Information Literacy versus “The Librarian’s Stamp of Approval”

Ten years ago, in the Spring of 1996, I was learning of my acceptance to library school and introducing myself to the world-expanding wonders of the internet. (I intend that sentence to be read without irony, as I can recall clearly what a revelation it was when I first browsed the web, sent and read emails, and chatted online, and how immediate was my awareness that my life would be forever changed by this technology.)

I remember the way the web was discussed in the news media and in my library school classes during that time period. In the popular mind, there was both anxiety and excitement about the democratizing aspect of the web and how it would enable both popular dissent and popular deception and irrationalism. What a threat it could be, people thought, that just anyone could put up a web page as “real”-looking as something that came from an authoritative source, and “fool people.” Librarians, anxious about comparisons of the internet to a “huge library in your own home,” immediately saw that the public’s anxiety could work to our advantage, and that it might in fact be the salvation of our social relevance. “Librarians,” we said to each other, “can be the professionals the public looks to for help sorting out the good from the bad. We are, after all, information experts.” And so began the thread of discourse that, based on the librarian’s role in selecting authoritative reference materials, attempted to place the librarian in the role of gatekeeper to the “good information” on the web. The idea of the librarian’s stamp of approval of internet resources was born.

Librarians do indeed evaluate reference materials for authoritativeness as a source of facts; that is one of the primary criteria. But rather than the rule for collection development, evaluation of reference materials is really a special case. Outside of the reference collection, decisions about what to buy are not based so much on the question, “Can I trust it?” but on a host of other questions relating to relevance in terms of the mission of the library (as well as to a concept of quality and also to the limitations of cost). What was disregarded in this discourse about the librarian’s stamp of approval was the fact that the wide-ranging, incredibly diverse internet is not analagous to a reference collection, but to a whole library and something much broader than a library. The internet is more than something to refer to as a reference for facts. In fact, the audiences and purposes of the billions of pages on the web are broader and more diverse than any library. What this means is that any decisions about what to include in an internet directory would, if based on standard ideas in collection development, have to deal not so much with authoritativeness as with a much expanded idea of relevance, because there is no one institution in question and no one mission at play.

Seen in terms of a carefully-selected, authoritative reference collection, the idea of a “librarian’s stamp of approval” has a certain attraction, the attraction of security. But once you acknowledge that the internet is not analagous to a reference collection but to the world of publishing as a whole, an approved list of websites becomes analagous to an approved list of books. Now, it is often appropriate for librarians, doing readers’ advisory, to recommend a book or a website to a patron based on an understanding of their specific information need – their specific problem, perspective, educational background, and sometimes taste – and the ability to do this, to apply our knowledge of the information world to an individual’s situation through interpretation and empathy, is part of our professional role. (We understand that relevance is relative.) And it is also often appropriate for us to publish indexes and bibliographies that pull together resources on a topic for a particular audience according to particular standards. But it has never been appropriate for us to publish a list of “approved books,” selected from the totality of the published record, for an audience of all people. Such a thing would obviously be seen as a totalitarian conception.

Over the years, as we and the public have gotten used to the internet, we have come to conceptualize our role in relation to the internet somewhat differently. Rather than answering the question, “Can I trust it?,” we now tend to answer orienting questions like, “What is this?,” “How does it relate to my need?” and “Where does this come from?” Helping to teach users how to answer this type of question for themselves, and how to decide whether a resource is right or wrong for them rather than right or wrong in some universal sense, is now how we see our role in teaching information literacy. How we translate this educational role into a web presence is an unsolved problem, but I think most of us are, at this point, unsatisfied with simply telling patrons whether a website is “good” or “bad,” and feel that if we give patrons that kind of oversimplified, easy answer we are robbing them of an educational opportunity and pandering to their laziness.

This is why, after considerable soulsearching, I am uncomfortable supporting the Librarians’ Index to the Internet in their campaign to have their full funding restored. As you have probably read, this year’s California State Library budget cuts their funding in half, which has implications for their staffing. Librarians tend to support LII because they represent a major presence for librarians on the internet. (The website statistics for LII are undeniably impressive.) But LII is the primary manifestation on the internet of the “librarian’s stamp of approval,” their slogan being “Websites you can trust.” I think this “stamp of approval” orientation of librarians to the internet is a part of the past, so I think I rather support the funding cut. Now I think the creative work ahead is to find ways to make the librarian’s real role as an educator and an orientor to information, with the consciousness that “relevance is relative,” more present in the web environment. I welcome with enthusiasm projects that work in that direction.

10 comments on “Information Literacy versus “The Librarian’s Stamp of Approval”

  1. To expect library users to willingly subject themselves to us teaching them anything, let alone something they don’t see to be necessary, is folly. The LII is a wonderful resource because it is the only general purpose Internet directory that has principles. In an society that is awash with web sites vying for your attention, who wouldn’t want some guidance and advice regarding what is worthy of your attention? Isn’t that what all these tag-sharing services are about? And Amazon’s Listmania? And many other services that try to help people decide what is good? I can’t believe you would not support librarians in providing the same kind of guidance that everyone else is out there providing. Are librarians any less worthy than the average joe on the street?

  2. Thinking about it further, maybe what I think we need is for LII to be more 2.0. That is, more customized and based on the individual needs of individual users, in such a way that our expertise as interpreters, orienters and translators of user needs is brought to bear. What LII is now is a list of “approved” sites. If it serves a real function for people it seems to me it is to provide validation of a website’s “reliability” or “authoritativeness,” as though information sources other than reference sources can be evaluated and understood in those terms. To that extent I think LII as it is now is facile and does users and librarians a disservice. A more individualized guide, that relates to the question of relevance to individual user needs, if it could be done somehow, is more what’s in order, in my opinion. I apologize if I am offending anyone’s religious beliefs.

  3. Rather than engage here on Library Juice, soon I’ll be publishing our survey results. Rory is entitled to his own beliefs, but so are our users.

  4. I think that the key here is to do both: have an index of vetted sites AND teach users how to find what they deam reliable and useable.

  5. Part of our mission–a part destroyed by our budget cut–is to educate. 10% of our users hear about us through presentations. Furthermore, there is such a thing as educating by example. Our vetted sites are a weekly reminder of what makes a good website. If you don’t see that in what we offer, then yes, you might see LII as obsolete. But year after year our survey results show that librarians use us to help educate users, and themselves. It is a failure of imagination on Rory’s part not to see that role for LII.

  6. I agree that there’s always the possibility of some librarians presenting LII a bit too self-righteously or smugly to their patrons, or trying to foist it off on everyone as somehow perfect or the first or last resort in all situations. This says more about the laziness or ignorance of certain librarians than it does about LII, however.

    Why not conceptualize (and describe) LII as more of a “Consumer Reports” type of resource than a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” one? Granted, most library users don’t think they need guidance in sorting out information sources like (some of them feel) they need help in sorting through household products. But with enough education, or in certain circumstances (a classroom, perhaps?) thoughtful people might come to see the usefulness of recommended websites, if only to save themselves time searching through a set of Google search results. (Alas, as with consumer products, the great majority will settle for “good enough” instead of investing effort to obtain the “best” or “among the best” by whatever criteria one uses to define “best”.)

    After all, although some individuals might over-value (or under-value, for that matter)’s “reader comments,” not many people seem to object to their existence and wish they didn’t exist to consult if we want to do that.

    Also welcome and valuable are the recommended reading lists embedded in special purpose websites (e.g., some SF enthusiasts’ or organization’s humble or not-so-humble – opinions about The Best Science Fiction Books in the Galaxy). Similarly, at least SOME people out there might be interested to hear “what the librarians have to say” are the most reliable and/or authoritative websites for certain topics, just as people, in certain circumstances, are interested in or pay attention to lists of “award-winning” websites.

    The fact that everyone wouldn’t care to habitually check ILL doesn’t mean that no one will, or wouldn’t benefit from doing so, at least in certain circumstances (teachers or publishers citing certain sites in curriculum materials, for example).

    Seems to me that as the web itself expands and becomes more and more cluttered with dreck as well as with gold, the more a discerning eye is needed and will be appreciated.

    One final analogous example: Many avid readers feel an acute need these days for some place(s) to turn to in helping us with the “too many books, so little time” problem. It’s nice to have so many choices for advice, including a few created by librarians.

    If LII could do some good for certain audiences, why not encourage LII’s expansion and refinement? After all, I don’t see that it could do any harm, unless we get too smarmy about librarians’ opinions being somehow superior to other people’s.

  7. I like the “more like Consumer Reports, less like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” idea. However, I think we should go farther. The Consumer Reports approach has the virtue of being a little more multidimensional, because it provides evaluation in a number of different areas of quality. However, it is still more about “how good” than “how relevant.” I’d like to see something done by librarians that has to do with relevance. What are the weaknesses of “shoppers who liked X also like Y” systems? How could librarians’ knowledge of the information world and insight into people be brought to bear on that kind of web functionality? Or is that a question that simply points to the importance of real-life interaction?

  8. “What was disregarded in this discourse about the librarian’s stamp of approval was the fact that the wide-ranging, incredibly diverse internet is not analagous to a reference collection, but to a whole library and something much broader than a library.”

    I think this part of the LII is important and HUGE — to select and gather a “reference collection” out of that diverse internet. It’s a great service just like reference collections in public and academic libraries are a great service. It’s a service that I’m sure takes time and money and expertise. And publicity so that it is as well known as Wikipedia. And maybe you’re right — needs to be more “savy” in the ways that the Internet works today.

  9. I’ve always looked at LII as a great access point to collections that are otherwise difficult to get at — much the same as I view the Scout Report, America’s Memory, other such tools. Collections of useful grey lit and generally interesting “collections”, stuff that’s hard to find through google alone. I guess I have viewed them as libraries, themselves, holders of collections, not pages.

    And the fact that a person has gathered, assessed, cataloged these sites, well, that helps with the “Can I trust it?” part of the research. Something that is still very much a part of how I (think users/searchers should) approach materials on the Internet, just after (and sometimes before) Rory’s orienting questions of
    “What is this?,” “How does it relate to my need?” and “Where does this come from?”

    If we don’t work with patrons about how to answer questions about trust/authority of websites, then we aren’t teaching them the literacy skills they need in the current Information era.

    The orienting questions are the same ones we ask of the library catalog and the article databases — Is this a book, article, journal? What are the subject headings or contents? Who wrote it/published it? Asking “can I trust it?” is the added burden of escaping the library and searching the free web.

    And, LII is a great resource for helping patron’s (and Rory’s??) wish-fulfillment on not wanting to ask.

  10. I’m late coming to this post, and speaking of which I often wonder what happens to a comment that occurs very late in the life of a post. Read by no one, perhaps?
    Anyway, I remember 1996 too. A colleague and I were having coffee at the Caribou Coffee House across from MPOW, discussing value in providing “approved for your use by librarians” websites.
    We felt it was a dead idea, not necessarily because we didn’t think librarians had nothing to offer, but because we saw the wave of money that was about to poured into the Internet and its soon to be felt effects on the way consumers of information would behave. We just felt that the marketplace was going to dictate who had the “best” search engines and that people would gravitate towards (at the time) Yahoo anyway. Nope, we figured the best thing to do would be find a more appropriate niche, that the battle for marketshare was already a lost cause.

    Today, I feel pretty much the same way, but I also think that we have plenty of niches to fill without trying to become the arbiters of quality on the Internet. There is plenty of work for me to do on the local level- community building, working with non-profits, workforce development, on and on, that I see no threat from losing the fight to organize the Internet. Besides, with all the wicked cool things that Web 2.0 presents us with, the universe of possibilities is far more expansive for us.

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