Definition and Its Discontents

I have to confess that one of the things I hate most about the introduction to classes and academic writing in general is the constant obsession over definitions. I can understand how in certain fields and for certain words a common agreement over the definition of a word can be productive, but I don’t understand how “The failure to define terms slows development of theory, research, and practice” (Borgman) in the context of digital libraries. I feel that this assumption that a digital library project starts with a definition of what a digital library is and then proceeds to practice to be somewhat nonsensical. The funding a digital library, the analog collection that are available to digitize, the communities the librarians hope to service, and the human capital available all have more of an effect on how a digital library project will be pursued then what kind of definition of digital library is in place.  Even if all librarians had the same definition of what a digital library was it would not help us outside the context of our own professional literature. Consider the term OPAC, every librarian knows what an OPAC is and they can all agree on things that an OPAC generally does. But does this shared definition actually assist in making OPACs better? Furthermore if librarians develop their own standard definition of what a digital library is and that definition is not in line with public usage of the term then we have just created another jargon barrier between ourselves and our patrons. Consider the term OPAC again, have you ever met anyone who isn’t a librarian who knows what what that acronym means?

Of all the articles, the one I reacted to strongest was the Kuny-Cleveland article. The line about maps and books being difficult to digitize made me chuckle since I work with digitalized maps and books nearly every week. But I can understand how from a 1998-1999 perspective the digitalizations of those objects would seem difficult, maps because scanners need to be big enough to scan maps, and books because they are complex multi-part objects. I really liked the parts of the Kuny-Cleveland article that talked about the digital divide and the intellectual property costs. However, I think unequal access to information and intellectual property rent seeking actions are not unique to the digital world


One response to “Definition and Its Discontents

  1. Interesting observations. Clearly we are vexed by defining the term “digital library”. I guess I just put it off to the various visions applied and how each invested group might want certain language applied to their conceptions. I agree that it is almost absurd the possibility that our professions definition might “just create another jargon barrier between ourselves and our patrons”. Thoughtful observation and much appreciated.

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