ASSOCIATES (2006, July, v. 13, no. 1) -

Environmental Information


Frank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University
School of Library and Information Sciences


A rarely considered major source of information is the physical world itself. Probably the most obvious example of this environmental information is tree rings. I suspect that all of us remember how to calculate the age of a tree: count the rings. We observe the environment and, by giving meaning to our observations, we create environmental information.

As I was preparing this column I read an article by Marcia Bates of UCLA (2005) in which she discussed this idea differentiating (among other things) what she called information 1 and information 2. She defined information as natural patterns of matter, energy, and the pattern’s derivatives. The pattern itself constitutes information 1, and the pattern given meaning constitutes information 2. For example, tree rings are information 1 whether or not they are observed (whether or not there is anything to observe them, in fact), because they are a patterned organization of matter. An observer is necessary, however, to give the rings significance, converting information 1 (the external pattern) to information 2 (the external pattern with meaning).

This model actually answers the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” When the tree hits the ground, it causes vibrations (a pattern of energy) as well as breaking the tree (a changed pattern of matter). Information 1 has been produced. Since there is no one present to hear the tree fall, information 2 has not been produced. (In my opinion the original question assumes that only humans give meaning. I can’t imagine a tree that is not home and neighbor to innumerable birds, insects, spiders, and so many others. And I suggest that they can give the new patterns all sorts of meaning producing a large variety of information 2.)

So the observed environment being converted into environmental information by an observer who adds meaning is very similar to Bates’ ideas of information 1 and information 2. I’ll alternate between these expressions through the rest of this column.


One example of information 2, discussed in the Wikipedia, is Benford's Law (aka the first-digit law), which says that in lists of numbers taken from real-life the number one is the most common leading non-zero digit (it is first approximately 30% of the time). The law was propounded by Frank Benford in 1938. This law was suggested to Benford by a regularity first noticed and documented by Simon Newcomb. Newcomb's 1881 article noted that, in tables of logarithms, the pages containing the entries beginning with one were the most well-worn, followed by those beginning with two, etc. In other words the amount of paper-wear (this pattern of material constituting information 1) was given meaning by Newcombe (creating information 2).

There are many other examples of environmental information (or Marcia Bates’ information 1). Two examples from libraries (at least those with card catalogs) are the wear on card edges and the wear on book pages. When I was a youngster (yes, dinosaurs were roaming the earth at the time) I could see which cards were well-thumbed and tell which parts of the library were popular (converting information 1 to information 2). Then I could select a book (slyly bypassing the Stegosaurus at the circulation desk) and tell what parts were well-read by the worn pages (converting the observed environment into environmental information). Of course whether I read the popular material or avoided it assiduously depended on my mood that day (I was an adolescent boy, after all).

An example from the news is NASA’s most recent attempt to launch a space shuttle. On both Saturday, July 1, and Sunday, July 2, the launch was postponed because of the cloud formation at Cape Canaveral. These were anvil clouds (what my father-in-law called Thor’s hammer) which almost always contain electrical charge. These clouds constitute the observed environment. But, based on centuries of observations, meteorologists add meaning (“Danger, Will Robinson!”) creating environmental information.

Another example familiar to many men (and an increasing number of women) is that odd sound your car makes (you know the one, all cars have them) heard at the most inconvenient times. Some effect of use and wear has altered the pattern of matter and energy in place when the car was bought (representing a change in information 1). If we know enough, we add meaning to the altered pattern (creating information 2) and fix the problem. (If we don’t know enough to add “what-the-problem-is” meaning, we can add “we-had-better-go-to-the-mechanic” meaning.)

Often, a car’s odd sounds are the results of running over (or through) potholes. Without doubt these represent a change in the pattern of matter and energy (the observable environment). Everyone who calls their county (or state) government to demand that roads be fixed has added meaning creating environmental information.

And, of course, we see examples of this dynamic process every week when we watch CSI (or its derivatives). (You may not watch CSI, but juries have been dramatically affected by it.) But fingerprints, DNA, bullets, and trace evidence left at crime scenes (or the same things taken away from crime scenes) are all patterns of matter or energy (information 1) which the characters give meaning in order to solve crimes (creating information 2).

This conversion of the observed environment into environmental information (or Bates’ information 1 into information 2) is an example of the interaction of an observer and Ranganthan’s three planes of work (see Bear Thoughts #2). Beginning with the notation plane (in this case the observed pattern of matter or energy), the viewer describes what is seen in language work on the verbal plane), and, finally, converts the description into workable concepts (work on the idea plane).


So what, you ask, does all this mean to me in my library? First of all every group, whether professional, ethnic, religious, or whatever, which has some contact with the environment creates environmental information. But different groups may observe the same environmental element and create different environmental information. For example, a geologist may look at a rock and see a material form likely to have had a certain history, while a zoologist observing the same rock may see a microenvironment typically protecting various animals, and an environmental scientist observing the same rock may see an indicator of a desert habitat. The rock is information 1; members of each group add meaning converting the information 1 into information 2.

You don’t have to have to be a part of a formal group to observe the environment and create environmental information. Every child does it whenever they play; in fact every person does it every day. And, I believe, so does every other living being. Recently, the BBC news reported that long-distance migratory birds are changing their behavior (flying days, etc.) in response to climate changes. The birds observe changing patterns (information 1) and add their meaning (creating information 2). Then ornithologists and bird watchers observe the changing migratory flights (which have reverted to information 1) and add their meaning making another layer of information 2.


This issue of Bear Thoughts examined the environment as an information source. We have a tendency to think about the kind of objects in library collections as information, but their contents were derived from something. And those contents were derived from something else. Eventually it all gets back to the observable world.

Whether you call it the observed environment and environmental information or information 1 and information 2, it is one of the great invisible presences, so I have a request. Please send me examples of environmental information that make it into your life. Send them to

And thanks.

Bates, M.J. (2005). “Information and knowledge: an evolutionary framework for information science.” Information research. 10(4).

About Us | Subscribe/Unsubscribe | Editors | Submit | Current Issue | Archives | Home