Thursday, July 5, 2012

Library School Ramblings

With Summer semester wrapping up, I thought I'd share a few things that have been bugging me from the last year or so of Library Science classes.

Taking Terminology Too Seriously

More than one class has featured a discussion about whether libraries organize (or store) information vs. if this were an important question with an objective answer. Librarians are also interested in the nature of data vs. information and knowledge vs. wisdom. Put this all together, and you have the so-called Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy. There's an assumption that all four of these terms line up neatly and discretely with a similar kind of progress happening between each pair. This means if something is data it would be wrong to refer to it as "information."

Four distinct words must refer to four distinct concepts, right? To some people, throwing these terms around willy-nilly is as horrifying as letting the beet juice touch the mashed potatoes. Please take a minute to skim this article as a perfect example of my gripe:

Yes, how dare those reporters talk about "data loss." That's as absurd as worrying about "landscape loss" when a paper map blows away! Not all DIKW Hierarchy fans define data and information in this way, but this actually makes the situation worse. If you're going to insist these four words have distinct meanings, it shouldn't be so hard to agree on their boundaries, at least roughly. Same goes for the disputes about what-counts-as-what in the Work-Expression-Manifestation-Item model.

The problem comes from taking extremely common, messy words and trying to make them into Library & Information Science terms of art...while denying the artificial nature of this move. If you really want the public to embrace technical definitions, the cleaned-up terminology should (1) be clear within the originating field, and (2) make distinctions that are very useful in general discussions. A great example from Psychology is the now widespread use of "sex" to refer to biology and "gender" to refer to social/cultural dimensions of masculinity and femininity. Meanwhile in library land, I worry that we're causing ourselves more confusion than clarity with these terminology issues.

The Plurality of Truth

One of my teachers likes to say "Truth is plural," usually in the context of seeking out information about an issue from multiple viewpoints. I've heard a similar point made elsewhere, citing the story of the blind men and the elephant. In both cases, I don't think the reason to be open to the arguments and experiences of other people is that truth is plural. Rather, it's that our individual prejudices and limited personal experience make finding the (singular) truth difficult, so we need to learn to listen to a broad range of views, critically evaluate what we hear, and incorporate social knowledge into our own beliefs. I see much of librarianship as being about giving people the tools and promoting the skills to do precisely this.

Blasted Google!

A guest lecturer talked about how disappointing it was to teach a short course on library resources, then still have most students say they use Google first. I've seen this notion of "How do we get students to stop using Google for research?" in several other places since then. It's as if one of the important objectives in information literacy education were:
  • Uses subscription databases before Google
Granted, people who are bad at searching typically type something into Google, scan the first page of hits, and give up if nothing looks promising. But see if you can spot the fallacy:
Bad searchers use Google first.
Bridget uses Google first.
Therefore, Bridget is a bad searcher.
This entire worry is wrong-headed. Sure, Google — and any other web-crawler-based search engine — has important limitations. Web resources lack the kind of systematic metadata found in library and subscription databases. It can be harder to determine who is responsible for web content and when it was written. Two resources on the same subject might use different vocabulary, so keyword searching can easily find one resource and miss the another. Google also misses a lot of content that's locked up behind subscriptions. But it's not like there's some other tool that does what Google does, only better.

Case in point: A few months ago, I did some research about the history of women's rights. I did end up using the fantastic database 19th Century British Library Newspapers, but I found out about certain historical events and the newspaper database by Googling. It was also a real pain to figure out where I could get subscription access.

I would much rather spend energy showing people how to use Google more effectively while, at the same time, promoting specialized search services.

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