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.