Information overload and a defense of print reference.

“At some point, the niches will become so small that they will exclude everything that didn’t emanate from our own consciousness. It will be as Ortega feared. We’ll all end up qualified experts on ourselves, and nothing more.”

The author, Rob Horning, started this post with a classic case of library information overload, paralyzed at the mass of knowledge that he will never be able to master, a feeling I also get more and more, both on the internet and off of it. Happily, this is the stuff of librarianship: helping people get by in he deluge.

One interesting aspect of many reference works is how personal note-taking became a publicly used tool to construct new knowledge (read Ann Blair’s excellent new book, Too Much To Know). Like any text, reference books are full of errors, and more importantly, they are full of judgments. That is what makes them so important as entry points into any subject: the best reference tools bear the clear influence of their authors and the fields they work in. Like Horning, we all can’t be experts, but we certainly should consult them, and like any person, we should look at what they say critically. (excerpt from book) Another quote from Horning’s essay relates to the ideas of niche knowledge and having an opinion:

Ortega claims that the mass-man “wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.”

As we engage in writing and research, we have to take responsibility for our opinions, just as we examine those of others. Any research has an opinion or bias, what is interesting is the unwillingness of librarians to recognize this in our own work. This mental block is the product of librarianship’s swing towards defining ourselves as “information providers” as if information was like water or electricity. In addition to these services, we need to say more about ourselves. If librarians want to be taken seriously as educators, then we need to promote our biases, and take ownership of our personal quirks. The EDUCAUSE review “The Library as Learning Space” calls for libraries to continue to push electronic collections, and move unused print collections to off-site storage, allowing for more learning spaces.

“This process of development, including a re-conception of services offered by librarians, will ultimately allow two further developments: the closer positioning of librarians into teaching and research activities; and a broadening of the library’s curatorial role from the purchase (and licensing of) materials to the management of locally produced research outputs, data sets, and learning objects.”

That quote is stellar, the import of locally produced knowledge can’t be under-stressed, but it is only one part of what makes libraries unique. The focus on digital materials (and yes, licensed materials are useful harbingers of sameness), misses one thing that sets notably great libraries from average ones: print reference. The curation of useful print reference matches the speed of trying to slog through search results, and if you want to help somebody feel less overwhelmed when taking on a new subject, it can’t be beat. Sure, many great reference works are available online, but they are not all inclusive, and many of them hide behind the identity of the publisher, confounding as stone-faced search boxes imply all-knowingness. Print reference does two things better than digital: it displays its own limits by narrowing possibilities, thus exposing its own biases. It also gives courage: they are done by people, so you too can enter their domain, join the conversation, and have an opinion  if you so choose. Libraries are places where in-depth engagement and learning is encouraged, excellent and sometimes obscure print reference material reflects that.

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