Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Information as a Value Concept: Reconciling Theory and Practice

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Information as a Value Concept: Reconciling Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

When the gulf between theory and practice in librarianship is discussed generally two themes emerge, which are that theorizing about librarianship is mostly non-existent and, when such theorizing exists at all, it is largely irrelevant to library practice. For instance, scholars have expressed concern about the relative absence of theory to explain librarianship's practices. As H. Curtis Wright observed, American librarians have never been comfortable with philosophy. (1) Antony Brewerton observed that the English also tend to "fight shy" of philosophy, finding that of 23 hits retrieved for "philosophy of librarianship" in a search of LISA, most were by Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Polish or French authors. (2) Accordingly, librarianship risks intellectual isolation as it remains aloof from theorizing about itself and the nature of information. (3) The implication of this is either that librarianship's theory will never be articulated adequately or those who do the articulating will not be librarians. (4) On the other hand mathematical theories of communication, which focus on closed information systems and probability theory, pay scant attention to the semantics or meaningfulness of information content. (5) The failure of such theories to focus on information content raises questions about their relevance to the practices of librarians and library users. (6)

Since 1945 theorists have sought explanatory models and techniques for information retrieval from mathematical information theory. (7) The primary assumption this theory makes about the nature of information has been that it is characterized by selection, that certain information has value by virtue of the exclusion of other information, and such states of affair are represented by probabilistic description. Consequently, the predominant concept of information is that it is quantitatively measurable and thus "factual". (8) All the same, theories describing information are diverse. The several theories discussed in this article describe information either as a conduit model whereby signals carrying information are sent to a receiver which decodes the original message, as a nested relationship of intentionality between phenomena and their representations, as a organizational structure of thought in which perceptions are related to conceptual categories, or as a basic structure of thought that imposes a pattern on both what counts as acceptable knowledge and systems of social organization.

This article's central thesis is that the concept of information favored by materialist theories is not interchangeable with the concepts preferred by idealists and critical theorists. The materialist concept of information places too much emphasis on the factual nature of information, while demurring its evaluative component altogether. Idealists and critical theorists have been able to describe an evaluative concept of information; and it is this sense of information that threads throughout librarianship from its oral cultural beginnings to the present day. (9) The idea that information has personal and social value resonates within librarianship and has been discussed in varying degrees by several important library thinkers. The discussion which follows is limited principally to selected works by librarian-theorists Michael K. Buckland, Jesse H. Shera, H. Curtis Wright, and Ronald E. Day. These theorists were selected because they have written about information as a value concept and represent materialist, idealist, and critical theory perspectives in librarianship.

This is a philosophical article and will analyze metaphysical theories about the evaluative nature of information. Neither historical nor social scientific procedures are used to collect and analyze data. Rather, analytic philosophy, whose aim is to resolve conceptual confusions and provide clear (10) representation of the use of language, is the primary analytical tool used here. Analytic philosophy is prominent in both Europe and the United States. …

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