“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.

The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground

There are a good many professional organizations that take their knowledge organization and dissemination responsibilities seriously. One good example, appropriately enough, is the International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO), which maintains a free online bibliographic service covering knowledge organization literature.

According to a recent communication from the organization, the ISKO literature database has been enhanced to cover nine more years into the past. This extension to include older research involved complex analysis and conversion of data that was in old formats. In explaining why ISKO made this effort and went to all this trouble, webmaster Claudio Gnoli explained as follows:

“We hope that this service can contribute to strengthen knowledge organization as a full, consistent scientific field. Let us encourage students and researchers to start their work by looking at what has been published in the past.”

That last sentence merits some reflection. It might seem obvious that previously published research would be a logical starting point for subsequent research on the same topic, or on a similar one. So why would students and researchers need encouragement to start there?

One reason could be that they are bombarded with current research. This could be research from recently set-up online platforms, research by their networks of current colleagues, and RSS feeds on hot topics in their fields. While keeping up with current research certainly is commendable, overrating it could lead to a telescoped view of the relevance of prior research, even when that research was published within the researcher’s lifetime. For a young field such as information science, while the amount of research material is expanding rapidly, the foundations may have been established within the last few decades. And they may still be worth mining.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

Another reason for ignoring past research is intentional rejection of older observations, purely for the sake of adhering to a “modern” approach to research and description. (This, IMHO, is a major failing of many post-modernist practitioners, who consciously and deliberately ignore history and historical accounts.)

“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give?

Another possible reason that researchers ignore old research is that when they have tried to access it, they haven’t been able to. Not all professional organizations have expanded their databases backwards in time. Sometimes the organizations face obstacles, sometimes huge but generally surmountable. As we’ve seen with ISKO, the expansion can involve dealing with old formats, which might be a one-time technical issue (at least until the next major change in formatting). And then there may be overall budget and time limitations, especially with organizations that rely heavily on volunteer staff. Additionally, the shifting terminology of some research fields can cloud the search for past sources of illumination.

These obstacles are surmountable, but they require attention from those who maintain the research databases. Formats can be converted. And thesauri can accommodate older terminology, while offering flexibility to accommodate future terminology. Likewise, future guardians of research databases will need to pay the same kind of attention to these kinds of matters, so that current research is available to those who, like Scrooge, may discover valuable information that otherwise might have remained hidden.

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Barbara Gilles, Taxonomist
Access Innovations