Is Information Literacy Possible? Part I

“The universe (which others call the Library)…….” Borges

Who in the world was the “Underground Grammarian?” Who is S. Berliner III? What about “Radio Free Mike?” Dan Traister? The Dead City Library? Paul Bourke? David Chesler? Leif Parsons? The Underground Grammarian was Richard Mitchell, a professor, author, bibliophile and wit. Dan Traister is a scholar and rare books librarian – also a wit. David Chesler is (or was) a software engineer who lived in Coop City, in the Bronx. The others you can find on your own. Although it’s easy enough to find them on the web – well, fairly easy – they share, except for Mitchell, one important characteristic: they and their information-rich web sites are not likely to be found on the “invisible web.” Theirs are personal sites created by enthusiasts who know things, or think they do – people who like knowing them and sharing them, unlike organizations. I found their sites chiefly by browsing, word-of-mouth, or by linking to the “other links” pages of sites I visited and like.

Many believe that those who can’t use the invisible web – that small group of specialized, membership- and fee-based databases and web sites – are at a great disadvantage in terms of the learning and scholarship they can achieve. These unfortunates are said to be “deprived” of a great resource. They’re taught to believe that the “visible” web – the free World Wide Web we all know – limits investigation and represents only the tip of the iceberg of wisdom. Nearly the opposite is true. The carefully controlled databases and research protocols that dominate the invisible web and reach out to students, scholars and professionals do offer scientific solutions to specialized ignorance, and the information they offer is frequently presented as neatly packaged answers. But they have little truck with the arcane knowledge, the proud displays, experiments, claims, creations and discoveries of the obsessed and the fanatic, the auto-didact, the prophets, wizards, self-absorbed oddballs, and subterranean hobbyists possessed by their one- or three-track minds – the peerless folks who comprise most of the conscious seekers on the planet.

In academic libraries, nearly all librarians like to teach students and professors how to use the databases their library subscribes to. My library spends nearly a million dollars a year for the privilege of accessing them. Nearly all these databases have been created by academies – educational, governmental, professional, publishing, or some combination of these. The institutional sponsors of a database vouch for the peers who provide the “peer-reviewed” encomium that makes information on these databases acceptable to most serious students and researchers. Editors and information technologists gather, digitize, index and publish millions of articles and reports from thousands of journals by experts in a given field – chemistry, psychology, music. Sometimes they make up new fields, like cultural studies, or bionanotechnology. They know the terminology, the research protocols, the controversies, the latest developments and the names of the best and the brightest. But as good as they are these experts are still lucky, privileged, professional, proudly published universalists in a world of nominalists. In a world that’s often looking for a particular something it can’t quite describe – or maybe something else – universalists are frequently of little help. They find and name what we all suspect is there. But how do we know that’s all? Discovery, exploration, accident, and mistakes uncover the unexpected, and are also leading generators of information. And nearly all databases created by committees point toward familiar, cited, hierarchic and respectably formatted information.

Such databases do not point to quirky information found on web pages and blogs maintained by individuals, enthusiasts and small unaffiliated special interest groups. They almost never include marginal newspapers and magazines, e-zines, local government or police reports, or service websites; nor private, political, religious and community organizations or foreign language sites; nor off-market digitized collections of maps, records, certificates, obituaries, archives or newsletters; nor posters, album covers, post cards or photographs, obscure and experimental works of literature, music and art or cyberculture; nor videos, podcasts, movie transfers, radio broadcasts, recipes, old recordings, web-based applications (such as calculators, games, webcams, Google apps, live air traffic maps); commercial sites (often loaded with valuable information); not Flickr, iTunes, YouTube, Wikipedia and other wikis; not the scholarship and thought of auto-didacts, not sexually graphic websites, nor websites that have simply no titles or metatags embedded that can be brought to light by search engines or conventional inquiries. And those are only some of the kinds of information packages that “scholarly databases” don’t crawl. Students and non-specialists alike are often belittled for finding information any way they can on the web – “the easy way.” But it is B.I. that teaches the easy way. Shouldn’t educators and librarians be showing them how to find, choose and use these free sources, which constitute the vast majority of the web they’ll be using anyway, especially once their free, institutionally-registered database subscriptions runs out? Is it even possible to teach people how to use the non-peer-reviewed web?

I maintain that bibliographic instruction bears almost no relation to information literacy. They are separate planets. You don’t teach “information literacy” any more than you teach “linguistic literacy.” Sure, it’s possible; but what you teach is literacy in a particular language. Similarly, you can teach literacy in a particular type of information. Are there types of information other than false and correct? I think there is. Everything about the way something is expressed, perceived or made known is informational. You look for information, you recognize it, in its presentation, as much as by its content. Why else do you think everyone makes fun of PowerPoint? Because it can make anything look like information. If it’s the concept of “information” you’re teaching, you must make it clear that it speaks in many “languages.” Both B.I. and information literacy are favorite terms of academic librarians everywhere. Both terms were invented to reinforce the myth that science actually deserves to be in library science. Though few librarians have ever bought into the concept, teaching pseudo-scientific approaches to information-seeking is now seen as a professional responsibility of librarians, with effective, proven pedagogies and outcomes. In a sense, it is the geek version of the old Reader’s Advisory.

Much of B.I. instruction may be short-changing high school and college sudents everywhere, as well as selling the practise of librarianship short. For if anyone knows that information can be found in places far removed from peer-reviewed articles, reports, statistics and studies, most of which are closely bound to databases created by profit-seeking businessmen who charge people dearly to use it, it’s librarians. Librarians know that information has a thousand shifting shapes, and is represented by irrational, sometimes invisible, unindexable, often nonverbal processes and patterns as much as by searchable ones. Real information is found everywhere and bears only a passing relation to truth. Indeed, it’s much more interesting than truth. Teachers who accept and explore only peer-reviewed information are in effect telling their charges to look for a version of a recognizable truth that has passed muster – canonical truth, perhaps, but not the whole truth. But an education isn’t worth very much if you learn nothing but the truth. Sure, there may be lots truth in the databases librarians promote. There’s a lot to go around, and academics will fiercely cling to their share. But to live, truth needs room. It doesn’t speak from a source code alone; it also speaks through a medium.

There is nothing wrong with using peer-reviewed sources of information. They are usually solid, authoritative, responsibly formatted, and morally unobjectionable. You can check their provenance, and find their proper bona fides in the “about us” links. Databases offered by First Search, Lexis-Nexis, Wilson, and Gale are often accompanied by complicated, ingenious search engines loaded with features and options that take time to learn and use. They can demand such a detailed inquiry that an undergraduate may become disgusted by his ignorance. He often flees to the free web, where his teacher says he shouldn’t expect authoritative information. But does he know what to do there, besides Google? In a way, the professor is right. Authority is what most databases specialize in providing. They are often the only place to find reviews, criticism (that dreaded, overhyped, overestimated thought process), discussion, and analysis of issues that other authorities have agreed to take seriously. Professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, require students to rely on peer-reviewed authority because most of it is assertive by nature, not evidentiary. And whose assertions can we trust, after all? Professors know how hard it is to navigate among responsible and irresponsible assertions and opinions, to find the truth buried in the rhetoric. These databases try to put you (or your friendly librarian) in the driver’s seat, presumably to save the enormous amount of time it takes to find your way on a sprawling roadmap of possible destinations.They try to establish and exemplify norms of evaluating information. Turn left here, and right there. But we are passenger-seated drivers on the information highway. Signs convince us we have arrived where we intended to go. Meanwhile, the hitchhikers get to explore all the little-known local attractions, eat the home-cooked meals and write the best guidebooks.By way of contrast, most science databases depend on the scientific inquiry process itself – “evidence-based, testable observation” – to act as the natural filter for distilling authority from information. Scientists are so certain of their authority they sometimes offer it for free – or for huge grant-eating fees paid by anonymous industrial donors. But though the observable, testable world is considered the “peer” that validates the observations, all observations aren’t explained by science. One must still have a kind of faith to believe anything is true. For many, only the use of the entire Web can affirm that Faith. -PW

Kristen Nyitray

Kristen Nyitray

Associate Librarian; Director, Special Collections and University Archives; and University Archivist at Stony Brook University Libraries
Contact her for research assistance with rare books, manuscript collections, historical maps, and SBU history. E-mail:
Kristen Nyitray
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