Digital Authority

Amelita galli-curci
Image by Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s something that’s been blowing my mind for a while:

In the paper age, written communication provided an authoritative record.  Text, once recorded, did not change.  It could be consulted multiple times, and more importantly for scholarly work, it could be cited.  Written communication provided a paper-trail for researchers; it allowed the development of knowledge to be traced and codified.  Ideas could be communicated asynchronously and without the presence of the author. However, written communication was received “as is.”  If the reader had a question, the author may not have been present to clarify. 

Oral communication, on the other hand, allowed for immediate clarification.  It was only when the recipient received information from a second or third hand source that the message’s twisting trail became apparent.  In the game Telephone, a message passes from one person to the next, often emerging totally transformed at the end of the journey.  Orally transmitted knowledge is the stuff of myth and rumor, and there is often no accountability for the source.  Both oral and written communication had advantages.

Today the qualities of written and oral communication are converging.  As we go paperless, we can more easily edit our written trail, be it a document, blog, or web page.  Crowd-editing and anonymous contribution challenges the authoritative nature of written communication. Written communication is more frequently synchronous through the use of Instant Messaging or productivity tools such as Google Docs.  Written communication literally becomes oral communication through the use of text-to-speech software. Audio recording, on the other hand, makes ephemeral oral communication indelible.  Stirring speeches and slips of the tongue can be immortalized for future generations.  The words and identity of the speaker can be locked in, and communicated without a garbling intermediary.

What does this do to our idea of authority? Can’t traceable, tangible oral communication now be used for scholarly work? Could I speak a paper rather than write a paper?

The film People are Knowledge presents some ways that oral clips could be used to fulfill Wikipedia’s citation requirements. It explores the intersection of Western scholarship with more oral cultures, making some great points about authority, knowledge and digital or written intermediaries. Fascinating stuff!

People are Knowledge (subtitled) from Achal R. Prabhala on Vimeo.

Dirty words at the library

I’ve decided to begin collecting a list of library words which sound dirty but aren’t.

From the ODLIS (that’s the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, of course):

bibliographic coupling

The idea that two scholarly papers containing a citation in common are bibliographically related in a way that is likely to be of interest to researchers. A similar relationship, called co-citation coupling, is established between two or more documents when they are both cited in a third. Citation indexing is based on the principle of bibliographic coupling. Synonymous with citation coupling

Two or more documents cited in a third!  Steamy!

And the Jamie Lee Curtis of libraries, the

bibliographic hermaphrodite

A term coined by Crystal Graham, serials librarian at the University of California, San Diego, in reference to a publication in any medium that has characteristics of both monographs and serials. Most are complete in one part but have the potential to continue. Their defining characteristic is “updatability.” Examples include loose-leaf services, databases, Web sites, and some electronic journals. Beginning in 1995, reconsideration of issues related to seriality resulted in a new model, dividing the bibliographic universe into finite resources and continuing resources, a more accurate reflection of changing patterns in publishing. This new distinction has been adopted in AACR2 2002.

Kind of a dull definition for such a racy term, right?

Help me build my list! Can you think of any more?