RE: Digital Information Seekers: How Academic Libraries Can Support the Use of Digital Resources; Briefing Paper

Posting the NGC4LIB

Alexander Johannesen wrote:

First of all, “usefully” is subjective and has been the topic of many discussions here; useful to whom? I think it’s fair to say that traditionally, most library organisation of materials have been mostly useful to librarians.

There have been some great comments to this thread.

I also have problems with “usefully” and would prefer something more like “reliable”. This means standardization; a type of guarantee that *if* you have specific information, you will get a “reliable” result, i.e. you will retrieve the set of “all” records related to the specific concept, within specific parameters and subject to known limitations.

Concerning the consequences of the ethics of information, let me give a concrete example of a free, online, and highly enjoyable video I watched last night: “David Morrison: Surviving 2012 and Other Cosmic Disasters”, a public lecture given by a NASA scientist, who has been fielding questions about the supposed end of the world in 2012! I had no idea it is such a big thing for so many people, forcing some to even consider suicide! Although no one mentioned it, it seems very similar to the 1938 Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” radio program that caused mass panic and similar reactions. (By the way, you can listen to that great program and many others at

From the scientist’s lecture, it turns out that much of the world is just as much in thrall to superstition as it has ever been. These people are obviously getting information (presumably through Google) and it is very one-sided.

When you only use something such as Google and the super-secret algorithm which can be and is manipulated, when you search for “Iraq War” you retrieve many strange things, but in the library catalog, where you can search for “concepts” (as I have explained in previous messages), you can get a useful display: (e.g. LC catalog) Is this system perfect? Obviously not. But, if the catalogers are all doing their jobs, also in an ethical manner, the heading “Iraq War, 2003—Atrocities” (which certainly has deep political and moral overtones) will be used for everything about this concept, although many authors–and the *catalogers themselves*–may not believe that atrocities took place, and they didn’t use instead “Just war doctrine” or “Retribution” or “Self-defense” even though the catalogers may feel in their heart of hearts that this is true. Nevertheless, in spite of !
that, they follow the standards and methods as the professionals they are. The cataloger may believe fervently that abortion is murder, but they do not catalog something as “Murder” which is about “Abortion” even though the author of the item may refer to it consistently as “baby murder”.

It is this sort of guarantee that I say is missing on the web, and where we can make a very important contribution. As I have gone to great pains to explain in other posts, organizing “text” is not the same as organizing “concepts”. Library methods for finding these concepts are passé, but not the task, and not the final product. I still say people want the groupings retrievable under the heading “Iraq War, 2003- ” (with far more flexibility) and these groupings should be much easier to find. Naturally, Google-type searching will always be there and will be increasingly useful as well. It is our task to merge these methods somehow to create something genuinely new and more powerful than anything before.

Unfortunately, I don’t think such matters are much appreciated by the catalogers, who are busy just doing their jobs correctly and according to standards, which is the very life-blood of the entire system, yet sometimes they lose sight of the underlying purpose of their work. It’s too bad that many do not understand the consequences of what they do. Many rarely or never get a chance to work much with the public who uses the tools catalogers make; when you see the troubles that people suffer with information retrieval, it can really open your eyes in many positive ways.

I’ll push this even further; librarians have a much more important role to play than *any* journalist, simply by being paid by the people to help the people. Where are the super-librarians who enters the political sphere of freedom, rights and democracy? And where are the library organisations in educating the people about all of this?

This is very well said and I completely agree.

By the way, the scientist’s suggestion was quite interesting: the public should use Wikipedia! I agree (this is a 180-degree turn around from what I thought five or six years ago!), and we should be there as well. How? I’m not sure, but discussing these sorts of matters would take some very productive directions.