Many of us unwittingly digest great amounts of information in the course of a day. Our information needs are more modest and usually repetitive. When we have questions, we reach for a small collection of preferred information sources close at hand with a collection of assessments as to what is credible and trusted.
As a child, these sources include the school library, an encyclopedia and parents. All the sources are trusted.
As an adult, these sources include the state library, the newspaper, bookstores and current magazines. Adults understand truth has become a little more relative, but when the evening news declares presidential hopeful George W Bush is ahead by 3% (on a sample of 707) we slip into thinking he is leading.
There is more to information literacy. It is, after all, a profession. There are tools you know nothing about and techniques you have never heard of. There is a specialized vocabulary just made to confuse you. Research, or rather information research (to distinguish it from lab-coat style research) is so very much more involved.
Yet there is great simplicity to research too. Just under the murky mist of confusing resources rests a solid platform to stand on. In any one field there are just a handful of databases, directories and periodicals to consider. After decades of library and information industry evolution, clearly valuable sources have already floated to the top, monopolizing their respective fields. Most cities have just one or two primary newspapers. Large industries like book publishing have few book databases and a handful of primary book distributors.
Enters the internet: not so much a change of information as a revolution in access to information. Previously you could justify having just a handful of preferred information sources because these were the sources easily available. Today, and the future, is filled with information close at hand. We are dropped into a morass of competing information just waiting to capture our attention, and strain both our capacity to absorb information and our capacity to understand the differences between sources.
A great segment of our community will fall back to tried and true information sources they grew up with: state library, bookstore, local newspaper. The better alternative sources will be ignored for no particular reason. The rush of the information revolution will push past them. They will only hear of changes when their information needs suddenly change – and they are confronted with a vast collection of unfamiliar options, and struggle with understanding what sources they need.
A smaller segment of our community, by virtue of frequently tackling questions best answered with unfamiliar sources, will be driven to understand the information world: to become truly information literate.
There is another story here too. The way our society handles information is undergoing some very fascinating changes. Any predictions for the future should acknowledge the tension and flow of information in our society. Take, for example, the vast surplus of information emerging on the internet, and the convulsions of the commercial information industry in response. Rather than focusing on how information is organized, we can also focus on how information becomes organized. The who, where and why of information, the sociological perspective, adds meaning to the phrase “information revolution”.
Shakh knew fishing had changed little over the last hundred years. The walls of his family’s ancestral home had just such a scene of his grandfather fishing on the Nile from a small reed boat. The thinly carved relief was complete with spear, fish, ducks and Shakh’s grandmother nearby holding lotus flowers.
Shakh stopped by old-man Jacob on his short walk to the bank of the Nile. He liked the old trader. Years ago Jacob had traveled to the Levant and brought back many strange artifacts. Some even came as far a field as the Harrapan people who were said to live beyond Sheba, across the waves, some three years journey away. He especially liked the small black head carved in a style so unlike anything else Shakh had seen.
Little remains. The Harrapan civilization fell with the arrival of the Aryan race and the intervening millennia treated their past poorly. The arrival of Islam erased much of their history as did the shifting Indus river itself. The British used the bricks from one ancient city in the construction of a great railway. Only today are the archaeological digs once again unearthing the past.
I search for Harrapa on the internet. Nothing special, just type ‘Harrapa’ into any of the popular search engines and I uncover harrapa.com, a website devoted to some recent information from these digs. Looks good. Pictures of ancient pots. Children’s toys. A map to an ancient city.
Of course, Shakh would have known of the Harrapan civilization. While it is uncertain ancient Egyptian ever visited in person, goods and rumors traveled far from trader to trader. Ancient Egyptians, while not accomplished conquerors abroad, did travel and mix with distant peoples.
Shakh lived in a civilization centuries distant from us, yet both you and Shakh know a similar amount about the Harrapan civilization. The intervening years have not made everything clear. Even the information revolution has not changed the facts. Both you and Shakh have just a single source of information about the Harrapan civilization. You have the pictures on harrapa.com and our short excerpt here. Shakh has the old-man’s art object to look at, the old-man’s myth of a civilization beyond the waves.
This story carves the act of searching in deep relief. Searching is a skill, a trade and to some a profession. It is also just a simple task of finding information – something we do every day, in so many ways, without any of the difficulties we will get into later in this FAQ.
The difficulties only emerge when you want to do something spectacular. Should you wish to know something specific about the Harrapan civilization, or understand something contentious – then we require a greater degree of expertise and experience. The search becomes a challenging adventure in its own right.
Shakh had expected this year to be like the last but his father secured Shakh an important position – he would be in training to become a scribe. Father had grand plans for young Shakh, plans that extended far beyond life as a scribe. What’s more, with luck and further prosperity, Shakh’s father had the means to secure his further advance.
This is part of the reason for such an interest in travelling to Egypt. It is the visual symbols that inform us and draw us in so deeply. Standing before the great religious statues, we begin to feel how it was to live and work in that day. To run amok as a young student, waiting for the Nile to subside once again.
Yet, there is much more to knowing ancient Egypt than just the monuments and wall reliefs. Years of study has recovered their lost language of hieroglyphs. Years of archaeology has unearthed their daily lives.
History and Archaeology are fine examples of searching in practice. Both fields struggle openly with the bias and uncertainty each new fact brings forth. Malta is a small island off the coast of Sicily, close to Tunisia. Should evidence emerge of ancient Egyptians living on Malta, what does it mean? Was Malta an Egyptian conquest or an occasional station for their fishing fleet?
This uncertainty applies to all information, in all situations. One of the first events for the new regime in Pakistan was to acknowledge that important national statistics, like the national GDP figures, had been fudged to a serious and significant degree. Important national statistics are not intrinsically true because of their source. This is not a problem solely of underdeveloped nations. Rumor suggests that during the height of Singapore’s land value bubble their national figures were unreliable too.
Searching is a skill and an attitude. In this FAQ we progressively unfold the way information is found. Initially, let’s cover a simple way to find information; a structured approach to an everyday problem. Afterwards, we shall look more closely, and with more complexity, at the world of information.