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.

3 thoughts on “Truth, Information and Knowledge: u r boring me

  1. Marc,

    Good to know that someone else thinks about these issues in some depth. I agree the distinction between info and knowledge is too easy.

    I have put together a presentation which touches on all of these issues (in a lib-ed context) in some depth. Email me if you’d like me to send it to you.

    ~Nathan

  2. Hmm… when I read that article, I felt more annoyed than doomed. It was an anecdote about a drunk guy using chat reference, librarians trying very hard to answer it correctly, drunk guy saying “sorry i’m drunk” and logging off. This is not the fall of civilization as we know it.

    Why is it a cultural disaster that Wikipedia articles come to the top of search on topics in American history? Is it is so surprising that students doing homework just want to get it done (and has that changed in the last hundred years?) And why, so long as I’m asking questions, should we get depressed about an article that suggests the easy availability of information has led to disrespect for truth (and books) using no more than anecdotes and opinion to back it up?

    Libraries can preserve knowledge. They can try to create conditions where students engage with it. We can help other faculty think about why students may disengage. But the disengagement isn’t a product of technology, nor is this generation startlingly different than previous ones. I saw the same behavior in students before the Internet.

    Maybe that’s some of the knowledge we’re forgetting: even before Wikpedia they took shortcuts and wrote sloppy papers.

  3. Barbara,
    I was referring to the psychological studies about how people believe falsehoods to be true even after they have been told they are false as being at least upsetting. But I’m glad you take solace in the idea that students have always been lousy.

    Just because things were once bad doesn’t make me feel good that things now are just as bad, nor does it mean that things now aren’t even worse. I agree we should avoid an oversimplified hell-in-a-handbasket worldview, but the decline of civilization is a little difficult to document empirically. Anecdotes can point to general trends, and it does seem like we’re on a downward blip.

    And if you can read the news in general without being bummed out, can I have what you’re having?

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