RE: Watson – IBM’s “question-answering” machine (potential implications for libraries?)

Posting to NGC4LIB

Laval Hunsucker wrote:

I don’t exactly follow you, Jim. You wrote :

> But questions that demand more thought and require a deeper understanding will (I hope!) always be asked and I don’t see how a computer can answer those.

But wait, Thomas did write ( and you even quoted him ) “To get a question answered you look it up on the web or you ask an expert.” And that latter resource is where one would ( and surely should ) go precisely in cases of, as you put it, “questions that demand more thought and require a deeper understanding”. The hope you here express ( that such questions will continue to be put ) will certainly not prove futile, but I can’t in my wildest fantasies imagine why anyone would choose to put such questions to a librarian rather than to an expert.

Thanks for asking this question Laval. As I mulled over my reply, I realized that there are certain assumptions that I have mentioned throughout my own postings but I don’t believe I have made an explicit statement about what (at least I believe) is the function of the librarian, especially in the future.

In the traditional information process, there have been various responsibilities, each performed by different groups. There are authors/experts (fiction & non-fiction), there are journalists, there are editors, there are peer reviewers, there are publishers, there are vendors, there are consumers, there are librarians. Each has been responsible for a specific function and each has had an important, and unique, role to play. When we talk about an “expert,” it becomes clear that each of these roles also has its own levels of expertise, “expert medical editor”, “expert music vendor”, and so on.

But when we talk about an “expert” as you do, we have in mind some recognized authority on a topic, probably someone in education, government, or business, who has published highly regarded works on the topic the questioner is interested in. In today’s world of the World Wide Web and Web2.0, it would appear that the groups I mentioned above between the author and the consumer can now in essence, disappear, and the consumer of information can come into direct contact with the author/expert, asking questions and getting answers directly. In such a case, what is/are the role(s) of any of the other groups? I want to focus on librarians here.

The role of the “expert” is to make judgments for those who are not experts; to point out precisely and clearly what that expert believes is the “best”, perhaps mentioning a few potential areas of error that the questioner should best avoid. So, when you take a class in university, you expect the professor to present what he or she honestly believes to be the truth. To expect anything else would seem rather strange and certainly violates the notion of academic freedom. While the professors may occasionally point out some areas with which they disagree, these other areas should certainly be given short shrift–after all, that is why they are the experts: to help save your time and prevent you from falling into various types of error.

While this idea sounds good at first blush, it quickly disintegrates. “Experts” are constantly disputing almost every issue (except for Bruno Latour’s concept of the black box which has its own problems, as I discussed in my latest podcast), so how is the searcher to find the “right” expert for his or her needs? What does this idea of “choosing the right expert” (which even sounds bizarre, but which is necessary nevertheless) mean in practice? For example, someone wants to know about the volatile issue of “creation science” Who is “the expert”? How does someone go about choosing one?

Gradually, the idea of impartiality arises. I submit that impartiality and expertise are very difficult to reconcile, if not impossible, since an essential part of expertise involves making judgments of all kinds; otherwise it is difficult to claim expertise. This is where I believe librarianship comes in, and becomes a vital part of it all. We have our ethics:

“VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

This is different from expertise. In some areas, I can claim to have some expertise, e.g. Slavic-languages cataloging, some parts of internet development, the history of chess, and in those areas, I can help questioners who ask for my judgment. However, I am a librarian, striving to follow those parts of the code above as much as I can by furnishing questioners with lists of resources compiled in ways that are as free from bias as humanly possible. In the area of e.g. chess history, I can set aside my expertise and my personal distaste for some works and authors, and do my job as a librarian.

I cannot do my job as a librarian all by myself, and I rely on similarly-minded people (other librarians) to help find and compile these resources. A librarian, as opposed to the expert above, is not supposed to make judgments, but concentrate on impartially furnishing information for the searchers to sift through, consider, and decide for themselves.

Many students/questioners do not care for this because it means that they must devote their own intellectual labor. They would much rather sit back and just be told one particular expert’s version of the “truth”. I think that this is the real meaning behind the finding that: “Librarians like to search; people like to find.” Many people out there want to be told what is the truth and not work at it. Some of the times, I want that too.

But not always.

Therefore, I believe the librarian-function, as laid out in the code of ethics, is absolutely important and vital, but this does not mean that everything will remain as it is now. Will there be “libraries” full of “librarians” using tools that are similar to what we have today? I have no idea at all. Perhaps Wikipedia itself will evolve into something that allows all of that. Perhaps there will be something beyond my imagining now. But believing that the entire matter is solved by being able to directly link a questioner with some kind of “expert” out there is–to me–an absolutely terrifying scenario, ripe for all kinds of abuse.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this (and after all, we are all “experts” in our own ways!), but of course, I will resort to that awful rhetorical trick and point out that any disagreement will only tend to bolster my argument! 🙂