Information Isn’t Knowledge
American Library Association president-elect Michael Gorman has an interesting piece in today’s LAT entitled, “Google and God’s Mind.”
The boogie-woogie Google boys, it appears, dream of taking over the universe by gathering all the “information” in the world and creating the electronic equivalent of, in their own modest words, “the mind of God.” If you are taken in by all the fanfare and hoopla that have attended their project to digitize all the books in a number of major libraries (including the University of Michigan and New York Public), you would think they are well on their way to godliness.
I do not share that opinion. The books in great libraries are much more than the sum of their parts. They are designed to be read sequentially and cumulatively, so that the reader gains knowledge in the reading.
The nub of the matter lies in the distinction between information (data, facts, images, quotes and brief texts that can be used out of context) and recorded knowledge (the cumulative exposition found in scholarly and literary texts and in popular nonfiction). When it comes to information, a snippet from Page 142 might be useful. When it comes to recorded knowledge, a snippet from Page 142 must be understood in the light of pages 1 through 141 or the text was not worth writing and publishing in the first place.
I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge. I also favor digitizing such library holdings as unique manuscript collections, or photographs, when seeing the object itself is the point (this is reportedly the deal the New York Public Library has made with Google). I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.
While Gorman’s distinction is correct, he’s wrong in dismissing the project out of hand. Information isn’t knowledge–but it’s the beginning of knowledge. While reading the entirety of a book has its own rewards, it’s often a very inefficient use of time, even for a scholar. Once one has read enough about a subject to have a basic familiarity, additional books provide diminishing returns for one’s investment. It would be useful, though, to have access to bits of information, interesting anecdotes, bibliographic information, and so forth from the dozens of other books out there if one were trying to write a scholarly work. In such a way, one can transform information into knowledge.
Gorman’s objections come from the way Google is presently organized. He’s right that search engines don’t do a very good job of putting information into context or cluing in a non-expert reader as to which sources are the most credible. Of course, neither do libraries. Other than the fact that someone made a decision to procure a particular book and not others, there is no way for a non-expert to distinguish among the books on a library’s shelf. And, as someone who has made purchase recommendation on hundreds of books for university libraries, I can attest that the initial choices are often random, depending on which catalogs one has in one’s possession and a rudimentary assessment based on the publisher’s reputation, the book’s title, and one’s own interests.
Update (0901): Jim Pinkerton has a related piece at TCS, focusing on another great benefit of Google’s initiative.
So, thanks to the free market — with, to be fair, a key assist from the Pentagon — humanity is now on its way to preventing, ever again, a repeat of one of the great disasters of human history, the burning of the Alexandria library, back in what should rightfully be called the Dark Ages. Today, thanks to technology and generosity, it’s possible to imagine that all the knowledge piled up by people will be so widely distributed that no book-burners or freedom-stiflers will ever be able to destroy our common legacy of learning.
Update (1519): Kevin Drum agrees, adding:
Will we all read entire books online? Or print them out? Probably not. But when I use a brick-and-mortar library I don’t do that either. I browse. I peek into books. I take notes from chapters here and there. A digitized library allows me to do the same thing, but with vastly greater scope and vastly greater focus.
Jonathan Godwin, a Fellow in the English Department at Georgia Tech, disagrees, arguing,
Without the ability to distinguish good information from bad, the internet is an open sewer. You might find something rare or novel floating in it, but youÃ¢€™re also likely to come away diseased, worse than you were before. Thus, I think that Ã¢€œprint literacy,Ã¢€ in the sense of knowing how books and libraries work, is a necessary precondition for being able to use the internet effectively, and many college students do not have it. I think perhaps that older and well-read people who arenÃ¢€™t educators, such as Drum, may fail to perceive the extent of the problem and that GormanÃ¢€™s argument has to be understood in that context.
Of course, untrained people randomly walking around the library have the same probem. It’s hard to see how greater access to information is a bad thing.