Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Age of Contested Knowledge

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to presentations from two local academic librarians. The librarians were visiting my high school to teach our seniors about college level research. They explored databases and discussed peer reviewed research with the students. They explained why "Google it" is not an acceptable academic search strategy. The information that the librarians provided was not unique, but it is something that students do not easily accept. Why? "Google it" seems easy. "Google it" helps us re-confirm what we already believe. "Google it" shows us what information is most readily available, not necessarily what is correct. Also this week, I listened to an National Public Radio podcast entitled "Why We Doubt Scientific Findings." A phrase stood out for me -- "the age of contested knowledge" -- and tied directly to what I see happening in the classroom. With a nod to Diane Rehm, this post discusses and questions the role of librarians and archivists in this new information age.

Rehm's program discussed how the world of information has changed. How people get their information has changed. There has been a disintegration of the old "gatekeepers" of knowledge. In my opinion, as librarians we have a responsibility to spread our own knowledge of information. People once saw libraries as the way to enter the gates and access information. Today information is at everyone's fingertips and most do not recognize the true value of a librarian's training.  "Gatekeeper" is too restrictive a word for what we do now. We need to re-brand ourselves as information "guides.

Information in Today's World

Rehm's program included science reporters and scientists discussing the way people gather and process scientific studies. The beginning of the show was most interesting to me from a professional standpoint, as it discussed general practices of information gathering:  The following parts of the discussion stood out to me:

  • Information that we accept today often reflects our world view. "[People] often find exactly what they already believe." 
  • People have a daily confrontation of their belief system with/against science. Science (information) was once much less readily available
  • There is a norm of false balance. Some things are presented as two sided, when they aren't controversies at all. 
  • Information is evolving. People sometimes point to new understandings to show why all information can't be trusted, rather than exploring how the new information evolved.
  • A lot more risk analysis is demanded of us than in the past.
The Role of the Librarian

The information puzzle
People have many more outlets to get information. Do they know what the "good" sources are and why they are good? How can we better explain this? This is one reason why good school libraries and librarians are so important. We need to help our young people understand sources so that when they are adults, they can better navigate channels of information. A knee-jerk reaction to information that seems to challenge our world view should be replaced with a healthy skepticism and thoughtful evaluation of sources. Information is a giant puzzle whose pieces sometimes fit neatly together. Other times, there are gaps between pieces as we wait for bridges in knowledge to connect diverse ideas that are all grounded in truth.

As information evolves, people need to learn to step into the conversation. The college librarians talked about becoming part of the conversation; the need to gain a basic understanding of the subject and its issues before jumping in and making conclusions. It is up to individuals to educate ourselves on the basics of issues. How can librarians help with this? I'm thinking of displays in my school library that introduce a topic with which students may be unfamiliar. Additionally, maybe archivists can more prominently display and explain original sources from which secondary arguments are based. Can all of us work to make sure that when people "google it" primary sources float to the top? Can we even develop partnerships with companies such as Google to make this happen? My students are amazed when I show them Their eyes seem to say, "Wow! Google even distinguishes between different types of information sources. Maybe Ms. Mannon isn't lying to me after all!" How can we make the separation between information channels more visible and understandable?

On Rehm's program, journalists discussed how responsible professionals can help people see caveats in studies. How is the latest study different from the last one? How have things changed? Librarians can help people be part of that conversation. What tools can we create to help people see the changes? "Most people don't keep delving [to gain a greater understanding of an issue.] They will take the headline...they will take the first paragraph..." How can we help them delve?

Finally, "a lot more risk analysis is demanded of us." Despite this, from my experience as a librarian, I see that we are less likely to analyze information. Everyday, we need to ask if the information that is handed to us is good information.  It is harder and harder for us to evaluate knowledge due to the abundance of information. One of the main reasons that I decided to accept a job as a high school librarian was what I was seeing happening with information and its effects on people. He who yells the loudest should not be believed simply because he is yelling. How can librarians better help people evaluate information? How can we help them believe that they even want to be better evaluators?


  1. Shouldnt the title be 'uncontested knowledge' if people are accepting the first thing that Google tells them?

  2. Good point! I was just quoting Diane Rehm's guest and thinking about people contesting experts in a variety of subjects. i.e. "Maybe Ms. Mannon isn't lying to me after all!"