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"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance": Power, (keyword) and ideas of "information society" at the Library of Congress

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posted on 2023-09-06, 02:58 authored by Samuel Gerald Collins

This is--reportedly--the "age of information." But is it a time when the perfect transparency of knowledge returns us to an idyllic pastorale of Jeffersonian democracy? Or is a time of Orwellian surveillance and seamless, corporate hegemony? I argue that "utopian" or "dystopian" conceptions of "information" are on some level nonsensical without a cultural understanding of "information" in institutions and social life. In this dissertation, I look to the cultural dimensions of "information society" at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world and an organization in the throes of a drama involving conflicts and contradictions between Gutenberg pasts and McLuhan-esque futures. In order to study these powerful ideas, I pursued ethnographic research at the Library of Congress (LC) from 1994 to 1997, engaging in participant observation and interviews with LC staff and users alongside research into the cultural discourses of the "information age." I concentrate on three, hotly disputed areas at the LC: physical and symbolic spaces structuring work and research, "knowledge-machines" (e.g., catalogs, databases) ultimately productive of what we would call "information society" and work and research as a social relation. I find that the contradictions of "information society" are thrown into relief as users, staff and management struggle over the Library's future, some hoping to distance themselves from an atavistic past while others trying to forestall a menacing, "digital future." The "Digital Library" allows an "information" remarkably free--in its "transparency"--of conflicting interpretation and historical construction, neatly eliding the LC's manifold racial and labor problems. I argue here that a "digital library" or a "library without walls" may have the effect of constricting communications and "information," reinforcing existing hierarchies in the act of a "return" to an imagined past. By seeking to transcend its antiquated computer records and its fractious labor problems, the LC suppresses the social dimension of "information" as an historical process involving discourses on race, labor and nation. Ironically, this reduction of contextual knowledge threatens to delegitimate the Library as a national institution.

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American University

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English

Notes

Ph.D. American University 1998.

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http://hdl.handle.net/1961/thesesdissertations:2279

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application/pdf

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Part of thesis digitization project, awaiting processing.

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