by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
What this world needs is more bibles. No, I am not advocating we all join Gideons International [www.gideons.org] and start putting the Good Book in every hotel room. (In fact, the Gideons wouldn’t accept many of us, according to their FAQ, since we are not all men aged whatever to whatever. I stopped reading at that point.) What I mean is that this world needs more authoritative sources and it needs to know it needs them. It needs to identify the best sources, to analyze their strengths and weaknesses, to monitor their quality as that quality grows or diminishes, to support them and their improvement, and to get the word out so that everyone who needs information knows where to find the best.
Sound vaguely familiar? It should. That’s why the world built libraries. That’s why publishers seek out qualified authors and qualified authors seek out prestigious publications. That’s why news organizations hire graduates of journalism schools. That’s why experts of all types and fields of study have entrance requirements to become practitioners. That’s why librarians and information professionals have careers identifying expertise wherever they find it.
But today here we are with the “wisdom of the crowd.” Nothing new really. I recently read a blog posting — at least I think it was a blog posting — cheering the wonderful technological advantages along those lines:
In fact, throughout human history, by far the commonest source of shared information was through asking other people. Increasingly, the online world is making it easier to ask our friends for help. We can even pose a question into the ether without even knowing which friend will know the answer and respond.
Hmm. I wonder who wrote that posting (if it was a posting). Sorry I didn’t make a note of who wrote it, but, after all, who cares? We could ask the ether, the same ether that will be giving us the answers to all our other questions. I’m assuming the “ether” to which the author alluded would be the one defined by Merriam-Webster as “the upper reaches of space,” though — as an information professional — I could see the need to apply an alternate definition in this situation, namely “a light volatile flammable liquid C4H10O used chiefly as a solvent and especially formerly as an anesthetic.” In this professional’s humble opinion, you’d have to have a goodly quantity of that former anesthetic on hand to trust unathenticated answers from the void, especially when your standard for a “friend” denigrates to the level of anyone who happens to answer your question.
Back in the prehistoric days of my library school education, I remember discussions of important studies of information gathering and usage by the Defense Department. (Anyone here remember the name Casper Weinberger?) The studies showed that researchers relied first and foremost on information supplied by colleagues. But as haphazard as that process can be, at least information gathering was done within a collegial community of expertise.
Social media now absorbs a quarter of the time U.S. online users spend online (“Social Media Syphoning 25% Of U.S. Online Time [Nielsen],” SEWatch, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010). Facebook has opened Facebook Questions [http://apps.facebook.com/_yedda_], where you can ask and/or answer whatever for whomever. Who are you, oh gracious answerer? A self-defined Facebook profile. What do you know, oh voice from the ether? What that profile I wrote says I know. On the other hand, the price is great — free — and the convenience too. Not even the complexity of sticking words into a Google box and having to endure the burden of scanning and choosing alternative sites for answers.
Now I’m not against the wisdom of the crowd aka user-generated content. I couldn’t be after persuading Nick Tomaiuolo to write a wonderful series — which will shortly become a wonderful book — on how users should generate content. But Nick wrote that series targeting sites the world of users relied upon, sites which have some rules for entry and revisions built into them. And he aimed his articles at improving the process. After all, everybody’s an expert at something, and one of the beauties of good user-generated content lies in the acceptance of anything as something worth being an expert about. Some topic any respectable reference work would regard as irrelevant trivia may be just the thing one or two lone users may want to learn about.
Are the sites Nick targeted (Wikipedia, Amazon book reviews, etc.) perfect? Absolutely not. But then the pre-internet, authenticated reference tools weren’t perfect either. I recall once, decades ago, waiting patiently on hold for a Gale reference books staffer to pick up my call. Instead of the usual musical accompaniment, Gale chose to spend my time listening to promotions for its books. OK. Call me an uncooperative consumer, but I would have preferred a little jazz or something in the light classics category. What I have never forgotten, however, is how Gale concluded its little promotional moment by asking me if I had gathered any information they could turn into a reference book. Wow! Apparently the first level entry standard for reference book authorship was the ability to dial a phone and to use a reference book. There’s the wisdom of the crowd for you. But at least Gale expected its callers to come from the information professional community.
There must be a middle path, something that authenticates an answer source, something that educates users on how to critique information and execute a halfway reliable search, something that, at the very least, warns users how to distinguish questions for which they need to apply a rigorous process. In this last regard, I repeat my own Declaration of Independence standard of importance — namely, anything that affects “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
But in all the noise, all the plethora of sources, we need to still seek the authoritative. We need to train our clients to not just grab at any information that comes from a warm and fuzzy source or at least to only use warm and fuzzy to start the search process and thus to follow up with serious verification searches.
Think about it. Crowd enough people together and you’ll get everyone warm, but, unless you practice advanced mathematics, do you really want information from sources labeled “fuzzy”?