information labels

I said something to this effect last week on Uncontrolled Vocabulary, but it bears repeating.

ACRLog discusses algorithmic attempts to authenticate online information, touching on, among other things, the recent Wired story about the Wikipedia Scanner, which mines IP addresses from Wikipedia edits to find out just who’s saying that Diebold never makes mistakes or what have you.

It strikes me that all these efforts are related to the seemingly unending desire that people have for a quick and dirty route to authoritative information. What they’re looking for, I suspect, is a label (a metaphor that, as a former anti-sweatshop activist, holds a good deal of meaning for me). People like labels, and I am no exception. “Oh, okay, it’s fair trade coffee, so I’ll get that.” “Oh, this is free range chicken.” “Oh, this won the National Book Critics Circle Award.” But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t say, “Oh, I believe everything in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” and leave it at that.

There’s no such label for information, not in any grand sense. An algorithm might help you trace an IP address and learn the probably identity of a contributor to a wiki, but you’ll still need to know somthing about who that person or entity is and what their biases are before you can know whether their statements are trustworthy. I won’t even get into the profound political implications of slapping an “authoritative” label on information, as I trust you’ve all read Orwell and school history textbooks and so on. But there are days when I think that’s what Google is trying to do–not organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, but organize and filter and, in doing so, suggest an authority to those first ten search results that they may or may not possess. It’s almost as if the purpose of organizing all that information is to prohibit critical thinking, not to promote it.

That’s hardly a new practice, of course–but the tools used to do it now are much bigger, much broader, and much more pervasive.

what for and for what?

My mother, Judith Crossett, is a geriatric psychiatrist (or, as we usually put it, she treats old crazy people). She works at the University of Iowa, where she treats patients and also teaches in the medical school. A few weeks ago she was telling me about the first thing she teaches any medical student or resident working with her.

When someone asks you for a competency test, the first thing you ask them is competency for what?

Do they mean is this person competent to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Do they mean competent to drive a car? Do they mean competent to make decisions about being committed to the hospital? These are all very different things, and there is no universal competency test for them.

How does this relate to libraries, you ask? Well, it struck me a little while ago, while reading yet another article bemoaning Wikipedia/Google/the Internet as the end of the world, that for what is exactly the question we need to ask when we’re talking about sources of information. The answer to “Is Wikipedia a good source of information?” is not “Yes” or “No” — it’s “A good source of information for what?”

If you’re looking for information on podcasting, you’re not likely to find a better resource online or in print (where you’ll hardly find anything, except perhaps in the newspaper) than the Wikipedia entry. If you want to know more about DRM, Wikipedia can be an interesting, though sometimes controversial (check out the discussion) source of information. If you’re looking for an analysis of gender roles in A Winter’s Tale, it might not be so helpful.

Let’s consider the movies. What’s a good source of information on the movies? Well, if I want to know what movies are playing near me, I check out the listings on My Yahoo!. If I want to know who was in a certain movie, I look at If I want to know what kinds of reviews a movie was getting when it came out, I head for the subscription databases. And if I want to know about auteur theory, I hit the stacks. All of these are good sources of information for specific purposes.

Another way of looking at this business of “good sources of information” is to think about what Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and author of a great new book called A Matter of Opinion, calls the “ideology of the center”:

If The Nation has the ideology of the liberal left and National Review has the ideology of the conservative right, then The New York Times, The Washington Post, the newsweeklies, and the networks have the ideology of the center, and it is part of the ideology of the center to deny that it has an ideology.

Navasky also quotes the late, great journalist Jack Newfield:

Among these unspoken, but organic, values are belief in welfare capitalism, God, the West, Puritanism, the Law, the family, property, the two-party system, and perhaps most crucially, the notion that violence is only defensible when employed by the State. I can’t think of any White House correspondent, of network television analyst, who doesn’t share these values. And who at the same time, who doesn’t insist that he is totally objective.

We tend to think of encyclopedias — “real” encyclopedias, those heavy tomes with the gold leaf edges, as good, objective sources of information. But consider a few selections from a list by A.J. Jacobs (who spent a year reading the Britannica and wrote a book about it called The Know-It-All), on how to get into the Encycopaedia Britannica:

1. Get beheaded. This is perhaps the surest path to getting written up. The Britannica loves nothing more than a person — preferably a noble one — who has had his or her neck chopped in two. One of my favorite games involves reading a biographicalsquibb that begins “French revolutionary” and then guessing how many years it takes before he finds himself under the guillotine.

4. Become a botanist. Scandinavian ones seem particularly popular. Also, the study of mosses and peat deposits shouldn’t be underestimated.

5. Get yourself involved in commedia dell’arte. The Britannica’s obsession with the Italian 18th-century comedies borders on the unhealthy. The EB has great enthusiasm for commedia dell’arte actors, whether they happened to play the pretentious but cowardly soldier Capitano, the saucy maid Columbine, or the madcap acrobat Zanni.

8. Design a font. Apparently, coming up with a new typeface is a more impressive feat than I had previously thought. The Britannica especially likes controversial typefaces that are initially dismissed haughtily, only to be revived later and recognized as brilliant, like Baskerville, designed by font hero John Baskerville.

I mean no disrespect to the dead, botanists, Italian comedy, or fonts, but you have to admit, their selection criteria can be a little bit nutty — one might even say subjective — at times.

Lastly (yes, this post will come to an end soon), how could I not give some space to Google and everyone’s favorite anti-Google (and blog) ranter, ALA President Michael Gorman? One of Gorman’s favorite anti-Google tropes has to do with his stand against atomized information. I would tend to agree with him that Google Print is not going to be the best way to read The Education of Henry Adams (although, I must confess, I have not read it in any way myself). But imagine how useful atomized information might have been to my mother (remember her?), back when she was getting her PhD in English (we follow odd career trajectories in my family):

She was doing an edition of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. That meant she had to go through every edition she could find of the book (which does not survive in manuscript) and try to decide whether Twain wanted to write “schoolhouse,” “school-house,” or “school house.” Or whether he meant to describe the blackness of the night or the darkness of the night. Or–well, you get the idea. In the 1970s, this meant sitting around with books and microfilm readers and undergraduate research assistants. One person read aloud; the others followed along in different editions, looking for differences. Now just imagine that all those editions were scanned and searchable. Presto! Results!

There’s no such thing as a “good source of information” or a “good technology”–there are only sources of information and technologies that are good for certain things.

What? You’re still reading? Then check out a few of the many posts that got me thinking about this topic over the past few months:

Thanks to them — and to all the library bloggers out there — who’ve gotten me thinking.