Monday, June 22, 2009

As the supply of information grows, so to does the need for new skills in librarianship.

I’m always reading. This is probably because my upbringing included weekly visits to the library and now because I am a librarian. Like many people, I find the most rewarding part of reading is how when you set the item down and think to yourself how interesting the content was and then being able to extrapolate how it applies to your life. Such has been the case for me recently with two items recommended by friends. The first is an article that appeared on the Educause website called “The Tower, the Cloud and Posterity” by Richard Katz and Paul Gandel and the second is a book called “True Enough; Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” by Farhad Manjoo (Wiley and Sons, 2008). Both works cause you to stop and think about the affect the abundance of information and technology that is now available has on society and human behavior. The article goes on to raise the question of the role of the librarian in this changing environment.

What I found so fascinating was that like many, I’ve been so engrossed in the concept of making sure we capture, store, make discoverable and preserve access to information, that I hadn’t really stepped back to think about what the result of that might be. When mixed with the massive trend toward collaboration and social networking it turns out that it might not be entirely positive. I found this paragraph in the article by Katz/Gandel particularly thought provoking:
“will we leave a human record possessed of “too much
scrambled, meaningless trivia of information where discerning
anything of value or having context-rich value statements at all
becomes impossible?”…. “It is possible that as information
becomes so voluminous, the standards of selection become so
pluralistic, and the content of information becomes so nuanced,
feeling will replace analysis as the social barometer of truth?(1)”
It turns out they’re not alone in that thought. In the book “True Enough”, Farhad Manjoo also leads us through extensive examples of how information is now manipulated, spun, massaged, and sponsored. This is frequently a result of collaborative efforts such as are typical of Web 2.0 initiatives and access to the vast supply of information that is now available. By the end of the book, any worthwhile librarian is deeply disturbed and wondering how we will know that the information we’re selecting, storing and representing as accurate will really be so.

“The implications of having more than a billion people with persistent connections to the Internet and exabytes of information freely and openly available cannot be overstated.(2)” It raises the spectrum of the possibility that librarianship will need a whole new set of skill sets in the future. It almost certainly means for librarians that the context of any information stored must also be captured and stored with the information. Possibly, we’ll need to develop and use, via those same Web 2.0 collaborative initiatives and/or networks, people who can tell us if something has been manipulated. For instance; has a picture been extensively modified by a Photoshop(TM) expert? Given the vast supplies of information that will exist, all of these authors suggest that any point of view can and will be justified, in depth and great detail. If such is the case, how do we capture all of that information so we can assure people that we have the ability to provide the equally complete context in which any theory or hypothesis was developed? Think about how we do that when it comes to medical information about the authors? How many Lincoln scholars would love to have detailed information about Lincoln and the probability he had Graves disease? But if Lincoln lived today, given the issues of information privacy, even if we held that information, would we be able to allow its use?

People frequently ask each other for information about topics in their lives. I know as a librarian, I’ve always encouraged people to not just ask your friends, go to the library and get the facts. Now we must question the very information that we archive in the library for them to check. As librarians, it is becoming apparent that we will also need to be well trained in the laws pertaining to the use of information. Not only must we develop the new skills with which to do this, as noted by Katz and Gandel, “the librarians and archivist must not simply be part of this new cloud of digital information artifacts. They must take a leadership role in guiding its policies and practices. ”

As librarians this raises the specter of extensive new training courses in librarianship, new policies and guidelines to be developed, new things to teach and convey to our users along with new tools to be developed. The exabytes of information are growing. We best get busy ensuring the same is happening with our librarianship skills and training.

(1) “The Tower, the Cloud and Posterity” Richard N. Katz and Paul B. Gandel. Pg 186.
(2) Ibid.