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.

Quite right.

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 you’re also likely to come away diseased, worse than you were before. Thus, I think that “print literacy,†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 aren’t educators, such as Drum, may fail to perceive the extent of the problem and that Gorman’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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. denise says:

    There is also a lot of unintentional damage to paper books, from mold to rips; digitized versions would be much easier to use without risk of damage.

  2. 42nd SSD says:

    Unfortunately for Mr. Gorman, electronic communications _is_ going to obliterate every other–eventually. I doubt it’ll be anytime soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the majority of books are being published electronically by, say, 2050.

    Why? It’s cheaper, easier, faster, and more convenient for everyone. It’s far easier to look up a book online versus hiking down to the library, or waiting for it to be shipped from an online bookshop. And it makes vast reams of information truly available to everyone for the first time.

    The remaining barriers are the public’s acceptance of reading online, and willingness of the publishers to scrap this “DRM” nonsense in favor of something which is of genuine benefit for the consumer. The first will disappear as our current generation of kids grows up. The second will take a lot longer.

    It’s silly for me to talk about DRM, however, since I cannot possibly anticipate what electronic publishing will be like in 2050. There’s a lot of research being done into “smart paper”, for example, and that may be the way things go. That will entail some fundamental changes.

    One of the results is that libraries will become an anachronism (but the librarian’s job will be more important than ever!), and that’s possibly where his objections are based. Librarians can either accept what’s going to happen and make the best of it, or fight against it and lose anyway.

    IMO the search engines aren’t doing that bad a job, and they’re slowly getting better. Much of the trick from getting good results from Google is learning how to take advantage of its strengths, and for kids who grow up with it this’ll be a totally natural thing. I am also firmly convinced Google and its kin and are will spur ever more research into natural language processing, and we’ll see some pretty impressive results in the next 5-10 years.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love books and am a true bibliophile. But I see huge advantages in publishing our storehouse of information online, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can easily look up any old book I want and read it.

  3. Kent says:

    I find online books almost unreadable. I’d much rather have the hard copy in my hands as I kick back in my easy chair with some snacks to nosh. I believe many others feel the same way. Only if someone developed a printer that could quickly print and bind an online book, would I anticipate electronic books supplanting the printed version.

    Regarding the indexing observation, there is a big difference between Google and a library: Putting a book in a library incurs significant costs to lots of people. The author must write a book good enough to be picked up by a publisher who is credible enough that libraries search its new publications list. The library must then purchase and catalog the book.

    Online “information”, by contrast, can be generated in moments by any crackpot and put on the Web at essentially no cost. And Google will eventually pick it up.

  4. ken says:

    Of ourse, 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.

    But James, isn’t the difference that in a library the entire content has been pre-screened for academic, literary, scientific or some other worthy value. Godwin is basically saying that even a casual stroll through the contents of a library is bound to be more informative than a similiar perusal of what is found on the internet. Let’s face it, without the ability to discern credibility people who rely exclusively on the internet are going to be just as misinformed as those who rely exclusively on Fox News.

  5. David P. says:

    I’m a librarian, and Gorman’s tired essay sounds like the endless paranoid Chicken Little drivel from the librarianship establishment about the future of their jobs. Me? I like my job, but if it ever becomes obsolete, I won’t whine. I’ll follow the market someplace else.

  6. And of course, that assumes that Godwin and his ilk actually are interested in truth and expanding knowledge. Remember, it’s the universities that are the most oppressive and stifling environments right now, with their Stalinist speech codes, books and speakers banned because they show up leftist dogma, and classes not offered. Remember about 3 years ago in which the dean of the Women’s Studies at um, I can’t remember the college, said “We refuse to allow any teaching which says we do not have free speec.”

  7. ken says:

    Remember about 3 years ago in which the dean of the Women’s Studies at um, I can’t remember the college, said “We refuse to allow any teaching which says we do not have free speec.”

    No. Was this halucination before or after they released you from the asylum?