Bullet Point: “Recorded Knowledge is an Oxymoron”

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There is a phrase widely used in librarianship that has always bothered me – “recorded knowledge.” It bothers me for a couple reasons, not the least of which it is often invoked by folks who define librarianship as collections and stacks. However, it is much more problematic in the light of participatory librarianship.

At the core of participatory librarianship is conversation theory. It is there, because participatory librarianship envisions the main mission of the library as facilitating learning. Conversation theory states that knowledge, or more precisely, knowing, is achieved through conversation. I won’t bore you with more details (well, a few maybe), but suffice to say, knowledge is an active and dynamic thing. It rests in the heads of the learner, not the object that may prompt a conversation. So the idea that knowledge can be recorded, that is, encoded and transferred as some sort of external stuff, doesn’t work. “Recorded knowledge” is an oxymoron. It would be like saying a recorded person, or archived awareness, or intelligent rock.

To know is to experience and converse. One knows by engaging in a series of dialogs, both internal and external. When you read a book, knowledge is not somehow magically springing from the page and taking residence in your brain. You are in an active process of decoding, remembering, and fitting into what you already know. For example, I was sent an article written in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese. No matter how long I stared at the pages, I was not going to learn BECAUSE THE KNOWLEDGE WASN’T RESIDENT IN THE CHARACTERS.

“But Dave,” you say, “aren’t you attempting to transfer knowledge through a recorded medium right now? You encode what you know (or think), and I decode that at the other end, and knowledge is transferred, right?” Wrong.

Take an extreme example…let’s say that after you read this, you still don’t buy it. You are perfectly fine with recorded knowledge as a phrase and an idea…what exactly did I transfer to you? My words can at best prompt an internal dialog where you decode what I wrote (or more precisely what you read) and have a conversation with yourself, and/or your colleagues, and make your own determination, i.e., creating your own knowledge. That it was my words that started that process might mean that our two understandings will be similar. You may use the same words as I do, or even cite my article in your own encodings, but that’s as close as I will ever get to imparting knowledge.

Regardless of what your theoretical stance is on knowing, however, why limit the field of librarianship to simply organizing and pointing to artifacts? Why ever limit knowledge to what is recorded – ask indigenous people, or the under represented, or the fringe, or even the craftsman. The main goal of librarianship isn’t the orderly distribution and location of stuff. It’s to make our communities smarter, and to make the world a better place. By focusing on recorded knowledge, which I take to mean artifacts like books, DVD’s, web pages, papyrus scrolls, stone tablets, and tapestry (among others), we move our attention away from where it matters – our members/users/patrons.

Oh the wonders I have seen when the focus of compassionate information professionals rest squarely on people and not things. That is where I have seen the best of us. I have seen the homeless find work in our cafes. I have seen an autistic man graduate with a masters degree because his exquisite and complex mind was fed by this profession. I have seen strong women escape abusive relationships when librarians connected them to social services. I have seen the birth of entrepreneurs and the creation of wealth, the explosion of joy in teens who can find common worldviews in the stacks. I have seen medical miracles from library resources, and whole communities revived. The directions of nations have been influenced by the work of librarians. In these days of the possible and a seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness, I have looked under the cloak of innovation and seen librarians peering back.

And I am not alone. Those entrepreneurs, those policy makers, those women, children and communities, they have seen this too. And they don’t see it in stacks and paper, they see it in people and action.

Now we as a profession must recognize it too. We must line the cloak of innovation with a mirror, so that we can all see our own true potential. We must, as a profession, adopt an air of confidence. We, as a profession, must move ever forward, in some cases pulling with us our communities.

And those among us, those who can’t see their own self-worth – those who would define the value of libraries in things that can be recorded? We must first take care to hear them, and to show them the power and value within themselves. If they cannot, or will not see it? Then we must move on and leave them behind.

We forever stand at the breach, the frontline between ignorance and enlightenment. We are the kind hand that conveys our communities from the darkness of the uninformed into the light of knowledge. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our communities to hold back the tide of indifference and intolerance. Through active service, we must not only point the way to better days, but we must live the way.

If you see injustice you make it right – not classify it. If you see ignorance, you teach, not point to textbooks. If you see intolerance, you not only tolerate, you embrace the injured party. Knowledge is alive. It is what we do, and act, and say. Sometimes that means preserving the memory of an act, or encoding some feat, or, yes, providing better access to evidence and documentation. But it always means the value lies in people, not what they record.

5 responses on “Bullet Point: “Recorded Knowledge is an Oxymoron”

  1. Tstatton

    I don’t believe recorded and knowledge are contradictory. Just because you can’t read Chinese doesn’t mean that knowledge doesn’t reside there. You have to know the code. A book is like kindling. The knowledge isn’t released until you read it, until you understand it, and pass it through your own brain. Surely a book is more than a rock, although even a rock has its secrets. You can have a conversation with a book as you pass it through your own mind. Some of my greatest understandings have come through recorded books, recorded lectures, recorded conversations. This new world and new technology has expanded the ways we converse and contributes to knowledge. But taking the time to “record” the thoughts, to crystallize what we want to say, is very valuable and is still a very important place in the library world.

  2. rdlankes Post author

    This is a great discussion. I didn’t say, nor would ever say, that books, or any type of record is not important, nor that they have no place in the library world. We must, however, see what their utility is – for human use. I know that sounds odd and obvious, but sometimes I think we forget.

    Also, I agree with you that writing is an invaluable act to crystalize one’s thought, and that reading a good book is a great way to stimulate that internal dialog, but I don’t think I agree with the phrase of passing through your mind. That makes it sound passive. I would also argue that you are not in fact having a conversation with the book – after all, the book can’t disagree or restate itself, or try to see things from your perspective, it can simply present materials. You are the one oing the arguing, and projecting, and cajoling – with yourself.

    Take the rock example. I agree that there is much to be learned from rocks. Geologists are unlocking the history of the universe from rocks. But I would hardly say they are extracting knowledge from them, as one would extract minerals. Instead I would say they are building knowledge through rocks. The knowledge is resident in the geologists, not the rocks. The rocks could care less.

    In any case, let me end by agreeing with you about the importance of books and other objects, I just don’t see them as valuable as knowledge – just valuable as tools to start conversations and help people build knowledge.

    Anyway, the only way this works is to keep up the conversation, so I hope you will.

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