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Magazines > ONLINE > March/April 2010
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Vol. 34 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2010

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Redefining Information
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

In this issue, Bill Badke wonders how the formats traditionally used to discriminate among types of library materials—monographs, reference books, periodicals, newspapers, government documents—are now referred to as “content.” He thinks the term is amorphous and comments that “the world we used to know is not the world of today’s information user.” Mary Ellen Bates questions the value of the M.L.S. degree. She favors a market-driven approach that requires students attaining a master’s degree to learn and apply the information skills required by employers.

Both, to me, raise the issue of how we define information. In the digital age, information has escaped from the library. It’s not on the shelves, neatly labeled by format. It’s not contained by any specific device. It’s on mobiles, embedded in social networks, and integral to websites. It’s in the air we breathe. Search is the oxygen of today’s information user.

The eHealth conference that Crystal Sharp reports on presents a good example of the ubiquity of information and its reshaping outside the traditional library. This was not a library conference, and the attendees weren’t information professionals. Yet improving healthcare hinges on information—not simply finding information but manipulating it in new ways using groundbreaking technologies, visualization techniques, and research initiatives. It’s an area with enormous opportunities for information professionals and search experts. But will information professionals grasp these opportunities? Are they properly trained to move from evaluating traditional library content to understanding such ambitious new roles?

A redefinition of information involves embracing visual search, popular culture, user-generated content, and real-time search, along with traditional publishing. It requires opening up to new ideas and relinquishing an attitude of control. Boolean logic gives us the illusion that we control search. Web search removes some of that control, and semantic search will take even more control away from searchers.

Other things to think about when redefining information: When information comes in the form of rich media, do listening and watching supersede reading? When do words on a page, even an electronic page, have less impact than videos or photographs? And how will librarians, information professionals, and graduate schools of library science cope with this?

Scholarly research is not going away. Searchability and quality evaluation remain an important component of information work. However, the construct we call information is not limited to scholarly research. It’s not exclusively business, market, scientific, or social sciences research, either. Information provided must align with the needs and wants of the requestor. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but it’s one that takes on added meaning as the definition of information expands. Increasingly, those requestors are format-agnostic. Not only don’t they recognize differences between, say, peer-reviewed journals and the popular press, they don’t care. As information is redefined, new roles for information professionals abound. We add value by teaching users what information is trustworthy, how to create new information from existing data, and where to obtain quality information. If we redefine ourselves in the process, so much the better.

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

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