the surprise is where the learning happens


You know what I mean. You’ve had that moment when something broke through your thick skull. Sometimes it arrives there because someone’s hammered it through, repeating the same thing over and over. But when it’s been hammered through, it just sits there, lodged.

When a thought catches you by surprise, it flies into your head, and keeps flying around there. While it’s flying around, it changes everything. Not only have you learned something, but that learning has changed you.

CC image courtesy of timlewisnm on Flickr

In the “Knowledge Creation” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes discusses Conversation Theory, and presents knowledge as created through conversation (p. 31). He briefly explains some foundational ideas of language in Conversation Theory, that learning happens as we pass through two different levels of language: L0, which is language simply used to negotiate a conversation, and L1, which is language used to actually further the conversation. Basically, if you can’t agree on your terms, you can’t move the conversation forward. There can be no real surprise, no real learning.

How many times have you been stuck in a conversation where you thought you were getting somewhere, but then it turned out that you weren’t even talking about the same thing? For me, it’s a large number. If we can’t have a meaningful conversation about something because we spend all our time trying to come to an agreement over the terms we use, then the terms become obstacles, not the means to an end as they should be. I blame it on the tendency in academia, and really in all professionalization, for extreme specialization. I don’t fit in to this – I have always done very multi-disciplinary work; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a form that was strongly tied to one disciplinary perspective (I’ve worked in theatre for over 20 years. For every show you have to become an expert in something new, and take on a new perspective. I’ve never settled into one mindset for very long). But over the last ten years, my work with material culture, history, and digital collections has placed me at the table with some very special people – specialists, specialized. Speaking, as it turns out, a very special language. I have come to recognize the need to translate, the need to clarify that what I think they’re saying is what they really mean.

I think this kind of “translation” ability is exactly the skill that a librarian needs to bring to the table. As current academic systems of promotion push people to specialize further and further, librarians can be the ones to maintain a strong element of multi-disciplinarity and collaboration, so they can help everyone else to be able to participate in the conversation. In some cases this will involve acting as a translator, and in other cases it may simply involve other means of helping another conversant to find her voice.

As I begin in earnest to work on building digital libraries, issues of language – as terminology – are extremely important. An important function of librarianship has been cataloging – describing resources so that others can find them. The inverse of this is scary – when resources are described in such a way that people can’t find them. If I’m looking for what I think of as a blue dress, but it has been catalogued as a teal dress, I may never find it. One word has a great deal of power. Similarly, the hierarchies of some cataloging systems only make sense from one disciplinary perspective – good luck trying to find it when you’re coming at it from a different disciplinary perspective. The alternative idea of  “meshes and ontologies” on page 50 is very appealing, but hard to visualize as we are still so tied to hierarchical models.

Lankes suggests that “Librarians must build systems that understand that language is not labels but rather individuality and understanding” (p. 39). Yes! But how? How do we conquer variations in use of language, so that we can get to that “A-ha!” moment?  I have approximately three years of library school to figure that out and start to build systems that get around these challenges.


Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .
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