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Advice to New Librarians, Part 2

Continued from yesterday's post, Advice to new Librarians.

To get more specific.

I want you to think in terms of the functioning and changing ecology in which you will be operating, the set of relationships between individuals, institutions, money flows, information flows, projects, programs and effectors. I will start with some considerations of this way of considering your world and then briefly illustrate it with some specifics derived from my experience with the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

There are knowledge domains for solid state physics, European literature, psychotherapy, Chinese history, pop culture, or Buddhist studies. Each of these knowledge domains comprises a multi-level ecology. Taking an example from biological ecosystems analysis there are multiple levels of the organism, the population, the landscape, the deme, the ecosystem, the biome, and the biosphere itself. Likewise you can look at your knowledge ecology at various levels. Why bother introducing a different model? Because you can ask and answer different questions and uncover important issues that are otherwise implicit or hidden.

Le Naturaliste : journal des échanges et des nouvelles

Instead of square boxes with arrows representing seemingly solid institutions with information flows streaming, or instead of Memoranda of Agreements, contracts, and intellectual property law or instead of funding sources and allocations or instead of cataloging departments and organization charts anguished over annually – consider the frame of a meadow, perhaps early field growth in the late summer surrounded by a forest. In the meadow is a pond with spring peeper frogs feeding on black fly larvae feeding on algae. Bumble bees are pollinating the flowers of black eyed susans and water lilies. Other plants such as golden rod are dispersing pollen by the wind. A badger brushes against some burdock and burr-like seeds attach themselves to the badger's coat to be dropped elsewhere. A fallen oak has some oyster mushroom mycelium growing on it. Tulip poplar leaves from the previous year blown by the wind are decomposing into humus that nourishes the wild flowers. Sweet gum and maple saplings are growing amid rag weed, sorrel and indian paint brush. In a cove by the pond, acidic soil from decomposing vegetal matter supports a jack-in-the-pulpit. Carbon flows from the atmosphere to pond algae, trees, and grasses that are eaten by animals in an ascending food chain.

This is a VERY "integrated ecosystem" wherever one wishes to draw the frame of reference – cell, flower, plant, plant and insect symbionts, meadow, meadow and forest, country, country and city, etc. Yet, surprise! There is no over-arching plan, no one place to look up everything, no single structure, no one in command. There are certainly environmental constraints. If there is no rain, the economy will change drastically. If the ground is poisoned, something else will grow there. Yet it adjusts quite well to many changes in the environment. Even within itself it is not static but is coevolving as natural selection favors those plants best able to attract the most effective pollinators with the minimum expenditure of resources. And there are ways to describe it at varying layers of abstraction and to pose answerable, at least in principle, research questions. It also allows us to reflect on what health and disease mean. But there is no center. This is key.

I want to transition from this East coast meadow to knowledge ecology. In both cases there are semi-autonomous nodes. In the biological ecosystem there are carbon or nitrogen flows, there is signaling by chemically-based information flows. In your knowledge ecology what are the flows? Mmoney? Information? Power? Prestige? In both types of ecology there is self-directed behavior of semi-autonomous individuals responsive to change through time. A key point of this approach in both knowledge and biological ecosystems is the concept of self-organization. One definition of self-organization is “a process in which patterns at the global level of a system emerge solely from numerous interactions among the lower-level components of the system. Moreover, the rules specifying interactions among the system's components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern.” “Self-organization” in a knowledge ecology does not particularly refer to you as an individual being a “self-starter,” though, of course that is a good thing to be. It refers to emergent structures and relationships – here’s some advice – I’m supposed to give advice right? Be attentive to these emergent structures and relationships – they may not be in the five year plan, they may not be on the org chart or documented in a memorandum but they are what drives ecosystem health. The documented plan, the performance appraisal process, the bylaws, and the governance are often like a water mirage on a desert highway seen in the late afternoon. They often bear little relationship to the actual field of activity and the way the players organize themselves. But the emergent patterns and relationships among players in your knowledge ecology is where the life is. See it.

BHL-E Meeting, London, 2010

Seeing your actual knowledge ecosystem is more important than strategizing it. Our bias, our fears, our hustle blind us to seeing it. You already have a model of what your job is or will be. I want to encourage you to enlarge that model. Understand what is there before rushing to tinker. Once you have a library job, you are already embedded in a knowledge ecology. That is where the meaning is. This understanding is a form of Long Now Strategy for your work. “Long Now” does not mean job security for you personally. It means your present activities contributing to positive effects for millennia.

See the frame; not just the details of the picture or you miss the meaning.

1. Change your skill sets constantly. Adding skills is always good but as you gain experience, you will start to discover skills in yourself that may surprise you.

2. Seek peers wherever you can – don't expect them to exist in the institution that employs you. As I mentioned earlier, you will discover them in the emergent patterns of the ecology in which you participate. Your boss may or may not even be aware of it. Don’t let that stop you.

So, my new colleagues, now is your time and I hope you celebrate it deeply. I hope your newly-entered careers will endlessly provoke your curiosity and that you will contribute to this wider world that needs you.

—Thomas Garnett, Director, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Photos from Smithsonian Libraries flickr.

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