Information Tsunami

One of the primary functions of libraries – and librarians – especially in our current Information Age, is to sort through the ocean of information available to us and find the truly worthwhile bits. We talk about “tsunamis” of information, “deluges” of information, and we’re acutely aware of how easily people can get lost and drown in it all.

I recently had an experience that made all this very real to me.


Like any librarian with a Twitter account of late, I was certainly aware of the Bookgate scandal rocking the Urbana Free Library over the past couple of weeks. Even casual perusal of my Twitter stream informed me that they’d massively over-weeded their non-fiction collection, that patrons were up in arms, that many were calling for the ouster of the library director, and that the library’s Board of Directors met to discuss the proper course of action.

I didn’t follow it beyond a casual perusal of my Twitter stream but even that much told me it was a massive snafu.

Still, I found myself curious… I didn’t see anything in my Twitter stream about the rest of the staff at the Urbana Free Library. Managers had to have seen these weeding lists; somebody had to go out into the stacks and physically pull all those books off the shelves.

Somebody had to have realized that something wasn’t right here.

I wanted to know how many of them questioned what they were being asked to do. I wanted to know what steps staff took to make sure that this was really what they were supposed to do.

The over-weeding required many people to go along with it. I was curious to know how that could happen.

[Before I proceed, I should note that I’m neither a reference nor a research librarian. I learned in my first semester of graduate school that I have no appreciable aptitude for targeted information searching. I’m confident that any reference or research librarians who read what follows will cringe at my ineptitude.]

Information Gathering Attempts

Like any good librarian, I went to Google to try and satisfy my curiosity. Searches for “Urbana Free Library,” “Urbana Library,” “weeding scandal,” and “Bookgate” / “Book Gate” (and combinations thereof) turned up a handful of articles that appeared reliable and worth reading – one or two articles from Library Journal, a blog post on Book Riot, a couple posts on professional blogs maintained by librarians, some articles from the Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette. From these, I learned that the timeline for weeding was very short – the lists weren’t distributed to managers until the weekend before weeding was to begin, and in some cases staff only had a half hour or less to go through them.

But none of these articles mentioned anything about specific staff actions to question or try to halt the process.

So I went to Twitter and searched the hashtag #BookGate. As of approximately 3:45 p.m. on June 21, 2013, there were by my count just over 700 tweets with this hashtag, beginning with the first one on June 14th. If I add in those tweets that included “Urbana Free Library” or “Urbana Library” without the #BookGate hashtag – that number jumped somewhere closer to 1,000.

There were some people tweeting links to the same articles I’d already read; but from an information-gathering standpoint, the overwhelming majority of the #BookGate tweets were noise: people expressing shock and horror, people asking for more information, retweets, etc. If the specific information I sought was there at all, it was buried in all this noise.

In such situations, there are two information-gathering strategies that I tend to fall back on, which are usually efficient and effective means of locating reliable information within the tsunami:

  1. Wait until everything is done and past, and once the noise has died down the good information should become easier to spot, it’s easier for the “best materials [to] bubble up to the top” (to reference the Book Riot post linked above).
  2. Ask.

I tried #2. I got on Twitter and asked if anyone knew if the staff of the Urbana Free Library questioned their instructions. I admit, my phrasing was somewhat clumsy and this strategy failed to bring me the information I was looking for.

So now I suppose I’ll wait until the hubbub dies down and get the 20/20 hind-sight summary of things.

What All This Taught Me

The thing is – in the grand scheme of the world, Bookgate is a relatively minor scandal of interest primarily to a small group of professionals and the patrons of the Urbana Free Library. And still the amount of information streaming through my personal network was enough to overwhelm me.

Imagine what it’s like when there’s a truly big news story.

This experience also brought home to me just how difficult it is to ask for information. Our society discourages questioning in some powerful ways and from an early age. Asking my question felt like an admission of failure – I can’t get past the sense that I should have been able to find this information on my own, and it’s a little embarrassing that I couldn’t. I think for some people who saw my question on Twitter, it seemed like I was cheating, somehow, trying to get out of having to do the work of finding the information myself.

Instead being a legitimate information-gathering strategy, asking for the information felt like – and was treated like – a cop-out, a cheat. Do you think library patrons feel this way, too, when they need help finding answers to their questions? If so, it’s a wonder any of them ever come to us for help at all!

As librarians, we want our patrons to feel comfortable coming to us with their questions. I wonder how many of them don’t, for these same reasons. I wonder how many of them walk away from their encounters with us feeling like I did – judged harshly and un-helped.

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