Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 16-19, 2019
Embodiment, information practices and documentation: a study of mid-life martial artists
Michael Olsson and Joacim Hansson.
Introduction. This study explores the concepts of embodied documentation and embodied information practices in the context of a study of martial artists in mid-life and beyond. The focus of this paper will be the practices through which they develop, maintain and share the embodied knowledge needed to pursue their martial arts.
Method. Data collection included semi-structured interviewing, ethnographic fieldwork with participant observation and reflective writing.
**Analysis.**Analysis was undertaken using an inductive, thematic approach.
Results. Participants’ information practices are social, multi-sensory and embodied in nature. The findings reveal the importance of nonconscious information practices aligned with the Zen Buddhist concept of mushin (無心の心). The study’s findings demonstrate that martial arts embodied information practices are unquestionably codified, embedded in long standing traditions of ‘correct’ practice.
Conclusions. Participants’ embodied practice related explicitly to the codified martial arts form manifested through movements, technique and postures. That what is learnt is not random or situational in an ontological sense. Instead, codification challenges the established notion of tacit knowledge as it carries in it structured rules which relate to a documentary status of the embodied practice.
This study explores the concepts of embodied documentation (Hansson, 2017) and embodied information practices (Olsson & Lloyd, 2017) in the context of a study of martial artists in mid-life and beyond. The focus of this paper will be the practices through which they develop, maintain and share the embodied knowledge needed to pursue their martial arts. Combining qualitative interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, the study explores how participants meet the challenges of engaging in highly skilled embodied martial arts practices and how/whether these practices change as the practitioner enters mid-life. It will consider the possibility that, in a martial arts context, the most authoritative ‘document’ may be the bodies of the martial arts practitioners themselves in the moment of practice.
The study uses martial arts in mid-life as a context in which to study and expand the authors’ previous work exploring the role of the body in how individuals and communities construct, share and preserve information. In doing so, the study will further develop Hansson’s previous work (2017) in exploring the relationship between his concept of embodied documentation and Olsson & Lloyd’s (2017) development of Lloyd’s (2009, 2010, 2011) concept of embodied information practice. Martial arts has been chosen, based on both author’s personal experience, as a site which is particularly suitable to explore the role of the body as a site of codified knowledge. In doing so, the study challenges prevailing approaches in the field, which associate codified knowledge almost exclusively with linguistic practices and artefacts.
In this current study, the concept of information practices has been informed by the work of a range of authors including McKenzie (2003), Talja and Hansen (2005) and Savolainen (2008) and, most notably, Lloyd (2009, 2010, 2011). The study adopts Lloyd definition of information practices as:
An array of information-related activities and skills, constituted, justified and organized through the arrangements of a social site, and mediated socially and materially with the aim of producing shared understanding and mutual agreement about ways of knowing and recognizing how performance is enacted, enabled and constrained in collective situated action. (Lloyd, 2011, p. 285)
Embodiment has played a central role in Lloyd’s information practices work and this has continued in her more recent collaborative research with Olsson (Olsson & Lloyd, 2017a, 2017b, 2018). They argue that information practices research:
…requires us to understand how shared, practical understanding is derived from becoming or being embodied in context (in situ). Consequently, to know is to be capable of participating with the requisite competence in the complex web of relationships among people, material artifacts and activities … information practices are context specific, and are entwined with a range of modalities (social, corporeal and epistemic/instrumental)” (Olsson & Lloyd, 2017a).
This leads them to conclude that embodied information practices:
- are always situated (in situ);
- are expressed corporeally, and are central to actors understanding the social and epistemic modalities of the landscape;
- act as a site for know-how knowledge, which cannot be effectively expressed in written form (e.g. learning how to recognise an artefact; learning how to write; learning how read a fire);
- are local/nuanced, drawing from expertise in situ, and may be contingent and only available at the ‘moment of practice’. (Lloyd & Olsson, 2017a)
This approach to embodied information practices is informed by the work of a range of practice theorists, such as Gherardi, who suggests:
Knowledge is not what resides in a person’s head or in books or in data banks. To know is to be capable of participating with the requisite knowledge competence in the complex web of relationship among people material artefacts and activities…On this definition, it follows that knowing in practice is always a practical accomplishment (Gherardi, 2008, p. 517).
As part of an ongoing parallel discussion on the nature of documents and documentation processes (Irvine-Smith 2015, Buckland 2016, Gorichanaz & Latham 2016), Hansson (2017) has suggested the concept embodied documentation by example of tai chi as a martial arts practice related to embodied information practices in two respects; (1) practice is always situated and (2) it works as a site for know-how knowledge expressed corporeally. At the centre of the embodied documentation concept is that which is the very essence of martial arts:- the form and the rules of engagement. This is what may be transcribed as a document kept within a continuous representative documentation practice which information practices are used to develop and enlighten.
In the early 1950s, documentation pioneer Suzanne Briet described a document as 'any concrete or symbolic indexical sign... preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon' (Briet 2006, p. 10). Hansson finds the tai chi form to function as a symbolic indexical sign in that it, through defined sequences of postures and movements, manifests the philosophy of the I Ching (1967), with its ontological opposites of Yin and Yang, rewritten into animal inspired postures such as 'carrying the tiger up the mountain' and 'the snake spits out its tongue'. The form is further preserved through rigorous and sometimes arcane instruction within Chinese family lineages (whereof Yang and Chen are the two most commonly practiced in the west).The aim of the form is to reconstitute ancient knowledge on the correspondence of nature, the universe and internal, corporeal, energy flows (the Ch’i). In Chinese tradition, tai chi is also seen as the basis for all other martial arts applications (Jwing-Ming, 1996).
In Briet’s terminology, this representative function of the martial arts form is an original document that, in order to be made comprehensible by the average western practitioner is supplemented by “derivative” or explicatory documentation, found in for example books, journals, films and collective practice. In terms of content Hansson (2017, p.7) identifies four categories of derived documentation related to martial arts practice; (1) philosophical documentation, (2) medical and health oriented documentation, (3) instructive documentation and (4) general martial-arts documentation. For the practitioner, these forms of documentation have both ontological, performative and legitimising functions. It is through these functions we find, on a theoretical level, the perhaps most important inter between the ideas of embodied documentation and information practice.
Data collection for the study involved semi-structured qualitative interviews and participant observation with other mid-life martial artists and ethnographic fieldwork at martial arts clubs and training sessions. Both authors are themselves practicing martial artists (Olsson: fencing, Haidong Gumdo, Hansson: Yang Tai Chi). This ‘insider’ status has a range of implications for both the study’s fieldwork and data analysis. Logistically, the researchers were able to draw on their own social networks in their martial arts communities to recruit participants. They were able to draw on their martial experience to inform the design of the interview guide, increase their rapport and understanding of what they were told in the interviews and observed during their participant observation. It also, we would argue, added a deeper layer of understanding to our analysis practices.
The ten participants in this first phase of the study were purposefully sampled by the researchers from their own social networks within the martial arts world (see appendix 1). Participants ranged in age from late-30s to early-70s with the majority of participants in their 50s. Five participants were men and five women. Participants practiced a range of martial arts including haidong gumdo, taekwondo, fencing, karate, and Yang style tai chi, with several participants practicing two or more arts simultaneously. Participants chose their own pseudonyms based on a list of historical martial artists.
Each researcher conducted interviews in the own country (Australia and Sweden) using the same interview guide (see appendix 2). The design of the interview guide incorporated elements inspired by elements of Dervin's sense-making methodology (Dervin et al.,2003) as well as techniques drawn from Seidman's (1991) less structured, more conversational approach to research interviewing. Interviews lasted from 40 to 130 minutes and were digitally recorded.
In addition, each researcher undertook ethnographic fieldwork (Bryman, 2008) involving participant observation at martial arts training sessions, in some of which the researcher was also an active participant. Olsson undertook six such sessions, participating in three, each lasting between one and three hours. Hansson undertook seven one hour sessions, participating in all seven.
As in Olsson’s previous study with Lloyd (Olsson & Lloyd, 2017a, 2017b, 2018), the division between interviewing and observation was not clear cut. During four of the interviews, participants broke off to demonstrate the martial arts technique they were describing to the researcher. Similarly, there were occasions during the observation when participants would spontaneously pause during their training in order either to provide the researcher with a longer explanation of the technique they were practicing or to share a thought which had occurred to them. We would argue that this fluidity should be seen as a strength: as evidence of the participants’ engagement in the study and their eagerness to share their insights with the researcher.
Analysis was undertaken using an inductive, thematic approach. Although the analysis was consciously informed by the range of theoretical perspectives described above, the study's aim was not to test a pre-defined theory or hypothesis, but to develop a contextual, situated understanding of the relationship between participants' context, their role/s as members of the martial arts community, the discourses they engaged with and their information practices.
The study’s findings show that the participants’ information practices are strongly social in nature, with participants working with a community of peers (training partners and coaches) to develop, maintain and share their martial expertise. Participants in the study consistently described their information practices as an ongoing journey: particular goals may be achieved (a new technique, a higher dan belt) but these are always described as being waystations rather than endpoints. This takes on another layer for mid-life martial artists: participants talked about the need to re-learn and adapt already familiar techniques in order to adapt to their changing physical capabilities. The long learning curve in adapting a certain martial arts form or technique was mentioned as a reason for why the arts often seem to attract practitioners in the mid-life phase, as it is a period in life where the urge to compete is no longer at the centre of attention in physical activity. This was especially emphasised by the participating tai chi practitioners who in most cases had switched practice from other, more competition-centred martial arts such as Kendo, Judo and Jujutsu, as well as performance centred activities such as long distance running, and yoga.
Documents - texts & video
Before considering the role of the bodily practice as a document in martial arts, it is appropriate that the study contextualise this in terms of how participants described the role of derivative documents in the more everyday sense of the word. We will argue that the primacy of embodied practices as participants’ most valued information source is perhaps better understood when considered in the context of the limitations they ascribe to textual- and multimedia-based forms of documentation.
Most participants reported using a range of different texts as information sources in relation to their martial arts practice. The most frequently mentioned were training manuals describing martial techniques and patterns. Whilst all participants reported using such manuals in certain circumstances (e.g. in learning a new technique, a new sequence of movements, or checking their practice was correct whilst preparing for a grading) all emphasised the limitations of texts as the basis for martial practice:
A manual, even if it’s got photos or diagrams, can only get you so far. It can’t show you what it feels like. (Capo Ferro)
Some emphasised the Internet and social media as a major source of information primarily to keep track of the international community of their art and development of new forms:
Most stuff is on the Internet now, I hardly read journals anymore. I follow the Yang family on their community website and also their YouTube channel to see for instance when Grand Master Yang Jun has introduced some new short form, such as the concentration of the 32-form into the 16-form. (Xun)
All participants’ accounts recognised the inherent limitations of text-based information sources in helping them make sense of embodied practices, even when they are structured in a step-by-step format and accompanied by illustrations or film-clips. Participants tend to contrast the atomism such a reductionist approach imposes with the flowing movement they see as essential to martial arts practice:
Really even the best manual by the greatest master has to deal with the reality that it’s a static representation of a dynamic reality. (Musashi)
I like to feel what practice does to me before reading or seeing what it is supposed to do to me. (Dui)
Learning with and from others
Amongst all participants, regardless of the art/s they practiced, there was general agreement that the best – and many argued only effective – way of learning in martial arts was through working with other martial artists who had already mastered the technique and gaining feedback from them as one put it into practice. For all participants this type of social information sharing included long periods of formal instruction, working with an instructor or Master:
The most helpful thing was seeing Master Kim demonstrate. He then repeated it in slow-time and emphasised some of the tricky movements. (Tomoe Gozen)
For participants, the authority of their master/instructor derived not only from his/her training and formal qualifications but also from trust built up over years or in some cases decades:
I’ve really had one main coach throughout my fencing career... really everything I am as a fencer is based on his coaching. (Cyrano de Bergerac)
All participants talked about the deep shared understanding that had developed between their coach/mentor and themselves and how this greatly facilitated knowledge sharing:
After working with someone for so long, you think about martial arts in the same way, you speak the same language. He also knows my strengths and weaknesses and knows how to adapt the techniques and how he teaches me. (Muhlan)
Whilst some participants’ experience included (but was not limited to) highly structured, formalised instruction often associated with more traditional martial arts styles (Chinese tai chi, Hungarian sabre), all participants also talked about being part of an informal community of interest with their club mates and training partners. Both researchers also observed these collaborative learning practices as part of each training session included in the study. These sessions involved participants discussing technique and offering feedback on each other’s performance:
We watch each other doing our current patterns, then give one another feedback on what’s working and what they need to work on” (Musashi)
Just as important for these knowledge sharing relationships, however, were embodied practices, with participants demonstrating techniques and physically correcting one another’s stances, actions etc.
It is important for the instructor to have bodily contact as well, to adjust you, position a hand or an arm, to pull you a little, ‘your hand should be there, your feet in this angle’. (Huo)
Somehow practicing together makes a big difference. You can see how others are doing it and it helps you find the rhythm (Muhlan)
Training sessions tended to be highly fluid in structure and content. For example, the Haidong Gumdo training sessions observed by Olsson could be both formal, led by an instructor, or informal, where a group of participants would form their own small groups to practice particular patterns or techniques. The observed tai chi sessions consisted of a high degree of collective learning by doing the form with participants positioned as a square, with more experienced practitioners in each corner so less experienced could see in all four directions. Front corner was always the instructor, who also gave verbal instructions while doing full forms from beginning to end. This way participants could feel part of a common learning process adapted to both more and less experienced participants. Each session also allowed time for individual training where spontaneous groups or pairs were formed to go through a certain movement.
As in Olsson’s previous studies of archaeologists (Olsson, 2016) and car restorers (Olsson & Lloyd, 2018), participants’ described their information practices in explicitly multi-sensory terms. As described above, seeing other martial artists demonstrate or practice techniques in person was particularly valued. However, participants also emphasised the importance of other senses, such as sound:
I listen to the sound of the cut. If you angle the blade correctly, you get that clean whistling whoosh, if you get it wrong, you can hear it. (Tomoe Gozen)
Participants also emphasised the importance of touch, and the value of combining various forms and arts such as individual forms, tai chi push-hands done in pairs, and various weapon forms such as sabre or sword. This is particularly emphasised by the participants in the weapons-based arts:
A lot of it is about feel – feeling the balance of your own weapon, feeling your opponent’s blade against yours (Capo Ferro)
In weapons-based arts, the physical affordances of the weapon were also clearly an important information source:
If you’re doing it wrong, the sword can feel like a dead weight – it might be because you’re gripping it too tight. When you do it right, the balance of the blade works with you and it sings! (Musashi)
The study’s findings are an example of the fact that Latour’s (2005) theory that technologies can be actors in information networks should not be thought of as applying only to contemporary information and communication technologies.
In contrast to traditional western notions of there being five senses, the sense that the study’s participants talked about most frequently was balance:
You have to feel it in your body, feel how your weight and balance shifts as you move through one technique into the next (Muhlan)
Among the tai chi practitioners, emphasis on balance was also often part of a wider complex of medically related issues treated with martial arts practice. Knee injuries, spinal disc herniation, and stress related ailments were mentioned both as reasons to take up tai chi practice, sometimes as a 'return to practice' from more demanding training regimes such as Kendo, long distance running, and yoga, as well as a way of dealing with such conditions.
Spinal disc herniation is a shock to the whole body system. The very thought of moving my body gave me angst, and tai chi has really helped me with that through its focus on balance and slow, soft movement. It has been important for me psychologically as well as physically. (Kun)
Medical aspects and the importance of balance as a critical feature of embodied information practices may lie at the heart of participants’ description of the limitations of texts and multimedia as an information source.
As in Godbold’s (2013) study of renal patients, the martial artists in the study had learned to read their own bodies as an information source. Whether because of injury or simply the loss of strength and speed that is a natural part of the ageing process, all participants described an important part of their sense-making as mid-life martial artists was around recognising these bodily changes and working around their physical limitations:
I spend the first part of each training session working out what works and what hurts! I then work out what I can do and what I can’t. (Musashi)
The longer you practice, the harder it gets to do it right as you listen to your body. You may know more and more, but you can’t fool your body. (Huo)
One consequence of these changes can be the need to re-learn familiar techniques in a new way, as well as adopting a different approach to their martial practice:
I fence differently now to how I did in my twenties. Then I could rely a lot on my speed and athleticism. Nowadays, I have to be smarter about it, work to my strengths: technique and experience... (Cyrano de Bergerac)
As with the midwives in Davies and McKenzie (2004), the study’s participants also demonstrated the ability to ‘read’ other people’s bodies, as well as their own. Most importantly, as described above, this involved the ability to analyse and interpret the embodied practices of their training partners & coaches when learning or teaching a new technique. Participants who practiced martial arts that involved sparring/bouting also described another important, and rather less cooperative skill needed by the successful martial artist: the ability to read the body of an opponent:
Over time, you learn how to read your opponent, predict what they are likely to do. Sometimes you can see their shoulders tighten before they attack. (Bouddicca)
Once again, this skill was often described as a multi-sensory one:
Sometimes you can feel through their blade what they’re going to do. They might tense up as they’re about to beat your blade and attack. (Cyrano de Bergerac)
Codified embodied practice
Traditionally, the information professions have associated codified information with symbolic (usually linguistic) representation. Non-linguistic information is often conceptualised as problematic because it cannot be adequately ‘captured’ by existing information systems with their essentially text-based classification systems.
Yet despite the problematic nature of textual and even multimedia documentation described by the participants, the study’s findings demonstrate that martial arts embodied information practices are unquestionably codified, embedded in long standing traditions of ‘correct’ practice. Despite the martial antecedents of these arts, practitioners gain status in this world not based on their ability to inflict bodily harm on others but through their ability to demonstrate – to embody – a range of socially prescribed practices:
People often seem to think that martial arts is just about punching and kicking but it’s not really about that at all. It’s a kind of physical and mental discipline – even spiritual. Being a black belt is about proving you can represent those traditions. (Tomoe Gozen)
The official Yang school does not focus so much on philosophy any more, it is more focused on the movements and applications as such. But the postures and movements are there to be mastered, carried down through the centuries. It is there that you find the philosophy. (Xun)
So whilst all the study’s participants were constantly being assessed by themselves and others based on the ability to demonstrate embodied practices, these assessment were not purely personal but grounded in the discursive rules operating in their art. Their embodied expertise is part of a disciplinary network of sanctioned embodied information practices. What sets these social practices apart from discursive regimes in other environments is the extent to which they demonstrate the extent to which canonical practices can be inscribed in the embodied practices of the practitioners rather than solely in texts in the more traditional sense.
These discursive regimes of truth (Foucault, 1977), although not without their own internal battles for truth, function effectively because they are built on networks of power/knowledge that include but are not solely dependent on texts. Rather they incorporate at every level, the acknowledged expertise of practitioners, whether that is a black belt running drills with less experienced students, an accredited referee adjudicating bouts at a fencing tournament or a panel of grand masters overseeing a high dan black belt grading.
The importance of the ability to embody the approved practices of their particular martial art is made strikingly clear by the fact that participants in the study all engage at times with a construction of knowledge that is explicitly non-conscious and non-linguistic:
You don’t really know it until you can do it without thinking ... When your opponent attacks, the parry has to be instant, you don’t have time to think about it!” (Cyrano de Bergerac)
All participants’ describe the importance of developing one’s martial practice to the point where one acquires a set of trained reflexes where a particular situation (an attack, an opening in the opponent’s defenses) leads to an immediate embodied response in keeping with the conventions of their art.
Although quite alien to most western epistemological theory, this concept brings to mind a Japanese concept derived from Zen Buddhist thought and which is also much used by martial artists: mushin no shin (無心の心), usually translated into English as “the mind without mind” or more simply “no mind”. In a martial arts context, the term has become prominent largely due to the influence of Miyomoto Musashi’s (2005) Book of Five Rings. Musashi, one of the greatest swordsmen of 17th century Japan, became a Buddhist monk in later life and his work is widely regarded as an important philosophical work, as well as a treatise on swordsmanship. In the Book of Five Rings, he argues that mastery of the sword requires the practitioner to achieve mushin no shin: a mastery of technique that becomes so embodied that the practitioner can move, strike and defend without the need for conscious thought. As the participant quote above illustrates, the influence of this concept is not confined to Japanese martial arts. Olsson has personal experience of it being applied to the teaching of fencing by both Italian and French fencing masters. In Chinese tai chi tradition, there is a similar state although formulated somewhat differently, as a meditative state where, in the words of 12th century Daoist priest Chang San-Feng 'your body should move like the rhythmic flow of water on a river or like the rolling waves of the ocean' (Tai Chi Classics, p. 94, Olson, 2011, p. 84).
The mushin concept is grounded in a construction of the nature of knowing that contrasts sharply with prevailing approaches in information studies. Information researchers, when defining and researching information and knowledge, have focused almost exclusively on conscious, linguistically based constructions of these key concepts. Even radically different theoretical and methodological approaches in the field ranging from Anomalous States of Knowledge (Belkin, 1990), Sense-Making (Dervin, Foreman-Wernet & Lauterbach, 2003) and Foucauldian discourse analysis (Olsson & Heizmann, 2014) take as a shared assumption that the research participant can both consciously recognise and articulate in words their information needs and behaviour. The present study seeks to explore whether, in seeking to expand the field’s understanding of non-linguistic, embodied information practices, we might benefit from drawing on ideas from outside the conventional academic canon.
While the connection between embodied information practices and documentation has previously been established on a theoretical level, this study gives an indication on how it works out in practice. Martial arts practitioners experience the idea of embodied documentation in practice through a long learning curve which emphasises physical adaptation to (1) bodily changes and prerequisites given by age and health conditions, and (2) the exactness of the martial arts form or system. Derivative documentation such as journals, written or filmed instruction and philosophical writings are used to deepen the understanding of the point of the practice, but deemed insufficient as primary tools for learning. Practical embodiment of information related to the correct execution of the chosen art relies more to an agreement between practitioners on the codification of practice visible in the actual session as well, whether in detailed instruction on the use of a sword or in the collective learning of tai chi postures. In this way, embodied information practice and embodied documentation comes together through an agreed understanding of an underlying codification of movements, postures and rules for the use of a weapon. This is well in line with the understanding of practice in Gherardi (2008), as well as that of information practice in Lloyd (2011), and Lloyd and Olsson (2017a).
It should, however be understood as something perhaps different from the established understanding of tacit knowledge, in that embodied practice related explicitly to the codified martial arts form manifested through movements, technique and postures. That what is learnt is not random or situational in an ontological sense. Instead, codification challenges the established notion of tacit knowledge as it carries in it structured rules which relate to a documentary status of the embodied practice (Hansson, 2017). This codification forms the basis for practice negotiation by means of embodiment in training sessions between (1) the martial arts form or technique as such, (2) the expertise of the master or the instructor, and (3) age and health related bodily abilities of the practitioner, as individual or part of a practice community.
About the authors
Michael Olsson is Senior Lecturer, Ikm and Digital Studies Program and Graduate Course Adviser at Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney. He is an active researcher in the field of information behaviour/information practices research, with a particular interest in information/knowledge sharing through in academic, professional and artistic communities. He is President-elect of the Asia-Pacific chapter of the Association for Information Science & Technology. He can be contacted at Michael.Olsson@uts.edu.au
Joacim Hansson is Professor at the School of Cultural Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Linnaeus University, Sweden. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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