Ontology in Library Science

Today I’m letting my inner nerd out to play…

Wordle: ontology in library science As part of my library science education, I spend a lot of time thinking about words, words, words.  Words as labels, key words, language, natural language, artificial language, ambiguity, conciseness.  In Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability which is all about information, information seeking and information access, I was delighted to run into Ludwig von Wittgenstein, the crazy philosopher genius who suggested language is insufficient to convey meaning (love him!):

Wittgenstein argued, “the root cause of…ontological challenges lies not only in semantics but also in the underlying logic of classification:  Consider for example, the proceedings we call games.  I mean, board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on.  What is common to them all?” (Morville 2005, 133)

It’s part of an information specialist’s job to identify the commonality in documents or artifacts, and duly classify and catalog them so that others may access the information.

I don’t aspire to be a cataloger but it is an aspect of any librarian’s work to understand these things.  And I couldn’t resist indulging in a bit of philosophical musing since the topic of ontology itself (the study of the nature of being, existence or realityreminded me of reading Descartes in Philosophy 101.  It became an exercise in precise langauge:

I pulled Joel Feinberg’s Reason and Responsibility off my bookshelf, thinking I would revisit Descartes’ musings on the melted candle and quickly discovered that “melted candle” was my own interpretation of Descartes’ discussion in “Meditation II” from “Meditations on First Philosophy”—Descartes does not use the word candle.  Rather he uses the word “wax.”  Now, with my curiosity piqued, I decided to google “Descartes melted candle” to see if the results would pull up “Meditation II” or if I would need to change my query.

Search terms play a huge role in accessing information.  The first result in my google search took me to “Meditation VI,” not “II.”  More interestingly, the third result was a paper discussing the very fact that Descartes uses the word “wax” rather than “candle!” Then I opened a new tab so I could change my query to “Descartes wax,” and the first result this time was the Wikipedia article on Descartes which mentions his “Wax Argument.”

Because I’m a word geek, I consulted my handy paperback copy of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary New Edition and looked up “wax” (a yellowish plastic substance secreted by bees for constructing the honeycomb) and “candle” (a usu. slender mass of tallow or wax molded around a wick that is burned to give light).  The definition of “candle” led me to consider the following:

On my mantle, there is a mass of wax molded around a wick—is it a candle if the wick has never been burned?  Does a candle’s existence depend upon the wick being burned and the wax being melted?  Or is the potential for the burning and melting sufficient to bring the candle into existence?  The definition of “wick” reads, “a loosely bound bundle of soft fibers that draws up oil, tallow or wax to be burned in a candle, oil lamp or stove.”

So I suppose it is a candle, then, that reposes between the Tibetan song bowl and the Our Lady of Fatima figurine, but my understanding of a candle and a wick are that each relies upon the other for its own existence, or sense of being.

My contemplation of candles and wax led me to wonder, are information and accessibility also inextricably linked?  In order to be information, must a given document be accessible?  Or is the does the document’s existence render it “information” regardless of whether a person can access it?

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2 Comments

Filed under Library and Information Science, Reflections

2 responses to “Ontology in Library Science

  1. dalialev

    Joanna:
    I love the connection you make between candles and wax and how important terms play a huge role in accessing information via search. You can leave information stuck in a document but it’s more useful if you can actually find that document again.
    Dalia, MLIS ontologist

    • Hi Dalia, Thanks for stopping by! I’ve always delighted in word play so it is fun to discover the connection between words and information access 🙂