Magazine article Online

Information Overload? Maybe Not

Magazine article Online

Information Overload? Maybe Not

Article excerpt

Here's a common observance, popular with librarians and in the mainstream media: We're drowning in information. The biggest problem we have is silting through all that data flying at us. I wondered if it's just information professionals who worry about this, so I polled 13 undergraduate students to get their views. Their response? Blank stares. They simply did not know what I was talking about.

So I tried another approach. "When you do a Google search, does it cause you a bit of dismay that you have 3,247,459 results?" Blank stares. I doubt that any of them even noticed how many results they had.

Being a savvy professor, I stopped questioning them before they decided that I was a complete fool. I really didn't need to ask anything more, because I'd already grasped where they were coming from. Imagine this: You are starving and someone presents you with a table laden with 40,000 hamburgers. Would you exclaim, "Oh goody, I'm going to sample every one of them until I find the best one?" No, you would grab the first burger you could get your hands on, eat it, and, if necessary, devour the next two or three. The pile of 40,000 wouldn't mean much, because there is no way to deal with that many hamburgers. You choose what you need and you ignore the rest.

The Net Generation has learned how to deal with the flood of data simply by picking what is easiest to access and letting the rest go. Sure, there might be better data deeper in the pile, but there seems to be no practical way to sift through it--unless you never sleep again. If the easily accessible data looks OK, then it has to be OK. Bye-bye, information overload. This leaves information literacy instructors with three options.


Over the past several years, a number of voices have called for an end to the information literacy movement. "It doesn't work," "It's a waste of time," "People will make do without it," and so on. Given that we increasingly find that folks pull back when faced with tons of information and work within the narrow parameters of the first few results, this approach would say, "Let them do that."

There are correctives, of course--professors who insist on journals in bibliographies or workplace managers who demand that their employees become adept at the company intranet. So the "leave them alone" position gets somewhat modified by a "straighten them out when they need it" add-on. Yet, for the most part, "leave them alone" means that we let them muddle.

Why would we do that? I think it boils down to past experience. Information literacy instruction is unpopular with students, and those instructed often revert to old habits the very minute the instruction ends. The world seems to be going along just fine without a major emphasis on information literacy. Why rock the boat? Leave it alone.

This position is also a response to our failure to get information literacy firmly into the agenda of higher education and the workplace. When Paul G. Zurkowski first called for a national training program to make the U.S. population information literate within a decade--that was in 1974--he was pretty much pushed aside by everyone except librarians. The information literacy movement has grown, but its impact on higher education and the workplace has been underwhelming and frustrating. If this is the best we can do, why bother? Let's just pack up our tents and go home.

I wish I could unerringly predict where the information world will be in 10 years, or 50, so I could gauge the coming importance of information literacy, but I can't. It is possible, though, to make some guesses: We will likely see a strong move toward simpler but more intelligent interfaces for information search. Semantic search functions will be big on the agenda, though one wonders if a computer will ever effectively be able to read what users actually want from the words they provide.

At the same time, the keyword will remain dominant as the tool to compose searches. …

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