If Information is Food, What Does It Mean to Say, “You Are What You Eat”?

I recently watched a TED talk by J.P. Rangaswami entitled “Information is Food”. His premise (for those of you who aren’t going to watch the video right now) is that information is the input for the mind just as food is the input for the body.  Our creation, cultivation, and consumption of information follow similar patterns to that of its food model. In essence, the information we take in to our bodies shapes our minds just as the food we eat shapes our bodies. He ends with a question: what would we do differently with our information consumption if we treated information as food?

This particular TED talk got me scribbling notes even before it was over. As someone who thinks of himself as an information professional, the idea of information being akin to food brought up some disturbing questions and line of thoughts. If information is food, what does that make a library? In accepting that “information equals food” analogy premise for the purpose of this blog post, I’m not sure it’s a good thing for libraries.

Even before this TED talk, there was a “library is an information buffet” analogy that existed; that a library had something for everyone’s taste. But in looking at the real food equivalent, the buffet has come to symbolize the growing rise of obesity in the United States. People have taken the guideline of ‘all you can eat’ as a challenge and put enough food into their bodies to blow the doors off their daily recommended caloric limit. Could a similar parallel be drawn between the constant contact of mobile devices, the near limitless number of internet sites, and print, television, and radio broadcasts? In working on portraying libraries as being “more than just books”, there is a push to showcase other media: DVDs, CDs, magazines, tapes, and now the expansion of digital content. Are we now setting up our own buffet in this age of information excess? Are we part of a overarching system that works to cater to the (for lack of a better term) information obese?

In taking this food buffet analogy further, librarians strive to not make distinctions between certain types of information. It would be like placing the crème pie and vodka penne sit next to the salads and Greek yogurt and telling people there was absolutely nothing different between these dishes. It’s the same as having book displays with Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen sitting next to Fifty Shades and the Snooki novel. Whatever you want to read/eat, this is a judgment free zone. In fact, we encourage you to stuff your face/mind so long as you keep coming back. That doesn’t sound healthy in the slightest in either way that you consider it. This basic premise that “all books are equal” falls flat when so many librarians rely on book reviews to assist in collection development. Material is purchased on the good words of another as to why it would be an asset to a collection. Someone made a judgment to purchase a title over another title with a lesser recommendation. Why this sudden façade of neutrality when it hits the shelves?

One might argue that it is imperative for the librarian to be neutral in order to allow the library member to make a decision on the basis of their own preferences. I can get behind that notion up until the point where the person asks a librarian for a recommendation. After years of careful cultivation of the literature expert image, this is where our bias should show and work toward recommending better literature. This is not wholesome ignoring the wants and preferences of a library member, but showing our expertise in steering people away from junk food literature to the nutritionally sound prose. People are still welcome to pick up that Big Mac equivalent of a book, but they should be aware of the grilled chicken salad-like hardcover.

Some of my readers are probably wondering how this squares with a belief in information access. Such an important principle and concept is not lost on me here; I am still a believer and an advocate for it. But I can’t help but feel that the reality creates a fine line between unfettered and reasonable. I would always try to lean in favor of the former in terms of materials, but as a member of a profession that claims expertise in information cultivation, I cannot help but think that such a skill be applied to make it more in line with the former. In light of the food analogy, it behooves us to point out the better information and literature.

Nor am I advocating for censorship either. Go on and buy the Snooki book or Fifty Shades because of the popular demand for such titles, but there is nothing that says one has to highlight or prominently display the ownership of said items. Inclusion in the collection does not mean it has to be marketed or advertised in light of better options. Such material and its ilk can reside with the rest of collection.

Granted, not all libraries fall into this analogies so neatly. The narrower the collection, the less buffet-like the results are. This puts public libraries firmly in the Golden Corral camp with school and academic libraries in the middle somewhere and special libraries somewhere at the bottom. Just like many bloggers that write about libraries, your mileage from this post may vary on the basis of type.

Librarians like to imagine that they are curators and cultivators of information, but when the goal is to collect the best of the broadest amount of media and materials, I think it can get a bit murky. If information is food, then librarians are nutritionists. People will consume what they want when it comes to either food or information, but that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices. The Twinkie and the celery stick can sit next to each other on the shelf, but their nutritional information gives away what they offer the body. Librarians should consider the same examination of information nutrition when purchasing materials, making recommendations, and caring for their communities.

26 thoughts on “If Information is Food, What Does It Mean to Say, “You Are What You Eat”?

  1. I would venture that the library is more a grocery store rather than a restaurant buffet, since it’s a place that people tend to visit on a regular basis to pick things up and take them home rather than coming to sit down and stuff themselves for a few hours (a computer with an internet connection is a better comparison to the likes of the Golden Corral buffet, given the typical consumption habits).

    However, your premise that librarians should not be neutral in presenting the items in their collection is flawed. To extend the food analogy, the critical opinion of books doesn’t always stay the same over time, whereas a Twinkie will never become the nutritional equivalent of a fruit. A number of books we now consider “classics” received, at best, mixed reviews when first published, so a librarian of that time–if following this idea–would have steered readers away from books like Wuthering Heights, which seems ridiculous when we now assign it in schools.

    Relatedly, I would have thought that librarians already based their recommendations on the “better literature”, since, as you say, they tend to select books based on reviews. If someone is asking for a recommendation, it is likely they’ve already read the popular (so-called “trashy”) title, so the only thing to recommend is what has been selected based on reviews. (My job does not involve recommendations, as I work in a special library, and I’ve never asked a librarian for a recommendation, so I don’t understand this–it seems like my Twitter people who do RA always try to point patrons to the good stuff.)

    I think libraries should feel free to put the popular books (e.g. Fifty Shades or Snooki) on display since patrons are going to be asking about them anyway. It seems like the best opportunity to advertise the so-called “better options” is alongside those “trashy” books that people are looking for. If the “better options” are truly as good as you think they are, then they will get picked up too.

    “People will consume what they want when it comes to either food or information, but that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices.”

    But isn’t that what libraries have been doing all along? It seems to me that having popular books and DVDs and things like that are a way of drawing people in the people (who wouldn’t come in otherwise) so they can be exposed to all the rest of the library’s collection and services, like grocery stores offering discounts knowing that the majority of people who come in for that one item will end up buying more than that one item.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      You’re correct in that I had not considered how the opinion of certain titles changes over time. I guess it could find its own parallel in the neverending “this food is bad for you. No, wait, it’s good. No, it’s bad again” debate about the nutritional value of certain foods (eggs come to mind as well as the recent piece about coffee). Opinions over time regarding literature do change as people look to find the authors that captured an era or period of time best in their writing. The Wuthering Heights example is a good one.

      I will disagree with the display point you made from my own marketing experience. Putting such things side-by-side does not increase the liklihood of someone picking up the other book. This is based on my own experience and an article I read about librarians trying to put tie-in items next to video games. It just doesn’t work. However, what *does* work and has been proven is that books that face outwards (cover towards the viewer) are more likely to be picked up than ones with their spines out. This has been proven in retail and has been picked up by some libraries as well. Brodart is making book display furniture that embraces this principle.

      To a certain extent, I don’t believe librarians have been educating their members on better options all along. You are right in that having some of the popular albeit mediocre literature is a way to draw people in (as does programming and different types of collections), but to me that doesn’t differentiate the library from a book store. Where is the added value of the librarian expertise in that situation? If I don’t see it, then the public sure as hell won’t see it. Yes, it’s a retail trick to get people in the doors, but what is the twist that makes it unique to libraries?

  2. I agree that librarians are obligated to have opinions about the quality of materials, and that libraries do not exist simply to funnel funds to the publishers of the NYT Bestseller’s list. However, there’s a danger of thinking of library materials as simply “Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen” versus “Fifty Shades and the Snooki novel.” I would probably not recommend Rushdie to a person who was flipping through Fifty Shades.

    Saying that libraries want to promote “good,” “high-quality” books is likely to conjure in people’s minds only Rushdie, Franzen, and their high culture predecessors, rather than the whole range of materials that are relevant and worthwhile to a library community. It’s important to be clear that by recommending good books, librarians aren’t trying to be guardians of high culture. We’re not… right?

    • Thanks for the comment.

      But in a way, librarians are a guardian of high culture. Or at least the culture that will survive onwards. Look at the authors of the previous hundred years that surive on our shelves. There isn’t a guardian aspect to that? Are librarians not cultivators? Or is a purely reactionary relationship with the culture and the experts for them to tell us what has lasting power? That doesn’t seem like a much better option either.

      What’s the danger in thinking about there is a hierarchy of literature by quality? What are the consequences? What’s the line between just being material aggregators (everything for everyone) and applying expertise to get the best of current offerings?

      • I’d much rather librarians be guardians of “culture,” not just “high culture.” There’s much that falls outside the high literary canon that has aesthetic worth and/or cultural relevance.

        I do feel very strongly that librarians should strive to collect fiction that’s unusual and non-commercial, introducing people to new ideas and methods of expression. But “high culture” is the wrong label for this mission. I remember being disappointed as an undergraduate to find that the generally wonderful Williamsburg, VA public library didn’t have any books by James Branch Cabell, an early fantasy author who studied at William and Mary. James Branch Cabell is well-regarded among those who study speculative fiction, but most people have never heard of him and fantasy is still not really “high culture.” He’s surely no Austen or Dickens or Woolf.

        I think librarians and other curators can use the methods of critical assessment – is this aesthetically original? is this relevant to my community? does it have notable ideas? – without using terms like “hierarchy” or “high culture.” These terms are just so loaded with elitism and a disinterest in pop culture/subculture/counterculture that I don’t think they’re worth saving.

  3. Oy. I’m sorry, I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but this was surely one snobby blog post. Don’t we already have to deal with the impression people have that librarians are snootily judging them on their reading/viewing habits? Honestly, I think my job is to provide the best information possible when I am asked for it. Part of “the best information possible” involves what the customer is actually looking for. I am more than happy to help our patrons sift through all the info available to narrow down their choices, or to help them expand their horizons–but I use their criteria. Yes, sometimes I’m shaking my head, but I’m nobody’s mother or priest.
    As for your metaphor, I’m happy to say it is equally none of my business what people put in their bodies. What you eat has nothing to do with me, and I try to avoid fat phobia and body-shaming, which you seem to be verging on in this post.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Answer this for me: you use a person’s criteria to find the best information possible. I can understand that. Do you ever correct them when their criteria is wrong? Of course I’m sure you do, but wouldn’t you say that is applying your knowledge to the question at hand for a better outcome? How would that be different than making a recommendation for something that is better written than the materials they previously read?

      Furthermore: you’re happy to say that it is none of your business what people put into their bodies. I can understand that as well. If some morbidly obese guy wants to eat five pizzas for dinner, that’s their business. What if that person is a neighbor? A friend? A family member? Is it still none of your business? Let’s bring it back to information: so if you have a person coming into the library and consuming a steady diet of pulp fiction novels or action movies or sits on the computer all day playing Facebook, you state that it is none of your business. Does that preclude interceding to point out better books, better movies, or better things to do online?

      I don’t mind be considered a snob and caring about what people consume because the “it’s none of my business” sounds uncaring and borderline negligent. I give a damn about the people who come through my doors and I want them to leave with something better. Sitting back and declaring the virtues of non-judgment isn’t what I signed up for when I started in this profession. I don’t buy the “I show my caring by not caring” bit for a minute; what other relationship qualities are abdicated in that?

      • Okay, I’ll start with your example of the morbidly obese pizza eater, only I’m going to take it from a different angle. You see, I am fat. A fat fat fatty who occasionally has been known to eat pizza (in public even!) Can I tell you how I would respond to your no-doubt well-intentioned intervention in my suicide by saturated fat? Probably with the same amount of “STHU” that my customers would respond with to my attempts to improve their reading materials.
        So, I guess that is my problem with your argument. As a body-acceptance/HAES proponent, I am all too familiar with people using “But it’s not good for you!” as a reason for all sorts of what I like to refer to as “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
        So, yes, I think it is going too far to judge our customers by what entertainment they consume. Which is what you’re doing when you say we should encourage them to read “better” things than Snooki’s new novel. I could agree with you about information; I try to make sure that people leave with the most accurate information possible, and I try to steer them away from the scams and disinformation that proliferates in our data-saturated world. I’m sure most librarians do the same. But entertainment? I may not think 50 Shades of Grey is worth the paper it was printed on, but it is obviously filling some need for the large amount of people reading it. Who am I to say that they are wasting their time? I don’t know that. I would hate for someone to judge me based on what I’m reading for entertainment. (I Am Not a Serial Killer by Wells, and, interestingly enough, The Dumbest Generation by Bauerlein, in case anyone cares).
        Now, do I believe we should offer as large a variety of choices to our patrons as possible? Do I think libraries have a responsibility as a cultural institution? Do I think we should highlight midlist and older books that are often overlooked in favor of best-sellers? Do I think that there really is no point in promoting the latest big thing, because people will find it anyway? Yes to all those questions. The library should be a place where people can try different things and learn something new, if they want to. If they don’t want to? Well, let’s just say I’m not planning an intervention for my customer who refuses to read anything but James Patterson.
        You say I’m uncaring and borderline negligent, but I think what I am is empathetic. I can easily put myself in the shoes of someone who just wants something fun or silly to read, instead of what’s “good” for them. Who am I to decide what is “good” and what is “bad”? Even if I could do that on an objective basis, I still can’t know enough of a person’s life and needs to determine that Franzen would be more appropriate than the latest paranormal romance. Because, you know, it might not. It’s terribly elitist to say we know better. If Facebook and pulp fiction make someone happy after a long day of work, I am not going to get my knickers in a twist about it.
        I suppose it goes without saying that I do see your point, it just seems, I don’t know, almost reminiscent of colonialism in a way. Obviously, I read your blog, and I find your posts interesting and educational, or I wouldn’t feel the need to continue to respond to this one particular issue with ever-longer replies. :)

        • First off, I think the food analogy certainly carries its own baggage in this case. It’s a love affair, sometimes fatal, that has created an healthcare epidemic in this country. True, no one gets life threatening diseases and conditions from the consumption of too much information and there are no studies that say that information overload can cause physical harm to you.

          Second, I don’t accept the line of thought that says, “I could offer something better, but most likely I will get shot down, therefore I will not try” as pure defeatism. No, not everyone is going to take you up on your offer for something better, but that should not preclude trying. It’s jumping to a conclusion.

          Third, I’m going to try writing another post about it, but I think there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that comes to this end of library science. It’s the ideal “everything for everyone” versus the reality of limited space, budgets, and (for some) time. I am not aware of any library that has a lottery for which books make it to their shelves; instead, they go through, make judgments, and then acquire. Some materials get in, others don’t. Judgments have already been made long before someone asks for it (in most cases). In looking at the collection as a whole, I think its incredulous to imagine that all the literature is of the same merit and value. That’s just insanity, but it appears to be the norm that is readily pushed.

          Finally, I do appreciate this discussion, even if I seem a little curt. I try not to be, but sometimes it happens.

          • Hmmm, well, I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree. Again, I don’t argue with your premise of offering what we believe is best value for the taxpayer’s dollars, but rather with what seems to me to be a judgmental view of what people choose to read for entertainment

            • I appreciated this thread, particularly this discussion as it is an important one. And Jenn, I think your point that-

              “I still can’t know enough of a person’s life and needs to determine that Franzen would be more appropriate than the latest paranormal romance. Because, you know, it might not”-

              is spot on. It is impossible to know a person’s backstory. Without knowing where that person has been or what they’ve been through or what issues they’re currently struggling with, how can a librarian make a judgment about what that person wants to/should read without sounding as if they’re making a judgment about the person?

  4. I am not certain you meant to concern troll in this post, Andy, but I’ll direct you to a post that I think, as a fat person an a librarian, may be useful: http://fatheffalump.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/genuine-concern-vs-concern-trolling/

    If a patron asks us for advice, our job is to direct them to the best information available based on their needs and their criteria. Can we direct them to something else? Sure, but only if they ask us for it. Anything lse comes across as patronizing and finger wagging.

    • Cecily, thanks for linking to Kath’s blog. Concern-trolling is exactly what I was thinking of, I just couldn’t think of the word. Her post is much more to the point than my rambling!

    • Cecily, I think this is where the ‘information as food’ analogy might be breaking down for both of us. I can see the points in the post you linked about people being a giant pain in the ass (no pun intended) about other people’s body types (particularly overweight ones, but we both know that other body types receive unwanted and negative attention). In using a term “information obesity”, it brought over its own connotations and baggage that detract from the point I was trying to make. I’ll strike that from the post.

      Where the ‘information is food’ analogy goes off the tracks is that there are no studies to say that a ‘poor’ information diet (such as reading poorly written literature) causes a reduction in mental acuity. On that point, I have to concede because I don’t have facts or figures to back it up. So, point taken.

      I still think that the ‘information is food’ analogy is an interesting one and one that has some merit to it, even if it goes off the rails when talking about less-than-stellar prose. I do think that what people consume in terms of information matters, just as the TED presenter makes a joke about watching Fox News for a month straight. I do believe there is a need for a balanced diet (for lack of a better term) for news and opinion, but such a need might get a bit hazy when it comes to literature and entertainment.

      I don’t see offering direction to something else as necessarily “patronizing and finger wagging” because of my multitude of encounters with people who are unaware of their full range of options. Too often these options are “hidden” by poor signage, poor catalog interfaces, and our sometimes arcane system of book management (either grouping books by genre or Dewey, pick your poison). We can split hairs over whether telling someone about different literature offerings is education or interference and I’m going to guess that the real determining factor is the motive behind such actions. The Devil is truly in the details: if I go by their criteria and their needs, I could omit something they might enjoy but didn’t know about or providing them with the right amount of customer service. If I go beyond their criteria and offer them something they may not have known about, I could be overstepping my bounds or introducing them to something new that they love and enjoy.

      • I’ll say again: it is perfectly fine to suggest other reading to people based on their needs, interests and desires *if they ask you for it*. But unsolicited advice in the guise of “balancing their information diet” makes you a busybody. It shows you’re approaching this patron interaction with a wealth of assumptions about the patron, which is never a good place to start.

        You can do what you will with signage, displays, blog posts, brochures, and the myriad ways we market books to our patrons. We all do. But unless and until that patron asks me to intervene, they are entitled to make their own choices. Ranganathan’s second law, and all that there.

        • I disagree, but I’ve already stated why. And all due respect to Ranganathan, but there are a lot more mediums out there than when he proposed his theory in 1931.

        • I agree with Cecily. I’m a librarian, was an English major, and read more graphic novels than prose by a wide margin–in fact, comics are what got me back into reading after being an English major killed all joy in it for me. (It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it did to me.)

          A few years ago I helped a middle-aged couple at the reference desk with a handful of questions. While I was looking things up for them, with a stack of graphic novels on the desk which I had just pulled off the shelves to check out to use in a presentation, they went on at length about the “subliteracy” of comics. I found it incredibly onoxious.

          If we’re sticking with the food metaphor, maybe some people have allergies–I do. It’s an imperfect metaphor because no one will die from reading Virginia Woolf, even if s/he might want to, but what I’m getting at is that books, or even entire genres of books, may benefit one person more than another. In school I wasn’t ready for some of what I was assigned (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Mrs. Dalloway), and was more than ready for a number of books my teachers didn’t assign (Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22).

          It’s possible (always possible) that I’ve misunderstood you, but it sounds like you’re assuming that the choices are whether to read something “high culture” (actual food) or whether to read something “low culture” (junk food and other foodlike substances).

          From my experience working with reluctant readers, I’d have to say that the choice is more often between reading something fun and poppy and not reading anything at all. So maybe we should consider ourselves closer to waiters than doctors, and if we mention the specials after the patron has already ordered we should be prepared to be met with annoyance and/or exasperation.

  5. If I, as a librarian, recommend Jonathan Franzen to a patron when what they really wanted was something equivalent to Snooki’s latest book, I have effectively told that patron that I am useless to them and they will never seek out my services again. So you can pack your library filled with the highest rated literature you want, but if no one is coming in to read it, what’s the point?

    Part of being a good librarian is assessing your patron’s needs and not interjecting my judgment on their request.

    • It’s a fair point. What if I ran a library with only what society and culture considered to be the best books, movies, music, etc. and no one came? It certainly narrows the audience to a niche of the overall community and defeats the purpose and mission of a public library. You got me on that one.

      Here’s my counter question: what if you stocked a library entirely on the basis of patron demand for popular culture materials? Why would you need a librarian to run it? A paraprofessional or volunteer could do exactly the same thing. How is this any different than a basically government run bookstore?

      I’d point out that the librarian’s judgment has already been interjected into the equation on the basis of acquisition decisions. Material exists on the shelf because someone along the way already decided to put it there. This is not a completely judgment free zone.

      • Yes, but when an acquisitions librarian, like myself, decides to purchase things, I am deciding what the patrons’ needs are not just what I think is high quality literature. What’s my demographic? Do I have a primarily Russian speaking population in my branch area. Do I need to supply it with more Russian translations of popular items versus Moliere in English?

        Non fiction resources are more when a librarian’s judgement comes in. Not about the topic they are including (while you may be a liberal librarian, you still need to balance out your collection with conservative view points), but rather if the information is valid and from a credible source.

        Fiction is murkier because you’re not determining whether it’s accurate. You’re determining whether your demographic would read it. Will it circulate? Will it encourage people to come back and read more?

        I had a prior career in newspaper which I think parallels library world so nicely. One of the biggest rules of news is giving people not only what they want to know , but also what they NEED to know. I’m not forcing you to read either. I’m merely making sure that my newspaper contains both. Much is same with the library. You need to make sure you balance what they want to read with what we think they should read. You can’t allow an imbalance to happen or else people will stop coming.

  6. Pingback: If Information is Food, Ctd. « Agnostic, Maybe

  7. Pingback: CPD 23 Thing 5 – Reflection: Our relationship with information | Curiosity Lines

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