Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Battle lines

Does Bob McKee, Chief Executive of CILIP read the SINTO blog? I am prompted to ask because in recent postings on his own blog Bob picks up on two books that I mentioned here ages ago. Pies and prejudice; in search of the North by Stuart Maconie and Bob Usherwood's Equity and Excellence in the Public Library. Of Bob Usherwood's book he says "... I commend Bob Usherwood's book to you. It is (to borrow a phrase which should resonate with Reader Development Librarians of a certain vintage) well worth reading".

Perhaps Bob has been reading my past discussions under the heading Battle lines where I have looked at the debate between the webbed and the web-sceptics. Fighting seems to have broken out again.

Helen Nicols lives in Sheffield and works in Leeds, and writes a blog called The Business of Knowing - thoughts about knowledge sharing, learning and how business can benefit from encouraging both. In a recent post she includes a video of a presentation by David Weinburger author of Everything is miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder. The presentation is about the organisation of knowledge and compare and contrasts the old way and the new digital way of doing this. He argues that we have been very good at organising physical objects (such as books on shelves) but that today there is no longer any need to order things in a single way. His presentation covers Aristotle, Dewey, classification and categorising, tagging, wikipedia and other miscellaneous things. He suggests that as both data and metadata are digitalised this changes the whole way we approach knowledge. There is much in this presentation that we can take issue with - his ideas on publicly negotiated knowledge (e.g. Wikipedia) for example - but if you put up with the stuttering start, this is a masterclass in the new ideas that all librarians and information managers should be familiar with.

But that does not mean we should agree with it all. Professor Tara Brabazon who holds the chair of media studies at the University of Brighton has criticised an increasing dependency on a diet of unchecked information found through internet search engines as "white bread for the mind". According to press reports in The Telegraph and The Times Prof Brabazon claims user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia are creating an age of banality by providing consensual information and stifling debate.
"I want students to sit down and read. It's not the same when you read it online. I want them to experience the pages and the print as much as the digitisation and the pixels. Both are fine but I want them to have both – not one or the other – not a cheap solution."

This view is supported in a study by Dr Ian Rowlands, a lecturer in library and information studies at University College London. It looks at how people use and search web-based information. Young people tend to use search engines such as Google and Yahoo as their first, and often only, port of call in searching for information. They have a poor understanding of their information needs and find it difficult to develop effective search strategies. They also spend little time evaluating information for relevance, accuracy or authority, it says.

Rowlands says children born after the big bang of the web lack a mental map of the information landscape, which could be affecting their ability to search for and evaluate information.

"As a kid, I grew up spending hours in the central reference library in Plymouth. This helped me form a clear understanding of the information landscape because of the physical layout of the library, and the appearance of materials. You get a sense of how big one collection is compared to another. Dictionaries, maps and official statistics all have a specific place, feel and appearance in the library and this helped me understand the concept of these sources of information and how to use them," he says.

Libraries are not keeping up with the demands of students and researchers for services that are integrated and consistent with their wider internet experience such as Google, the study says. Information consumers do not necessarily use services in the way libraries assume, and a one-size-fits-all policy towards the design of library systems will not be effective. The study recommends that libraries invest more in monitoring and evaluating the way people use their services, to ensure they stay relevant and to allow libraries to argue against static or declining budgets.

Dame Lynne Brindley commenting on the report said that libraries should also play a key role in helping to teach information literacy skills. "That the younger generation is technologically more literate but not more information literate is a challenge that must be tackled by libraries and education more widely. Students who simply want to use Google and take what it says as gospel do a real disservice to the skills people will increasingly need to survive the digital economy".
STOP PRESS. Link to BL press release and pdf file of report.

What is clear is that this battle is not a head-on conflict between two opposing concepts. The "webbed" are not promoting the use of poor quality information but their emphasis is on using technology to open up access to all information. The "web-sceptics" don't want to dismantle the new digital environment, nor (despite the headlines) do they want to ban Google and Wikipedia. Instead they want to promote a critical approach to information. There is a crying need for a synthesis between the two points of view.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Carl,
such a synthesis does exist :) In the works of people like Walt Crawford as an example. And, I would say, in much of the work that is done away from the heat of online debate...