Introduction to Research & Documentation //

Terms, Concepts, and Additional Reading

Following are supplementary glosses on terms and concepts occurring in the Libraries' Introduction to Research & Documentation page, including additional background readings.

If you have questions about these pages contact the author (see end of this page).

Community || Organizing Knowledge || The Information Age || Individualism || Piracy

Scholarly Community

The notion of a community -- socially structured but freely subscribed to -- linked through open discourse about ideas extends back at least to early modern formulations of res publica litteraria, or The Republic of Letters. The metaphor of a literary republic has been interpreted by historians as illustrative of the striving toward a rational, ideal order that would transcend borders, creeds, and generations. Yet it was also felt to be sufficiently real to engender its own social rituals of acknowledgement, deference, praise, and criticism. Such are the origins of scholarly conduct. The appeal of this ethereal republic lies in its idealism, which social theorists still invoke sometimes today (see Fumaroli 1988), but arguably more concrete is the institutional legacy of this ideal: the public library (Nelles 1997).

Fumaroli, Marc. "The Republic of Letters," Diogenes 143 (1988), 129-52.

Nelles, Paul. "The Library as an Instrument of Discovery," History and the Disciplines, ed. Donald Kelley (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 41-57.


Organizing Knowledge

Scholastic jargon for its own sake, as smokescreen or puffery, has been exposed and ridiculed ever since the disciplines began to be perceived as discrete fields of enquiry (Burke 1995). But academic discourse often embraces, of necessity, both technical terminology and grammar sufficiently layered to express multidimensional ideas. The contrast in any case throws into relief how critical the role of language is in the organization of knowledge. Moreover, there are many potential "modes of thinking" even within a single enterprise of study -- such as analytical, taxonomical, linguistic, and holistic -- all of them alike chiefly in their susceptibility to differentiation through language. Ultimately what this means is that the disciplines themselves are more a moving target than we often like to think, as the methodoligical biases of successive generations supplant each other. As conceptualizations of overlapping subcultures and countercultures (Worsley 1997) are clearing the path toward pluralist models, it falls to us to "remake" the knowledge in our fields of interest by "render[ing] what is to be interpreted in a version of our own language" (Ringer 1990).

Burke, Peter. "The Jargon of the Schools," Languages and Jargons, ed. Peter Burke and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 22-41.

Ringer, Fritz. "The Intellectual Field, Intellectual History, and the Sociology of Knowledge," Theory and Society 19 (1990), 269-294.

Worsley, Peter. Knowledges. London: Profile Books, 1997.


The Information Age

A legacy of the Enlightenment for our time has been establishment of the principle that the spread of knowledge and information constitutes a noble enterprise, a proper business benefitting us all (Darnton 1979). But during no earlier age, say sociologists, has information been so "commodified" -- packaged and sold -- as in our own. Today the "information societies" of the industrialized nations are driven by "information economies"; never before have so many "information managers" been so gainfully employed in "information services". Among lawyers and economists, moreover, the distinction between information and knowledge has become a technicality: either may be regarded as akin to tangible objects, that is, as "products" (in economics) or "property" (in law), and therefore as manipulable entities in struggles for power or advantage (see Fuller 1992). The possession of information has long been recognized to have policital implications (government bureaucracies have always attempted to collect and exploit all manner of data), but our current age exceeds all others in its efforts to assemble, standardize, and interpret information.

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Englightenment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Fuller, Steven. "Knowledge as Product and Property," The Culture and Power of Knowledge, ed. Nico Stehr and Richard Ericson (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1992), 157-90.



The assumption of individual responsibility for -- and thus ownership of -- ideas plays a conspicuous role in Western society now, but it has not always been so, and some sociologists find it controversial still. Notions of individualism evolve in the contexts of (collective) societies; and notions of individual or (or collective) ownership of ideas -- a step in the commodification of knowledge (see the paragraph above) -- may take varying forms. What is meaningful and presumed universal may be no more than "particular, interested fictions, emergent from a [particular] history" (Coombe 1998, p. 247; also cf. 226). More than any other, it has probably been the French philosopher Michel Foucault who has expressed the awkwardness of maintaining the privilege of individual over collective intellectual proprietorship; his 1969 essay (published in English as "What is an Author?" in 1979) continues to figure as the point of departure for discussions of copyright and the social history of knowledge (cf Rose 1993).

Coombe, Rosemary. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?", Textual Strategies, ed. Josue Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-160.

Rose, Marc. Authors and Owners. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.



Understanding the issues surrounding plagiarism requires appreciation of the idea of knowledge-as-property. This is by no means a modern conceptualization: plundering the words of another author was characterized as theft in Rome two millennia ago. Claims and counterclaims over priority in the expression of ideas have accelerated in frequency ever since the advent of the printing press. In fact nearly every aspect of the history of the dissemination of knowledge through print, including the very origins of the technology itself, seems shrouded in what was then called "piracy" (Johns 1998, passim, and on the first press, p. 329-369). That authors should have property rights in their works was often recognized, but legal and economic struggles arose from cognate questions about what actually consitituted a "work", what aspects of intellectual property are individual as opposed to common, and how the form of the property -- each author's "way of forming concepts and connecting them," as the German philosopher Johann Fichte described it -- might be distinguished from its more collectively-derived content (Woodmansee 1984, p. 442). Though publication formats change, the piracy of intellectual property and attempts to curtail it still continue in a manner that probably would have been recognized in Fichte's day.

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Woodmansee, Martha. "The Genius and the Copyright," Eighteenth-Century Studies 17 (1984), 425-448.


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