Community as Collection


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F, 4
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Gabriel Mugar

Agreement Description

Defining Community: From space based to interest based

Community as Collection is a concept that defines the curation and classification of sources in a library by connecting them to the interests and activities of the town/city within which the library is located. From the perspective of classification, community as collection is understood as a point of entry for an information seeker to a topic area whereby they are able to see the documents that are actively discussed within a particular community that is defined by a specialization or interest (Lankes 2011). From the perspective of curation it can be understood as two things: First, establishing a relationship between the library and community institutions (eg. Hospitals, civic associations, support groups) so that an information seeker can engage members of these institutions in a conversation regarding their needs. Second, by establishing relationships with community institutions, librarians can become aware of the needs of the community and curate their collection based on these needs. To understand how Community as Collection might work in a library, it is important to first briefly explore the definition of community.

In Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” (1999), he cites statistics that show between 1965 and 1995, the amount of time Americans spent engaging in informal socialization in public places declined by 1/3. Putnam also cites a similar decline in civic engagement, where there was less participation in civic associations. Putnam speculates that this decline is due to a change in lifestyle where the spaces we moved through in daily life became more private and less public. Using transportation as an example, Putnam notes that the increased use of automobiles, a mostly private and singular mode of transportation, overtook “the life or the sidewalk” where people would pass by front yards or encounter each other on their way to the store or work. (Putnam 2000). The rise of the automobile was paralleled by this shift from a less public to more private existence with more people leaving cities and moving to suburbs where, unlike cities, there are fewer spaces for informal public socialization.

While there was less engagement in informal socialization and in civic associations, Putnam notes that there was a type of community that countered the trend of the decline between 1965-1999. This was a type of community not defined by physical borders, but was defined instead by interest. Groups defined by interest can be, for example, a church group, a support group, or a professional practice group, also known as a community of practice.

A community of practice is defined as an information-sharing environment where individuals who share a common professional practice converge. The purpose of the space is for participants to ask questions and support each other in their practice. In Etienne Wegner’s article, “Learning as Social System” (1998), a community of practice emerges out of a group of people who are connected by being repeatedly engaged in overcoming a similar obstacle.

As Wegner (2002) describes, a community of practice (CoP) can be formal or casual. For example, a CoP can be a group of nurses who talk to each other in the cafeteria everyday to discuss their respective cases. This informal sharing of information benefits a group’s awareness of each others work and provides an opportunity for the nurses to share stories about respective challenges and successes. On the other end, CoP’s can be formalized by the infrastructure within which practitioners work. Today, major corporations have “formalized” informal internal online information sharing environments where employees can have conversations about their work, archive these conversations, and store work practice related documents. These information sharing environments are so rich with practice related documents and conversation that they become effective learning tools for anyone who wants to know more about the profession. What makes a community of practice unique in our brief exploration into the definition of community is that it is not dependent on the mode of communication. In other words, neither proximity nor media are key factors for this type of community to function, rather it is the “existence of a shared practice—a common set of situations, problems, and perspectives” (Wegner 2002), that define communities of practice.

Coming back then to the discussion of community as collection, a physically defined community within which a library exists should be perceived by a librarian as being made up of communities of interest within the physical borders of the community they serve. Thus for a librarian to pursue a “community as collection” model they must: (1) take stock of the communities of interest within the physical boundary of their community, (2) develop relationships with key members of these communities so that they may facilitate conversations between these key members and library users and (3), maintain relationships with these key members so as to stay up to date on the needs of these communities and build a collection around these needs.

Before we go further with describing what the Community as Collection model looks like, we must first explore what some of the benefits to information seeking this model provides. The principle advantage has to do with the contextualization of information. By being connected to members of a community defined by an interest/practice, the information seeker is provided with contextualized knowledge. The advantages of contextualized knowledge are best understood through Conversation Theory.

Conversation Theory: Contextualized Knowledge

Conversation Theory was developed by Gordon Pask to describe the process by which people learn. Pask believed that learning is a process of agreements between two individuals, say a student and a teacher. In making the point that learning takes place through agreement, Pask describes two levels of language in learning to describe what learning looks like. In the language level L0, the relationship between the student and the teacher is fairly one directional, with the teacher telling the student what to do. Here knowledge is conveyed in a series of isolated events with minimal reference to the full spectrum of context within which the information being conveyed belongs. The second level of language in Pask’s Conversation Theory is L1, whereby learning takes place through a dialogue between a teacher and student and the information being conveyed is placed within the appropriate context.

“Conversation Theory talks about the fact that you understand the world not as a series of isolated events or facts but as a dynamic network of agreements and understandings. So to “learn” (Pask talks about “knowing”), a person needs to actively relate new information to what is already known.” Lankes 2011

As Lankes et al (2007) point out, learning through conversation is critical because it helps retain the unique contexts of different scholarly, spiritual, or cultural communities. By having an information seeker engage in a discussion with the community of interest, they have a greater chance of learning knowledge that is far richer than it would have been had they only read a single, isolated piece of information.

Having looked at Pask’s Conversation Theory, we can see the advantages and benefits of communities of practice. As Wegner (1998) states,

“A community of practice is not just a web site, a database, or a collection of best practices. It is a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment.”

Communities of practice are information environments that, unlike a database or card catalog, frame information within the context of the practice the information belong to. By engaging in a community of practice, a practitioner is not only engaged in creating, consuming or sharing knowledge, they also bring legitimacy to the knowledge that is created through a web of agreements with other participants in the community.

In his book, “Cultivating Communities of Practice,” Wegner (2002) notes that communities of practice possess three fundamental elements, a domain, a community, and a practice. The domain establishes a common ground that “inspires members to contribute and participate, guides their learning, and gives meaning to their actions” (Wegner 2002). The element of community is what creates the trust and respect amongst the members, and the practice is the framework of “ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, and documents that community members share” (Wegner 2002). By establishing a body of shared knowledge, the community of practice has created a resource that supports the efficient growth and development of the practice.

For the information seeker, especially one who is new to a particular area of interest, a community of practice is ideal because of the high level of context it provides through current and archived conversations about relevant topics, as well as repositories of relevant documents that are connected to those conversations. The robustness and richness of these communities of practice are possible because, as Wegner points out, people within communities of practice automatically distribute the responsibility of staying up to date on the topic out of necessity of being engaged practitioners in the particular area of interest. A community of practice is in short, a living repository of practice-based information.

Returning to our understanding that the definition of community is not dependent on space, Wegner notes that while many communities of practice start between people who work in the same place, collocation is not necessary for communities of practice. “Scientists have long been forming communities of practice by communicating across the globe (once by letter and now by e-mail)” (Wegner 2002).

Having looked at conversation theory and communities of practice, we can now turn to what a community as collection would look like and what advantages it would provide over a traditional library experience.

Community as Collection: Libraries of the people

Based in the description of conversation theory and communities of practice, one of the clear advantages that we see with the community as collection model is that it is designed to maintain a relationship with the changing nature of knowledge. By acting as a network facilitator, the static artifact is replaced by relationships to live conversations that represent both the current state and history of agreements within particular communities of interest.

Additionally, by engaging with contextualized knowledge, an information seeker using a community as collection may be able to overcome a major problem Robert Taylor points out in the information seeking process, that being that often times users are not aware of what it is that they are looking for(Taylor 1968). The community as collection model helps to overcome this by engaging the information seeker, who may have an inkling of what it is they are looking for, to become immersed in a dynamic conversation about their direction and possibly stumble upon a discussion which contains information which they were not necessarily looking for but addresses the particular obstacle or goal they are working on.

Conversely, when a user engages a traditional card catalogue system, electronic or physical, there can be a number of pitfalls in the information seeking process. For example, Lankes et al (2007) take on what they see as the one-way nature of the catalogue system and ask ,

“what happens when the user doesn’t find something? Do we assume that the information is there, but that the user is simply incapable of finding it…Do we assume that the information does not exist…what if we assume that the catalog is just the current place a user is involving in an ongoing conversation—what would that look like?” (Lankes et al 2007)

What the authors propose is that the card catalogue become the center-piece around which information seekers engage in conversation about the topic. “The catalog, then, does not simply present information, but instead helps users construct knowledge by allowing the user to participate in a conversation”(Lankes et al 2007). Users can ask questions and respond to questions, add information or update it. If a user brings up a particular data point, they may also see an ongoing conversation that is associated with that data point which may lead the user to find more information that they were not intending to find when they started their search.

Essentially, the authors are proposing a participatory librarianship model whereby library management no longer exists only in the hands of a librarian, but is instead supported by the users of the library. This is what a Community as Collection might look like, whereby the librarian is no longer primarily responsible for curating the collection of artifacts, but is instead responsible for curating a collection of conversations/communities of practice that a library user can access when they are seeking information. The “content” of the conversations curated by the librarian thus are constantly updated by those people who are involved in the communities of practice. Returning to the point by Robert Taylor, Lankes et al note that “one of the goals of these participatory networks is to make it easier for the user to enter a conversation with the Library without having to work to discover their own specific entry points” (Lankes et al 2007). In other words, the benefit of the community as collection model is that a user does not have to be completely clear on what it is they are looking for, rather they just need to engage in a conversation and see where it takes them.

The community as collection model reflects the idea that, if knowledge is created through conversations, then libraries are in the business of conversations (Lankes et al 2007). An example of not only the power of conversation but the library users desire for it can be seen in the example of teens interviewed by a local library system in Oregon about what they wanted out of the library website. The teens responded by saying they wanted the librarians to blog about book topics that interested them (Lankes 2011). Rather than looking at a card catalogue, the teens wanted to find what they were looking for in the context of a conversation.

This desire for finding information in a blog represents that context, not content, is the new king. People no longer want to passively engage pieces of information that are abstracted from their context and placed into a filing cabinet. Instead they want to, at the very least, find conversations and see how the information they are looking for fits into a wider context of interrelated topics. This can be accomplished naturally by creating the spaces and facilitating the relationships needed for the conversations to emerge. The role and tasks of libraries today in the community as collection model is to become “masters of mediation” and gather “consensus around the conversation of critical importance to the community and then targeting services to those conversations”(Lankes 2011).

By creating a network between different communities of interest, the librarian creates a library that is comprised of the people in the community. Thus the library is no longer something for the people, it is instead, of the people (Lankes 2011). In so doing the library steps away from being a repository of artifacts and instead becomes a collection of living conversations that reflect the interests of the physical community within which the library is located.

Curating Community as Collection: Collecting and building communities of practice

The discussion of curating using the community as collection model begins with the idea of the library being of the people, rather than for the people. Thus the principle resource a librarian is acquiring is not static artifacts, but is instead living, breathing, ongoing conversations. The first step in doing this is to engage in mapping conversations, whereby community conversations and their priorities are identified (Lankes 2011). It is the identifying and subsequent networking of conversations spaces, that is the primary task of creating a CaC. In “Cultivating Communities of Practice,” Wegner points out that the main task in cultivation is not to encourage participation, but is instead to weave the network of conversations together (Wegner 2002). The emphasis on the network rather than the content is a testament to the power and importance of context in both the learning and information seeking process.

In addition to mapping conversations and networking them together, a librarian pursuing the CaC model must also take part in creating new conversations spaces or communities of practice. For example, a librarian, through conversations with various information seekers, may identify a growing need for a conversation space about preventing youth violence. Noting that there are a few community centers, a college with a psychology department that focuses on youth, and a number of civic and neighborhood groups that are concerned with youth violence, a librarian can create a map with descriptions of all the institutional assets in the community that relate to youth violence. The librarian must then create a conversation space where all of these institutions can converge and discuss ongoing successes and challenges they face in the area of youth violence in their community and in general. With the conversation space in place, the role of the librarian becomes one of encouraging participation. As Wegner points in “Cultivating Communities of Practice”, the responsibility of stewarding such a community involves demonstrating the value to each potential participant and to the whole of the community. It also involves establishing a support team that creates events around which the members of the community of practice can engage in problem solving so as to generate conversations that can then be archived and used as references by other community members. The management of such communities is different from managing conventional assets, it requires an attention and appreciation of intangible assets like passion, relationships, and skills (Wegner 2002). In order to pursue the CaC model, a librarian must shed the conventional stereotype of the reclusive bookworm and become a social butterfly, effectively pollinating conversations throughout the community they serve.

Benefits of Community as Collection for Community Development: Building the commons

By creating a network of conversations related to topics that are relevant to the community, the Community as Collection model can play a critical role in community development model of Asset Based Community Development. Paul Resnick, a professor at the University of Michigan iSchool, along with community activist and former MIT adjunct Mel King, made the profound statement that,

“There is no such thing as a poor community. Even neighborhoods without much money have substantial human resources. Often, however, the human resources are not appreciated or utilized, partly because people do not have information about one another and about what their neighborhood has to offer. For example, a family whose oil heater is broken may go cold for lack of knowledge that someone just down the block knows how to fix it.” (Resnick and King 1997)

The idea of there being no such thing as a poor community is the core tenant of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), a model inspired by Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight (1993) at Northwestern University. The ABCD model works by identifying the assets of a community through a process of asset mapping, and leveraging those assets rather than focusing on the deficits. Asset mapping is a process where community members are constantly engaged in taking inventory of the services and resources both institutions and people in the community have to offer. By conducting an ongoing inventory, people who access this asset map will always be aware of the resources that are around them. For Kretzmann and McKnight, the ABCD model is about “releasing the power of local associations.” (1993) In the same way, the CaC model acts as a mechanism for conducting a perpetual inventory-taking process of those institutions where conversations related to important community issues take place. By creating an entry point for these conversations at a library, an information seeker does not have to wander aimlessly about in hopes of finding the right conversation; rather, they can visit their local librarian and be plugged into the relevant conversation that matches the obstacles they are trying to overcome.

The benefit of the CaC model to community development efforts is also apparent when viewed through the conceptual lens of social capital. Social capital represents a social relationship for an individual that has characteristics of a resource in which, when the individual is in need of something, they can access that relationship to meet their need. Research on social capital has revealed that individuals who maintain large stocks of connections with others in their community or workplace fair better in such realms as education, work, or emotional well being. For example, a study by James Coleman (1988) that compared the tight knit communities of Catholic school’s to public and private schools showed that, with equal or smaller school budgets, Catholic school students were more successful because their families were all closely connected through an additional institution (the church) and thus were better positioned to support each other in times of need (Putnam 2000). Social capital for Coleman is “information that facilitates action,” thus if people are lacking in social capital because they are not connected to relevant communities of interest, they will have a harder time in on overcoming obstacles. “Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievements of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible.”(Coleman 1988). To view social capital as information that facilitates action is what helps make the case for how the CaC model benefits the community. By curating and providing access to conversations about important topics, the CaC model can effectively act as a repository of social capital in that each conversation is a web of social relations that an information seeker can tap into in a time of need.

By acting as a repository for social capital, the CaC model promotes the collective power of people to overcome obstacles. In Hardt and Negri’s book, “Commonwealth” (2009), they point out that modern philosophers and contemporary social theorists alike recognize poverty as not being solely due to a lack of requisite material goods to succeed, but is instead primarily due to a poverty of social relations, a lack of social capital. The networks of social relations between individuals that make up networks of social capital which people can collectively tap into is what Hardt and Negri call the commons, a term typically used to describe shared physical resources. For the authors, the commons of social relations allows people to share their knowledge about how to overcome obstacles and to do so together. It is this sharing of information in an open “commons” fashion that the authors see as the primary step towards combating poverty throughout the world. Therefore, when we look at the CaC model, we can see how it acts as a social capital commons whereby the conversations of communities of interest are no longer privy to those who belong to those communities, but are instead made accessible to anyone who, no matter how socially poor, has a goal of overcoming an obstacle.

Conversation Starters

  1. How does a librarian include a conversation/community of practice that exists in a face-to-face setting and not in an online environment?
  2. What does facilitation/mediation between an information seeker and an existing community of interest look like?
  3. What might a classification system of conversations look like? How does a librarian/library keep track of their collection?
  4. What are the potential drawbacks of community as collection? How do we address the possibility of “tyranny of the majority” in the conversations that are part of the collection?

Related Artifacts

Coleman, James S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology 94 Supplement: S95–S120)

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri (2009). Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press).

Kretzmann, John P., and John McKnight (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (Evanston, IL: ACTA).

Lankes, R David, Joanne Silverstein, and Scott Nicholson. “Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation.” Information Technology and Libraries 26.4 (2007): 17-33

Lankes, R. David. The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000

Resnick, P. and King, M. (1997). The rainbow pages: Building community with voice technology. In Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community: Critical Explorations of Computing as Social Practice. P. Agre and D. Schuler, eds. (Greenwich, CT: Ablex), pp. 229–240.

Wenger, E. “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.” Organization 7.2 (2000): 225-46.

Wenger, Etienne, Richard A. McDermott, and William Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: a Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School, 2002

*This supplement did not appear in the original printed Atlas, but is being considered for inclusion in future editions. What do you think about the supplement and the topic?