Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

I just read Beerbrarian’s post on libraries and neoliberalism, partly responding to this post on locating the library in institutionalized oppression by nina de jesus. I wanted to enter the discussion, but then realized I’ve already pretty much said what I have to say on the subject. I’ve addressed neoliberalism and libraries some before, particularly in a post on Libraries and the Commodification of Culture. I wanted to make that a research project a couple of years ago, but frankly after a lot of reading I found the topic too overwhelming. Nevertheless, the gist of that and other writings provides some view of where I think libraries are located in “institutionalized oppression.”

At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.

de jesus says that she has “seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.” The reason for that could be that the library, as an institution, isn’t that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity. That’s a strong and counterintuitive claim, and the burden of proof rests on de jesus. However, there have been two  books arguing just that, both published in the 1970s and both still worth reading (although as you’ll see below I disagree with some of their conclusions). First is Michael Harris’ The Role of the Public Library in American Life, second is Rosemary DuMont’s Reform and Reaction: the Big City Public Library in American Life. Excerpted below are three pages from Libraries and the Enlightenment where I address Harris and Dumont and the possible counterargument to my claims that libraries are institutions philosophically founded upon Enlightenment values of freedom and reason, and are instead instruments of oppression.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

The taste elevation theory has also been criticized for its “elitism” and “authoritarianism.” In The Role of the Public Library in American Life,” for example, Michael Harris argues that the entire democratic argument behind the founding of the Boston Public Library is flawed because of its elitist authoritarianism. By the eighteen forties, Boston had developed into a major destination for new immigrants, who in the opinion of the Standing Committee of the Boston Public Library thought “little of moral and intellectual culture.” George Ticknor believed the massive influx of immigrants could be a problem because, in Ticknor’s words, they “at no time, consisted of persons who, in general, were fitted to understand our free institutions or to be intrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,” and thus the city needed to “assimilate their masses” and accommodate them to democratic institutions, primarily through education. Harris criticizes “Ticknor’s belief in the library’s potential as one means of restraining the ‘dangerous classes’ and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray,” and claims this belief “explains his insistence that the public library be as popular in appeal as possible” (6). The most significant motivation behind the founding of the Boston Public Library and other libraries in the nineteenth century, Harris argues, was a fear that the masses would destabilize society, especially the immigrant masses unused to republican regimes. Any attempt to “Americanize” immigrants was “elitist” and “authoritarian,” a critique developed further in Rosemary DuMont’s Harris-inspired Reform and Reaction. The desire to elevate the reading taste of the people is just a desire to control the lower orders and prevent radical social change.

I mention this revisionist history of the founding of public libraries because it calls into question my argument that such foundings were inspired by the Enlightenment goal to educate and improve the lot of everyone, rich and poor alike. For Harris and like-minded historians, such idealistic rhetoric always masks the ambitions of the powerful to control the powerless. However, one does not have to disagree with Harris’ account of George Ticknor—who did seem to be an authoritarian prig—to recognize that something as complex as the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory. Though the 1852 “Report” goes out of its way to argue that while good books should be supplied, no one should be forced to read them, one could still argue that even thinking some books were better than others and that people should read those books is “elitist,” etc. One question is whether such elitism and alleged authoritarianism are anti-democratic, and potentially counter-Enlightenment. The revisionist critique seems to imply that to be democratic in relation to books and learning means to consider all books equally good and useful and to consider all political beliefs and values worth defending, even if they are hostile or foreign to the needs of a democratic republic.

These days we would say this is a question of the value, or perhaps even the meaning, of multiculturalism, and addressing this debate in depth is out of our scope here. Harris and others (rightly in my opinion) would argue that the culture of the immigrants should be respected, but the question is, to what degree and in what areas? Let us assume that Ticknor and other upper-class Bostonians had a very conservative idea of what democracy should be; nevertheless, that does not show that they did not believe in democratic institutions. If we believe in the value of democratic institutions, then we must support those institutions, and what is more we must insist that everyone supports those institutions publicly, regardless of their private beliefs. Groups in democracies might fervently believe in fascism, but a democratic society cannot allow them to act on those beliefs. We can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions. What democracies cannot allow is a mere “modus vivendi,” as the philosopher John Rawls argues, where groups abide by democratic institutions until they can be overthrown. Carrying this argument back to Ticknor, why would he not believe that immigrants from countries without democracies would need some sort of education regarding democratic institutions? How could anyone possibly believe otherwise? Is there any difference in motivation behind this belief and the practice we have in the United States of giving extensive tests on American democracy to naturalizing immigrants, tests which most natural born Americans themselves cannot pass? While some supposedly democratic criticisms of practical educational institutions are no doubt valid, we must resist the tendency to believe that all educational efforts not derived from the group being educated are inherently undemocratic. Undemocratic groups require an education in democracy.

Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. For example, Jane Addams and the settlement workers in the early twentieth century wanted to “’Americanize’ immigrants into the norms of their new society,” but they definitely improved the lives of urban immigrants (Flanagan 37). Indeed, by the standards of the anti-immigrant movements that gained control of the American government in the nineteen twenties, George Ticknor looks like a raging liberal. Citizens of a democracy must be acculturated into democratic institutions, and criticizing this necessity because the action first arose from the conservative fear of uneducated immigrants ignores this. Even Harris is forced to admit the value public libraries had for everyone, including immigrants. “That the library’s services to the immigrant had definite positive values for those able to take advantage of them cannot be denied,” though he still claimed that librarians had little to do with benefit, arguing that “these positive values were the result of the immigrant’s persistence and not the librarian’s conscious attitude” (14). In his zeal to deny the beneficial accomplishments of anyone remotely conservative, Harris acts as if the libraries which benefitted the immigrants sprung into existence without influential citizens to found them and working librarians to run them. Regardless of whether or not an enlightened and democratic ideal was not realized in practice, it is undeniable that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library wanted to found an educational institution to allow people access to useful knowledge and give them the opportunity to educate themselves for life and citizenship, and that the Boston Public Library became such an institution whatever its flaws. It is also clear from the founding of the Boston Public Library to the founding of libraries throughout the century, that the most important motivating reason was the link between the public library and public education. (pp. 110-14)

Some Context for the Latest P2P Review Column

My latest Peer to Peer Review column in the Library Journal came out today, Information Literacy as an Unnatural State. This is my first effort to pull together ideas I’ve been writing and thinking about information literacy, the persistence of pseudoscience, and cognitive bias for the past year and a half. Possibly there will be some ancient philosophy in there eventually as well (e.g., Stoicism and philosophical Daoism), but I’m not sure yet. What we think of as information literacy, and indeed the entire academic enterprise, is deeply unnatural, and that instead of thinking about IL as a set of competencies, we should think about it some other way. I’m not sure what way yet, but the idea I’m playing around with I’m calling “scholarly habitude,” meaning roughly that the difference between the information literate/ scholarly person isn’t the ability just to do certain things, but a set of habits or frames of mind relative to the world, and that it’s much harder to achieve than reading through a set of competencies might indicate. I’m also not sure yet what specific role librarians would play in developing those habits.

Anyway, the LJ column is a tentative first step to something that might grow larger over time, so if anyone has any questions or criticisms, I’d appreciate them. The more and earlier the better.

Evaluating Information

Even though I don’t consider my blog a nag, for some reason I feel I haven’t been blogging much. I guess I didn’t realize what the pressure of writing even a semi-regular column would do to my blogging. Anyway.

Over the holiday break I read a number of books dealing with science and pseudoscience, listed here in my order of preference: Pigliucci’s Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, Wynn and Wigans’ Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins, and Grant’s Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality. I was on a kick, I guess. (I also read How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, unrelated but highly recommended.)

I started the reading out of curiosity after noticing volley after volley of patent nonsense coming out of last year’s political campaigns, especially regarding topics like evolution and climate science, and after recently reading a couple of popular books on evolution and watching an interesting if flawed documentary on the Intelligent Design attack on science education. I was sort of shocked by people who rely upon the methodological naturalism that drives science and technology but completely disregarded it in very specific situations, as if picking and choosing beliefs about nature and the world were a matter of convenience. People who probably believe in germ theory and would want surgeons to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments before operating might also believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, despite those two beliefs being inconsistent according to the methods commonly accepted among scientists. They believe in their iPhones, but not the science and technology that allows them to be.

It was the documentary on ID that inadvertently led me to Nonsense on Stilts, because both address the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, where the efforts of some ID proponents trying to force ID into biology education in Dover, PA were so obviously motivated by religion that a conservative Christian judge appointed by George W. Bush had to rule against them. The ID crowd’s new motto is “teach the controversy,” which would be fine if it were taught in a politics or religion course where the only controversy exists, but since there is no scientific controversy and ID is so obviously not scientific (from the nonfalsifiability to the lack of hypotheses to test to the inability to say why some things seem well designed but not why others are obviously not well designed), there’s no reason to waste what little time for science education there is to teach that particular controversy.

Nonsense on Stilts was the best of the bunch because it most clearly laid out the theoretical arguments involved, rather than just bringing up case after case of non- or pseudoscience posing as science (which is mostly what Denying Science did). It dealt with the “demarcation problem” between science and nonscience, and examined the difference between a hard science like physics, a soft science like psychology, an “almost science” like SETI, and a pseudoscience like Intelligent Design. Pigliucci argues that, ”the common thread in all science is the ability to produce and test hypotheses based on systematically collected empirical data (via experiments or observations),” and distinguishes between the way the scientific method is applied in historical sciences like astronomy or evolutionary biology (where hypotheses are tested on observations) to ahistorical sciences like chemistry or physics (where hypotheses are tested by experiment), arguing that “the more historical a discipline, the more its methods take advantage of the ‘smoking gun’ approach that we have seen working so well with the extinction of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the universe,” while “the more ahistorical a science, the more it can produce highly reliable predictions about the behavior of its objects of study” (23). There is also a rigorous debunking of the book The Skeptical Environmentalist that is a model of evaluating information, even though it does indulge in some humorous jabs while pointing to the discrepancy between the reviews of scientists compared to those of applauding conservative political pundits. (Quoting from a Scientific American review of the book: “[in his] preface, Lomborg admits, ‘I am not myself an expert as regards environmental problems’–truer words are not found in the rest of the book”).

Librarians usually don’t get to the evaluation of information itself, the third standard of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. That might be where the real meat of information literacy is if we think if it as the benefit of a liberal education. When I taught writing, that was the bulk of what I did, leading students through evaluations of arguments and evidence and rigorously questioning their own attempts at argument, but as librarians we usually just give guidelines. Nonsense on Stilts provides some good case studies, but also gives some general principles by which to judge information, besides the “common thread of science.” One set is a summary of Alvin Goldman’s ”Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63: 85–110):

“The five kinds of evidence that a novice can use to determine whether someone is a trustworthy expert are:
• an examination of the argument presented by the expert and his rival(s);
• evidence of agreement by other experts;
• some independent evidence that the expert is, indeed, an expert;
• an investigation into what biases the expert may have concerning the question at hand;
• the track record of the expert.” (293)

The Borderlands of Science provides a similar checklist that Shermer calls the “Boundary Detection Kit,” as in the boundary between sense and nonsense (pp. 18-22):

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
2. Does this source often make similar claims?
3. Have the claims been verified by another source?
4. How does this fit with what we know about the world and how it works?
5. Has anyone, including and especially the claimant, gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?
6. In the absence of clearly defined proof, does the preponderance of evidence converge to the claimant’s conclusion, or a different one?
7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion?
8. Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?
9. If the claimant has proffered a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation?
10. Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?

While not all the questions might be relevant for humanities fields, the general trend of scientific thinking is. Humanists tend to value the principle of noncontradiction, and have standards for the presentation of argument and the interpretation of evidence, all the sorts of things that are systematically treated in textbooks on argumentation, rhetoric, informal logic, or critical thinking. Not everyone understands or accepts these norms of thought, of course. I recently read an essay on how the digital humanities are racist that was completely devoid of argument or evidence (and even included a footnote by the author explaining that people outside her narrow academic subfield often resisted the claims of the essay, which I found laughable). You can wade through a lot of nonsense that passed for postmodernism before finding anything worthwhile. But generally rational values about argument, evidence, analysis, and interpretation taught in basic writing or philosophy classes find adherents in the bulk of academic work in the humanities.

Even though these books are dealing with science and pseudoscience, some of the questions could be useful for evaluating information in other fields. For the humanities, a good example of nonsense on stilts would be most of the anti-Stratfordians, those who ignore Occam’s Razor and any counterarguments against whoever it is they think wrote Shakespeare’s plays other than William Shakespeare of Avon. Consider Ignatius Donnelly’s The Great Cryptogram, which argues that Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. Run Shermer’s Boundary Detection Kit against that one and it becomes clear that Donnelly isn’t particularly scientific despite this being a question where one should theoretically be able to test hypotheses based on observation. Just answering question three–does this source often make similar claims–starts to make Donnelly look suspect, since not only does he claim that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but also the works of Montaigne and Christopher Marlowe as well as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. That claim reminds me of a quote attributed to a prince when presented with another volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?” Always scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Bacon! Rather than apply Occam’s Razor and consider a full range of evidence, fanatics and ideologues cling to their fantasies and gather all the evidence for their point of view they can while ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

This is a problem for higher education, because the more people who can’t think clearly but can vote, the worse off funding for higher education and noncommercial scientific research will be. It becomes a problem for librarians in those situations where we are expected to teach something about evaluating information. How do we teach that? Do we have clear guidelines for every field? Could we, or do we ever, apply them in practice, especially in the classroom? Of the five criteria in Goldman’s summary, do we ever use any but the last three in practice, the ones relying more on reputation rather than substance? And even then, how often do we rely on proxies for expertise like the place of publication or employment of an author because we have to?
I have to admit, while I sometimes do this sort of analysis on the blog, I almost never get a chance to do it with students in my capacity as a librarian. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I should seek out the opportunity, or try to create the opportunity, but I’m not sure how I’d go about it, and so far haven’t seen any examples of librarians doing that sort of thing.

The Myth of Information Literacy

The comments and responses about my bit on information literacy have been intriguing, and obviously lots of us disagree on what information literacy is and what role librarians play in its development. Just for the sake of argument, I want to stoke the fire and make a bold proposition.There’s no such thing as “information literacy.” It’s a baggy phrase that means either too much or too little, and as defined by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards provides an unrealistic and unattainable goal for students, and causes many academic librarians to believe they are somehow responsible for achieving this chimerical goal.

And if information literacy in the broad sense implied by the ACRL Standards truly exists, then reference librarians are the only people who have any chance of becoming, or desire to become, information literate. Reference librarians are trained to do any sort of research, to be content neutral and process strong, but that’s not how everyone else works. Only if our goal is to train students to be little librarians should we train them to be information literate in the broadest sense. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I say that’s not what students or their professors want.

If we’re not trying to teach information literacy, then what are we doing? Among other learning objectives that have very little to do with librarians, professors and librarians are trying to teach students how to do scholarly research, and that’s certainly where instruction librarians come into play. Scholarly research isn’t vague and content neutral, though, because it always has a subject and a context. Scholarly research also isn’t so broad that recognizing and assessing it is impossible, which is why most assessments of information literacy are narrow and don’t even attempt to assess it according to the broad definitions offered by ACRL. Scholarly research isn’t something that can be taught as such, though; it’s only something that can be done. We can offer suggestions and guidelines and feedback, and professors are supposed to model the behavior of the experience researcher, but it’s only learned by doing. That’s why assignments offer students the motive and opportunity to do their own research with guidance from professors and librarians.

Information literacy is a phrase designed to highlight the role of librarians; unfortunately, librarians are usually the only people on a campus familiar with the phrase. If instead we look at scholarly research, which is what the scholars on campus are actually doing, the focus changes, and the role of librarians is more limited than some librarians feel comfortable with. Librarians focus on the library portion of research, but the library portion of any research, even in the humanities, is limited. One of the best books I know on library research is Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models. The entire book is about how to use libraries for research. Compare that to Jacques Barzun’s Modern Researcher. The 6th edition has fourteen chapters. Guess how many are about finding information and using the library? One. This seems about right to me. I’ve been trying to teach students how to write academic research essays off and on for nineteen years, and I know that no matter how essential the library research part isn’t the most important, or even the most difficult, part of any research project. There’s a reason the library-centered book is by a librarian while the research focused book is by an historian.

Scholarly research ability is developed slowly, project by project, over a period of years, and almost always in one discipline. There is no epiphany in an information literacy class or in any other sort of class. The development takes time and energy, and most students will never devote that time and energy to learning to be great researchers, no matter how much we prod them. For those that do develop into great researchers, the role of librarians is important, but still limited, especially because scholars (at least in the humanities) typically learn how to do their research from other scholars, not from librarians. This surprises and even irritates some librarians, but since that’s the way scholars have been mentoring each other since the very beginning of research universities, it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s because instead of focusing on what I could provide for students, which is considerably more than I’m ever asked to provide as a librarian, I look at my own development as a scholar and that of just about every scholar I’ve ever known. Information literacy is something librarians like because it puts them in the center of the scholarly research process, but professors are trying to teach students how to be scholars in their fields. The cumulation of all our teaching might create information literate students, but most people would settle for educated students, whatever that might mean.  

I’m happy doing my part to support the scholarly development of students through collection building, research guides, instruction, consultation, and anything else that seems appropriate, but when I’m doing all this I don’t believe I’m teaching anything called “information literacy.” I’m providing tools and techniques and guidance to support and develop scholarly research that will mostly be done outside the library and the domain of the librarian. Ultimately, this means that I’m not concerned with information literacy in the broadest sense, with whether students or anyone else have all the skills necessary to find, evaluate, and incorporate information about any topic whatsoever. Almost nobody but excellent reference librarians will ever meet that goal anyway. Instead, I focus on the research, helping project by project, hoping that students develop into independent researchers, and knowing that if they do, there will still be areas of incompetence. Scholars are always focused on a project and nurtured in a discipline, and even outstanding scholars have areas of research incompetence, and they always will. That’s when even they call upon reference librarians, the most information literate people around.

A Bit on Information Literacy

I’ve been wanting to respond to a well argued postat Sense and Reference that was sort of a response to a post I wrote in response to another post there. Unfortunately, between the teaching and working on the book and my day job, time for blogging seems to evaporate. I”m not sure if this is a response exactly. It’s more a post inspired by a response I might have made if I were more focused at the moment. I’d said something about the librarian’s role in information literacy, implying that I thought they had a relatively small direct role, and I was criticized for that. My response here will be brief, but I’m hoping to outline a few thoughts. Do librarians play a role in information literacy? I absolutely think they do. Do they play a large direct role? I’m not so sure.

First, let’s refresh ourselves about what information literacy is. The phrase has developed various meanings over the past couple of decades, but I’ll go with the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, since those are widely used. The document is explicit that information literacy is the responsibility of librarians and faculty. The standards are also both broad and deep. I’ll list the basic standards in case you don’t have them all memorized:

  1. The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  2. The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  3. The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  4. The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
  5. The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.

Standards 1 and 2 are, in my opinion, the ones that librarians would typically have the most direct effect on, though often in relatively limited circumstances. Many of us in academic libraries routinely teach students how to find the kind of information they need for research, and give them suggestions on how to evaluate it which they may or may not apply.

I’m not sure who besides the student could be responsible for Standard 3, and I have no idea how that would be assessed in any broad way. What’s clear from the research I’ve read about is that most people have trouble incorporating new information into their knowledge base and value system, especially if it conflicts with values they already hold. But a rigorous liberal education should help people get past that barrier. Regardless, Standard 3 is really quite expansive, and unless they’re actually teaching an information literacy class (or a writing class, where I’ve worked on this with students), librarians typically aren’t working with students to evaluate information in any depth or look at sources critically. This requires that both the librarian and the student have read the work.  I could be mistaken, though. How many librarians out there discuss any books or articles in depth with students and help them evaluate them critically? Pointing out how to tell primary from secondary sources or scholarly from popular articles is one thing, or doing a quick website evaluation to show that some website is biased or unauthoritative, but those are relatively superficial compared to reading and discussing works with students, and it’s the reading and discussion that teaches students how to evaluate well and signals whether something has been comprehended, much less evaluated. I’ll grant it can happen, and just last week I helped a student working on an essay by discussing the course reading with him and helping him generate ideas, but that’s unusual.

Standard 4 is also goes beyond the level of student involvement that most librarians have. Accomplishing a specific purpose can be interpreted many ways, but the specific purpose of most students I see is writing a research essay of some kind. I help them find sources, discuss the different kinds of sources their are and what they could do for an essay, but I don’t work with them in the way that instructors would, and I’m usually not in a position to know if they’ve accomplished their task well. When I teach writing, I do work with students to help them write research essays, which often involves seeing how students use their sources in their writing and teaching them how to use the sources more appropriately. That’s work I could do as a librarian, but it’s not work I normally do. Librarians who teach courses that have research components have that sort of direct role, but other than that how many do? In addition, the Standard implies that this can be done repeatedly, for any project. Given the relatively limited time most librarians have directly with students, how much would our direct teaching enable students to reach that point without significantly more guidance than we typically give?

Standard 5 is a complete washout, because no one but librarians and publishers seems to care much how information is acquired as long as it’s easily acquired. I’ve written before arguing that the legal and economic barriers to scholarly information are incompatible with scholarly values. For example, if scholars want access to articles their library can’t get for some reason, they’ll go through informal and technically illegal channels to get those articles. Standard 5 says the information literate person uses information ethically and legally, but I think there are cases where scholarly ethics and copyright law conflict. The very willingness of otherwise ethical scholars to defy certain copyright laws supports my point. Though I wouldn’t advocate piracy of copyrighted information to anyone, this standard contains more than just “literacy.” It’s an ethical injunction as much as anything, and for the other standards to be met, sometimes it might be necessary to acquire something illegally. Finding information and incorporating it into your worldview to accomplish a task isn’t the same as using the information legally.

Information literacy as conceived by the ACRL standards is very broad, and covers in its entirety the sort of critical thinking and higher order cognitive skills we would expect to be developed over years of higher education. Standards 3 and 4 especially call for those skills. Let’s say that a student who has completed a traditional college degree has managed to acquire those skills, and is in fact information literate in the broad sense. It’s not just that they know a bit more about research or can complete a specific task, but they’re informationally fully formed. How did they get that way? They got this way by studying, writing, researching, and being guided by professors and librarians numerous times. They took class after class, developed some minimal knowledge of a field of study, and produced work that was judged and commented upon for years.

And what direct effect did librarians teaching information literacy have on that? Over four years of college, how much time does the typical student spend with a librarian? Answering this would, I think, give us some idea. The answer would have to vary by institution, I know, but I’m aiming for a ball park figure. And for the purposes here, I want to exclude those schools that have a formal information literacy class of several weeks taught by librarians. I could still work them into my argument, but that practice is
far from universal. I can answer it easily for myself. I went through college getting very good grades, doing good work, and becoming as information literate as my peers, and I received absolutely no research instruction from a librarian. I never took a class with bibliographic instruction, and never asked a reference librarian for help. Granted, I had spent a lot of time in libraries over the years, but I probably hadn’t had any instruction in how to use one to find information since I was in grade school. Once you know how to use a library catalog, the rest you can develop on your own.  I suspect my experience isn’t that atypical. There are probably lots of students who either never talk to a librarian, or never talk to one after their freshman writing class. However, even assuming that students see their librarians, how much time? Two hours a year? Maybe they have one instruction session and one consultation. Does two hours a year seem too small for an average? Four hours a year?

I’m talking about most students. There will always be a few library travelers, who not only spend a lot of time in the library, but who frequently ask questions of the librarians. I’d be very surprised if even the heavily dependent students spent more than a few hours a year with librarians, though. However, it could just be that my experience is limited, and that your library has students who receive direct information literacy related help on a weekly basis for years at a time. One could make the argument that the more dependent upon librarian help one is, the less information literate one is. This could also differ by discipline, because while humanists are heavy library users, they tend not to seek as much direct help from librarians as students in other fields might. My argument might be blinded by the disciplines I work in.

But for most students, how much time? For the sake of argument, let’s say three hours per year, which I suspect is excessive. That’s twelve hours over the course of a four year degree. How many hours is the average college class? That varies a lot by university as well, depending on quarter systems and other factors. A lot of places have fifteen week semesters, where the students meet for 2.5 hours per week. That’s 37.5 hours. And let’s say over the course of four years, students take 28 classes, four per semester. That gives our average student 1050 hours in the classroom. If these figures are reasonable, our average student has interacted with librarians approximately 1.1% as often as she has interacted with faculty in the classroom. Those figures don’t count the time the student has spent working on their papers and projects, and the students don’t really become educated without that work. One study I read about suggested that college students now study about fourteen hours a week. That might be smaller than in the past, but it’s still 1,680 hours over four years. That puts the time with librarians delivering some sort of information literacy instruction at about 4/10s of 1% of the time students spend learning in college. Even if our number of hours assumed for time with librarians or librarian prepared guides were doubled or trebled, it’s still a very small part, and rarely would librarians have been able to go too far towards directly helping students acquire the higher order critical thinking skills necessary to be information literate.

A given librarian might spend hours every week teaching people how to be more information literate, but that doesn’t mean that any students spend hours a week with librarians learning from them. The time spent with librarians compared to time spent in class and studying is always going to be small, and because of that it seems pretentious to think that librarians direct effect on information literacy teaching is going to be significant, especially if we think of information literacy as a higher order ability in the sense that Standard 3 and 4 imply. It’s not just a question of whether students can meet these standards for a given project, but repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. How could it be otherwise? I would ask even librarians. When you were in school, did a significant amount of your education come directly from librarians?

However, this doesn’t mean that libraries and librarians aren’t essential to a good liberal education and to helping students become information literate. Using the library and directly using librarians isn’t the same thing. I know students who are heavy library users who rarely talk to librarians. I was one of those myself. They’re using the collections the library provides, the interfaces and access tools librarians create, the study spaces the library builds. Information literacy instruction itself can be very indirect, but effective. Students might never read the bits of a research guide about how to find or evaluate information, but just going to one repeatedly they can get a sense of where you might go to find articles on a given topic.

One could also argue that the effect of teaching some information literacy skills is disproportional to the time spent teaching them. Students might spend only four hours with a librarian in four years, but those four hours lay some groundwork for what the students will eventually learn.  Done right and timed well, even minimal amounts of research instruction can give students a good foundation to build upon. That’s what I happen to believe my own effect to be on any given student. What I do matters, is useful and helpful and essential for many students, but I don’t kid myself that my direct role as a teaching librarian has an overwhelming impact on students learning to become information literate. I give them a shove in the right direction, but the learning is mostly done elsewhere. Putting this into perspective, I also don’t think a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.

If we conceive of information literacy narrowly and focused on one project, which seems to be the way its often assessed, then librarian instruction might have a strong direct effect on information literacy attainment. But if we consider information literacy broadly and deeply, the overall impact of librarians directly teaching information literacy skills is relatively small at most universities. Learning to become information literate in the broadest sense is little different from liberal education without the subject matter (as a commenter mentioned on my last blog post). It’s a cumulative effect of the efforts of many people directly and indirectly influencing the lives of students, and the students themselves working and practicing those skills. Librarians play an important direct role, and an extensive indirect role, and we seem to be the primary professionals discussing or evaluating information literacy, but our role is still limited.

Notes on Truth and Librarianship

In a blog post at Sense and Reference, Lane Wilkinson asks whether misinformation is information, and proposes a project over the next few weeks that shows “how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet” Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I look forward to following the progress of the argument.  If, like me, your recall of the Information Literacy Standards is fuzzy, I should remind you that according to Standard Three, “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.” According to Wilkinson, though the ACRL Information Literacy Standards don’t mention truth, Standard Three requires an account of truth. (One might add that the Information Literacy Standards require a missing account of information as well.) Librarians sometimes have the oddest beliefs about truth, as Wilkinson shows in this excellent pair of posts on Wikipedia and truth.

The post also references an article on truth in librarianship that Wilkinson finds less than compelling, to put it mildly: The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship, by Labaree and Scimeca. He promises to dissect it for fact-value conflations and anti-realisms, which I also look forward to. In that article, the authors evaluate three traditional theories of truth–the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories–and conclude that since none of them are adequate for a conception of libraries as a collection of the historical record, they must introduce a supposedly new theory of truth, the “historicist” theory, inspired by the historicism of Herder. I’m assuming it’s this new theory, or perhaps the belief that this is a theory of truth at all, that Wilkinson finds ridiculous, which makes sense when we see that the historicist theory of truth is merely the suspension of belief in truth, supposedly because a belief in truth might cause us to eliminate parts of the historical record that we consider untrue. From the article:

Our suspension of truth value does not arrive at epistemological certainty about the propositions contained in the many volumes housed in a library but rather at certainty that the historical record has not been compromised by the elimination of any these volumes. In other words, librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood. As Herder states: “If history in its simplest sense were nothing but a description of an occurrence, of a production, then the first requirement is that the description be whole, exhaust the subject, show it to use from all sides”…. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind. Only in a free and open society could Herder’s historicism become possible for scholars to use.

One might be tempted to read this as blatant, though well intentioned, nonsense. One should not resist that temptation. This “theory” of truth is not only incompatible with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (no great sin there), but with any intellectual standards at all. It asserts that for librarians to do their job well, they must cease to believe in the truth or falsity of anything in their collection. The published results of a falsifiable and replicable astronomical experiment have the same truth value as a Renaissance book of astrology, or rather, if we believe that one is in fact truer than the other then we can’t responsibly build library collections. The problem is that the authors of this paper don’t provide much of an argument for our suspension of belief.

As I said, this is well intentioned. Their claim is that if we believe that X book is true and Y book is false, then we might be tempted not to collect Y, or not to keep it, which would in essence be to destroy it for future generations to study, just as, for example, medieval scribes would scrape classical texts from vellum to give themselves a clean surface to make another copy of the Bible, because the Bible was true and valuable, while Cicero or Aristotle were not. Or like the legend that Caliph Umar destroyed the Library at Alexandria, because if the books agreed with the Koran they were unnecessary, and if they disagreed they were heretical. Thus, it is only by suspending our belief in truth of individual items in the library collection that we escape the desire to destroy falsehoods.

This assumes that such a cavalier attitude to library collections was motivated by a theory of truth as such, which isn’t the case. Totalitarians don’t burn books simply because they believe those books are false. They burn books because they are motivated by ideologies that require the destruction of any alternative points of view. They don’t burn outdated works of science that have been superseded by more modern studies; they burn books containing worldviews antithetical to their own. Medieval scribes scraped classical works from their vellum not just because they believed them to be false, but because they believed them to be unimportant, the way we throw away takeout menus when maybe we should be collecting them.

What’s different for us isn’t that we don’t believe some works are true and others false, even in areas that lend themselves to easy dispute such as politics or religion. Religious non-believers consider the truth value of the Bible or the Koran to be nil, but in the liberal Enlightenment worldview that provides the framework for modern libraries, that consideration is unimportant. Our “historicism” doesn’t dictate that we don’t believe in truth, but that we believe we want to understand the past, and we believe the way to do so is studying as many documents as possible to come to a true understanding. We attempt to comprehensively collect the historical record in ways that previous eras didn’t, but it’s not necessarily because we have different theories of truth, it’s because we believe different things are true, which isn’t the same thing.

Modern scholars and academic librarians tend to believe that the following statement is true: “Understanding the past in as objective a way as possible is valuable for us in some way, and understanding that past requires saving all the documentary traces it leaves behind.” Totalitarians, book burners, and the like believe this statement to be false. Thus, when we build library collections, we don’t suspend our belief in truth; we just believe that untrue documents can also give us a sort of truth. It should be clear that I’m not objecting to isn’t so much the spirit of this article, but its letter. I agree that building comprehensive library collections is important, and even for the same reasons, but I don’t believe it’s true that we need a new theory of truth to justify this. We don’t really need a theory of truth at all. We just need to collect.

Which brings us back to the Sense and Reference post. Wilkinson believes that Standard Three requires a theory of truth, in particular a realist theory of some kind. That sounds plausible to me, at least for parts of Standard Three. We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?

With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?

Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship.

Despite recent claims that American college students don’t learn much, what “information literacy” they do learn takes place outside the library for the most part, in classrooms, dorm rooms, coffeehouses. And the part that takes place in libraries takes place without librarians. All that reading, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing necessary for understanding and knowledge is far beyond what librarians see.

Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.

Or maybe not. I’m still working my way through this one.

True Enough

I don’t normally discuss books on the blog, mainly because I rarely read books with any relationship to libraries. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws or Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (to name two books I’m currently reading) seem to be of little relevance to librarianship, though I suppose the same could be said of Aristotle’s ethical theory and Rawls’ political philosophy and I’ve managed to draw connections between them and reference service and collection development.

This week I did read a book of some library interest, or at least I think it might be: True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008). I ran across it because someone mentioned it in a comment on this blog (thanks, John!).

It’s a quick read, though perhaps a bit depressing. Mostly it’s about the way that the Web and other modern communication technology and trends are exacerbating a problem inherent in the human psyche. We have a tendency to see what we want to see or believe things that reinforce what we already believe rather than challenging ourselves or seeing another’s point of view. We tend to believe what we want to be true. The book mentions several psychological experiments that seem to confirm this. With what the author calls the splitting of reality, it’s easier than ever to get just the news and views we want, which tend to be the ones that confirm what we already think it true. Of necessity, we act as if what we believe is true, which implies that we all think people who disagree with us are wrong. With the Internet and niche television, we can now insulate ourselves from the Other. A mission of higher education should be to challenge our own thinking and make us more able to empathize with others. In the last post I wrote that if we can’t understand why people would hold political views very different from our own, then the problem is our own lack of knowledge and imagination. True Enough is in one sense an examination of willful ignorance and an absence of empathetic imagination. There are chapters on the swift-boating of John Kerry, 9/11 conspiracies, and the “stolen” presidential election of 2004 that investigate why people seem to believe things that have by any reasonable standard been unproven. Some people just want to believe that John Kerry was a bad soldier or that he really won the 2004 election or that the US government blew up the World Trade Center, despite the lack of real evidence.

The chapter on 9/11 conspiracies resonated the most with me because I’ve watched a lot of the conspiracy videos (such as Loose Change, which Manjoo discusses) and seen a lot of the websites in my exploration of this bizarre shadow world. In my writing seminar I use a 9/11 conspiracy website and the 9/11 Commission Report in an exercise on evaluating sources. How does one debunk conspiracy theories, since the people holding them are apparently incapable of seeing any evidence that doesn’t affirm what they already believe? If True Enough is true enough, then one doesn’t debunk them for the true believers.

There was even a Princeton connection, which I’m sure will be fascinating for the three of my readers at Princeton. The author describes different perspectives on a 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game that Princeton won despite what some Princetonians claimed was Dartmouth’s dirty playing. Princetonians watched the game and saw Dartmouth playing dirty. Dartmouthians (is that the right word? probably not) watched the game and just saw a rough game. The point is that everyone sees the same thing going on, but processes it according to their own biased perspective. We see what we want to see, and perhaps more importantly don’t see what we don’t want to believe. We all witnessed the news in the months leading up to war in Iraq. Some of us saw a compelling case for going to war with an evil dictator who had attacked the US on 9/11 and who had weapons of mass destruction he was just itching to use on America, while others of us waited in vain for any substantial case for war and wondered why other people were gullible enough to believe the unjustified lies daily emanating from the White House. Reality is what we want it to be.

We’re in the business of information, and how information is manipulated and propagated is probably of interest to a lot of us. I’d recommend True Enough as a good quick read about some ways information is now disseminated in society. I’ll conclude with a quote from the book:

“Propagandists have become experts at mining the vulnerabilities of the many-media world . . . . They’ve adopted a range of methods to exploit the current conditions–some are as benign as the covert placement of products in films and TV shows, but others are more questionable, such as planting VNRs on the news, or buying up pundits, or spreading their messages anonymously and “virally” through blogs, videos, and photos on the Web.

Technically, what these operatives aim to do is capture one or many of the forces I’ve discussed so far: selective exposure, in which we indulge information that pleases us and cocoon ourselves among others who think as we do; selective perception, in which we interpret documentary proof according to our long-held beliefs; peripheral processing, which produces a swarm of phony experts: and the hostile media phenomenon, which pushes the news away from objectivity and toward the sort of drivel one sees on cable.

In practice, what propagandists are doing is simpler to describe: they’ve mastered a new way to lie.”

Postmodern Librarians as Bricoleurs

Fortunately Stephanie the CogSci Librarian commented on a post of mine last week, or I wouldn’t have discovered the debate regarding better instruction or better interfaces that was going on within Facebook last week. Maybe I should hop onto the Facebook bandwagon and try to make more Facebook librarian friends. On the other hand, while the debate was going on I was helping prepare a Halloween party for my daughter. When it comes to an interesting library discussions versus party planning, I’m not sure where my loyalties lie.

My own preference would be for better interfaces, but it seems we have so little control over them. The world of information is so chaotic these days that sometimes I don’t even think better instruction will work well. A couple of weeks ago I gave research introductions to some juniors as they prepare to begin researching their independent junior papers, and unfortunately I had to acquaint them with the chaos without providing much order. I’m not cynical enough to think they all want to search nothing but Google, because I don’t find that to be the case with students I talk to. They perhaps all want to search Proquest and JSTOR, but even then they’ve moved beyond thinking that everything is on the free Web. Then I had to bring them back to the Web to show them how to find what we couldn’t find with traditional tools.

Teaching the traditional tools doesn’t bother me, either. Librarians for decades have tried to bring order to chaos, and scholars are familiar with catalogs, subject headings, and other standard library fare. The traditional tools still work up to a point, and they have to be taught, because otherwise much will be missed. In the world of printed books, still of great importance in the humanities, catalogs still serve a useful function unlikely to be usurped anytime soon. The structure of traditional indexes still works to some advantage. As painful as it might be for students, and I share their pain, to find some resources efficiently it’s still necessary to think like a librarian.

Add to this all the other useful ways to find books and scholarly information, from web-searching to footnote-chasing, and it’s easy to understand why students may be overwhelmed and want simpler, better, more powerful interfaces that organize information more effective. I do, too. I just don’t see how that can come about for a long time, if ever, what with so much undigitized information, so much proprietary information, so much expensive information, so much information, period.

It was typical that in a demonstrative search on one of the juniors’ topics we found a great article indexed in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts that wasn’t in full-text, and that the library didn’t subscribe to, and that didn’t show up in Google Scholar, but which did show up in Google and turned out to be in an open access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal. What lesson does this teach us?

The only hope might be more and better instruction, and even then the battle might be a losing one, because to thoroughly search these days requires becoming a Juke Box Hero, not a Guitar Hero, and who besides the serious scholars have the stamina for that? Most students have no desire to be serious scholars, and they never will be. I don’t think we can blame them for that. Try as we might, there’s only so much of the chaos we can teach students to control. That’s not a reason to get rid of instruction, just because it’s not perfect, but it might be a consolation for our inevitable failure to turn everyone into a human search engine.

As a postmodern librarian might say, or might have said back before we gave up postmodernism for whatever we have now, the grand librarian narrative that made sense of information has collapsed, and we live among the wreckage. One of the few useful terms I picked up from my mostly wasted years of studying postmodern theory was the concept of bricolage. Here’s the definition from the Wikipedia, which might be as good as any:

“Bricolage … is a term used in several disciplines…to refer to:

  • the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available;
  • a work created by such a process.

It is borrowed from the French word bricolage, from the verb bricoler - equivalent to the English “do-it-yourself”, the core meaning in French being, however, ‘fiddle, tinker’ and, by extension, ‘make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand (regardless of their original purpose).’

Bricolage as a design approach – in the sense of building by trial and error – is often contrasted to engineering: theory-based construction.

A person who engages in bricolage is a bricoleur: someone who invents his or her own strategies for using existing materials in a creative, resourceful, and original way.”

We are the postmodern, or perhaps post-postmodern, librarians. Of necessity we are bricoleurs. We use what tools we can and build where we are able, putting pieces of the information universe haphazardly together for each research project, organizing the chaos where we can, inventing our own strategies in creative and resourceful ways because we no longer have the safety of using only the old, known ways. Despite improving interfaces, my suspicion–neither a fear nor a hope–is that this will be true for a long time to come, until the World Brain digests and organizes all knowledge.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bricoleurs can be artists practicing a useful trade or creating masterpieces. But it does mean giving up some amount of authority and control, which is alien to the librarian mindset. We like authority and control over information, but if such authority and control are these days necessarily limited, it does us no good to bemoan the fact. Rather than nostalgia for the days when we could master (or pretend to master) the information universe, instead we can get satisfaction from our bricolage, knowing that we’re doing what we can.

Infotopia

I read a good book last weekend that I think a lot of librarians might find interesting:
Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, by Cass Sunstein. The book concerns the way information is used in society to improve decision making, among other things.

There’s nothing in it necessarily specific to libraries, but I found some of the issues about the use of information in society thought-provoking. I’m not going to provide a review, since there seem to be plenty around. I just want to mention a few representative issues.

Consider the “Condorcet Jury Theorem,” which says that if a group of “people are answering a question with two possible answers, one false and one true,” and that there is a better than 50% chance “that each voter will answer correctly,” then “the probability of a correct answer by a majority of the group increases toward 100 % as the size of the group increases”(25). The converse holds as well. If people have a better than 50% chance of being wrong, then the possibly of a right answer declines with every new voter. Think about that the next time you step into a voting booth.

Deliberating groups often fail, though it’s been the view of many since Aristotle that when more people come together and share ideas there’s a greater likelihood of making a wiser decision. Apparently Aristotle isn’t always right, but the fault isn’t deliberation itself, which can aggregate knowledge and lead to better decisions, especially if including people in the decision process and getting their consensus is itself important for the decision. Some problems: deliberating groups work best when most people in the group already have the correct or best answer; groups tend to reinforce the prejudices of the majority within them and lead to group polarization (e.g., with conservatives getting more conservative and liberals getting more liberal); people bow to social pressure and don’t share knowledge they think might be unpopular; they amplify errors; “hidden profiles” (knowledge which should become common but doesn’t, thus hindering the deliberating capacity of the group; “informational cascades, or what happens when you agree with her because you respect her and I agree with you both because I don’t know any different, and he agrees with all of us because how could so many smart people be wrong.

Chapter 4 has a fascinating discussion of “money, prices, and prediction markets.” I wasn’t aware of the extensive use of prediction markets. Guess I should read more economics. Anyway, groups set up markets with various rewards for the right prediction, and this provides incentives for people to use their dispersed information to profit. In deliberating groups, people may stay quiet, because “by speaking out, they provide benefits to others, while possibly facing high private costs. Prediction markets realign incentives in a way that is precisely designed to overcome these problems” (104). There’s a list of urls for prediction markets at the back of the book, but he discusses the Iowa Electronics Markets among others.

Sunstein likes wikis and the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is successful because so many people come together to share knowledge and a core of people work hard to correct errors. Despite the lack of prices, some have considered the Wikipedia to be partly explainable in terms of F.A. Hayek’s criticism of socialist economic planning, that such planning is theoretically flawed because no person or group of people could possibly have all the information necessary to make most economic decisions in a society (or perhaps even in a large organization). Prices provide us with the dispersed information available through billions of transactions. I tend to think the Internet and Wikipedia works this way, and was recently reminded that way back in 2001 I was noting the way “ask an expert” services on the web took advantage of useful dispersed knowledge. Sunstein disagrees, at least in respect to the Wikipedia. “Because Wikipedia uses a “last in time” rule, because no literal price is created, and because economic incentives are not directly involved, Hayek’s central arguments about that “marvel,” the price system,” do not apply, at least directly” (159).

While he thinks wikis can be great ways to share and aggregate information, Sunstein isn’t as sanguine on blogs. He specifically criticizes Richard Posner’s “blog triumphalism” for claiming blogging is “a fresh and striking exemplification of…Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge.” I tend to agree with Posner, but Sunstein points out that blogs have all of the polarization and other errors of other deliberating groups, with political blogs perhaps being the worst. Bloggers tend to create their own “information cocoons,” only reading or linking to like minds, and information cocoons often result in bad decision making, whether the cocoon is a political blogger or a CEO. At their best, though, blogs get many ideas out quickly. Hmm, maybe this blog wasn’t such a good idea.

If you’re interested in how information can be better used in society, or perhaps just in your organization, you might want to read Infotopia, and think about polarization, information cocoons, hidden profiles, etc., and how in our own libraries and communities we can make the best decisions by aggregating dispersed knowledge, and perhaps how as librarians we can facilitate the use of information in society.