Featured Paper #2: External Memory by Howard D. White (1989)
Howard D. White (b. 1936--,Utah) received his doctorate from the School of Librarianship at the University of California, Berkeley in 1974. At this place and time the study of information was rooted in systems theory, cybernetics, linguistic theory, and other multidisciplinary ideas that orient to the dynamic patterns underlying phenomena (Bates, 2004). There, he was also influenced by advisor and mentor Patrick Wilson, an eminent philosopher of information and a library theorist (Wilson, 1977). A self-described book lover with a literary sensibility, White possesses high technical skills and is a pioneering bibliometrician, specifically in co-citation analysis. His interests are wide-ranging and include research into science data archives, reference service and tools, online searching, and various library issues. He is perhaps best known for the journal article "Visualizing a Discipline: An Author Co-citation Analysis of Information Science, 1972-1995" (1998), with Katherine McCain, which offers a birds-eye view of the major research specialties and contributors in the recent history of information science and won the Best JASIS&T Paper of the Year Award. To acknowledge White’s significant contributions to information studies, in 1993 he received the ASIS&T Research Award and in 2004 the ASIS&T Award of Merit; he was also awarded the Derek Price Medal in 2005 for his contributions to scientometrics. White is an ardent populariser of library and information studies (White, 1999) and to that end often employs in his writing a conversational tone, witty neologisms, and entertaining leaps to popular culture.
“External Memory” is the concluding chapter in For Information Specialists*, a collection of essays that altogether aim “to arrive at a general understanding of the tools, processes, and social contexts of information work”(White, 1992, p. 2). It is White’s effort at a “unifying concept, both for the book and for the field” (p. 5). He proposes that library and information science is concerned with external memory, that is, “the creation, organization and use of messages or performances stored in durable media other than the memories of living persons” (p. 250). External memory is a complement to internal memory that is foremost the concern of other social sciences such as cognitive psychology. With these concepts as a starting point, White elaborates upon the nature of information work, the relationship between LIS and cognate disciplines, among other topics. Using “External Memory” as a point of departure, an educator at an LIS orientation program might say:
Welcome to library and information science.
Human beings generate a superabundance of memories that overflow the capacity of their minds. When these impressions are expressed and stored outside the brain they form a stock of knowledge that can be called ‘external memory’. A fundamental problem for society is how to keep this knowledge from being lost. Library and information science is a discipline and profession dedicated to collecting, organizing, and providing access to external memory so that living and future
generations can benefit from it.
External memory takes the material form of artifacts that we call records. Records may consist of text, sound, or pictures and pertain to all aspects of the human experience, whether work, academia, or entertainment. Records can be true and accurate, such as an atlas or autobiography; or fantastical and fictional, such as a novel or poem. Library and information science is mainly concerned with records that enter society through the institution of publishing, indeed, it is more precise to say our work is centered on publications than on the broader term ‘information.’
There are two approaches for providing access to external memory as embodied in publications and records. ‘Intellectual access’ involves identifying and organizing materials based upon its features such as subject, author, genre, or language. To this end we apply the techniques of indexing, classification, and cataloguing. ‘Physical access’ entails the placement of publications on library shelves or in information systems and then managing these collections with ethical, political, and budgetary sensitivity. Both intellectual and physical access are required to mediate the relationship between individuals and external memory.
The people attracted to careers in library and information science are a special type. Most citizens prefer to be surrounded by a small number of publications and any more produces the discomfort of ‘information overload.’ Differently, information professionals are at ease when surrounded by vast information collections. Further, information professionals have an uncommon fund of ‘intellectual sympathy,’ that is, a great willingness to invoke the contents of external memory at the requests of other persons. Our forte and pleasure is reducing information overload for ourselves and others.
Library and information science is not the sole enterprise concerned with external memory; a constellation of disciplines and professions share the territory, each with its own mandate. Information systems focuses on external memory in the context of organizations with a primary concern for unpublished records that have a short lifespan, such as financial data. Archival science is likewise centered on organizations and manages unpublished records of lasting value, such as company documents. Mass communications also engages external memory and orients to media and its impact on audiences. Altogether the fields and professions involved with external memory form a broad enterprise that Jesse Shera called social epistemology.
In 1992, White’s invocation of ‘memory’ as the raison d'etre of library and information science was innovative. Since then the concept has become a popular interdisciplinary research area in its own right. A focus on memory may surprise those who associate LIS with ‘information’ or artifacts such as books and documents. To explore these perspectives, students can be asked: Do you consider the library to be a memory institution, an information institution, or something else? Initiates to the field might appreciate White’s insights about the special abilities of information professionals. Other avenues for discussion pertain to students’ reflections on their own perceived talents, experiences of information overload, and propensities for “intellectual sympathy” (White, 1992, p. 268).
Strengths and Weaknesses
The pedagogical strengths of this article include White’s conversational manner and references to popular culture, including an extended discussion of a classic film as an expression of information work styles. A weakness of “External Memory” (White, 1992) is its sheer length (54 pages) that may overwhelm a newcomer; indeed, in the introduction White proffers that For Information Specialists may function best as a resource for educators. Other challenges to the use of this essay in the classroom are its references to earlier sections of the book and its somewhat idiosyncratic organization. Still, of the three articles reviewed here, White’s contains, in my opinion, the greatest number of imagination-grabbing conceptions of LIS. Those wishing to use it can obtain For Information Specialists in any university library or via online booksellers.
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*The full title of this edited book is For Information Specialists: Interpretations of Reference and Bibliographic Work. The project was instigated by White, who serves as editor and contributor along with co-authors Marcia J. Bates and Patrick Wilson. The collection displays a coherent perspective on LIS originating from Wilson, the senior scholar and teacher of the other two at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1960s and early 1970s.