Daily Archives: April 30, 2008

Truth, Information and Knowledge: u r boring me

A funny and ultimately disheartening? article in the Washington Post portrays librarians as the last defenders of truth in a decadent culture consumed with trivia and superficialities, even going so far as to describe librarians as “trench warriors for truth.” Here’s a dramatic excerpt from a chat reference service:

“We’re losing him! We’re going to lose him!” Chad Stark frantically clicks back and forth between two windows on his computer screen.

Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something Hyattsville librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents who need research help.

AskUsNow, developed four years ago, helps patrons find accurate online information so they don’t have to fumble blindly in Google. Librarians: reliably on the front lines of truth protection.

Stark types that he’d be happy to help, but he’s not fast enough for the user:

“dude u r boring me.”

Librarians have been known to stand for many noble things, reading, learning, free speech, and now truth! Although it may feel like we are the orchestra that supposedly played on while the Titanic was sinking, there are worse ways to go down. I wrote about librarians and truth in a book review here; for more on librarians and truth see Don Fallis’s work on social epistemology.

The article goes on to raise the issue of the distinction between information and knowledge, which I have always found more puzzling than helpful. The most useful discussion of this I’ve read recently is in Dominique Foray’s Economics of Knowledge. Foray points out that the main distinction between information and knowledge is that knowledge depends on human cognition, whereas information can simply be words on a page. Information can be reproduced quickly and cheaply with a copy machine, but reproducing knowledge is far more expensive and time consuming because, well, teaching others is hard. Here’s Foray:

These means of reproducing knowledge may remain at the heart of many professions and traditions, but they can easily fail to operate when social ties unravel, when contact is broken between older and younger generations, and when professional communities lose their capacity in stabilizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. In such cases, reproduction grinds to a halt and the knowledge in question is in imminent danger of being lost and forgotten.

Can we use the distinction between information and knowledge to articulate a role for libraries and librarians in the digital age? Although information is bountiful and some of it seemingly cheap, tons of knowledge is being lost and forgotten everyday. Academic libraries and librarians are part of institutions that help to stabilize, preserve, and transmit knowledge as opposed to information. Hmm, how’s that? Good start, maybe, but needs work.

The article goes on to raise disturbing questions about the psychology of knowledge acquisition, noting that even when people are told repeatedly that something is false, the fact that they have heard it somewhere makes them think it is true. Politics immediately comes to mind here, but this raises a serious concern with all the new media that allow for the rapid reproduction of bits of information.

Quite thought provoking for a newspaper article, but once again reading the news gives me the feeling that we are doomed.