Ghosts in the System: LIS and the Unexplained

Introduction

As we approach the midpoint of Autumn, which signals the end of harvest season (at least in certain northern latitudes) and the impending approach of winter, it’s hard not to think of a holiday that’s a particular favorite of mine. Building upon its historical antecedents, Hallowe’en allows us to engage in revelries and conceal ourselves within disguises that reveal additional dimensions we usually hide from others.

quote-man-is-least-himself-when-he-talks-in-his-own-person-give-him-a-mask-and-he-will-tell-you-the-oscar-wilde-198035As always, Oscar says it better.

It also provides an opportunity to turn our thoughts to things we don’t see in our everyday lives. Whether or not one believes in their existence, it’s difficult to deny the attraction that stories about ghosts and other “paranormal” phenomena have for many of us. Even those who swear by the rigors of science, rather than the vagueries of wishful thinking and admonishments to “just believe,” sometimes can’t resist the draw of horror, science fiction, fantasy, or other genres that take us into realms that offer extraordinary possibilities.

quote-i-can-believe-anything-provided-that-it-is-quite-incredible-oscar-wilde-288227Oscar does it again…

In the spirit of the holiday, and thinking about the near universal appeal of such stories, this posting is a thought piece about how those of us in LIS might consider the needs of people who wish to find purportedly true accounts about unexplained phenomena, as well as the challenges they face in doing so. Indeed, regardless of what one might personally believe, the degree of uncertainty and debate about the veracity of various unexplained phenomena (and stories thereof) can act as a metaphor writ large for many “down-to-earth” information-seeking problems.

“Information Action” and the Paranormal

At least within LIS, the University of Tampere’s Jarkko Kari has done the most research into unexplained phenomena. His 2001 dissertation, a follow-up to his 1996 Master’s thesis, focuses on “the process of information action in the context of interest in paranormal phenomena” [3].

For the purposes of his study, he considers “process” in dynamic terms, rather than in a fixed or static sense. Brenda Dervin’s Theory of Sense-Making acts as a foundational model for his study, although Kari makes some concrete modifications for a more substantive and testable theory related to his topical focus.

Sense-Making

Rather than definitively saying whether or not unexplained phenomena exist, whether broadly or specifically, Kari discusses what emerged from interviews with 20 respondents who either subscribed to the Finnish paranormal magazine Ultra or attended Ultrapäivät, a Finnish paranormal seminar. Given Kari’s recruitment pool, his respondents were already quite keen on the paranormal, with a number of them reporting a range of paranormal situations that drove a series of information actions.

Based on the data yielded from his sample, Kari proposes five stages to information action in relation to the paranormal: situation, information need, information source, the information acquired, and information outcome. Given the relatively high level of belief in the paranormal by Kari’s respondents, a fair number of them reported situations with some kind of paranormal aspect or impetus. Furthermore, possible resources may include not just anything “about” the paranormal in a variety of media (which I’ll discuss later), but also purportedly paranormal ones for obtaining such information. In fact, the latter act as a primary focus of subsequent articles by Kari (2011, 2009), and he identifies the information source stage as the point where respondents were most likely to face barriers.

Given that Kari’s study primarily focuses on people for whom the paranormal is an integral, even normal, part of their lives, it seems suitable to consider as well what might drive such an information need for those with a keen but casual interest in the unexplained. Whether believers or skeptics, perhaps they stumble upon purportedly true stories about unexplained phenomena, and then try to suss out which accounts seem reasonably likely to be true and which ones aren’t.

ItchyScratchyDepending, of course, on their respective agendas.

More broadly, Kari gives some justifications for taking such research seriously, including advocacy for more openness to exploring new ideas, the historical and current persistence of belief and interest in unexplained phenomena, and understanding how we think.

Controversial Knowledge (001.9)

Beyond Kari’s work, the topic of information pertaining to unexplained phenomena remains virtually unexplored within LIS. As Kari mentions in his dissertation, this is likely due to the lack of sufficiently compelling evidence within current conceptualizations of science. When scientists study such phenomena, they typically find relatively prosaic explanations to account for unusual experiences. Just to name one example, sleep paralysis has been proffered as an explanation for accounts of alien abduction.

There have been some exceptions among scientists, too. The late John E. Mack, a psychiatrist who taught at Harvard Medical School, came to believe in the veracity of alien abduction accounts. In a different field of study, biological anthropologist Jeff Meldrum examines the possibility that certain cryptozoological creatures, most especially the mythical creature commonly known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, actually exist. Furthermore, a handful of universities have sanctioned research focusing on such phenomena as extrasensory perception (ESP) and, to a lesser degree, spirit activity. In the case of the former, the primary impetus typically derived from its potentially practical (military and intelligence-gathering) uses, such as remote viewing.

GoatsThe basis for a movie starring Goat!

One is more likely to find unexplained phenomena discussed within the humanities and social sciences. Rather than focusing on whether or not such things exist, however, these fields typically look into the ways they’re symptomatic of the hopes and fears of people within a variety of sociocultural contexts. That in itself is fascinating, whatever one believes, as those kinds of approaches enable us to consider (1) how our “filters” influence our conceptualizations of such phenomena, (2) how people decide that certain unexplained phenomena seem like more compelling possibilities than others, or (3) why certain people are considered sufficiently authoritative and credible within their respective communities centering on unexplained phenomena.

The Unexplained and LIS

Cognitive Authority

It isn’t much of a stretch to think about concepts from LIS in relation to the needs and behaviors of those seeking information about various aspects of the unknown. Given the sharp divide that exists between hardcore skeptics and those who believe in the existence of unusual things (albeit in a variety of configurations), Patrick Wilson’s theory of cognitive authority seems suitable to consider. After all, in whom does one invest authority about the unexplained, or specific domains thereof? What makes that person seem credible? Does one trust the skeptic who relies on current science, or might that person have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo… which might make someone who believes in the unknown (whether based on personal experience or not) seem more compelling… even if such belief might, in a worst case scenario, contribute to bringing about an age of ignorance akin to our worst imaginings about the Middle Ages… which might make more rational explanations for unexplained phenomena seem more compelling yet again?

Categorization

As mentioned above, persons who believe in the existence of unexplained phenomena have their own ways of conceptualizing that particular domain of knowledge. It seems little surprise, then, that formal categorization practices surrounding them can also have some inconsistencies, which reflect the sociocultural contexts in which they emerge.

On its own, the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system’s treatment of unexplained phenomena provides some interesting examples. (For non-LIS folks, or LIS folks who would like a refresher, here’s a DDC guide from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s library.) From my time working in a public library in the late 1990s, I remember seeing a 1967 book about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) shelved someplace in the 629 section (Other Branches of Engineering). I forget which subsection, but I’m guessing Astronautics (629.4). For what it’s worth, here are the subsections for the “other” branches:

 629.04 Transportation engineering
 629.1 Aerospace engineering
 629.2 Motor land vehicles, cycles
 629.3 Air-cushion vehicles (Ground-effect machines, Hovercraft)
 629.8 Automatic control engineering

Interestingly, the book was published just a few decades after the post-World War II UFO / alien mythology had begun to take off. (The idea of considering the mythological aspects of the UFO phenomenon is the central point of Keith Thompson’s even-handed 1991 book Angels and Aliens.) I’m also guessing that the 629 section offered the “best fit” for the time, at least within a classification system that has always reflected a late 19th century Anglo-American zeitgeist, and that has difficulty accommodating areas of knowledge and understanding that don’t evenly fill out the DDC’s neat partitioning of classes, divisions, and sections.

What made the 1967 UFO book stand out was its physical and conceptual distance from other similar ones, which were right near the circulation desk. As was the case then, one can find a number of relatively newer books about unexplained phenomena in the Generalities class (000), near the very beginning of a DDC-based collection. Books within the 001.9 subsection (Controversial Knowledge) relate to the following sub-subsections:

 001.94 Mysteries (with further divisions for extraterrestrials, cryptozoology, etc.)
 001.95 Deceptions and hoaxes
 001.96 Errors, delusions, superstitions

But that isn’t the only place one can find items about unexplained phenomena. There’s also the Parapsychology and Occultism division (130), with the 133 section (Specific Topics in Parapsychology and Occultism) typically dominating that area. Even individual subsections within 133 are likely to outnumber other whole sections within the 130 division. One example of the latter is the now roundly discredited field of Phrenology (139), which was perceived as legitimate around the time the DDC was created.

Below is a listing of the subsections for 133:

133.1 Apparitions
133.2 Parapsychological and occult aspects of specific things
133.3 Divinatory arts
133.4 Demonology and witchcraft
133.5 Astrology
133.6 Palmistry
133.8 Psychic phenomena
133.9 Spiritualism

For anyone who’s wondering about 133.4, Janet Tapper has written about the presumptions of DDC regarding the “place” of Wicca (now under sub-subsection 299.94), as well as DDC’s lopsided divisions favoring Christianity within the Religion class (200).

Some of the aforementioned phenomena from DDC subsection 001.9 and section 133 reappear in other areas, primarily within the Folklore (398) section of the Social Science class (300):

398.2 Folk literature
398.3 Real phenomena as subjects of folklore
398.4 Paranatural and legendary phenomena as subjects of folklore

Along with some “controversial knowledge” and parapsychological / occult topics, the 398 subsections can also encompass such things as fairies, elves, Arthurian legends, mythical places like Atlantis, and so on. Related to the academic approaches mentioned earlier, the treatment is more likely to contextualize such topics. Also within the 300 class, the 366 section within the Social Problems and Social Services division (360) encompasses works about Secret Associations and Societies. Although not necessarily pertaining to unknown or unexplained phenomena, the 366 section is divided into subsections for specific orders, some of which have been associated with arcane knowledge, rituals, and conspiracies:

366.09 History, geographic treatment, biography
366.1 Freemasonry
366.2 Knights of Pythias
366.3 Independent Order of Odd Fellows
366.5 Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks

This is worth mentioning because some people associate such societies directly with other unexplained phenomena, and can somehow connect Freemasons with (for instance) aliens, demonic rituals, or both.

Declassification

Even without the kind of conspiracy scenario mentioned above, such phenomena (or perceptions thereof) could be considered fluid after all. Put another way, whatever one believes, the reifications of these categories actually reflect the sociocultural contexts in which they emerged. Or, in the case of the conspiracy scenario above, the reified categories can be smashed together to formulate accounts of malevolent secret doings. In a similar vein, thanks to a pastiche of ideas popularized by sketchy character Erich von Däniken in the 1960s, the “heavenly visitors” from various belief systems throughout the world have occasionally been retrofitted with the kinds of things one might find in the 629 section of DDC.

giorgio_tsoukalos_aliensErich taught Giorgio everything he knows.

Conversely, as pointed out in Thompson’s book about the mythological aspects of the modern UFO phenomenon and related to the fluidity of categories suggested above, stories about elves, fairies, and other magical creatures of yore share some similarities with popular perceptions of extraterrestrials in contemporary times. This idea was initially espoused by computer scientist and astrophysicist Jacques Vallée, whose interest in UFOs stemmed from an incident that occurred one evening while he was working with the French Satellite Tracking Program in the early 1960s, and which prompted his supervisor to order the destruction of the relevant data.

yourenotmysupervisorIf only Cheryl / Carol were there…

Rather than approaching the topic of UFOs as a conventional believer or skeptic, Vallée found it more suitable to analyze the phenomenon from a broader anthropological and historical perspective. However, his approach differed from von Däniken’s heavy-handed ideas regarding the appearance of “nuts-and-bolts” extraterrestrial spacecraft in our past. Rather, Vallée took a more subtle approach, which focused on commonalities among:

… religious visions, mystical raptures, appearances by supernatural creatures, and flying saucers… all sharing similar characteristics and effects on the human observer, depending on the predominant belief structure of a given culture (Thompson 1991, p. 101).

It also challenged this assumption:

… that the mere cataloging of sighting reports would… bring about a definitive resolution to the UFO phenomenon (Thompson 1991, p. 102).

Broader Implications for LIS

Given the challenges mentioned above with categorizing unexplained phenomena, as well as the ways that cognitive authority seems to play a role in considering their veracity, Thompson’s usage of a term typically associated with LIS (“cataloging”) seems quite apt. How can we really categorize something, whether UFOs or other unexplained phenomena, whose nature remains elusive and whose likelihood of existing defies current science? Especially when perceptions of them are tempered by sociocultural and historical lenses, and when persons vested with formal authority tend to downplay them publicly?

More broadly, one could even consider the issues discussed above as sharing parallels with, or acting as broader metaphors for, information-seeking in more “normal” contexts. One example is lay health information, where cognitive authority can be very important, as patients may utilize blogs and discussion forums written by and for persons with the same illness (Neal & McKenzie, 2011), but which might be at odds with (or act as complements to) content from more formally-recognized resources like medical databases.

Conclusions

Whether with regard to unexplained phenomena or more down-to-earth matters, we need to consider more closely how to enable people to find information that’s most useful to meeting their various needs. They include the extent to which:

  • we should guide people to resources with varying kinds (if not levels) of authority, even if we might be personally skeptical of some of them,
  • we can achieve an appropriate balance among such resources, and
  • we can enable people to find the “best” second-hand information possible, which they can synthesize with their firsthand experiences, as well as second-hand information they’ve already acquired.

As well, we should consider the ways sociocultural constructs, including forms of categorization, might be driving perceptions of such needs.

Considering the central topic of this posting and its metaphorical aspects, it seems no wonder that the library as an institution (and, I suppose by extension, IS) has often been portrayed in the broader media as a place that can invoke a number of fears, ranging from the Kafkaesque to the downright spooky. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s thoughts regarding discourse, Gary and Marie Radford (2001) discuss this idea in an article that’s also worth a read.

With all that, I wish all of you a Happy Hallowe’en!

Now to start looking for the hidden projector that keeps flashing at me an image of a librarian in Victorian clothing…

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