ASSOCIATES (2009, March, v. 15, no. 3)


Bear Thoughts #11: The Ubiquity of Information

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


This column is being written under duress (my mind keeps telling me I don’t have anything to say) but there is a deadline, so …

Let’s try this. It seems to me that we can’t escape information. Maybe it is just being around libraries, but information seems to surround me, to fill every view, to impinge in each experience. Sometimes it’s as I’m drowning in it, and I don’t even know what it is!

(Wait a minute. Drowning in information is a cliché! OMG, I’m going to drown in a cliché! My mind is right I don’t have anything to say!)

Sigh. OK. Let us look at this ubiquitous stuff, this oxygen of intelligence.


I just whined that information is everywhere and it is in all environments. For example:

So I guess it is everywhere. Darn it all!


Now the obvious follow-up question is, “Where is the good information?”

Unfortunately, it is available in many fewer places. For example, many years ago (when, as I often say, the dinosaurs were walking the earth) and I worked at Bell Laboratories, I had an office mate who was allergic to almost everything. Foods, chemicals, and environmental contaminants were just some of her worries. Oh and did I mention medicines – she was allergic to many of those as well. Her doctor was on the faculty of the University of Chicago School of Medicine; you might expect him (it was a him as I remember) to be aware of the contraindications of all prescribed drugs, but you would be wrong. Every time she got a new prescription, she had to go to her private copy of PDR (back in the days when PDR only came as a big, expensive book). Invariably the doctor had prescribed something to which she was allergic. The same thing happened when she saw a specialist. So apparently, a highly educated authority figure, who would pass any library worker’s trustworthiness test, might be so wrong that he or she would do serious damage.

And then there is the father of my pharmacist from ten years ago. (The dinosaurs had gone extinct, but we still had to worry about woolly mammoths.) Mr. Lloyd was elderly and came down with something serious, which a doctor a Duke University Medical Center diagnosed and prescribed medicine for. His daughter, feeling that something was wrong, asked me to find out about the condition he was diagnosed with and the medicine he was given. A few hours with the Internet (especially material for Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins students) showed me that the condition was very commonly misdiagnosed and that the prescribed medication, if the patient had something else, would cause permanent blindness. I also discovered that there was an easy blood test. When Ms. Lloyd mentioned this to the doctor (the day after the original diagnosis), the doctor said, “Gosh, you know all the newest research, don’t you.” By the way, Mr. Lloyd did not have the diagnosed disease, and he didn’t go blind. Aren’t we library workers cool?

So what we know is that what should be good information isn’t. And then there is the information we expect to be bad (or at least expect might be bad). Advertising and political speech are two examples. Both are intended to sell us on products, although only one is honest about it. I expect a company’s sales pitch to be biased; I wish political speech, which claims to be analysis, weren’t just as unreliable. Governance only works when commentators with different points of view use facts (or what they declare to be facts) that are true (as opposed to those false facts we keep hearing). There is a reason that lying is a cardinal sin and why, we are told, there are only 144,000 souls in heaven. Clearly there are no TV talking heads among them.

So even though information is ubiquitous good information is rare. Darn it all again!


Now the obvious follow-up question is, “Is there anywhere that is devoid of information?” That’s a hard one. I’m tempted to say school is devoid of information, but that is just my cynical side. I’m also tempted to that the polar ice shelves are devoid of information, but, just as they are not devoid of life, they are not devoid of information.

So I have to say that there really is no place where information isn’t unless it is in the mind of someone unwilling to ask about it. This may be awful but, then again, it may be wonderful.

I’ll leave that up to you.


So what does it all mean? I see three areas where it affects our daily interactions:

Don’t forget that each patron lives in a world in which information is ubiquitous, a place separate from your world in which information is ubiquitous. Any transaction (whether reference, cataloging, or other) takes place in the space common to both worlds (think Boolean AND). The more you and your patron have in common the larger the common area, and the easier the interaction will be. But the less you and your patron have in common the smaller the common area, and the harder the interaction will be.

This is equally true when facing our collections: the authors (and publishers and CIP catalogers) all have their information-laden worlds, which are different from yours. We are lucky that the common area among us doesn’t disappear more often than it does.

And finally, there are our interactions with the world. At this point, I feel overwhelmed, so I’ll let you tell me where your minds whirl off to.


So let’s see where we went with this column. I think it is semi-coherent but I’m not sure. It came out in a burst (like an explosion), but it did make my deadline (just barely). I hope it starts your mind going. If so, let me know what bursts forth by writing me at