not worked in the field for nearly three years, I feel a bit presumptuous to point to things in the library technology work that I believe are hopeful directions; there are no doubt many projects I do not know about that those of you in the room do. I hope you will tell me about them!

But things that I do think are hopeful directions: For all the challenges and complexity, I think the Open Educational Resource space, the digital repository space and other attempts to build alternative models for content distribution in the educational space (broader, in my mind, then simply conventional schooling) have many positive directions. I am continually inspired and made hopeful by the way the code4lib community operates like Franklin’s earthworms - sowing seeds of thought and knowledge and concern, churning the earth, trying to keep things moving. Again, for all their resource challenges, the rise of many mature open-source library projects like the Islandora repository are very inspirational for me. There are many issues in the open source world as well of course

Pressing for Systemic Changes

One precondition for pressing for systemic changes is an understanding of the ongoing dynamics of technology and power. This is why I always stress the need for clarity and understanding of the realities of the world of technology. However complex they may appear. We can help each other to see things that are commonly not placed in the political foreground. For instance, over the unending din of economic rhetoric, we need to speak of what happens to people. What happens to people is not a mere footnote to an economic report, but should be the central focus of action of governments and communities.

RWT, p. 177

In closing, what I would encourage everyone to continue to do is press for systemic change in the “real world of library technology” not only in the wider world, but within your own institutions and in the library space. Be critics of the privacy erosion of Google and Facebook, but also be aware of how the library’s own technology choices impact user privacy. Be responsible for keeping your own “house that technology built” in good order and responsive to human concerns, as well as being good citizens in the wider “real world of technology”.