Serendipity, Inversion, Idiosyncratic Categories and Junk: Tools for KM?


Yesterday was a day for serendipity. First Kim Sbarcea pointed me to Uncyclopedia - a delightfully witty wiki for “un-knowledge”. I have a book of the same name by Gideon Haigh, which is a bizarre miscellany of fascinating facts you might throw into a dinner conversation when silences get too deep or learn religiously to prepare for a game of trivial pursuits (like the nomenclature of names for the sails of a three masted schooner, or the burial places of rock stars). Reading it is a completely serendipitous experience, you have no idea what you’re going to get on the next page.

But the Uncyclopedia website is more like anti-knowledge than miscellany of trivia. It’s a tongue-in-cheek parody of Wikipedia, and in its own way inverts everything we say we believe about knowledge and knowledge management. Here’s a snip from the entry on knowledge which, like a great deal of wit, contains deep truth in the inversion of socially accepted norms:

“New studies have proven that, not only is knowledge lethal, but it may also have negative financial effects. According to physics, power is equal to work over time, and, since knowledge is power and time is money, we are left with Knowledge being equal to work over money, now, using algebra, we can easily switch this around, with use of cross multiplication and wind up with Money being equal to work over knowledge. Now, as knowledge approaches 0, money approaches infinity, however, as knowledge increases, money approaches 0.”

No sooner had I chuckled uneasily at Uncyclopedia than I followed a link to The Interstitial Library via Your Daily Awesome. This is also a tongue in cheek effort, but positively (and consciously) Borgesian in its intent. Its aim is to catalogue books outside the standard categories of our accepted knowledge infrastructure. Interstices, in this case, are the cracks in our infrastructure that things fall into and disappear.

Interstitial librarians are encouraged to go out armed with their cataloging kit and find books in general circulation (in a secondhand bookstore, on a friend’s bookshelf) in the world that fit the Library’s selection criteria, discreetly catalogue them and paste in a library card, then replace them and send the cataloguing data back to the Library.

The Library’s approach to categorization falls somewhere between Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge and the basic principles of folksonomy:

“Personal and idiosyncratic categories are encouraged. The catalogue derives its form from the private associative webs of numerous individual readers. Categories should indicate the most interesting feature of the book, even if this has nothing to do with its ostensible subject matter. E.g. a book containing a thriving community of woodworms might be classed under Fauna (Living), while one containing a collection of dried four-leafed-clovers might be classed under Flora (Dead) or perhaps Good Luck.”

Borges, however, is deliberately cryptic. The manifesto of the Interstitial Librarians is more explicit. They seem to have a serious agenda behind their poke at official knowledge structures, including formal taxonomists. A few snips from their mission statement, which is worth reading in full:
“We consider that the entire floating body of documents at large in the world—books, paper ephemera, electronic texts, et al.—constitutes a huge, siteless library.

You are already using this library. You have been using it all your life.

This library is perpetually engaged in an unpredictable, irregular, slow circulation, via the used book trade, the remainder business, and the borrowing and lending, bequeathing and inheriting, stealing, copying, quoting, discussing, plagiarizing and simple mentioning done by ordinary readers. We consider this process not secondary to commercial or scholarly methods of dissemination but in fact the primary way documents are circulated.

Knowledge is widely understood as held in trust for ordinary readers by expert institutions with superior standards, methods of conservation, retrieval systems, and dedication to its preservation. In fact, the slow circulation of books through private collections, the revival and reinvigoration of institutionally overlooked or despised works through the efforts of fans, the accidental preservation of ephemera through carelessness and packrattyness, as well as of other out-of-favor, idiosyncratic, and variously sub-radar texts, all represent a vast and sometimes superior resource.

Experts (variously, librarians, scholars, publishing professionals) are largely seen as the arbiters and guardians of culture. Certainly, market forces, contemporary taste and intellectual fashions largely dictate what can be published, in what quantities it will be sold, and how widely it will circulate in its brief commercial lifespan. However the long-term survival of the vast majority of texts is principally due to inexpert readers, casual collectors, the used book business, and the slow mulching of time.

Ordinary libraries with limited shelf-space and a commitment to contemporary relevance are subject to periodic culls and purges according to values whose relevance is necessarily limited to a particular historical and cultural context. Books that have not been checked out in a given number of years, or attained canonical status, will be withdrawn from the collection and discarded. A few years, however, is a short time compared to the lifespan of a book and the evolving interests of a changing readership. A book that has been out of favor for a century may suddenly prove to be of great interest to a new readership. Fortunately, the books discarded by libraries reenter the slipstream as used books, where they can be resurrected—thanks to the Interstitial Library.

Readers are generally seen (by libraries and publishers alike) as having a specific title, author, or subject in mind; as falling into particular types, with particular needs and tastes. As a result, publishing/marketing aims to fit itself to that particular need or taste, while information retrieval systems aim to make it possible to zero in, with increasing specificity, on a particular book. These approaches require that somebody else have anticipated your need, written, published, preserved and catalogued the book you want, and defined its subject in the way that corresponds to your need. In fact, readers are often hoping to find out something they don’t yet know, experience something they have not yet experienced.

Browsing and other accident-based encounters with books must be redefined as a primary, not marginal method of “information retrieval.”

Again: What we need is not to get what we’re looking for, but what we don’t know we’re looking for.

Consequently, waste, excess, accident are crucial “collection-refining” techniques. Misshelving leads to serendipitous discoveries. Indiscriminate hoarding leads to preservation of books with qualities to which the present day may be blind. In the Interstitial Library, information will circulate unpredictably, disappearing and reappearing, rather than being located in a centralized, stable place.


We contend that every reader is an amateur librarian, with a mental library organized according to a private cataloguing system that is never identical with that prescribed by the AACR2R (the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Revised). Since every system of organization highlights some kinds of information and obscures others, we contend that these idiosyncratic catalogues have advantages—advantages that could be shared.

We do not consider the “authoritative” taxonomies of the Library of Congress (or Barnes & Noble) to be superior to private ones. We are suspicious of taxonomies that appear self-evident, unbiased, objective. All taxonomies are interpretations. All interpretations are valuations. We ask, how does a given taxonomy, which is always a reduction and a generalization, come to be associated with objective or ideal categories of knowledge? We contend that the question of what matters and what does not is a political and philosophical one that should be open to the input of individual readers.”
Radical stuff.

The links with ignorance management should now be plain. We spend so much time focusing on the stuff we know or want to know or need to know. The tricky bits are – in Rumsfeld’s terms, the “unknown unknowns”. It’s not that they are not there, it’s just that our normal category systems have – in lifting the stuff we want to pay attention to into the foreground – dissolved all the other stuff, the stuff we don’t pay attention to, the wallpaper of our lives, into the white spaces, the gaps between what we know, the stuff we don’t see any more. Taxonomies and category systems are filters. They render certain things visible and help ensure those things are preserved. The things in between, not captured in our official categories, are ignored, and hence easily forgotten and lost.

If they are there but not seen, then we need strategies for seeing them – or for bumping into them. These strategies need to directly counter the mechanisms we use for rendering this stuff invisible. We need inversionary mechanisms. And we seem to have a few handy ones built into the ways we operate socially.

The Miscellany Strategy
To counter structure and tidiness, we gather things together on a whim, in the miscellanies represented by the Uncyclopedia book. Junk stores and rubbish tips are good, well-mixed miscellanies. Hoarders and eccentric collectors store up treasures of the miscellaneous. Everything may be miscellaneous in some sense, but being scattered around makes the miscellany approach harder to perform. What we need is a good pile all neatly gathered up and there are people who do this for us.

The Inversion Strategy
To counter the respectable, too-easily accepted canonical or “normal” knowledge, we need inversionary tactics to turn truth into ridicule, and thereby see the bounds of its legitimacy. Wits, cynics, satirists, curmudgeons and prophets do this for us.

The Interstitial Strategy
To counter the invisibilising effects of limited taxonomies, we need interstitial categorisation systems, that deliberately break sensible rules, and bring stuff together on idiosyncratic principles. Individuals do this all the time, so we simply need to be able to see their idiosyncracies.

If you are a Web 2.0 fanatic then this will all seem like second nature. These are the operating principles of the blogosphere, and of the wikipedians, and of the social taggers.

To tidier minds, however, the implications of the interstitial approach are extremely discomfiting. Not long ago on actKM there was a frequently bad tempered debate about whether blogs constituted “pollution”. I was reminded in the midst of the debate, and posted on, a story I’d researched for my Master’s in Librarianship sometime back in the last millennium:

“In 1640s England, political pamphleteers, much like today’s bloggers, sounded off the dirty politics of the day by printing hundreds, sometimes thousands of copies of their diatribes against each other, and paid printers and runners to litter the streets of London with their work in the wee small hours of the night. Much of this was anti-current establishment, some of it was defending it. All of it was considered transient pollution by the establishment and almost none of it survived.

Except… a bookseller named George Thomason steadily – and secretly – collected this material for almost twenty years, often at great risk to himself (much of the material was considered seditious when it was published), and amassed what became the greatest resource for the background politics of the English Civil War, testing and often challenging the official histories of the time. It took a century for the historical value of this “pollution” to be recognised. (I’ve used the collection – from a 20th century perspective it was wonderful, but I can see why contemporaries would have scoffed).

The point? Well, I think the reaction that blogs are pollution is a legitimate one, because it’s probably a common response. But it’s also short sighted. For all the ephemeral nature of blogs, they communicate very rich contexts and subvert overly simplistic “official histories” – unfortunately, posterity will probably agree with the naysayers and fail to preserve this rich heritage. If you really don’t think blogs are pollution, what are you doing to ensure the preservation of the content you are creating now? How easy is it to migrate this content to new platforms and preserve them over time, together with the links that they rely on? If they are not pollution then they are worth preserving, but I don’t see mechanisms that support a confidence in their preservability.”


I thought I was sold on the merits of junk in general and the blogosphere in particular. But after reading the Interstitial Librarian’s manifesto, I am now much clearer about the natural strategies we have always used for managing our ignorance. Thanks to Kim and Chas for helping me stumble into this.

0 Comment so far

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.

Comment Guidelines: Basic XHTML is allowed (<strong>, <em>, <a>) Line breaks and paragraphs are automatically generated. URLs are automatically converted into links.