A World of Riddles
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Are we moving toward a world with a universal library service available to all, carrying all existing knowledge, accessible to all, ’round the clock, ’round the calendar? Read this month’s article on the Google Book Search Library Project and I think you’ll see the finger-painting on the wall.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But why does a cold shiver go up my spine — and I suspect the spines of my readers — when I envision that change? Well, I know one consideration shaking my vertebrae: self-interest. Let’s not kid ourselves. Over time, the completion of a perfect, comprehensive, universal online library would inevitably mean the closure of many traditional libraries. And those libraries contain and employ most of my readers, including the indirect employment of staff from the vendors that serve them.
But how can I complain? I’ve spent my professional life banging the drum and leading the cheers for exactly this kind of development. I’m an online missionary from way back. I still mourn the decade lost to the advance of online when IBM launched its first PC package without a modem attached. The printer was included, but not the modem. Shame! Shame!! How much faster the Internet could have brought us the future if only … if only …! But enough crying over spilt milk, we made it. We’re here now and we’re going to be over there soon. Maybe sooner than we’d like.
But it’s not just the dead hand of reactionary greed, the desire to hang on to the jobs we know how to do even if no one wants them done any more; it’s not just featherbedding. (That’s an old union term for “make-work” jobs, like a railroad workers union insisting each train carry a coal stoker, even after the trains went diesel.) The world still needs information professionals. In fact, they need us now more than ever with everyone a searcher these days.
Ignorance is dangerous, but the knowledge of one’s ignorance can provide a certain protection, a protection the assumption of competence can strip away. As Alexander Pope expressed it, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.” Today — and tomorrow — we information professionals must concentrate on making services that keep our clients safe, to pave new roads to knowledge and repair the potholes in the old roads. We must also find ways to make sure our clients go to drivers’ training and qualify on their drivers’ tests, lest they just hop into their digital vehicles and kill somebody. (Remember that poor lady who died for want of a PubMed back file or, more accurately, for the want of a Johns Hopkins research physician with enough search skills and information awareness to go after an older file?)
We need to build, design, or at least contribute to information products that will do the job and to build end-user searchers that know how to find the good products and use them effectively. I read a New York Times story recently about how a history department at a small college had banned citations from Wikipedia after students had submitted erroneous information, according to the article, on Jesuit missionaries supporting a revolt in 17th-century Japan at a place called Shimabara. The college management did not expect students to stop using Wikipedia, just stop citing it. Actually, when I checked the citation at Wikipedia, it didn’t look as if the article claimed the Jesuits thought they could mount a successful defense of the Christian stronghold. Even the most anti-clerical or anti-Catholic critics of the order have never contended they were stupid. On the other hand, since the Jesuits were heading for the executioner’s block along with other Japanese Christians, I hardly think they would have supported the opposition. Missionaries are notorious for the stout support they give to lost causes. As G. K. Chesterton used to say, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”
The controversy seems to raise two real points — and hats off to TheNew York Times reporter for recognizing both. The educational process should focus on teaching students to question statements, to seek clarification and confirmation, to use multiple sources. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia also describes the rebellion [http://www.catholicity.com/encyclopedia/j/japan.html] and, while providing details from a different perspective, also makes its own questionable observation: “…and on 9 December, 1596, nine religious were arrested and orders were given to draw up a list of Japanese Christians. All gladly made ready for death.” (Italics added.)
The second point concerns not just finding the truth, but revealing it. If Wikipedia contains mistakes, it also offers people the opportunity to correct those mistakes. In this world of user-generated content — and that includes most of the content on the Web — people should have a sense of responsibility to contribute to the process of truth-telling, of building knowledge tools that work. It’s good to learn how to distinguish the true from the false. It’s better to share the truth you have found with as many others as you can reach.
The platforms are in place. Let us use them to make the world and its Web a better, wiser place to live in for as many people as we can reach.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.