Archive for the ‘information’ Category

Graffiti of the work propaganda written in Greek

Konstantinos Koukopoulos on FLickr, CC BY

I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.

As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.


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In a recent tweet, Professor David Lankes asked a seemingly easy question:


And he got quite a few responses:


There are quite a few more responses, but you get the drift: librarians don’t have a common definition of information in practice. Which is weird, given the primacy of information in librarianship. But, it’s entirely understandable. ‘Information’ is a tricky word and the responses to Lankes’s tweet further underscore that librarians mean all sorts of mutually exclusive (sometimes even contradictory) things about information. But, I don’t think it has to be that way and I’d like to recommend Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780199551378) as essential reading for librarians interested in the concept of information (for a much abbreviated version, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Semantic Conceptions of Information“).

The semantic conception of information

Luciano Floridi is sort of the architect of the philosophy of information and his Information: A Very Short Introduction is a great starting point for librarians interested in an account of information that coheres with the information types and processes we deal in. This rather slim, pocket-sized book is accessible to information novices, though the implications of Floridi’s semantic approach to information are relevant to library professionals at any level. Building off of an entry in the SEPInformation provides a “map of the main senses in which one may speak of information” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 discusses the nature of our current “information revolution”, defined as a “process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe” sparked by information and communication technologies (p. 12). And though Floridi isn’t naively idealistic like the more popular information technology pundits (e.g., Kurzweil, Shirky, Vinge, etc.), the chapter is still a bit of a diversion from the meat of the book: mapping the meaning of information. Chapter 2 is where you’ll find the conceptual heart of the text, and though it addresses several core concepts in information theory, I’ll just cut to the chase: here’s the general definition of information (GDI), presented on page 21:

σ is an instance of information, understood as semantic content, if and only if:

(GDI.1) σ consists of n data, for n ≥ 1;
(GDI.2) the data are well-formed;
(GDI.3) the well-formed data are meaningful.

Put another way,

Information is well-formed, meaningful data.

That information is a species of data is generally uncontroversial, though it’s helpful to adopt a coherent definition of data and Floridi provides a diaphoric definition of data: a datum is a difference or lack of conformity within some context (p. 23). You’ll probably note that this is a variation on Mackay’s (1969) “distinction that makes a difference” or Bateson’s (1972) “difference which makes a difference.” Really, though, it’s the ideas of well-formedness and meaningfulness that set GDI apart from the more technical conceptions common in electrical engineering. Floridi explains that to say that data is well-formed is just to say that “the data are rightly put together, according to the rules (syntax) that govern the chosen system, code or language being used” (pp. 20-21). And meaningfulness entails that “the data must comply with the meanings (semantics) of the chosen system, code or language in question” (p. 21), keeping in mind that semantic information is not necessarily linguistic (e.g., images can be meaningful). In fact, Floridi points out that GDI entails that “the actual formatmedium and language in which data, and hence information, are encoded is often irrelevant and disregardable” (p. 25). This result should be of particular interest to librarians, especially given the increasingly complicated and competitive world of information resources in our purview.

The remainder of Chapter 2 analyzes several key concepts and distinctions including analogue and digital data, binary data, and the various types of data and information that fit GDI. The latter discussion should be especially enlightening for librarians. You see, data come in a few varieties: primary data, secondary data, metadata, operational data, and derivative data. Primary data are “the principle data stored in a database” or document (p. 30). Secondary data are “the converse of primary data, constituted by their absence” (p. 30). Metadata are “indications about some other (usually primary) data” (p. 31). Operational data are “data regarding the operations of the whole data system” (p. 31). And derivative data are “data that can be extracted from some other data” through inference, deduction, or similar means (p. 31). It follows that we can describe semantic information in much the same way: primary information, secondary information, and so on. I highly recommend that we librarians pay close attention to these distinctions and, in particular, the distinction between primary data and secondary (and derivative) data can help make sense of the crucial distinction between something being information and something being informative. For example, in a series of blog comments on 3D printing (Hugh Rundle vs. David Lankes), the question was raised as to whether the plastic doodads created on a Makerbot are information and, if so, whether 3D printing is relevant to libraries. It should be clear that the 3D printed objects are not themselves primary information, though they do transmit secondary or derivative information. Whether libraries should be tasked with stewardship of all forms of information, or whether they should limit their domain to, say, primary data and metadata, is an open question and a clear professional dividing line.

“deciphering kryptos” by Luciano Bello on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The rest of the book

Whew! That’s a lot of theory. But the book keeps on trucking. Chapter 3 discusses non-semantic conceptions of information by way of discussing Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (which, by the way, is probably the most important paper in the history of information theory and shame on you if you haven’t read it!). Chapter 4 discusses various constraints and affordances of semantic information. Floridi raises the important question of whether semantic information is necessarily true, discusses degrees of informativeness, Hintikka’s (1973) “scandal of deduction”, and the Bar-Hillel-Carnap Paradox (1953). Whether information is necessarily true is a particularly interesting concern for librarians interested in information literacy, where evaluation plays a prominent role. Likewise, defining semantic information as well-formed, meaningful, and true data can help to make sense of misinformation and disinformation. Chapters 5-7 address physical, biological, and economic information as notable subsets of semantic information. Chapter 8 concludes the text with an overview of the ethics of information and, in a short epilogue, Floridi seems to advocate for treating information ethics as a form of “holistic environmentalism” (p. 119).

Though ostensibly a book about information in general, Information is really an argument for the relevance of the concept of semantic information. Floridi’s overarching division between semantic and non-semantic (i.e., Shannon) information is best laid out by analogy:

[T]he difference between information in Shannon’s sense and semantic information is comparable to the difference between a Newtonian description of the physical laws describing the dynamics of a tennis game and the description of the same game as a Wimbledon final by a commentator.  (p. 48)

Hey Newton, explain THIS!

Picking the “right” information

So, there are a lot of competing definitions of ‘information’ out there. Yet, as Losee (1997) explains, “most definitions of information refer only to the subset of information as studied in that particular discipline” (p. 254). So, what a librarian means by information and what an electrical engineer means by information are usually very different things. And both are quite different from the necessarily imprecise colloquial use of information. But, there’s nothing wrong with polysemy. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with imprecision in ordinary language: we have meaningful conversations about information all of the time and we don’t act like nit-picky trolls or pedantic jerks about it. Pieter Adriaans (2012) offers a helpful analogy:

The situation that seems to emerge [with the concept of information] is not unlike the concept of energy: there are various formal sub-theories about energy (kinetic, potential, electrical, chemical, nuclear) with well-defined transformations between them. Apart from that, the term ‘energy’ is used loosely in colloquial speech.

Anyway, what we need is a conception of information that addresses the types of information and information processes most relevant to the practice of librarianship. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of “what is librarianship”, so let’s just consider the normal information types to be documents  in the functional sense (à la Paul Otlet or Suzanne Briet)  and normal information processes to involve things like archiving, organizing, accessing, and preserving said documents, keeping in mind that documents are not necessarily physical and not necessarily linguistic. Broadly, a document is “any material basis for extending our knowledge” (Schurmeyer, 1935, quoted in Buckland, 1997). For more on functional documentation, see Michael Buckland’s 1997 “What is a ‘document’?”

Picking the “right” information for library science means picking a conception of information that comports with documents and related processes. This entails that we need a conception that is concerned with meaningfulness and with knowledge (cf. Schurmeyer). Non-semantic approaches like Shannon’s are useful for engineers and computer scientists, but they are inapplicable for library science insofar as they are concerned with signal transfer and computability, rather than meaningfulness. Basically, if things like documents, learning, knowledge, or meaningfulness are relevant to libraries and librarians, we need a conception of information that addresses meaning…and that’s the semantic conception. Thus, as an outline of semantic information, Floridi’s book is an essential reading in the philosophy of LIS and I urge you to pick up a copy. [And just as a reminder, you can read an abbreviated version of Floridi’s book in the SEP: Semantic Conceptions of Information]

bu quinn.anya on FlickrCC BY NC-SA

bu quinn.anya on Flickr

Stuff I cited

Adriaans, Pieter. “Information.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012).  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information/

Bar-Hillel, Yehoshua and Rudolf Carnap. “Semantic Information.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4 (1953): 147-157. [Link to JSTOR]

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Buckland, Michael. “What is a ‘Document’?” The Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48 (1997): 804-809. [Link to preprint]

Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hintikka, Jaako. Logic, Language Games and Information. Kantian Themes in the Philosophy of Logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Losee, Robert M. “A Discipline Independent Definition of Information.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (1997): 254-69. [Link to HTML on author’s website]

MacKay, Donald M. Information, Mechanism and Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

Shannon, Claude. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-656. [Link to PDF]

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By secchio. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but I’ve been playing some blog tag with the Academic Librarian. Well, it turns out I’m “it” again, so I guess I need to say something about information literacy. Specifically, I want to address this recent post claiming that librarians do not play a significant, direct role in information literacy.

A drop in the bucket
The gist of the Academic Librarian’s last post is that information literacy, like a liberal education in general, is built over an extended period. Information literate students don’t get that way from a few hours with a librarian; they become information literate as the result of the “cumulative effect of the efforts of many people directly and indirectly influencing the lives of students, and the students themselves working and practicing those skills.” In a nutshell, when it comes to information literacy, the role that librarians play is extremely limited and “it seems pretentious to think that librarians’ direct effect on information literacy teaching is going to be significant.”

I suppose I have to agree with his assessment: when considered in the long term, it is pretentious to think that a librarian is going to have a primary role in making students information literate. If we take a holistic view of information literacy, we’re looking at a skill set that takes years (a lifetime?) to develop, not a couple of hours in the library. As an analogy to education in general, Bivens-Tatum points out that it is unlikely that “a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.” At best, educators can provide a foundation to build upon, but the real learning goes on outside the classroom. I agree with this. But, what are we to make of it?

A bucketful of drops
I’m trying to figure out what is being implied by this “grand scheme of things” observation. Am I to believe that librarians (or just a few of us) are spending too much time and energy on something that only amounts to a drop in the bucket of a student’s education? By the same logic, why should we pursue a liberal education in the first place? The day you studied Plato’s allegory of the cave in freshman philosophy, the day you learned about the equal angle theorem in geometry, the time you talked about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in history class…each just a drop in the bucket compared to a your entire education.

By Pranav Singh. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

A bucket of fish
And yet, comparing a single class to a lifetime of learning is a red herring. In the context of information literacy, it’s misleading to say that librarians don’t play much of a role when compared to a skill that takes years to master. For one thing, it directs attention away from the importance of the foundations. Bivens-Tatum agrees that “done right and timed well, even minimal amounts of research instruction can give students a good foundation to build upon”, yet he doesn’t think it is very important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t understand. What is a good foundation, if not something important? Sure, the multiplication tables I learned one week in 1988 are a drop in the bucket compared to my entire education, but I couldn’t have made it very far without them. Foundations are like that, it’s easy to minimize their importance in retrospect, but without them there wouldn’t be any retrospect. Perhaps the problem is that whereas Bivens-Tatum views information literacy programs as drops in the bucket, I view them as links in the chain. Sure, that one link may be long past, but without it, the chain couldn’t hold any weight.

By …-wink-… CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Moreover, this minimizing of librarians’ roles in information literacy ignores that many librarians can and do play rather large roles. Just as an example, the librarians here at UTC helped write the curriculum for freshman English, and we made sure that the standard, two semester course (reaching 78% of our freshmen) met the ACRL information literacy standards. This bears repeating: the librarians helped write the curriculum. Students have library homework, writing assignments are tied to ACRL standards, paper topics are vetted by librarians, research consultations are a fact of life…the list goes on. Students simply cannot pass either semester of freshman composition without meeting a certain minimal threshold of information literacy in accordance with ACRL standards 1 through 4 (we’re working on 5). And that’s just freshman English! I could write pages about all the work we do here at UTC, but my point is simple: rather than take a passive, supportive role in student education, we have successfully cultivated a culture of information literacy across the curriculum.

In sum, librarians can play a larger role in information literacy than the Academic Librarian gives credit. We lay the foundations without which there would be nothing to build, and we can and should take an active role in the curriculum. We have to start thinking of ourselves as links in a chain, rather than drops in the bucket. I thought this was obvious, but it isn’t. And perhaps this is just the naïveté of a new librarian only 18 months on the job, but I can’t help thinking that librarians can and should play a significant role in shaping the curriculum and seeing students through from orientation to commencement, no matter the difficulty involved. We do it here at UTC; with 10,000 FTE and only eight librarians here in the reference and instruction, we still manage to leave a mark on almost every student. Sure, there will always be students who don’t need us. Some students are self-sufficient learners. I know I was…I rarely even entered the library until grad school, I just bought all of my books and used the journal collection in the philosophy department. Others just don’t give a shit in the first place and will graduate degreed, but incurious and uninterested. But, that’s how education goes. The thousands of students who do spend time with librarians, or with the fruits of our labor, more than make up for the outliers.

Back to the beginning
This entire conversation originally started when I outlined a project that will hopefully show that a realist conception of truth is the only way to meet Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. Believe it or not, I’m still working on the project (hence my recent reading list posts). But, as to this question of worth, I suppose the Academic Librarian and I will have to agree to disagree. I think information literacy plays a large role in librarianship and he thinks that it plays a minor role. I haven’t found his arguments convincing, but neither has he been convinced by mine, so it’s best to move on. Give me until after this week’s Tennessee Library Association conference and I promise I’ll get something interesting up.

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All of what is said here is, of course, subject to the judgment of the professional and scholarly community. Confirmation, correction, and dispute will be necessary for any progress to occur.  (p. 72)

I like this line. In one parting remark at the end of his most recent article, John Budd has shifted his burden onto other shoulders. And it’s a good thing, too, because there is a heck of a lot to think about in his brand, spanking-new “Meaning, Truth, and Information: Prolegomena to a Theory

Setting it up
I’m very interested in the roles of information, truth, and meaning in librarianship in general and information literacy in particular. Two of the goals I’m currently picking away at are (1) establishing the lack of a consensus among librarians about what ‘information’ is and (2) advocating a particular theory of information for librarianship. So, I was a little surprised to see John Budd’s contribution to the most recent Journal of Documentation, wherein he attempts to do the exact same thing! Damn it! There goes my paper. Yet, though Budd does a great job explaining the lack of a consensus, I can’t help but notice some substantive problems with his assessment of the meaning of ‘information”. Let’s take a look.

Librarians don’t know what information is
The thesis of Budd’s paper is that information “cannot be defined unless within the context of meaning and truth” (p. 56). Awesome. I couldn’t agree more. Later, he adds that “[a] reader from within or without IS would reasonably respond to the initial challenge of examining truth’s relation to information by stating that definitions of both are required before anyone can proceed” (p. 58). So, Budd begins with defining “information”. His analysis covers all the usual suspects (Buckland, Rowley, Hjorland, Losee, etc.) and ends with the observation that in the whole of information science, there is not yet a definition that “establishe[s] parameters that enable inquiring and praxis” (p. 60). Here’s a brief rundown of theories considered:

  • Buckland (1991) and the “information as thing” approach.
  • Kaye (1995): Information “is a central and defining characteristic of all life forms, manifested in genetic transfer, in stimulus response mechanisms, in the communication of signals and messages and, in the case of humans, in the intelligent acquisition of understanding and wisdom” (p.37)
  • Brookes (1974): information as that which modifies a knowledge structure
  • Eaton & Bawden (1991): “information is a dynamic force for change in the systems within which it operates” (p.59)
  • Rowley (1998): Information is a relational property.
  • Losee (1997): “information may be understood as the value attached or instantiated to a characteristic or variable returned by a function or produced by a process” (p. 267)
  • Bates (2006): “information as an agglomeration of matter and energy…that it can be encoded or embodied” (p. 60)
  • Bawden (2007): “information as embodied, as a self-organizing complex physically present entity” (p. 60)

Again, Budd examines each of these theories and finds them wanting. They simply do not provide us with a decision procedure for determining whether something is or is not an instance of information. He argues that this is sorely needed in information science and promises to suggest a workable definition. Following the thesis of the paper, it’s time for Budd to take a look at truth. But first, some housecleaning

Reference, Meaning, Truth
So, Budd dispenses with the available candidates for definitions of “information” (well, he leaves a few important ones out…more on that later). He is primed to launch into a discussion of truth, but first he has to take a detour through the concepts of reference and meaning…making a few surprising errors along the way.

Budd begins discussing the concept of reference by appealing to Donald Davidson and I’m not too sure about what’s going on here. Not only did Davidson explicitly hold a negative view of reference (cf. “Reality and Reference”, Dialectica, 31: 247-253. 1977) but Budd misquotes Davidson1 and later erroneously credits Davidson with introducing the concept of reference.2 So, what is Budd doing with reference anyway? I can’t tell for sure, but he discusses reference first in terms of aboutness and then in terms of discursive practice…though in both cases he seems to be talking about sense instead of reference. Whatever the case, Budd claims that information seekers have “quite an intellectual and cognitive burden to reach the point where reference is comprehensible” (p. 61) and he drops the subject, turning to an analysis of meaning.

Budd begins his discussion of meaning with the assertion that “reference is an essential element of meaning, but it is not the only one” (p. 61). That’s more like it! On to the discussion of sense! But…Budd never gets around to the sense/reference distinction, and I’m not sure what his angle is. His discussion of meaning touches on indexicality, the analytic/synthetic distinction, speech-acts, semantic prescriptivism, intentionality,3 and rhetoric. I like that he cites Predelli’s work on the context-dependence of semantic utterances as a good direction for information science, insofar as he argues that we need to understand in what ways “contexts are manifest in formal communication” (p. 62). However, the nagging question remains…what does he mean by ‘meaning’? Various technical issues in the philosophy of language are discussed, but meaning itself isn’t really covered at all. I can only guess that his definition of meaning is “that which is understood” which is far from technical.He ends the section by directing readers to Steven Pinker’s 2007 The Stuff of Thought which is a really great and important book on the psychology of language, but not exactly the best starting place for the philosophy of language. Anyway, he then sets up his discussion of truth…

But, is it a fair treatment of truth in the first place? I’m worried that it isn’t. Budd introduces Tarski’s Semantic Theory of truth but quickly dismisses it as “far too limiting for useful application to formal communication of the sort IS is concerned with” (p. 64). He goes on to address the canonical correspondence, coherentist, and pragmatic theories of truth, and finds them all lacking as well (though for rather strange and unconvincing reasons). Ultimately, Budd proposes that we “liberate ourselves from the notion that truth is limited to the meaning of words used in sentences” (p. 65).Yet, just a few pages later he reverses and claims that his definition requires that “any utterance or argument, to be evaluated for its potential truth, must first be meaningful” (p. 68). Granted, he could be saying that the concept of truth applies to both propositional and non-propositional content, but it’s unclear.

Back to information
So, what does Budd propose for a definition of information? Here it goes…

Definition: Information is meaningful communicative action that aims at truth claims and conditions.
Statement of Theory: Information is comprised of those communicative actions (and only those communicative actions) that can be evaluated by a population – defined as the intended or potential hearers of the communication – as meaningful. Meaning is not limited to pure semantics, but includes context and history within evaluation. Further, information is true in that there is warrant for the communicative action, that this action includes no deliberate deception or omission, has inherent evaluative components, provides evidentiary justification, and is fundamental to ethics. (p. 70)

So, there are three necessary and sufficient conditions: meaningful, communicative, truth-directed. Is this a plausible theory? Only if we are willing to accept the following:

  • Budd’s theory eliminates environmental information. Consider the dendrochronologist counting tree-rings in the middle of the forest. She determines that a particular oak is 147 years old and writes it down in her log-book. It would seem that she has gathered some information about the tree, though in the absence of a communicative exchange, Budd’s theory would say she has not.
  • Budd’s theory eliminates instructional information. For example, a recipe for a cake may include the instruction, “Slowly mix in the flour until the dough forms a ball.” Obviously, you can’t call this instuction “true”, so it fails Budd’s test for information. Indeed, the whole recipe fails the test because it is not aimed at truth claims.

There are other potential counterexamples, but I’ll just list the two. My larger concern is that I just don’t think Budd has established workable accounts of truth or meaning. He claims that meaning includes semantic content, historical context and a “phenomenological element” of intentionality, though he offers little explanation. In light of his discussion of communication, it almost seems as if he is confusing theories of meaning with the related, yet distinct, speech act theories. His discussion of truth is similarly vexing: truth is independent of semantic content and it is neither “naively objectivist” nor “entirely subjective” (p. 71). So what is it? Budd does not tell us, though he offers several competing theories we can reject. Perhaps that’s the takeaway. Budd’s analysis of information takes cues from so many disparate (and sometimes contradictory) areas in philosophy, linguistics, and psychology, that the end result winds up seeming rather confused. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume its just me that’s confused.

The takeaway
I’ll refer to Budd’s theory as the Communicative Theory of Information; I’m sure it will be fleshed out in more detail in the future, but for now we should treat it as just a sketch. But, is it a sketch that can inform library practice? Budd offers the example of information retrieval:

An individual asserts a query…which includes a finite set of elements. Most of the elements are unknown by the individual, but reside within some frames of known and potentially knowable bits. If the individual is seeking information as it is defined here, a search can be constructed that can…result in a set of items that are meaningful and true. That is, the items can be evaluated for meaning and truth. The individual, following the theoretical principles as stated above, has criteria to use in evaluating meaning and truth. Each item retrieved can be evaluated in such a way. That said, the individual is not likely to intuit the assessment mechanisms. In other words, the definition I suggest is usable only inasmuch as it is used by information seekers. (p. 71)

I don’t know what to make of this example, and, damn it, I’m tired of not knowing what is going on in this paper. I can at least make out that the example shows how the Communicative Theory of Information takes information out of the world of data and reduces it to particular discursive practices. But, hold up. Do we really want this? It’s good news for information seekers, but bad news for information systems. Yes, bad news for librarians. Though Budd’s theory may provide insight into search behavior and the social life of information, it is of no help for understanding the systems that collect, analyze, and organize information. Limiting information to Budd’s interpretation of communicative practices makes information too relational and subjective to effectively work with. In sum, we need a different definition of information in library science. I mentioned earlier that Budd left some important definitions of information out of his survey, and I’d like to advocate for one in particular: the Semantic Conception of Information. I’ll get a defense of the Semantic Conception up as soon as possible. Until then, I recommend you take a look at “Meaning, Truth, and Information: Prolegomena to a Theory” and see what you think.

(1) Budd writes:

A truthful sentence is also a meaningful sentence. Davidson (1984), in his early writings, criticized this kind of connection: “any meaning of a sentence is what it refers to, all sentences alike in truth value must be synonymous – an intolerable result” (Davidson, 1984, p. 19).

Davidson originally wrote: 

Hence, any two sentences have the same reference if they have the same truth value. And if the meaning of a sentence is what it refers to, all sentences alike in truth value must be synonymous – an intolerable result. (my emphasis)

This is an important distinction. Davidson was criticizing a naive Referential Theory of Meaning. He was not criticizing the connection between truth and meaning, as Budd implies. In point of fact, Davidson’s entire contribution to the philosophy of language was based in his truth-condition of meaning; that to know the meaning of a sentence is to know the circumstances under which that sentence would be true.

(2) It was Frege (1879, and 1892)

(3) Though he seems to be confusing intentionality (the ‘aboutness’ of mental states) with the ordinary language sense of intention (a deliberate determination to act a certain way, and in this case to communicate)

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I was re-reading Michael K. Buckland’s “Information as Thing” and I realized that this should be added to my essential reading list. So, if you are interested in the philosophy of information, please check this article out.

Buckland, Michael K. “Information as Thing.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (1991): 351-360.

Buckland identifies three distinct approaches to the definition of information: as process, as knowledge, and as thing. He goes on to argue that the information-as-thing approach is the “only form of information with which information systems can deal directly” (p. 359). This is an attributive sense of information such that information becomes a particular sort of data: meaningful data. Moreover, he argues, we should not be confused by text, documents, sounds, images, etc.. These are all equivalent to data and their position as information is determined by their ability to inform. I like this. In particular, I like Buckland’s description of information-as-thing as similar to the way evidence is a thing: it’s a thing “from which one becomes informed” (p. 353). As information professionals, librarians can learn from the information-as-thing approach because it allows us to treat information with the sort of objective neutrality demanded by our professional standards. That is, it allows a systems-based approach to working with information in a way that knowledge and process information theories do not allow.

As a word of warning, it seems as though he is committed to an entirely physicalist approach to information: informative data are necessarily physical objects; information is supervenient on the physical.1 This is fine if you’re a physicalist, but not everyone is. In any event, it’s a great paper that foreshadows most of the current work in philosophy of information.

1 It isn’t clear whether Buckland is advocating a straight-up reductive physicalism or some sort of emergentism for information. Maybe it’s clearer in a later paper?

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Photo courtesy of KJGarbuttSome rights reserved.

There is a surprising amount of literature available on the philosophy of library and information science (LIS), but it’s hard to know where to start. What should a library philosopher read? Where’s the best place to begin? Part of the problem arises when we see that there are many, competing foundational philosophical approaches to LIS. Pragmatism, social epistemology, philosophy of information, Habermas’ universal pragmatics, post-structuralism…the list could go on for a while. Do we really have to study each and every one of these?

Here’s the plan. Since this blog is supposedly about philosophy and librarianship, the least I can do is attempt to build a list of suggested readings to aid the interested. Granted, I’m no expert, but I can at least start building a bibliography of the texts I think are most important to understanding the intersection of philosophy and librarianship at a foundational level. So, I’ve added a new page–“Essential Readings”–to keep track of foundational and influential books and articles. (And if you have a book, article, blog, or website you would like to include in a list of essential readings on the philosophy of librarianship, please let me know.)

Here’s the catch. I wear my philosophical leanings on my sleeve. Coming from the analytic tradition, I tend to look more favorably on social epistemology, philosophy of information, pragmatism, and other rational philosophical traditions in library science. Many of the so-called “postmodern” approaches influenced by Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Latour, and other continental philosophers strike me as irrational and too anti-egalitarian to be helpful in librarianship (‘relativism’ is a four-letter word in my house). So, my recommended books will be heavily geared towards realist, rational philosophy.

Well, enough of the jibber-jabber. Here’s today’s recommendation…the Winter 2004 issue of Library Trends.

The Philosophy of Information, Library Trends,
Winter 2004, 52(3)
edited by Ken Herold

As you may already know, Library Trends is a journal that specializes in thematic issues (how do you cite an entire journal, anyway?). Each issue features several articles entirely on one subject, and the Winter 2004 issue “The Philosophy of Information” is one of the best LT has published. In 16 articles, almost every core concern in the philosophy of LIS is explored by some of the leading thinkers in philosophy and librarianship, including John Budd, Don Fallis, Luciano Floridi, and more. In particular, this volume is absolutely indispensable for those interested in the philosophy of information as the foundation for LIS. Arguments for and against competing theories are advanced and the entire issue represents a fascinating snapshot of the current status of the philosophy of information in librarianship.

The impetus for this issue can be found in the work of Luciano Floridi, whose 2002 “On Defining Library and Information Science as Applied Philosophy of Information” set the groundwork for adopting the philosophy of information as foundational theory in LIS. It is therefore only natural that his afterword in the Library Trends issue is probably the best entry point, and a good summary of the philosophical approach that is both defended and criticized throughout this volume. Here is a link to the article on his personal website. Again, this issue is not a unified defense of a particular approach to the philosophy of information in librarianship. Articles run the gamut from analytic defenses of realism and epistemology to arguments for the importance of Hegel, Gadamer, and Habermas. Truly, there’s something in this issue for philosopher-librarians of every background. I, for one, find the analytical articles the most compelling, but the entire issue is of enormous value. Rather than ramble on about the importance of this issue of LT, I’ll end with a list of contents and brief descriptions of each article. Titles in boldface are those that I, personally, find the most compelling and useful.

Library Trends, Winter 2004, 52(3). Edited by Ken Herold.

  • “Information and Its Philosophy” by Ian Cornelius
    • Argues that Floridi’s work in PI is “innocent of LIS practice” and fails to recognize the myriad roles and responsibilities of actual librarianship.
  • “Documentation Redux: Prolegomenon to (Another) Philosophy of Information” by Bernd Frohmann 
    • A neo-Wittgensteinian call for a shift from discrete theories of information to descriptions of documentary practice as the embodiment of “informing”.
  • “Community as Event” by Ronald E. Day
    • Discusses the meaning of “information” in light of political philosophy an ontology. Draws heavily from the work of Negri, Heidegger, and Habermas.
  • “Information Studies Without Information” by Jonathan Furner
    • Argues that we do not need a separate concept of information, favoring instead an information-as-relevance approach designed to cut across philosophical distinctions.
  • “Relevance: Language, Semantics, Philosophy” by John M. Budd
    • Argues that the philosophy of language is invaluable in assessing the role of relevance in LIS.
  • “On Verifying the Accuracy of Information: Philosophical Perspectives” by Don Fallis
    • Fallis urges librarians to consider the epistemology of testimony as a means of understanding the role that information professionals play in knowledge creation. Draws heavily from David Hume and Alvin Goldman. Awesome.
  • “Arguments for Philosophical Realism in Library and Information Science” by Birger Hjørland
    • Some researchers in LIS love to throw around the term “positivism” as a catch-all for post-Enlightenment or analytic approaches to LIS; the label “realism” has even been thrown about as a sort of intellectual epithet. Hjorland shows that this is a terribly naive approach. He argues that LIS needs to embrace the explanatory virtues of realism as the only viable means for addressing issues in LIS.
  • “Knowledge Profiling: The Basis for Knowledge Organization” by Torkild Thellefsen
    • Uses Peirce’s pragmaticism (it’s not the same as James’s “pragmatism”) as a means for analyzing knowledge organizations such as libraries.
  • “Classification and Categorization: A Difference that Makes a Difference” by Elin K. Jacob
    • A look at the syntactic and semantic differences between classification and categorization and how these differences shape information systems and information retrieval.
  • “Faceted Classification and Logical Division in Information Retrieval” by Jack Mills
    • Argues that the nature of information requires faceted classification as the optimal means of organizing information for discovery.
  • “The Epistemological Foundations of Knowledge Representations” by Elaine Svenonius
    • Looks at operationalism, Wittgensteinian referentialism, and instrumentalism as competing theories of meaning that can inform us as we develop optimal retrieval systems.
  • “Classification, Rhetoric, and the Classificatory Horizon” by Stephen Paling
    • Uses Gadamer to provide a hermeneutics of information classification.
  • “The Ubiquitous Hierarchy: An Army to Overcome the Threat of a Mob” by Hope A. Olson
    • Argues that Hegel’s conception of hierarchy and Reid’s defense of common sense are the foundations for library classification systems such as Dewey and LC.
  • “A Human Information Behavior Approach to a Philosophy of Information” by Amanda Spink and Charles Cole
    • Looks at how a cognitive approach to information-seeking behavior can inform the philosophy of information.
  • “Cybersemiotics and the Problems of the Information-Processing Paradigm as a Candidate for a Unified Science of Information Behind Library Information Science” by Søren Brier
    • A poorly explained mess of self-contradictory, post-modern drivel. I have no idea why this was included.
  • “Afterword: LIS as Applied Philosophy of Information: A Reappraisal” by Luciano Floridi
    • A defense of the philosophy of information against critics. Argues that PI is a better foundation for LIS than its main competitor, social epistemology.

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AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Andrew Coulter Enright

I’ve been chasing so many ideas down so many rabbit holes that I haven’t posted in a few weeks. So, just to get something out there, I’m posting the same thing twice as an experiment. This is the unpretentious post that avoids the unnecessary jargon and technical stuff. But, if you like the analytical stuff, you can take a look at the analytic mix. It’s unfortunately technical, so you can skip it if you’d like. In any event, my hope is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

As I outlined in previous posts, I’m interested in the relationship between truth, information, and information literacy. The feedback I’ve received has been enormously instructive and the project seems to be headed down some interesting paths. However, one concern stands out above all others: is the concept of truth even relevant to librarians? I thought it might be worthwhile to say a little something to the effect that, even if the concept of truth is invisible to our patrons or to the everyday practicalities of librarianship, it is still relevant to the profession.

Academic concerns, or confusions?

Wayne Bivens-Tatum has raised quite a few thought-provoking points about the role of truth in librarianship. Though I think several of his points are the result of us just talking past one another and getting confused by one another’s positions, he does make a few claims that simply cannot be ignored. In particular, he makes the claim that:  

Truth is relevant to information literacy broadly conceived, but I’m not sure librarians play much of a role in information literacy. I wouldn’t send physics students to astrology books, but outside of factual questions, which I rarely get, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to the point where truth as such played a role in what I was doing with students.

As I read it, there are two main arguments here. One is that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. The other is that truth doesn’t play much of a role in librarianship. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that information literacy and truth apply to librarianship, but I’d like to think otherwise. So, I’ll try to say something to the effect that truth is relevant to information literacy and information literacy is relevant to librarians.

From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
I’ll admit it: my previous “career” in philosophy has colored my perceptions of librarianship. For what it’s worth, when I decided that the life a philosophy professor wasn’t for me, I could have chosen any number of alternatives. Law school, an MBA, a teacher’s certificate, perpetual adjunct work…I have friends who went down each road. But, I was always motivated to do something about the lack of information literacy I kept running into with my students (though I didn’t know the term at the time). After several years and hundreds of term papers, it was very clear that the inability to find, access, and critically evaluate source material appropriate for scholarly research was a major barrier in higher education. Sure, I would assist them in my class, and they would do fine, but I wanted to address IL from a cross-disciplinary angle. Couple that with my existing interests in information theory, epistemology, and logic, and library and information science seemed like the right choice. Why? Well, because the LIS program seemed to be the only one that addressed information literacy head-on and information literacy was what I was most interested in. 
So, if information literacy isn’t something that librarians play a role in, I seem to have made a huge mistake. But, I do teach general information literacy skills almost every day. From showing a student how to select appropriate sources to assisting a student with a citation, the opportunities for IL instruction are everywhere. And it isn’t just in the classroom; every moment on the reference desk is a teachable moment, too. I don’t just “give some initial guidance on search and evaluation;” I give advice, insight, and instruction on search and evaluation. In less than five minutes a librarian can teach a patron a transferable skill or concept. And when we consider the extensive work on information literacy coming out of the ALA and ACRL, the nature of library instruction programs (at least as I have encountered them), and the extent to which reference librarians engage directly with the research process, it seems that information literacy is a direct concern to academic librarians. 

Then again, academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians. So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.

Library Science/Information Science
There are several possible roles for librarians in the coming decades and one that I think we should be cultivating is a bit of a throwback to days-gone-by: the cultural role of librarians as authorities on information. Librarians used to be the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge and information. Google has all but demolished that cultural position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be ambassadors for information.  If anything, I’d like to see librarians do more to sell themselves as authorities on the world of information in general. Librarians should be clamoring for interviews about Wikileaks, copyright legislation, information technology, and other information-related current events. We should brand ourselves as the experts on information and information related issues. To put it another way, we work in applied information theory and we have the ability to position ourselves as society’s information experts. But, we can only do this if we treat information theory as a relevant concern.

But what is relevance, anyway?
However we position ourselves, they bottom line is that information is the stuff we trade in, whether or not information literacy in particular is relevant. So, studying and understanding information is something we should be engaged in. Does that address the relevance issue? Well, yes and no. I think the real problem is that there are at least two types of relevance that are commonly discussed in libraryland and I think the distinction is best described by analogy…
Last night at dinner, Khristy offered a helpful analogy for how I’m envisioning the role of information in librarianship: think of librarianship like the financial world of economists, brokers, bankers, tellers, and more. For example, economists “analyze the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”(Wikipedia). They analyze the flow of goods and services across various networks and they develop policies, procedures, and theories for managing and understanding that flow. They analyze and inform policies, they serve as advisors, and they construct the foundational theories. Then again, economists are only one part of the financial world. The money is actually handled by brokers, traders, bankers, tellers, etc. Whereas an economist may debate contractionary versus expansionary fiscal policies, the teller is actually counting out the change. The various aspects of money and finance that count as “relevant” will vary between all of these different roles. An economist may be interested only in what is relevant to the financial world in general. The stockbroker may be interested only in what’s relevant to investors. 

Now, what if we replace “goods and services” or “money” with “information”? Who studies the production, distribution and consumption of information? Who handles practical aspects of working with information? Why can’t it be librarians? After all, we’re uniquely situated to address almost every angle on information and information-related issues. We should join the computer scientists and programmers, the internet gurus, and the social network entrepreneurs as the go-to sources for the theory and the practice behind information. So, I propose that we think of librarianship in the same way we think of the financial sector; only, instead of dealing in money, we deal in information. This gives librarians enormous clout and places us near the center of the information ecosystem. (Of course, librarians tend to not to have such diverse roles as you’ll see in finance; so librarians have to be economists and bankers at the same time, so to speak.)

Following the analogy to its conclusion, it’s clear that what counts as relevant with respect to information will depend on what role we’re playing. Certain issues are only relevant to librarians when they act like economists: drafting policies, creating curricula, tackling ethical issues…in other words, surveying the profession and the information ecosystem in general. However, just as a stockbroker or banker uses economic theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting investors, so to do librarians use information theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting patrons.

So, there are two types of relevance: relevant to librarians and relevant to patrons, and both are important. Looking back at my interest in the nature of truth, information, and information literacy, I’ll concede that none of it is going to be very practical or show direct relevance to my day-to-day dealings with students. But, I’m hoping that it will be relevant to the economic side of librarianship, and help me to understand the increasingly complicated nature of information in libraries.

For next time
So, where do we stand? The philosophical concept of truth is probably not going to do a bit of difference in how I build collections, manage the reference interview, direct research consultations, or teach classes. But, if truth plays a role in understanding what information is, and if studying the nature of information can inform collection development policies, reference services, information literacy, and beyond, then the concept of truth can make a difference. It may not be relevant to patrons, but it is relevant to librarians. 

Here’s where I want to go in the next few blog posts: First, I’ll propose that libraries adopt Floridi’s semantic conception of information. Later, I’ll discuss whether misinformation and disinformation count as information, and if so, what kind of information. Finally, I’ll see if I can’t make a case that adopting the semantic conception of information–and understanding the role of misinformation and disinformation–can strengthen our information literacy programs, not to mention our commitments to privacy, freedom of information, and more. 

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I’ve been chasing so many ideas down so many rabbit holes that I haven’t posted in a few weeks. So, just to get something out there, I’m posting the same thing twice as an experiment. This is the philosophical post that mirrors my thought process: it’s boring, poorly written, and unnecessarily technical. The other post isn’t as pretentious; it avoids the jargon and stupid technical stuff. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

It’s been a few weeks since my last post about the nature of truth and it’s role in information literacy. Liam was violently ill, nieces and nephews came to visit, loads to do at work…you know the drill. But, I do have several aborted posts that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t seem to finish. I have long attempts at addressing issues ranging from the problems of pragmatism in library and information science to why the “articulation problem” rests on a misunderstanding. Along the way I took another stab at answering the many concerns raised by the Academic Librarian. Here’s an effort at answering what I think is his biggest issue with the role of truth in information literacy: is a philosophical inquiry into truth even relevant to librarianship?

Academic concerns, or confusions?
I’ll start by listing the issues Bivens-Tatum raises in his initial post and subsequent blog comments. I’m trying my best to abide by the principle of charity, so I hope this is close to the original intent…

  1. Inquiring into the nature of truth is redundant. (“The library is part of [a] larger academic enterprise that already assumes [a realist conception] of truth“)
  2. A philosophical theory of truth “still doesn’t explain why academic research takes place, or why academic libraries collect things.”
  3. Librarians should remain neutral with respect to the truth of the information they collect (Librarians should hope “for “truth” in the aggregate, not in the truth of any given work“)
  4. Librarians do not “play much of a role in information literacy” (The job of a librarian “is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation.”)
  5. Truth is simply not a relevant concept in librarianship; what librarians “teach has more to do with certain academic standards” not truth. (truth’ isn’t a direct professional concern of ours”)
Some of these are simple philosophical errors. #1 is a fallacy of division, #2 is a category mistake, and #3 confuses fact and value. However, the final two objections are substantive and are directed at my underlying position, so it’s best if I try to reconstruct exactly what I aim to prove, show where his objections fit in, and attempt a response. I’ll start with a logical reconstruction…you can skip it if you want to avoid the technical stuff.

From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
Here is a reconstruction of the argument from my previous two posts…the argument I’d like to make for the relevance of truth to academic librarians:

(1) For any term C that entails necessary conditions (c0, c1, …, cn), if C is relevant to subject S, then cn is relevant to S.
(2) Information literacy is relevant to academic librarians.
(3) Information1 is a necessary condition in defining information literacy.
(4) Subconclusion: So, information is relevant to academic librarians.
(5) The concept of truth2 is a necessary condition in defining information.
(6) Conclusion: So, the concept of truth is relevant to academic librarians.

Again, I realize that this may come across as unreasonably technical, but I want to make a sound argument. The argument above is valid, so if I can show the truth of the premises, then I have made my point. I hope that (1) is uncontroversial…it makes sense as a general epistemic rule. I also hope that (3) is uncontroversial given that information literacy seems to have at least some relation to information. Obviously, (4) follows from (1)-(3). I admit that (5) is an open question, but if it is true, then (6) follows. Proving (5) will let me prove (6), which is the whole point of my research.

Moreover, this presentation makes it easier to show how Bivens-Tatum’s concerns fit in. Specifically, he is objecting to (2) and (6). We can strike the objection to (6) on the grounds that it doesn’t address the argument itself. This leaves premise (2) and the objection that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. I actually find it hard to believe that academic librarians don’t see the importance of information literacy  Given the extensive work on information literacy coming out of the ALA and ACRL, the nature of library instruction programs (at least as I have encountered them), and the extent to which reference librarians engage directly with the research process, it seems that information literacy is a direct concern to academic librarians.

Then again, I forget that academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians.3 So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.

Library Science/Information Science
I grant that if academic librarianship is just about day-to-day operational duties, then there really isn’t a need for any theorizing about information, truth, knowledge, or other epistemic and metaphysical concerns. But, I understand library science as a type of applied information science (which probably explains why many librarians work within the hybrid field of library and information science). As librarians, not only are many of us dealing with issues of practical librarianship, but we are also dealing with the “analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval and dissemination of information.” Put another way, academic librarians have a vested interest in information; information is the stuff we trade in. The extent to which we work with information, and the nature of that work, will differ between libraries, between departments, and even between individual librarians. But, we are still information professionals in a way that other disciplines may not be. Every field makes use of information, but librarians are unique in that information is the object of quite a bit of what we do. If anything, it’s the reason our patrons are here in the first place. Information is the cornerstone of librarianship, so it is in our best interests to study it, debate it, learn about it, and teach others about it. It just seems so obvious: information is relevant to librarianship. 

But what is relevance, anyway?
The real objection to the role of truth in librarianship has to do with relevance, but what is relevance anyway? Perhaps everyone agrees that truth is relevant to librarians, but we all disagree about what type of relevance we’re dealing with. For most librarians, relevance is a practical issue and the idea is that X is relevant to Y if and only if X yields beneficial consequences for Y. Call this pragmatic relevanceBut, pragmatic relevance comes in at least two flavors: relevant to patrons and relevant to librarians. 

Patron-centered pragmatic relevance (PCLR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for patrons. This is an incredibly popular position (#echolib, anyone?) and probably the majority view. Recent examples of this pragmatism are seen in the heavy criticism leveled at elements of librarianship not directly relevant to patrons. John Dupuis’s Stealth Librarian’s Manifesto is one of the more recent and clear-cut cases of PCLR. Michelle Boule’s Being Articulate and Finding Context also comes to mind in the way it points to technical vocabularies and theories as a hindrance to librarianship. With PCLR, again and again, relevance to patrons is hoisted as the banner under which every aspect of librarianship must pass. Your patrons don’t get it? Then get out of the “echo chamber”!   

On the other hand, library-centered pragmatic relevance (LCPR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for librarians and librarianship. The idea here is that librarians are professionals and projects in service to the profession are relevant, even though patrons may have no idea these projects ever occur. MARC records, metadata, and OpenURL resolvers are instances of library project that are not relevant to patrons. Another good example would be the IL standards drafted by the ACRL. The standards themselves are invisible to non-librarians. Yet, these standards help direct library information literacy programs, so they benefit our patrons indirectly. Assisting patrons is still the normative goal, but the tools and theories for doing so are oriented towards the librarians.

So, we can focus on the consequences our theories have for patrons or we can focus on the consequences our theories have for the profession. Or both.

Librarians serving librarians
This is where I make the controversial claim that not every aspect of librarianship is going to be directly relevant to non-librarians, nor should it. (and the philosophy of librarianship is a perfect example). Some of what we do is going to be directed at policies, technologies, or curricula that are inherently library-centric. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think that this is something we should do more often, not only so that we know what we’re talking about but also so we can figure out where we’re going as a profession, what policies we should adopt, and how we should handle thorny issues like censorship, fair use, and privacy. These and other issues merit discussions that may only be directly relevant to librarians, though indirectly relevant to patrons.  

What does this mean for my interest in the nature of truth? Well, Bivens-Tatum expressed the concern that neither information literacy nor truth are relevant to librarianship. I think this objection may be correct in the case of patron-centered pragmatic relevance and incorrect in the case of library-centered pragmatic relevance. From the patron side, I agree that we don’t need to carve out 15 minutes of class time to discuss epistemology. We don’t need to lecture students on information theory or the realism vs. relativism debate. These are patron-centered approaches to information theory and they are obviously absurd. But, for librarians who work with information, understanding the nature of information is highly relevant in how we develop the profession. So, a philosophy of information (i.e., an inquiry into whether information is necessarily true) is relevant to librarians, who can then create policies, curricula, etc. that are relevant to patrons.

For next time

So, where do we stand? To make my argument work I just needed to show that information literacy is relevant to librarianship. I think it’s pretty obvious that it is. But, even if all I can show is that information is relevant, then the argument goes through. The only thing to be careful about is in qualifying what we mean by “relevant”, and I only intend to work within the context of librarian-centered relevance because I’m only concerned with how information will affect our policies, curricula, procedures, and other “behind-the-scenes” aspects of the profession.

All that’s left is to say something about premise (5): the concept of truth is a necessary condition in defining information. I think that information is necessarily true, but it will take another post to propose an account of what information is, a second post to discuss whether information is true, and yet another to explain how this can strengthen our information literacy programs (not to mention our commitments to freedom of information, privacy, and other issues.). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can pull it off.

(1) i.e., information as an object of inquiry
(2) i.e., the property ‘is true’
(3) Wilder’s 2005 article in the Chronicle may be partly to blame, though his arguments were as ill-informed then as they are today.

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In my last post I outlined an informal project regarding truth and information literacy. A few days later, I saw this interesting response from the Academic Librarian. As always, he raises some great points, not the least of which is the way he explains exactly what’s wrong with the historicist conception of truth (and I agree almost to the letter). But, towards the end of the post, Bivens-Tatum raises several questions about the relevance of truth to librarianship and information literacy. I wish I could say that I understand his concerns, but I find them very confusing and/or confused. I’ll attempt a response, but, just so I don’t accidentally misrepresent his arguments, I’ll quote at the paragraph level and offer plausible interpretations for three criticisms I’ve been able to extract. And, I’m aware that I may be completely and idiotically wrong, so don’t hesitate to tell me!

Problem #1: Information literacy is about evaluating and accessing information, not truth.

“We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?

With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?”

There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and there are a few ways to understand these concerns. I’ll try to be organized and address each possible way of understanding Bivens-Tatum’s line of questioning.

(Interpretation #1): The concept of truth is not an appropriate part of the information literacy curriculum.
There’s a confusion here between (1) telling students “These are the facts,” and (2) telling students “There are facts and this is how you find them.” Put another way, there is a big difference between an instructor teaching a concept of truth and an instructor having a concept of truth. I’m concerned with the latter. I don’t intend to argue that we need to carve five minutes out of our instruction session to address the distinction between realism and antirealism; I intend to talk about how competing theories of truth shape the way we as educators understand information literacy.

(Interpretation #2): The concept of truth is not relevant to information literacy.
Bivens-Tatum agrees that “we can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it.” But, he doesn’t think that truth is relevant to information literacy? I don’t understand this. Our conception of truth is a determining factor in how we identify appropriate standards for evaluation; evaluation is a core aspect of information literacy. The very concepts of authority, accuracy, reliability, and bias are radically different depending on whether you adopt an objective or a subjective theory of truth. For example, a philosophical realist about truth might describe the accuracy of a source in terms of how often the statements made by the source actually do describe the world (i.e., are facts). On the other hand, a cultural relativist about truth might describe the accuracy of a source in terms of how often the statements made by the source match up with prevailing beliefs of the cultural group to which the source belongs. In a nutshell, do we teach our students to look for fact-based resources or widely-believed resources? So, yes, when we teach information literacy we are concerned with truth. Of course, we’re concerned with a lot of other things, too, but truth is definitely something that guides how we evaluate authority, accuracy, etc..

(Interpretation #3): The concept of truth may be relevant, but librarians only get the ball rolling and never actually get to a point where truth is of concern
I agree that (except in the case of ready reference questions) librarians don’t take students all the way to the point of adjudicating whether a particular claim is true. That’s the job of the faculty, the students themselves, or someone else. But, even though information literacy instruction doesn’t directly cover the concept of truth, any information literacy initiative that’s worth it’s salt will mention evaluating sources, which entails accuracy, reliability, authority, etc. Moreover, we should take a step back and ask whether libraries have anything to do with knowledge or information at all. Knowledge is justified, true belief, so if you believe that libraries are concerned with knowledge (collecting it, organizing it, teaching others how to locate it, etc.) then truth is a concern by definition. Whether we think information must track the truth will also determine whether truth is a concern in information literacy.
For a detailed analysis of just how important truth is to evaluating sources, I highly recommend the Winter 2004 issue of Library Trends, specifically the articles by Don Fallis (“On Verifying the Accuracy of Information“) and Birger Hjorland (“Arguments for philosophical realism in library and information science.”)

Problem #2: There are many conflicting accounts of what is true, librarians should stay neutral and only judge whether a source meets accepted criteria for scholarship.

“Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship”

A few points should be made here. First, books or articles cannot be true. Only propositions can be true. However, books or articles can contain true propositions. Second, the mere fact that a multiple sources disagree on the facts does not mean that we shouldn’t care what the facts actually are. Sure, some books in the library make claims that are patently false, but we should still retain them because although the primary information in the books may be unusable, the second-order information is quite valuable. For example, the first printing of the DSM-II includes the false claim that homosexuality is a mental disorder. As primary information about homosexuality, the DSM-II fails and is not an appropriate source for psychological research. But, the second-order claim “According to the 1968 printing of the DSM-II, homosexuality is a mental disorder.” is true and the book is relevant to, say, a research paper on historical attitudes towards homosexuality. Just because an information source is discredited does not mean that the information source is not valuable.

Here’s a question for anyone who works the reference desk: when students request assistance researching medical issues, do you routinely direct them to the books on homeopathy (LoC class RX!)? Do you direct physics majors to the astrology books? I know you don’t and I know that your reasons for not doing so will somehow involve either factual content and verifiability (i.e., an objective account of truth), or commonly accepted social practice (i.e., social constructivist account of truth), or some other account of truth. What I mean to say is that we do have theories of truth that play into our decisions. Usually, competing theories agree and truth can take a back seat to other concerns. But, every now and then the issue of truth becomes the deciding factor in the sources we recommend.

Finally, I agree that we are primarily concerned with whether a work meets certain standards of scholarship that aim at the truth. I also agree that we can’t necessarily guarantee that a work of scholarship does make all and only true claims. But, there is a big difference between understanding what ‘truth’ means and whether a particular statement is true.

Problem #3: Our job is to build collections and give initial advice on searching, so truth is irrelevant.

“Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.” 

This is extremely reductionist: there is obviously more to librarianship than collection development and giving basic research help. In any event, we should ask ourselves why libraries are important and why we perform research. To what end do we seek information? The answer is knowledge, specifically, justified, true beliefs. Don Fallis (2004) explains,

the goal is to acquire beliefs that correspond to reality. Philosophers typically take this to be the goal of information seekers…John Locke, for example, explicitly states that the reason that we should proportion our belief to the evidence is so that we will end up with true beliefs. Library and information scientists, however, are much less likely to take this to be the goal of information seekers. Jesse Shera, for example, says that “false knowledge … is still knowledge, it is knowable and known.” However, as a number of library and information scientists have recently argued, information seekers often do have the goal of acquiring true beliefs. For example, a student writing a report on the Eiffel Tower wants to know how tall the Eiffel Tower really is. In other words, she is after the truth. Similarly, a parent wants to know whether a particular treatment for a child with a fever really is safe and effective. In fact, it does not really make sense for someone to bother about verifying the accuracy of information unless acquiring true beliefs is her goal. (p. 468)

Even if we admit that not all information-seeking behavior is directed at determining the truth, we have to admit that a large percentage of it is. And, if librarians are to develop policies about how to organize information, develop procedures for handling morally difficult reference requests, instruct others in appropriate evaluative techniques, or any other of our duties, then we need to understand this thing called ‘information’ and how it relates to ‘knowledge’. Given that truth is integral to knowledge (and perhaps to information, too) it follows that truth is a professional concern.

I hope this isn’t taken as an attack on Bivens-Tatum. I’m only trying to understand his concerns. I also want to point out that I want to keep my discussion to information literacy. Collection development, censorship, privacy, and a host of other library concerns are impacted by our conceptions of truth, but I have a bad habit of getting lost on tangents, so I’m going to try to keep this discussion strictly to IL. I should also reiterate the is/ought distinction: I may advocate that truth is a certain way, but how we ought to act is a separate matter. So, don’t worry about setting flamethrowers to discredited books. Re-read the first half of Bivens-Tatum’s post for a great explanation.

I’ll try to get another post on truth up pretty soon. Perhaps I’ll do a case study or use some practical examples to show how the interpretation of truth we adopt will influence how we approach information literacy. Perhaps I’ll write a more cohesive narrative (rather than a response) about the relevance of truth in info lit. I’ll think about it.

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Today, I declined an invitation to present at a conference. Unfortunately, with my LOEX presentation and a (possible) poster at ALA, I simply don’t have any more money left for travel (until July). That being said, I thought it might be fun to take the presentation I submitted and turn it into a paper…using my blog to document the writing, research, and thought processes. So, over the next few weeks I’ll hash things out here and see what happens…starting with the proposal itself.

My proposed paper
So, this is the proposal that was accepted:

TITLE: Is misinformation information? Information fluency and nature of truth.

ABSTRACT: One of the primary IF skills is the ability to critically evaluate information.. Unfortunately, this task is complicated when students must distinguish information from non-information. This presentation focuses on a semantic definition of information and the need to address false information as a part of any IF pedagogy.



DESCRIPTION: One of the primary goals of Information Fluency (IF) is the ability to collect and critically evaluate the information relevant to a particular need. Unfortunately, this task is complicated by the ever-expanding amount of data available digitally and the difficulty in distinguishing information from non-information: misinformation, false information, contradictions, and other types of non-information are abundant online. Moreover, certain subjective conceptions of truth negatively impact students’ abilities to sort true from false information. This presentation focuses on the importance of addressing misinformation and false information as a part of any successful information fluency pedagogy. Taking a cue from the philosophy of information, a semantic definition of information will be advocated as a framework for evaluating the IF curriculum. Further, a non-subjective conception of truth will be explored as a means of demarcating information from non-information. Competing theories of data, truth, information, and knowledge will be explored and critically evaluated for their applicability to information literacy programs.

 Genesis of an idea
A few things motivated this project:

  1. For all the talk of ‘information literacy’ it’s surprising how few people can give a coherent definition of ‘information’, 
  2. Does information track the truth, and if so, how does that affect the concept of information literacy? (put another way, is “false information” a contradiction and what does that mean for IL?)
  3. I have a general worry about anti-realist conceptions of truth that show up in common approaches to information literacy.
  4. ACRL standards don’t mention truth, but Standard Three requires an account.
1. Information and information literacy

The term “information literacy” is well established in librarianship, but I think that there’s still a need to discuss what, exactly, information is. The most common approaches within the field are summarized nicely in John Budd’s (2011) “Meaning, Truth, and Information“.2 Unfortunately, his survey of common approaches almost completely ignores the semantic conception of information as it doesn’t suit his self-described phenomenological hermeneutics of librarianship. One of my upcoming goals in the blog is to take a look at the semantic conception of information as a better foundation for the information in information literacy.

2. Is misinformation information?
This is something I’ve yet to decide on, so it is the most active area of inquiry. I’m really partial to Floridi’s work in the philosophy of information, and he advocates that truth is a necessary condition for information, but I simply haven’t read enough to make a decision yet. As it stands, I take information to be well-formed, meaningful data (with a few important corollaries). Now, is information well-formed, meaningful, factual or true data? I get stuck here because I agree with a minimalist, semantic conception of truth, but I’m not sure that all well-formed, meaningful data are necessarily semantic things. I’ll hash this out one way or the other in coming weeks.

3. Truth in Librarianship

Surprisingly little has been said about truth in librarianship. In 2008, Labaree and Scimeca published an article in Library Quarterly that discussed the concept, but their proposed “historicist” concept of truth is…for lack of a better term…stupid1
Wait…I just thought of a better term: ridiculous. 
In an upcoming post, I’ll pick apart their approach as an example of the sort of fact-value conflations and anti-realisms that lurk around the edges of information literacy. I’ll even go so far as to say that these theories actively undermine information literacy. (constructivists and historicists…beware!)

4. ACRL Standard What?
The terms “true” or “truth” or “fact” never appear in ACRL Information Literacy Standard Three. But, the  need for a robust account of truth are implied. For example, Standard 3, Outcome 2(a) stresses the ability to examine and compare “information from various sources in order to evaluate reliability, validity3, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias”. 2(b) points to the “structure and logic of supporting arguments” These evaluative criteria…by definition…must be comparative. Accurate compared to what? Bias away from what? Reliability to what end? Without a robust account of truth or fact, the whole nature of evaluation becomes pointless or, worse, relativistic. So, in the coming weeks I’ll discuss how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet ACRL Standard Three.

Coming soon
So, there you have it. I’m taking a presentation I won’t be giving, hashing it out on the blog, and turning the result into a paper for eventual publication (fingers crossed!). I’ll start by addressing the four points in greater detail (maybe one a week?), but things may change. I may change my mind in light of new evidence or argument, I may get stuck on one point and give up, I may forget the whole thing entirely…we’ll see what happens.

1 Labaree, R. V. & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical concept of truth in librarianship. Library Quarterly 78(1): 43-70.
2 Budd, J. (2011). Meaning, truth, and information: prolegomena to a theory. Journal of Documentation, 67(1): 56-74.

3 Information can’t be valid; only arguments can be valid. Logic 101.

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