Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Black Swans in the antilibrary.

In his book "The Black Swan" Nassim Taleb begins with an account of Umberto Eco's library. This library contains 30,000 books and the significance of this collection is not that Eco has read them all but that it is a research tool for future reading. "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.... Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary"
I don't think that a librarian would ever make this distinction but the idea of the importance of unread books - of unknowns - is central to The Black Swan.

Taleb's idea is that our lives are dominated by Black Swan events; that is events which are extremely rare but have very high impact. These events can not be predicted in advance because they are completely different to anything that has happened before. Afterwards, these events are subject to intense scrutiny and explanations are developed which appear to show how they could have been predicted, but this does not prepare us for the next Black Swan. He seems to suggest that none of the unread books in the antilibrary would enable us to predict these events although some of the books (including presumably his own) can help us to deal with the effects of Black Swans on society.

Taleb also claims that information is bad for knowledge. More knowledge does not mean that you make better choices, only that you are more confident in the choices you have made. This echoes Eliot's line about "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

So a mixed message for libraries! What you don't know is more relevant than what you do know so libraries are important. However the events that will have most impact are unknowable and providing people with more information does not necessarily help.

The profession is faced with its own Black Swan in the shape of the Internet. The development over a few years of a system which (potentially) offers every individual the ability to find any information they want instantly from their home or office (or mobile device) could not have been anticipated and is having a massive impact - modified only by the fact that the potential and the reality are very different. So how do we cope?

In the announcement of the Skills Exchange milestone (last posting) Stephanie Taylor makes the point that the Skills Exchange concept is very different from that of an email list:
"The Skills Exchange is all about creating a sense of community, which of course an email list is not. The email list does not really lend itself to discussion, which is why many descend into little more than announcements of events. They also tend to be narrowly focused. So if your interests are broadly based, you end up with little more than a cluttered inbox, adding to information overload! If you remain so narrowly focused, you miss the big picture of trends and developments in the sector. Again with The Skills Exchange, the idea is that all the debates can take place in one place, making it easy to monitor sector developments."

This is fundamental to dealing with Black Swans - and even grey cygnets, their less traumatic offspring. You don't need more information. You need to step back and think, and the best way of doing that is to talk to other people. Librarians are very good at doing things right but we need to focus on doing the right thing. Forums such as the Skills Exchange, CILIP communities and the SINTO wiki are an ideal tool for this. Librarians claim that they have less time to get out of the library and network. They don't even have time to spend an hour or so on the computer networking. However they are making a grave error if they think that keeping their noses to the grindstone is helping their users or their employers in the long term. Stop what you are doing and look for Black Swan in your organisation. Help your manager, and your manager's manager to look for Black Swans. That is your job - after all you are the custodian of the unread books.


MP3 e MP4 said...
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