Margaret Egan, Jesse Shera & Social Epistemology

adelbert_hall_-_case_western_reserve_universityLast time in our “Foundation” class, David Bawden spoke to us about epistemology, which is the philosophical study of knowledge and its scope. The relevance of this to LIS is obvious given how our focus is enabling understanding by using data. David followed this by introducing some of the various attempts over the years to apply a philosophical framework to our discipline. This has been a difficult thing to achieve as there has been no agreement within the profession whether such a theoretical structure is even needed at all. People involved in Library and Information Science have generally used pre-existing philosophical ideas from other contexts and translated them into ours. UCL academic Brian Campbell Vickery was particularly critical of this practice. This has started to change in recent years with the work of Luciano Floridi, now at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has created his own philosophical ecosystem for the study of information and sees librarians and information scientists as working at the “applied end” of it. While his ideas have become increasingly influential, there are certainly competing ones. Today I am going to briefly look at the thought of Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera who coined the term “social epistemology” to make sense of what librarians did and were trying to achieve.

Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked together at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1950s and this is when they developed the theory. While Shera was by far the more high-profile figure, in part due to Egan’s early death from a heart attack, he did credit her for her work on this. The basic premise of social epistemology is that knowledge is not an isolated phenomenon and is instead interwoven with a given societal context. This was in opposition to traditional views of knowledge as “justified belief” held by an individual person independent of others. Egan and Shera suggest that societies at different times and places create paradigms of knowledge and libraries and librarians operate within these, working to meet the needs of their users. This idea has similarities to the concept of domain analysis which Birger Hjørland and Albrechtsen wrote about. It seems to me to be no coincidence that this more humanistic approach to library science began to develop at a time of great social change in the U.S.A. when the Civil Rights Movement saw African-Americans campaign against racial discrimination and the emergence of feminism was beginning to challenge conventional ideas about gender. There were of course great technological advances being made in this period which would impact on the world of libraries and so it makes sense that people like Egan and Shera would see knowledge as not immutable but instead something that would evolve along with society.

Photo is of Adelbert Hall at Case Western Reserve University where Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

How Fans “Saved” Sonic The Hedgehog

There will be few of you reading this who have never encountered Sonic The Hedgehog. The iconic blue hedgehog capable of running at high speeds has served as the mascot for the Japanese video game developer Sega since the early 1990s. Sonic is one of the most recognisable characters in video games, even amongst non-gamers, as the franchise has spawned many spin-offs including comic books and several animated series (and many, many toys). Created by Yuji Naka as a counterpoint to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic has become a staple of popular culture, both in Japan and in the West, with over 80 million games sold over a 25-year period.

While the early games in the series for the Mega Drive/Genesis were and are widely celebrated, more recent entries have not fared as well, either critically or commercially. Two games in particular, “Sonic The Hedgehog” (the 2006 multi-platform release) and “Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric” (for the Nintendo Wii U console) were met with a highly negative reception. This backlash hasn’t derailed plans for new Sonic games, however, with two new titles expected in 2017 and this, I think, is largely due to the active fan culture surrounding the character online.


Sega has made effective use of their social media accounts to showcase fans’ love of the character and keep public awareness of the brand high despite disappointing returns on the latter-day games. A recent discussion with my friend Miguel Olmedo Morell led me to consider the implications of these developments for people studying information science.

 We spent our last “Foundation” session talking about the various ways documents may develop in the future and the consequences this will have for us as people providing access to information. It is thought that the public’s changing expectations of entertainment may lead to new kinds of documents evolving. One of the concepts we encountered was that of “participatory culture” which is where consumers of media take a more active role in its creation, dissemination and use. While this is not a new phenomenon, emerging technologies have enabled more people than ever before to take part in the production of media. Henry Jenkins is a leading scholar in the field of cultural studies, especially in areas relating to popular culture and fan involvement in it, and I would highly recommend his 2006 book “Fans, Bloggers & Gamers”. Henry’s official website defines “participatory culture” as one with the following features:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

The official Sonic account on Twitter has nearly a million followers at the time of writing. The people working on the account, whatever their academic and professional backgrounds, could be described as information professionals in that they provide access to fan documents to promote understanding. I for one would certainly be interested in such a line of work! Sega has used this medium to share fan’s Sonic memes and showcase the community’s creativity. Their relatively lax interpretation of copyright laws has allowed fan participation to flourish and knowledge of the character to spread. I would imagine that fans enjoy Sega sharing their artwork with the wider public and feel that the large Japanese corporation appreciates the contribution fans are making to the Sonic brand. A perfect example of participatory culture!


Cave Art & The Story Of Documents

During our “Foundation” module at City, we have been looking at the story of documents and the intellectual tools we have developed to deal with them. Lyn Robinson defines documents as “the containers into which we put our representations of ideas/information/knowledge to give them some tangible permanence”. This then makes documents not just scrolls or codices containing writing or pictures or even electronic files containing data but instead tools for communicating information. So what then were the first documents? Some people would say that Palaeolithic cave paintings are the first documents, as one could argue that they convey information to others. We think the earliest of these paintings date from around 40,000 BCE, making them quite staggeringly old.

On a purely visual level, I must say I find these paintings stunning and I haven’t even been fortunate enough to see any in person. The hue of the colours in the Altamira paintings, for example, is so appealing even in reproduction. The depiction of animals has been a constant theme in human art and this too leads them to feel less remote. The fact that the people who painted these images had to venture so far into the caves also takes me aback. We do know by the fact we haven’t discovered any other artefacts that humans did not generally venture that far inside.

Cave paintings

But what to make of these mysterious paintings? Could we say that they are works of art in any kind of modern sense? When these paintings began to be discovered in the nineteenth century (coincidentally around the time Darwin’s “Origins Of Species” was beginning to change preconceptions about human prehistory), scholars initially believed that they were purely decoration and that they were evidence of hunter-gatherers having free time on their hands! This seems like a huge generalisation to me and David Lewis-Williams’ brilliant 2002 book “The Mind In The Cave” is of great help to us here. I can only summarise incredibly briefly here but he makes very compelling arguments about the significance of these paintings and I would highly recommend it. One of the points Lewis-Williams makes is that we can’t understand art outside of its context. Just because we can’t see what these pictures of animals suggested to their intended audience doesn’t mean they weren’t attempts at communication. And perhaps we can then say that they are documents. They certainly seem to me that they must have been used for something, whether that would have been religious rituals or for magical spells.

I have an admission to make. The art that really speaks to me at least gives the illusion of effortlessness, whatever the far more laboured reality. I also relate to something that feels like it could be part of the fabric of everyday life, a work that has an element of pragmatism to it. That really self-conscious kind of art that insists on its own transcendence and total separation from the mundane tends to alienate me. I prefer artists that don’t feel the need to force their craft into the foreground in order to impress. People who create things for others to use. I think these seeming qualities are what have drawn me to cave art. I like the boldness of the outlines and the vividness of the colours. The fact that these incredible images might have had a purpose, even though we can never be sure what it may have been.

Note: Photo of Altamira Bisons is by Thomas Quine, taken from Wikimedia Commons