On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing

Everything is information. Even some physicists and philosophers believe that information might be the basis of reality itself. According to a physicist quoted in a PBS blog post, one can imagine a universe without matter or energy, but one cannot imagine a universe without information. Hegel, the philosopher, also famously stated, “The real is the rational, the rational is the real.” If the rational is what we can know, and information is defined as what we can know, then reality itself is information insofar as it is knowable. (Of course we may able to know more than just information, and I’ll elaborate upon that in Part I of this post.)

“Everything is information” is a predominant maxim in librarianship. Ever since library school, with the antelope-as-a-document example we learned, it is clear: librarians are all about this statement. A simple syllogism can then tell us, then, that librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. (If everything is information and librarianship focuses on everything having to do with information, such as the research lifecycle, then librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. Or, to be a little less meta, just everything!) Of course it may be more complex than this, depending upon definitions and grammatical nuances, and I am no logician. But the focus of our profession is all-encompassing.

In this post, I would like to run with this idea…see where it leads – a sort of thought experiment. I will do that in Part II of this post, and will ask: what are the implications of working in a field where the focus is everything? Yet, first I would like to address some of the problems with the maxim and present a preliminary critique of it. For Part I of this post, I will ask: Does Everything is Information take into account our lived experience? What place does knowledge have? My first draft of this post left out the distinction between information and knowledge, and some of my colleagues pointed this out to me. Now upon further reflection, I think this distinction is critical, because it throws into question the notion that Everything is Information and does a better job of accounting for lived experience.

Part I

Everything is Information suggests information is all there is, but what place does knowledge have, then, in reality? Does Everything is Information take into account the full range and types of human experience?

Along with Tony Stamatoplos, I am co-chairing the ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section 2017 Program Planning Committee. We are hoping to propose a panel that will incorporate such a critique. We want to focus on non-textual information, on the lived experiences and physical/material realities of social activists, the kind of non-textual information they produce, and what role libraries can/should play when it comes to this kind of information. So of course the panel will address the distinctions between information, knowledge, and human understanding. We are hoping to invite Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosopher, to be on a panel, along with an archivist with experience in this area and hopefully an activist who is on the ground. Gilman-Opalsky’s forthcoming book, Specters of Revolt – touches on some of these ideas, as well as how revolt is a form of philosophy that takes place from below as compared to philosophy from above, which characterizes the work done by scholars. While I have to wait for the book to be released, I know that Gilman-Opalsky challenges Thesis 11 from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gilman-Opalsky believes that activities that change the world are already a form of philosophy. Gilman-Opalsky sees activism as a form of philosophy that is better than philosophy from above in many ways, because of its “collective, experimental, creative, and humanist dimensions” (Richard Gilman-Opalsky, personal email). His work points to the inherent rationality of revolt as well as the historical context of different movements, as revolt makes a lot more sense when understood within the context of surrounding events and root causes. Indeed, sometimes the absence of revolt is actually what is irrational, as revolt can be the most sensible response to a particular reality.

All of this is to say that “Everything is Information” is a gross reduction of “everything” that discounts the full range of human experience insofar as it leaves out knowledge and understanding. Certain things – physical, material realities, cannot be reduced to text, or even to bits. To reduce some things – experiences, perhaps – to text or to bits means they will be compromised somehow. Something is lost in the translation. To go with the example of activism, it is an embodiment of rationality, the result of history, a reaction to systemic violence and racism, for example, as well as the expression of various affective states stemming from prior experience. It is oftentimes an expression of anger and desire – desire for a better world free of injustice. None of these things can be reduced to information.

Yet we can have knowledge about activism. We observe it, have an awareness about it, and even participate in it. We understand it. We know it on a deeper level than we know, say, mathematical formulas, because it has to do with human experience, which is very complex.

In spite of this fixation on this maxim, we actually do take knowledge into account in librarianship, as well, as a part of the research lifecycle, which includes a deep understanding of information in order to be able to communicate it to others, and that is necessary for the whole field of scholarly communication. We cannot communicate well what we do not understand ourselves. Yet in librarianship, sometimes it seems that we minimize the importance of knowledge or understanding, valuing information and evidence more highly. With scholarly communication, the focus seems to be on the transmission or dissemination of information, not knowledge or understanding. At this point, I am merely speculating as I haven’t thoroughly examined these ideas in order to make an informed critique of the place of knowledge in librarianship. I wonder what such an examination might reveal?

Part II

Back to Everything is Information, a thought experiment. What does it imply for us? I will also take into account that librarianship covers knowledge and understanding as well, not just information. We do truly cover everything! What are the implications of working in an all-encompassing field?

First, there is this idea that as our focus is information, we gather, process, comprehend, understand, and create information that is about information. This is very meta, and I think as human beings who are rational, sensing, thinking creatures we have a need for this meta aspect to thought that is provided by our field. We have a need to think about and ask questions about what information, knowledge, and understanding are – in order to fully engage with them, experience them, and create new knowledge (although Plato would disagree with that last bit – there is no new knowledge!). Speaking of Plato, just as philosophers point to the human need to think about reality, so we, as librarians, point to the human need to think about information and knowledge. Insofar as we facilitate these processes, our field – and thinking about everything – will never go out of style.

I also think this means as librarians, we really have opportunities to be creative and think outside the box. There are many different ways to think about information and knowledge, and thus many different ways to think about our field. Especially with information literacy instruction, there are all kinds of ways we can rethink the meaning and practices within information literacy. For example, information literacy also includes literacy – reading and comprehending information. This type of skill certainly crosses the distinction between information and knowledge, as to read deeply and comprehend a text is to have knowledge of the content or topic of the text. On this basis, I developed a critical reading workshop to help undergraduates learn skills in reading dense theoretical texts. These are skills that are important, yet often left to classroom instructors who in most cases probably can rarely take the time to teach such skills. As experts in information literacy and literacy, we are perfectly positioned to do so. This example, too, points to this idea that as information professionals and librarians, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the information/knowledge distinction, and what constitutes knowledge, because students learn from us, as well, how to arrive at a place where they actually know something. We don’t just look at the evidence when we teach information literacy. Even evaluation and formulating a research question require some degree of knowledge, and we assist with these activities.

Finally, the fact that librarianship is very meta also means that the library means different things to different people, and serves different roles for different people. The library isn’t everything to everybody, but it is something to everyone. That is a good thing, but it also can be a point of confusion and contention, especially between librarians and those outside the profession. The broadness and narrowness of our field (as etymologically, it is simply a place for books) sometimes means that the importance of the librarianship is minimized or discounted, but librarians will always be tasked with providing a space where “everything” can be explored, a space where the mind grows – where the real is the rational – a space where we can gather the evidence or information, contemplate it, and experience knowledge and understanding. This is profound.

6 thoughts on “On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing”

  1. Fabulous thought provoking post Heidi – THANK-YOU!!!

    I see librarianship & libraries as being about clients rather than information so, for me, knowledge is the foundation – I support people who are engaged in the building & sharing of knowledge. When I first became a librarian (around 20 years ago), I accepted that we are about information because it was what I learnt at uni & what I heard most librarians say. But, I was never really comfortable with this. About 8 years ago I finally figured out why I had been uncomfortable with it & that led me to this current identity. Every once in a while I have a think about whether I still truly do identify this way & I haven’t yet changed (though who knows what is to come). As we talk more & more about the disrupted world & how we will work in & with it, I suspect that knowledge will become more important as a professional foundation as this will help us be “agile & innovative” & remain valuable to our communities.

    I really love this blog. I get a little excited every time a post pops up in my WordPress feed 🙂 Sandra

  2. I really enjoyed this.
    While your thoughts are so much more nuanced and deeper than mine were, this really brought to mind one of the main reasons I went to library school. I applied in the year after college (1999) and, in my memory, my reasoning went something like this.

    Based on my understanding of Kant, we must accept that all we know of the world is what has passed through our own minds and been categorized by us according to the shape of our minds’ capacity.
    However, based on my recent senior thesis (Hey Bard College!) “Thus the Critique of Reason Becomes the Critique of Culture” where I (poorly!) examined Ernst Cassirrer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, we see that all of the categories in our minds are defined and circumscribed by our culture and within our relationships with other people.

    Therefore, I’d like to spend the rest of my life working in the institution where our culture makes explicit its categories and its knowledge. From there, I can change the categories and make the world a better place. sigh.

  3. Thanks for the compliment and for sharing your thoughts, Sandra! I really like what you have to say and hope I can similarly develop a professional identity that sees knowledge as the foundation.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Laurie. Your thesis sounds fascinating.

  5. “All encompassing” hits the nail on the head, for me anyway. I became an academic librarian some zillion years ago precisely because, as a field of endeavor in which to make a living, it wasn’t limiting as were each of my temporary or degree-earning undegraduate majors–math, economics, English. And if you’re lucky enough to land a position in a small or medium-sized library–as opposed, dare I say, to a behemoth research library–you may find yourself working with faculty in just about every discipline imaginable.

  6. This article fascinates me. I
    teach college philosophy. Philosophers like to think of our
    fields as encompassing everything. I am doing a book on
    debranching metaphysics, and which includes a chapter
    comparing/identifying philosophy in a way with library and
    info science. I am seeking a book publisher for it. My view,
    as that of most philosophers, is that philosophy as inquiry,
    and as library science, is foundations of liberal arts or
    general education. Taxonomics or classification is my
    interest here. Take the many topics and subfields in
    philosophy texts, and you find an intriguing parallel to the
    idea of library shelves. We are the foundations of
    information. I would be interested in discussing this with
    the author, and those contributing comments. I can foresee
    an expansion/revision of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of
    Library Science. Michael M. Kazanjian

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