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This article appears in Library Review Volume 52, Number 8, 2003
In today's information society, the information citizen must face a variety of challenges in order to make the most of their role in the knowledge economy. The role of information as knowledge capital means that there is a danger of inappropriate commercialisation of information, which can militate against the optimal social use of this resource. Similarly, low levels of information literacy can exclude the individual from full membership of the information society. Information professionals are in a prime position to address these problems, since the information mediator can both act against inappropriate commercialisation of information and can, in a pedagogic role, offset the social disadvantages of information illiteracy. The social impact of information mediation has never been more important. Consequently, if the information professional does not rise to the challenge of leadership within the new information order, there is a danger that society at large will become "information-saturated and simultaneously ignorant", leaving any higher vision of information citizenship as a devalued and unachieved ideal.
The notion that we now live in an information society, a society dependent upon the creation, manipulation, commercialisation, delivery and consumption of information, is a theory which has evolved over the past fifty years or so. As a theory it is much criticised (Webster, 1995), though its very existence highlights certain features of modern society which Feather describes as "the pervasiveness and visibility of information in contemporary society" (Feather, 2003).
I will use the term "information society" not to describe a radical new form of society but to discuss an era where information and communications technologies are of increasing importance in many aspects of our lives and where the ability to access and comprehend information are valuable skills.
The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web is a significant feature of the information society. Like a virtual pool the Web reflects the society that stares in to it. It acts as a microcosm of information society trends, influences and issues. From its origins in military communications and academia in the United States it has grown at an incredible rate. As more people in the developed world had access to computers for study and work the Web began to grow, to reach out and different uses were found for it. Its central purpose as a medium of electronic communication was appropriated by various interest groups; personal, professional, community, government and business. The potential of the Web seemed limitless, and many utopian information society visions seem to have grown from this sense of raw potentiality. In a world of competition, consumerism and fragmented societies here was a medium which allowed people to communicate with one another, to connect, to provide information, to share. However, the commercial sector has been quick to harness the potential of the medium and is a powerful force in driving the development of models for its application.
The commercialisation of the Web is apparent in many ways. Whilst commercial ventures on the medium have had their successes and failures, online shopping has firmly established itself in the consumer consciousness. Budget airlines, which offer the facility to book flights online, are currently doing particularly well in contrast to larger airlines. Bulk e-mails marketing obscure services are an everyday arrival in many inboxes. At many commercial sites the information seeker has to enter in to a Faustian bargain with the information provider; in order to access the required information the information seeker must hand over his/her personal details, leaving them open to junk e-mail marketing.
Running through the development of the Web is a theme of conflict between proprietary versus open standards. This is a struggle for the very soul of the Web. The World Wide Web Consortium, whose director Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, describes its mission as
"to lead the Web to its full potential, which it does by developing technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) that will create a forum for information, commerce, inspiration, independent thought, and collective understanding" (World Wide Web Consortium, 2003).
As a "vendor-neutral organization" the Consortium "promotes interoperability by designing and promoting open (non-proprietary) computer languages and protocols that avoid the market fragmentation of the past" (World Wide Web Consortium, 2003). Those companies competing in the marketplace do not necessarily have the same agenda.
The growth of the Internet and its ubiquitous use in study and work creates new areas of concern. Town notes the problem of information illiteracy within higher education:
"students are relying uniformly on the web and show a lack of understanding about the resources available to them 'because all the information is in the same place'. The web may have 'changed everything' but in doing so it has created a new problem of information illiteracy; that of false confidence in the internet as a complete information resource." (Town, 2003)
There is such a proliferation of content across such a range of areas, available with such immediacy that the sheer volume of information can seem overwhelming. For sufferers of this "information anxiety" the simplicity of the Google search interface must act as a calming tonic. It is not demanding of the information seeker in the formulation of search terms and almost always produces vast numbers of hits. It even helps out with your spelling.
Faced with such a bewildering array of electronic sources of information the ease and immediacy of retrieval becomes as important as the quality of the resource retrieved. This may be the most significant challenge to the information profession in the information society, to map and signpost the information landscape. This has been the traditional role of the librarian and whilst the information domain is changing the core principles of the profession remain as important to society as ever.
There are many ways in which the information profession may carry out this process of mediation. It may go on behind the scenes in creating databases and systems which use technology to assist the user in searching, for example by providing appropriate metadata for electronic resources to ensure that they are retrievable, or by using technology to group information resources of different types and different locations. Despite advances in technology this mediating role seems ever important. Machines simply cannot understand the semantic complexities and subtleties of language which may be vitally important in retrieving appropriate resources, therefore humans have to play a significant role in this process.
The information profession can mediate by providing access to resources which are free of a commercial hook. This does not necessarily mean that access to these resources will be free. Access may appear to be free at the point of use however. The mediation role in this context involves carrying out financial negotiations with publishers and other electronic information providers, and in ensuring that the appropriate technology is in place to allow seamless access to resources.
Another area in which the process of mediation may take place is in working towards the use of agreed open standards in content and information formats for the digital environment. Issues surrounding access to electronic information and the accessibility of the information itself are now on the agenda in the creation of resources for the digital environment. The importance of long term access to digital material demands that appropriate formats are used for its preservation, a difficult task when faced with the rapid obsolescence of electronic data formats.
The role of mediator may involve ensuring that there are public access points to the global information environment. There is a growing digital divide between those that might be described as information rich (with access to technology, information networks and the appropriate skills to manipulate them) and information poor (locked out of the digital environment through lack of skills and access points). This divide can be seen at local, regional and international level. At all these levels this divide becomes more and more significant as the ability to manipulate information becomes increasingly important in an economic context. As the government and other public sector organisations, as well as the private sector race to deliver services online, there is a danger of increased social exclusion unless there are agents operating within communities who can offer not only access to the digital environment but also the skills in information literacy required to benefit from it. Public libraries seem well placed to take on this role. Muddiman updates the information profession's public service ethos;
"the information and library community can challenge the inequalities, injustices and chaos of postmodern capitalism by building new pathways to knowledge based on values of social justice; universal literacy and the right to know." (Muddiman, 2003)
This mediating role between society and the information environment extends the public service tradition of the public library sector and is vitally important. There is a discernable level of technological determinism in the rhetoric surrounding information society issues. Some of this rhetoric seems to suggest that social good will somehow automatically flow from the diffusion of technology through society. However, technology is not neutral, it reflects its social context. Therefore the process of filtering its socially beneficial potential through society must be actively managed.
As Suaiden notes in his article on the social impact of public libraries in this issue of Library Review, if they wish to take on this responsibility libraries must reach out to their communities, beyond their regular users to those who may not have used their services before. Public libraries, in terms of their patrons (middle class, educated, literate) may reflect social divides - however, this does not mean that they have to perpetuate them. As society changes so might the role played by public libraries; from supplying books for those who enjoy reading for leisure to empowering those who risk being excluded from the information society by enabling them to interact with it in various ways (by accessing services online, by gaining skills which improve their employability, by helping them to become more critical consumers of information). In this way libraries can continue to play a valuable socially beneficial role in the modern era. However, this role is not omnipotent - fundamental social inequalities must be addressed by powerful political forces other than the information and library community. Information literacy can only take its place on the social agenda if the most basic needs for adequate housing, health care, safety and food have been met.
Moreover, the difference between information skills (required to evaluate the quality and relevance of information) and technical skills (required to work a computer and access electronic information resources) is not always recognised. In a knowledge economy both sets of skills are essential. Acquisition of one skill set does not guarantee the acquisition of the other. Perhaps in some sense due to a pervasive utopian vision of technology as symbol of social progress, information obtained through a computer seems to acquire validity simply from the medium of its delivery. As anecdotal evidence of this one might cite the content of chain e-mails which is of dubious informational value yet is consumed (by some) as if it were a public statement of the same reliability as a newspaper article.
This phenomenon had more serious consequences for the government of the Kiribati Islands, a small archipelago in the Pacific. A satirical web site based in New Zealand published an article suggesting that the United States government had reassessed its foreign policy to include the goal of regime change in the Kiribati Islands (Spinner, 2002). The story caused such a level of concern amongst the population of the Islands that the office of the President carried out a series of broadcasts in order to calm public fears (Pacific Media Watch, 2002).
The speed of communication flows enabled by constant developments in technology demands information literacy (rather than simply a narrower set of IT skills) in order to process the volume of information that we receive. Information providers in an economy based on "digital capitalism" (Muddiman, 2003) have their own agendas. The immediacy of the television coverage of the war in Iraq seemed as significant to the networks themselves (in terms of competitive advantage rather than public spiritedness) as its accuracy. The role of information mediation is as important now as it ever has been, if we are to avoid becoming "an information-saturated and simultaneously ignorant" (Webster and Dempsey, 1999) society, " a scenario that would be not only educationally undesirable but also socially disastrous.
Feather, J. (2003), "Theoretical perspectives on the information society", in Hornby, S. and Clarke, Z (Eds.), Challenge and change in the information society, Facet Publishing, London, pp. 3-17.
Muddiman, D. (2003), "World gone wrong? Alternative conceptions of the information society", in Hornby, S. and Clarke, Z (Eds.), Challenge and change in the information society, Facet Publishing, London, pp. 42-59.
Pacific Media Watch (2002), Kiribati: Government duped by 'US invasion' website satire, Pacific Media Watch, Melbourne. Available URL http://www.asiapac.org.fj/cafepacific/resources/aspac/kiri3823.html (checked 6 May 2003).
Spinner: New Zealand News (2002), Bush to invade Kiribati Islands, Spinner Multinational News Corporation. Available URL http://www.spinner.co.nz/test.php?storynum=169 (checked 6 May 2003).
Town, J. S. (2003), "Information literacy and the information society", in Hornby, S. and Clarke, Z (Eds.), Challenge and change in the information society, Facet Publishing, London, pp. 83-103.
Webster, F. and Dempsey, L. (1999), Virtual library - false dawn?, UKOLN, Bath. Available URL http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/ukoln/dempsey-1999-01/ (checked 6 May 2003).
Webster, F. (1995), Theories of the information society. Routledge, London.
World Wide Web Consortium (2003), W3C in 7 points, World Wide Web Consortium, Cambridge, Sophia Antipolis, Tokyo. Available URL http://www.w3.org/Consortium/Points/ (checked 6 May 2003).