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Magazines > ONLINE > July/August 2012
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Vol. 36 No. 4 — Jul/Aug 2012

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Information Consumption
by Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

It should come as no surprise that there is more information available than we know what to do with. We have trouble finding it, and once we find it, we have trouble evaluating it. Information exists everywhere, in myriad formats. Some of this information is unsubstantiated and outdated. Some, as pointed out by William Badke in his InfoLit Land column, consists of rumors and conspiracy theories. Some is newly discoverable or about to become “unglued.” It’s both free and for sale. Importantly, different types of information are designed for different purposes. Some commentators on the publishing industry, social media, and even librarianship tend to forget this.

Back when I was in graduate school, we were taught about “information retrieval.” Today we’re more concerned with searching, finding, and discovering. These are not synonymous activities. Searching is probably the closest we come to information retrieval. Finding is locating the relevant data, the needle in the haystack scenario that favors precision over recall, while discovery involves not only searching and finding but also creating new information from the massive amount of Big Data now in electronic form.

In considering this deluge of information, another term is creeping into the vocabulary—consuming. Apparently we now are consumers of information. This bothers me and not only because of the retail implications of the term consumer. When I consume a meal, the food is gone when I’ve eaten it. When I read a book, article, or blog post, the information, the words, are still there when I’ve finished.

Consumption was the common name for tuberculosis in the 19th century. It was the “wasting disease,” and patients were sent to sanatoriums to wither away and die. Is that really the image we want associated with information?

Consuming today’s headlines is the antithesis of scholarly communication or market research. Patent searchers, scientists, strategic planners, historians, librarians, and other serious researchers use information to create new knowledge and to prove or disprove the validity of older knowledge. They are not information consumers. Learning from what we read, creating new data points, and enriching our world through research is hardly identical to consuming information.

If information professionals are to have clout, as Darlene Fichter advocates in her Control-Shift column, then defining reading and researching with the passive notion of consuming is counter-productive. We are not the couch potatoes of the 21st century. We will not be seen as strong advocates for libraries or the importance of information if we adopt the guise of consumer.

Similarly, if information is being created merely to be consumed, it lacks several components that would make it searchable, findable, and discoverable. Consumption implies impermanence. It downplays the importance of reusing information to enhance further exploration and the value inherent in the thought processes of the writer. The idea of consuming information, put into a retail context, suggests that value is price-based.

I hope you enjoy reading the articles in ONLINE. Please don’t tell me you’re consuming them.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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