Information technology “The Library As Navigator”

Hans Zeger
Hans Zeger | © Georg Lembergh

Electronic information technology is changing the way knowledge is accessed, and indeed is changing knowledge itself. Internet expert Dr Hans G. Zeger explains the role libraries can play here, especially considering the arbitrary nature of information.

Dr Zeger, can libraries in future still remain in some sense the main suppliers of information of all kinds?

I see libraries more as mediators rather than suppliers of information. Before the age of electronic information technology dawned in the 1990s, knowledge was necessarily tied to a specific place. Information was also disseminated on the basis of precisely defined access criteria: somewhere or other, editorial teams would collate a certain body of reliable knowledge – and this ensured a particular standard of quality.

However, Web 2.0, social media platforms and the many do-it-yourself opportunities on the Internet are blurring the boundaries between the suppliers of knowledge on one side and the consumers of knowledge on the other. To date, libraries have seen themselves as mediators between these two poles. Nowadays, more and more consumers are also producers, and vice versa, with the result that libraries will have to completely redefine their role.

Promoting information skills

What role should libraries play in your opinion?

They have a didactic role to play. They should provide Internet users with the tools they need to find and critically evaluate information. When information technology emerged, people started to say things like: “It is not what you know that counts, it’s knowing where to find it.” At the time, this was entirely justified: there was a manageable number of ways in which information could be accessed, and there was a good chance that these would point one in the direction of useful, meaningful information.

Is the situation different now?

These days there are all kinds of different ways in which to search for information. The problem is no longer about knowing where or how to look, but how to navigate this ocean of important and irrelevant information. The question is, will I in fact be able to locate the information that is relevant to me?

Take the search engine Google for instance: quite some time ago, Google regionalized its search results. Your particular home region now dictates the listings you receive when searching for specific keywords. Since 2009, the search has also been personalized – in other words, depending on the searches you have performed in the past, the order in which information is listed will differ completely from that in which it is presented to another person who has entered exactly the same search term. This is becoming a major problem, as our view is being filtered by companies with specific commercial interests.

Enabling an unbiased view

What can libraries do here?

They could function as a counterweight by offering access to the world of information through objective filters. Libraries should attempt to give us an unobstructed view of the world of information.

I once summed up the problem as follows: “I have six million friends, and all of them share my opinion.” If everyone is given an individualized information channel, sooner or later everyone will only receive information that confirms what they already think. That, however, would mark the end of our social development. After all, constantly experiencing new, surprising and possibly even unpleasant things is what keeps us alive, as it prompts us to consider new interrelationships.

Combining information to create a coherent whole

Do you believe libraries have other duties too?

They also have an archaeological role to play. In the past, knowledge on a particular subject would be collated in the form of a book. The book would be produced in a lengthy and laborious process – it would be written, proofread, typeset, printed, shipped, archived etc. By the time the book arrived in the library, the topical subject it had addressed was generally already outdated again. The advantage, however, was that it revealed the state of knowledge that existed up to a specific point in time. For many tasks that was more than sufficient and extremely useful.

Nowadays, we are engulfed on a daily basis by an incredible flood of snippets of information. Its producers are not able to combine all this information to create a coherent whole, nor do they have any particular interest in doing so. This is something that librarians could do.

Do you mean projects in which websites relating to a particular point in time are archived, as for example national libraries do?

Yes, though all these projects are still very much in their infancy. It is high time this was done, however – if it does not happen, we may in just a few years find that it is no longer possible to combine all these many snippets. In which case, paradoxically enough, we would have no coherent information about the new developments that have taken place from the time since the Internet began until now. Of course, the printed books from this period will still be around later, but they no longer contain all the knowledge of our time, not by a long chalk.

Do you see the survival of libraries at risk?

I believe that this lies very much in the hands of the librarians themselves. If libraries establish a reputation for themselves as navigators in a sea of sense and nonsense, they will be able to persuade politicians to provide them with sufficient funding to do so.