Controlling Our Information

Recently, I attended a meeting where we discussed a growing problem for our library–the inability to get all of the electronic resources we subscribe to in our catalog, especially the ejournals. Part of the problem is staffing; I’m not sure we have enough people to treat these journals as we do print journals. Part of the problem is sheer quantity. We purchase a journal package, and suddenly that’s a thousand new titles, and perhaps they don’t have easily available MARC records. The catalog has always traditionally been the place of record for what the library owns or has access to, and if it could still be that I’d be happy, too, but clearly it’s not. People are finding journal articles through Google Scholar that, according to our OPAC, we don’t subscribe to, and yet obviously we do subscribe to them because otherwise the patron wouldn’t be able to access some of them through Google.

I’m torn in the debate. I like the idea of the catalog of record. I’m comfortable searching the catalog and teaching others to. I like the power over information that a perfect catalog can give me. And I know that admitting that the catalog can no longer function that way and that alternative searching methods are inevitable means giving up a lot of the control we have over our own resources–control which we have very good reasons for wanting. It means we have a lot of uncertainty that doesn’t benefit us or the patrons, but which may be inevitable.

Yet I still wonder if we’re fighting a Sisyphean battle. We roll those MARC records up the hill into the catalog and think it’s complete, and along comes another thousand journals unaccounted for. (I know that was a bit strange, but I was trying to figure out what Sisyphus would do with a MARC record.) Increasingly, I have the nagging feeling that trying to catalog every item we own or have access to is analogous to trying to catalog the Internet. I just don’t see how it can be done. (Perhaps that’s what the elusive semantic web is supposed to be able to do some day, but I won’t comment because I’m not sure I understand the issues well enough.)

Some of us are understandably bothered that we have resources we don’t control, or that people can find our own journals through Google but not through the OPAC. I think this is where I part company with some of my colleagues. As much as I would appreciate the perfect OPAC, I don’t think it’s possible anymore, and it doesn’t bother me that people find resources through other methods. It’s enough for me if people find the information they need, and if they find information we provide but not with tools we provide, I’m fine with that. It’s possible that librarians are the only ones bothered by this, and the fact that people are already accessing our journals through Google in the first place is an indication this might be true.

I also know there are other next generation catalogs that attempt to do some of this stuff. We don’t have one of those, though. And even with these I wonder whether there can any longer be one-stop shopping for library resources.

If there can’t be, and clearly there isn’t now, then it causes obvious problems, especially perhaps for reference services. If we can no longer depend on having a catalog of record, how can we verify what we have? Is the catalog even useful if we can’t trust it? I’m certainly not arguing that the catalog isn’t still useful, only that it’s usefulness is limited in yet another way, and that we must use alternative ways to find information, even information we’ve purchased. The world of information is a great big mess these days, and I appreciate the problems as much as anyone, but if problems can’t be solved, then worrying about them doesn’t help much. Sisyphus might have been better off if he’d left that MARC record at the bottom of the hill and searched Google instead.

Evaluating Conspiracy

I find conspiracy theories fascinating, and not because I’m a conspiracy theorist. One of my favorite conspiracy theories is the Shakespeare authorship question, but I also use conspiracy theories to discuss source evaluation with my students, and Shakespeare doesn’t generate that much interest among students. (There is a small but dedicated Shakespeare conspiracy theory movement, though, because every few months I get an email from someone trying to persuade me that their candidate “really” wrote Shakespeare’s plays and I should acknowledge such on my website.)

For the past few years, I’ve been using the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 as an exercise in evaluation. I treat the 9/11 Commission Report as the official source, though of course there are others, such as the NIST rebuttal of alternative theories of the WTC buildings collapse. The official story is that airplanes were hijacked and flown into the WTC and the Pentagon, and that the damage done by the airplanes caused the collapse of WTC 1, 2, and & 7 as well as the damage done to the Pentagon.

According to the conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of holes in this story, though the theories don’t always cohere. I’ve been watching a few videos available on the Internet, and the theories usually address alleged flaws in the official story. Often they’ll bring in the related “New World Order” and Illuminati conspiracies as well. When you combine that with other theories placing the origins of the New World Order in space aliens or Atlantis or a reptilian, shape-shifting race that secretly dominates the world (have you taken a close look at George Bush, Tony Blair, or the Queen of England lately?), then you can ultimately piece together a theory that reptilian space aliens secretly engineered human beings and have been trying for centuries to build a one-world totalitarian government and have now used the WTC attacks as a excuse to create a fascist police state, through a process that the conspiracy theorists all like to mention: Problem, Reaction, Solution, which they all claim has something to do with Hegelian dialectic, though I remember Hegel being a bit more complicated than that.

The 9/11 Truth Movement seems to be a gathering storm of questionable sources. I use The World Trade Center Demolition and the So-Called War on Terrorism as a comparison for the 9/11 Commission Report because it’s been out there for a long time, but I could use any number of sources, from the film Loose Change to plenty of blogs and websites and books. (Loose Change seems to be a major voice for the “Truthers,” since it has a hostile blog dedicated specifically to debunking it: Screw Loose Change. (If you’re curious and want to delve into a twilight zone, do some Google Video searches on 9/11 or Illuminati or look for anything about David Icke or Alex Jones.)

From a research perspective, though, these sources provide great examples for evaluating sources. First, there’s a lot of this stuff, especially about 9/11, and now they even have something called Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Also, several of the conspiracy theory sources specifically ask people to question them. I noticed a number of videos, for example, that said, more or less, “hey, don’t believe us, go verify these facts.” Screw Loose Change seems to be taking that call very seriously. So the scholarly imperative to verify sources is explicit in many of these videos and websites, which could make a great research exercise. (On a side note, look up some of these conspiracy theories in the Wikipedia if you want to see examples of Wikipedia credibility warnings all over the place.)

But they’re also useful because of the political overtones of the movement, which lends another perspective to the sources. I mistakenly thought when looking into this that a lot of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists would be anti-Bush, anti-globalization progressives, but there seem to be many conservative evangelical Christians and militia movement-types in the mix as well.

The politicization of the debate is interesting, though. The 9/11 anti-conspiracy theorists don’t necessarily provide a calm, rational voice in this debate. One of the documentaries played a clip of Sean Hannity interviewing a conspiracy theorist from the University of Wisconsin, and I’d have to say from any balanced perspective, the conspiracy theorist came off looking better than one might think. I don’t watch TV, so I’d never seen Fox News, but Hannity shouting at the fellow onscreen could hardly impress anyone but the choir of how he was the sane one and the conspiracy theorist the insane one. (If that’s the norm on his show, I wonder why anyone watches.)

So for the suspicious, there’s not only the alleged questionability of the official story, but there’s also a lot of conservatives extremely hostile to anyone bringing up alternative theories. Add in a general distrust of the Bush administration of most people on the left, and it becomes more difficult to decide the issue. If the question comes down to, “do you trust the government or not,” this adds another dimension to the debate, leading some people to say, “well, I don’t normally trust the government, but in this case I will,” or perhaps, “well, I hate the President, but I don’t think he’s a reptilian shape-shifter who destroyed the WTC to bring about a one-world government to please his pals in Skull and Bones and the Trilateral Commission.”

In addition to the details and the political context, there are also fun large questions. For example, if there really is a secret group of space aliens called the Illuminati that control us all, then why would they let all these videos and websites get out on the Internet? Is it just to make people look crazy, and thus debunk their case even more? And don’t the conspiracy theorists seem rather arrogant? How have they somehow escaped the mind-control of the New World Order while the rest of us are too stupid? And how could anyone control such a large conspiracy? Does anyone think the government is really hyper-competent?

I think teaching a writing seminar on 9/11 conspiracy theories would be great, but I’m starting small. This year I’m planning to develop a quick research evaluation exercise based around this in addition to just using the standard techniques such as examining authorship, because I think it might be entertaining as well as informative. Unless it’s all true, of course, and the Illuminati are really out to get us, in which case it’s just scary, unless they want to let me in on their plans and make me fabulously wealthy, in which case it isn’t.

Thoughts on Authority

I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts about Authority after the Wikipedia post. I guess if my thoughts were too organized, I’d write up the idea for an authoritative peer-reviewed journal instead of blogging it.

Academic librarians are very un-postmodern. They like Authority, at least in some senses, and have never subscribed to the “death of the author” proclamation once so prominent in literary critical circles. The notion of Authority helps up both in academic collection development and in reference. We don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything we buy or recommend, so we often rely upon some authority to distinguish the best material.

But what are we doing when we use Authority as a criterion for scholarly materials? Surely none of us believe that because Renowned Professor A published this article in Standard Scholarly Journal B that the article is thereby true, even if we believe in notions of truth. If we do, then what do we make of the undeniable fact that Acclaimed Scholar C has refuted Professor A’s claims in great detail in her most recent book from Outstanding University Press? The scholarly conversation captured in books and journals and even blogs isn’t necessarily any better because of who wrote it or where it was written, but we often act as if it is, using Authority as a metonym for something else. I’m not sure what that something else is, though. Truth? Probably not. A certain standard of scholarly rigor? Maybe.

I hope most librarians only use Authority as a criterion early on in the research process, and don’t try to teach students that only certain authoritative sources are good. Even very short source evaluation guides like this one go a little bit beyond who wrote or published the source, but it might be better if such guides regularly included more on content analysis, like this one.

But I’ve seen that in a lot of standard introductions to students, evaluating information often boils down to authority of some kind, rather than if the work is well reasoned or carefully researched. We just hope that if the writer and press have Authority, then the rest will take care of itself, and without becoming experts on every topic that’s often the best we can do. (It’s not just librarians, though. I was teaching a research session where the young instructor more or less said that any books not published by either Oxbridge or Ivy League presses or by professors from or at least with PhDs from such universities were suspect until proven otherwise.)

Tips for evaluating websites usually have the same approach. Who wrote this? What’s the url? Where is the page from? Does the author have the right credentials? I’m not saying this is bad. I do the same thing myself. (My writing students and I compare and evaluate two websites on the World Trade Center: this and this. The results of our comparison might make its own blog post.) But is this anything other than a shorthand way of evaluating something without reading it? Would what I write, for example, be any different, any better or worse, if the url of this blog were different or if I had a different job title?

When we challenge students to evaluate information sources, the “authority” of the source should only be one method to evaluate the source, and even then only if it’s a relevant criterion. We need to emphasize that “authoritative” means that a work has met some standard of criticism and has been judged a worthy entry into the scholarly conversation by someone or some group, but that it doesn’t mean the source is “right” or “true,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean other sources aren’t also useful or reliable.

We also need to understand when the notion of authority has no relevance (as when there is no author), and when we have to substitute some other standard of value instead. For Wikipedia and other wiki products, what would that standard be? Or perhaps a more relevant question — what can the shorthand criterion be if we can’t use Authority the way we’ve been used to?

Wikipedia and the Word of God

A review of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman says that in “many respects, the Bible was the world’s first Wikipedia article. So many hands have altered and edited the now lost originals that we will never know for sure what those originals said.” I don’t think that’s a very useful analogy, because it breaks down on so many levels, but it does bring up the question of authority, which librarians and scholars like, and which doesn’t seem to matter to most people, at least not in the same way. In terms of authority, how do Wikipedia and the Bible compare?

The review points out out that the Bible we have in English is a translation based on nonexistent original documents written by we know not whom, copied and recopied over several centuries in numerous manuscripts that may neither be complete nor agree with each other. This is hardly news to anyone who knows much about textual criticism of the Bible, but it seems to be unwelcome news to people who believe the Bible (and especially the KJV) is the unerring Word of God even in its details, so unwelcome that they probably wouldn’t read Ehrman’s book anyway and if they did they wouldn’t believe it or wouldn’t care, despite the fact that the reason people consider the Bible as authoritative is precisely because of its author, or at least who they think is the author — God. The Bible is an authority because it was written by God.

This is much the way some librarians would approach scholarly or reference sources. These sources have authority because of the authors.

The Wikipedia, however, is different. It can’t be judged adequately by the “authority” standard, because we don’t know who the authors are. For many people, this is enough to dismiss it as a useful reference source. The Wikipedia is often judged to be unreliable because anyone can edit it and we don’t know who really writes the entries. Because anyone can edit at any time, it can be changed for the worse, and the entries might be written by crazy people! Everyone has a favorite Wikipedia entry scandal to trot out in these discussions, even though I suspect the mini-scandals are in fact exceptions. If we apply the standard criterion to the Wikipedia (and similar wiki products), then they have to be dismissed out of hand. Is this a problem with the Wikipedia, or with our limited criteria of quality?

Librarians like to judge reference or scholarly sources by their authority. We know this book is good because the Outstanding University Press published it, or because some respected scholar at a respectable university wrote it. Professor Smith of Ivy U wrote this Encyclopedia Mundi entry, so it must be better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry in some way.

Authority is one of the tools of academic collection development and reference, a necessary tool because we don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything before we buy it, but we should be wary of using it too indiscriminately. After all, it’s not like authorities are necessarily right or true, and most renowned scholarly publications have other scholarly publications criticizing their shortcomings.

(To be fair, it’s not just librarians who have this sometimes irrelevant and medieval respect for “authority.” A lot of students of the humanities seems to have the same view of authority, and will use Derrida, for example, as an argumentative trump the way medieval scholastics might have used “the Philosopher.” I can’t count how many times in an earlier life I heard someone say “Well, Foucault says,” as if that somehow settled an argument.)

Perhaps the Wikipedia should be judged by a different standard, though, since authority isn’t relevant. Perhaps Wikipedia should be judged by some criterion of truth or usefulness. Because whatever librarians think of Wikipedia, it’s clear that people love it, and we’d be better off remembering that and figuring out how to exploit the Wikipedia than in dismissing it out of hand.