RE: How We Know

Posting to NGC4LIB

john g marr wrote:

I certainly appreciate your main point regarding the need for “selection” of data from vast amounts constantly pouring in, but can we expect mere humans to do unbiased selection? And could librarians perhaps contribute to the solution by stepping up to gather and analyze overlooked data, rather than merely “selecting” what is deemed by social pressure to be appropriate?

I could turn that around and ask if we can expect mere machines, that can be programmed and hacked at will by all kinds of unscrupulous persons, to do unbiased selection? At least librarians are supposed to resist social pressures to censor their collections, as the endless fights over “The Joy of Sex” “Huck Finn” and “Heather has Two Mommies” have demonstrated, some of them even leading to the end of careers but always agonizing for the librarian involved.

I would venture that selection is perhaps the least understood task in librarianship (while cataloging is the most “mysterious”!). It has been my experience that our public wants “selection” today and they want it desperately, but they don’t use the word “selection” and they understand nothing about it: what are its purposes, how it works, or much of anything at all. Several researchers I have met have even considered it to be a rather evil practice–after all, how can anybody ever be presumptuous enough to select for someone else? The answer is–of course people can be that presumptuous–because *somebody* has to select something, somewhere along the way. There is a budget and space considerations that demand decision making, and somebody has to take responsibility.

But on the web, with such a wealth of information available for free–and more coming online all the time–the traditional methods of selection break down. It would seem that the need for decision making is avoided, yet, the problems that selection is supposed to solve have not disappeared. It’s just that with all of these “free” materials, a selector’s “budget” no longer consists of money, but of our patron’s time and patience. People do not want to have to wade through lots of junk. And they want what is “The Best” (although they could never tell you what that means).

Just as traditional library selection involves many non-librarians: publishers, dealers, retailers, jobbers, and so on, solving the problem for online resources will need many people from outside the library world. We can’t do it all on our own. Plus, the concept of “selection” will have to be revamped somehow. Somehow, automated means must be used, but I don’t know how. Perhaps as a first-level “triage” to sort out the real garbage from possibilities.

The example of Wikileaks and everybody’s reactions to it is highly notable: none of it was “unbiased”: politicians, governments, researchers, journalists, Amazon, but in essence, the argument is a question of “selection”, either for, or against. I don’t want to get into the political issues about it, but I think we have seen how difficult it is to “select against” a resource today.

How does a library catalog enter into it? Not at all, and it’s kind of a comfortable place to be when compared to dealing with complaints about a book on the shelf of Mark Twain, paid for and circulating. Whether or not I, or any cataloger, makes a record for the Wikileaks site, it will not make any difference at all whether someone can find the Wikileaks site or not. People get that kind of information using different tools today.

Yet, I still think people want selection, but I am not sure what this will mean in the new environment.