Librarians and Engineers on Information, Knowledge

An older Open Source episode on Google Print

Seems to me, a large part of the discussion had to about two distinct and fairly incompatible “worldviews,” or more precisely in this case, two ways to see the realities of information and knowledge. Both are certainly legitimate, accurate, understandable, and logical. But they do clash. Pretty much a culture clash. And both are typical of the United States, in this very case, with frequent mentions of U.S. symbols and themes.

Not criticism but observations.

Google, as represented by a member of that corporation who was being rather defensive, is usually a clear example of the engineering mentality. To simplify: “We saw a problem and we wanted to fix it.” Well-trained engineers are really good at problem-solving, step-by-step, “let’s think about deeper issues later.” Several of my friends (especially among homebrewers) are like that and they can be delightful people, in part because they see the universe as full of interesting challenges that they can take up.

Librarians, who were made into the “other side of the debate” during this specific episode, are more than mere defenders of the book (which Google is now claiming to be). They’re the models of the “public servant.” Yeah, yeah, some employees at local libraries are the worst public servants you’ve seen. But we’re talking about the librarian as an abstract type, not as a job. Librarians are there to help people connect with information, whatever this information may be. Brokers, Karen Schneider said. She also talked about information guides and navigators. Interesting metaphors. Of course, some librarians have also assumed the role of gatekeeper and librarians in the U.S. have been quite vocal about protecting privacy. But that’s all about information and people as a very broad, non-specific goal. Even specialized librarians are generalists in the sense that they help you find the information you need, they don’t solve a specific problem for you.

Through the Internet expansion and, through the Web specifically, the character of the tech geek has gained new social significance. And some of these engineer-type tech geeks have very insightful things to say about a number of issues. Their dominant mode of thinking is often of the anthropomorphic “Information Wants To Be Free” type. Much of the online world pays lipservice this ideal (whether they reify it or not). Freely flowing information that “users” can select based on their own critical sense, needs, scientific understanding, etc. With tools to help them sift through information. Signal to noise ratio, etc.

Librarians (the type, not the people necessarily) operate under another ideal. It can be both more humanistic and more condescending, depending on the person. But it has more to do with knowledge and what people do with information. While many of them might share a geek’s credo of freely moving information, at least some of them might be thinking about getting appropriate information in the right hands. Not just a broad search engine concept of “relevance” (or popularity), but a “right information at the right time to get the type of knowledge you really want” principle. Perhaps a bit more encyclopedic and more tied to authoritative answers to specific questions. But also tied more closely to the way people use information to produce more knowledge.

My fieldwork among hunters in Mali brings me closer to a third group of people. Those who care about chains of transmission to a great extent. Issues of specialization and training (you may not get specific items of information before you have been initiated appropriately and belong to the right group) but also with a clear view of how information is transformed into knowledge by specific people through specific chains of transmission. My diffusing secret information isn’t too much of a problem for them because they know that those who would use that information for inappropriate goals will not trust me as a source. Also, they care about diffusion of information but also think that this diffusion should be accompanied with appropriate “context” to make the data significant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are also people who give weight to oral transmission as a powerful tool, including individualized transmission in a public context (through coded language, use of inside jokes or other esoteric knowledge, ambiguously resonating ellipses…).

This is not to say that one of the three abstract types (Malian hunters, engineers, librarians) is more appropriate than the others. In fact, they’re not that clearly incompatible. But they refer to deeply held belief and fairly distinct approaches to information and knowledge.

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