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Living with Ambiguity
by Marydee Ojala, Editor

My first year at university I took an English literature course from the award-winning novelist, John Hawkes. It was one of the most invigorating and frustrating courses I've ever experienced. In hindsight, I was much too young to appreciate his literary—and life—insights. The only thing I truly took away from the course was an appreciation of the role ambiguity plays in human life. It may have been the most important idea I encountered at university.

We don't teach children ambiguity. We tell them there is good and evil, right and wrong, heroes and villains. Library cataloging and classification attempts to overcome ambiguity, yet the rules of cataloging do not succeed in taming human thought. Excursions on the reference desk prove that no one describes their information need in the same way. Even students with exactly the same assignment have different approaches to fulfilling the requirements. Cut and dried answers don't work. You have to appreciate ambiguity.

Enter online with its command language syntax. We information professionals were suddenly called upon to order information on demand. What power. What a sense of being in control. One problem: it didn't take into consideration ambiguity. It actually took me some time to recognize this. I'd tried to forget, but Professor Hawkes was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, waiting for me to remember. Ambiguity must be encountered, appreciated, and noticed. There are multiple answers to questions. In some instances, there are no correct answers to questions. In others, the answer is another question.

Enter the Web. If anything embodies ambiguity, it's the Web. It doesn't label. It doesn't set aside one area for books, one for periodicals, one for government documents, as a library does. It doesn't single out sites that are reputable and those that are not. Its search syntax is not command-driven. The searcher is not in charge; the search engine is in charge. Should we suspend disbelief and trust the search engine? Should we be open to living with ambiguity?

Not always. If someone needs a stock quote as of a certain day, that's unambiguous. If someone needs the physical properties of a chemical, that's unambiguous. Facts remain facts. Yet interpretations of facts can and do change. Yesterday's historical fact is today's historical fiction. Opinions popular decades ago are no longer politically correct. Mutability and ambiguity are close cousins.

Electronic transfer of information paradoxically results in more paper, as people print out emails, Web pages, and search results. An MLS is not required to become a recognized search engine expert. Information professionals balance security and privacy concerns with their intrinsic belief in universal information accessibility. The information that keeps us free can also harm us. Having the Web's multiplicity of information at our fingertips empowers and diminishes us. We must accommodate ambiguity, realizing that in the online world, black and white can overlap and not create gray. However, distinguishing among shades of gray is not synonymous with confusing night and day. We need to live with online ambiguity and help those around us to do the same.

Marydee OjalaMarydee Ojala ( is editor of ONLINE

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