Gathering Intelligence

Scott McLemee is a scary dude. In mulling over the sticky question of Wikipedia, he lulls the reader into thinking “nice piece, but nothing really startling … until this:

Consider a recent discussion between a reference librarian and a staff member working for an important policy-making arm of the U.S. government. The librarian asked what information sources the staffer relied on most often for her work. Without hesitation, she answered: “Google and Wikipedia.” In fact, she seldom used anything else.

My first thought: “that explains a lot.”

My second – “well, that’s what our students do, so why am I shocked?” And maybe it’s not a bad strategy. I often turn to Google when looking for policy information; there’s a lot there of value, much of it published by the government this Googler works for. But I also thought about the many useful scholarly publications that aren’t (yet?) open access – and the fact that, if this staffer is like our students, her search skills are not nearly as strong as her confidence in them.

What’s ironic is that we tend to think of “collective intelligence” as a new concept, when all scholarly discourse is based on that notion. It’s part of what H.G. Wells was thinking with his Great Brain, as McLemee points out; it’s in the Consitution of Michael Polanyi’s “Republic of Science.” The only real difference is that expertise is not assumed to be universal, but is earned, and ideas are tagged with authors’ names both to give credit and as a useful shorthand. A single name used in a literature review can conjure up whole libraries of thought.

If our information literacy efforts helped students understand the ongoing, collective nature of knowledge production, they might be more interested in being part of it. As it is, “research paper” assignments tend to dwell too much on how to harvest snippets of expertise and how to apply the sadistically complicated rules for tagging that seem to exist only to protect you from charges of plagiarism. Wikipedia could be a useful and familiar metaphor for the collective intelligence in the library – and for the social networking that has gone on for centuries.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “Gathering Intelligence

  1. When I read that statement in McLemee’s piece my jaw droppped. Ok. We all use them at one time or another – but to answer virtually everything to the exclusion not only of library resources but other search engines and web references. I’m going to believe that whoever this was (and who knows – perhaps misquoted or taken out of context) that the vast majority of academic librarians don’t think the same way. Perhaps this librarian will be featured prominently in Google’s “Great Librarian Researchers – er – only when you use Gooogle” documentary.

  2. An addendum to my previous comment – I made an misreading of the quote (and I also did read the original piece this morning and just didn’t recall it accurately) and thought it was the librarian who said he or she only uses google or wikipedia. A bad mistake on my part which I could try to blame on trying to get too much done today – but I accept full responsibility for not reading it carefully enough. I also regret if this suggests McLemee didn’t accurately quote the source. My reading of it suggested it was something that could have been coming from a third party who could have gotten it wrong. But that was a too hasty and likely incorrect assumption on my part. My apologies to McLemee if this was taken the wrong way.

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