On the Nature of Information & Patron Value

In grad school, we spent a huge amount of time debating the nature of data, information, knowledge, and even wisdom.

On January 8, 2014, I tweeted the following:

It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever tweeted.

A couple of people took issue with my use of the word “information”. One person argued that information refers to things like bus schedules but not to things like the First Folio of Shakespeare.

I explained to this person that I used “information” in my tweet to refer to the entire corpus of recorded human thought and effort. Twitter isn’t the proper venue for detailed discussions of grammatical nuance.

But what I wanted to say in response was this:

Of course Shakespeare is information! It’s not the same information as a bus schedule, and it has a very different value than a bus schedule, but it is information—Shakespeare’s work informs our understanding of the world.

For that matter, I would argue that a bus schedule is more properly identified as data, not information.

I’ve argued before that information is data in context. It follows that information will be as varied, and as varied in value, as there are different contexts for seeking and accessing it.

The reason I keep coming back to this person’s comment regarding Shakespeare and bus schedules is because of what it says about our assumptions and how we impose value on our resources.

I was taught that it’s not a librarian’s place to judge the information needs of a patron, and I believe in the importance of this rule. If a resource is important to a patron, then it’s important and I have no right to gainsay that. Information is data in context—and the most important context is the patron’s need. We have both Shakespeare and bus schedules on the shelves at my library and guess which gets used most often?

I understand that Shakespeare is far more information-dense than a bus schedule and therefore has the potential to prove valuable to more people in wider variety of circumstances. I avow that Shakespeare is very important to me, personally, and the First Folio played a central role in my training as an actor. I avow that Shakespeare is culturally important in ways that a bus schedule can never be.

But when someone needs to get to work and their car won’t start—in that circumstance, the bus schedule has far more value to them than a sonnet.

This person isn’t wrong to point out that Shakespeare and bus schedules have different value. But they fail to acknowledge how context affects that relative value.

As a librarian, when I walk into a situation assuming that I know the true value of any given resource, I fear that this will blind me to the needs of my patrons—the essential context that determines what resources are valuable to them—and prevent me from providing successful service.

It’s not my job to dictate the value of the resources in my collection—it’s my job to help patrons with whatever they need.

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