Social Aspects of Information

By Chu, Felix | Library Philosophy and Practice, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Social Aspects of Information


Chu, Felix, Library Philosophy and Practice


Introduction

In recent decades, institutions have been moving away from the positivism evident in many disciplines in the earlier years of the 20th century. Instead of seeking for a single truth or standard, institutional assessments have become local in nature within a framework of best practices. Similarly, librarianship must move in that direction in responding to local needs. With the advent of a new century in an increasingly heterogeneous environment, one needs to understand that a piece of information does not have a single meaning but may be interpreted in various ways by different groups of people.

This paper looks at access points to library collections. The access points to books, journal articles, and other documents are those assigned by catalogers and indexers in the guise of subject headings, descriptors, and call numbers. These are primarily subject-oriented approaches. While the first groups allow browsing on the computer screen, the call numbers allow browsing of the physical shelves. Another source that has become available since the switch from card catalogs and paper-based tools to OPACs and other online tools is searching by keywords with relevance rankings. However, users are still unable to filter out unwanted materials or are not able to access relevant documents, because of factors such as discipline-specific meaning and usage of common terms.

Over the years, many authors have dealt with the difficulty of access. The user and the cataloger agree roughly a third of the time or less about the topics of abstracts, texts or other materials. (1) Connell also comments that differences in the use of terminology, semantics, and individual point of view contribute to how a book is described by an indexer and a user. (2) While searching by keywords may be presented as an option, as Fugmann says, "here we encounter the failure to realize that the word in its use in natural language is not intended for use in isolation. It is only in its context that the word assumes its meaning and importance." (3) Since a text has embedded meanings, the indexer or cataloger has to interpret and translate concepts into appropriate subject headings. The problem of interpretation was brought out earlier by Ingwersen and Wormell. They state that while retrieval using library tools tends to be based on an "exact match" paradigm dependent on commonality of understandings, expectations, goals and concept interpretation, the dynamic nature of society does not provide such a homogeneous approach among individuals such as the indexer and the library user. (4) One's interpretation is based on prior knowledge and experiences that are not shared. Kuhlthau went on to say that while the research paradigm may assume order, the personal interpretation may be a process of sense-making where one selectively attends to certain details. (5) In trying to understand the text, "the more complex or ambiguous the stimulus, the more the perception is determined by what is already 'in' the individual and less by what is 'in' the stimulus." (6) One applies search strategies and understands the results based on professional, ethnic or other characteristics that one has acquired. But at the same time, these characteristics will rule out other competing paradigms. Thus, lawyers may infer from the text and try to resolve conflicts among the sources, while engineers may make certain assumptions that sit behind the text, evaluate the sources, and seek out the best answer. (7)

The Social Aspects of Information

The concept of the social nature of information has engendered published research in many fields. While it is evident from the literature cited above that text is subject to interpretation, the literature on the social aspect of information in librarianship is rather sparse. For example, Alfino and Pierce recently presented an analysis on the moral value of information that may impinge on our professional values which are guided by a belief in the neutrality of information. …

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