Information as a value concept: reconciling theory and practice.

Author:Wiessinger, Thomas

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. This method of analysis involves the exegesis, clarification, critique, and synthesis of ideas and their relationships, whether these relationships are logical or materially dependent on their content. Commenting on the importance of philosophical reflection to librarianship, Antony Brewerton writes that:

[Reflection] matters because it is continuous with practice: how you think about what you are doing affects how you do it or, indeed, whether you do it at all. Reflection can have a positive effect on how we function on a day to day basis. ... Without reflection we get stuck in our ways and refuse to see the viewpoint of others. Without reflection our attitude can become negative and, as Goya entitled one of his satires, The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters. (11) The particular ideas explored, which count as the data of this research, come from an interdisciplinary body of texts in librarianship, sociology, philosophy, and communications theory.

In an editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Charles Martell offers the following insight regarding the nature of information and its relation to personal and social values: "[Information] is but one step above raw, disaggregated and often trivial and meaningless data. The value of information begins when it serves a greater good." (12) As an editorial in a major professional journal this is a call to action, a mustering of arms, as it were. What intrigues about this editorial are three implicit assumptions pertaining to theory and practice. The first is that information is a material object, being a step above raw data. Second, information is neutral and value-free. Third, only when linked to personal and social values such as "honesty, love, happiness, creativity, generosity, freedom, and so on, does information itself become valuable." (13) All three of Martell's assumptions are matters of contention, depending upon how they are interpreted. H. Curtis Wright would place Martell's three assumptions within either of two philosophical currents of thought, emphasizing different aspects of the concept of information. The two currents of thought are called materialism and idealism. (14)

Materialism explains the world by studying empirical phenomena. (15) Idealism explains the world in terms of human thought. (16) While materialists focus on the empirical properties of information systems, idealists focus on the non-physical nature and content of information. Needless to say, the two views suppose rather different theories of human agency and interaction with the world. Materialists suppose that information represents states of affair in the natural world and idealists suppose that it structures the sensual experience of the world into meaningful categories. In addition to materialism and idealism, a newer school of thought called critical theory is outlined. (17) Quoting Archie L. Dick, "Critical theory supplies the intellectual thrust for examining how librarians can gain an insight into their unavoidable involvement in cultural activities that promote certain perspectives and suppress others." (18)

The Materialist Idea of Information

The goal of materialist epistemologies is to naturalize metaphysical narratives about reality and to reduce the field of things considered knowable or, which amounts to the same thing, to distinguish facts from values. By "materialism" is meant those theories of information that emphasize notions of rationality and experimental method. While systems theorist Michael K. Buckland does not take information itself to be a material object, he does consider that the process of becoming informed is empirically observable. (19) For instance the signs and expressions which convey information and a recipient's response to having received such information both are observable, even though the intermediate...

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