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Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

Author: David Weinberger
Publisher: New York: Times Books, 2007
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lucinda Austin
 REVIEW 2: Geoffrey B. Cain
 REVIEW 3: Erika Pearson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: David Weinberger

David Weinberger's book, Everything is Miscellaneous, is about how we access and use information. The book is remarkable in that it is not one of those books about the Internet that is out-of-date upon arrival. Weinberger takes a moment to look at how we have organized information in the past and how that shaped the way in which we think, and then quickly gets into how we are currently working with information and what that says about who we are.

In his book, he describes "three orders of order." The first is the organization of things themselves, such as a photograph collection. The second is the creation of catalogs about items that may require trained experts to use. And the third order is the fully digital catalog "that is designed to be searched by any customer" (21). This third order includes the concept of "tags" that can be applied to the information (such as photographs) by the curator of the collection or by the users.

As electronic resources like electronic texts, journal databases, and web sites are slowly being added to college libraries, and in some cases replacing traditional resources, Weinberger says that we are still using the old systems of information classification and retrieval to find things. The process of accessing the information now becomes more important than the information itself. Users who are tagging information no longer need to know how an information gate-keeper or authority classifies that information. Tagging allows users to find out how others are using the same information. That is one of the points of social bookmarking. The ability of the authorities' imagination or their understanding of how the information will be used limits a traditional "universal" scheme of classification.

The real problem is that information changes, and the rate of that change is increasing as the ability to access information increases. Weinberger's third order of cataloging accounts for this: "Ten years from now, the knowledge with which we agree will largely be irrelevant -- this pace will not slow" (215). The classifying authorities behave as if knowledge were something static. How can we classify information that is always in flux?

Weinberger's book is remarkable because it points out that we are in a time of critical change brought on by the new read/write web. As we shift from being information consumers to information users, our relationship to that information is rapidly changing. Users, according to Weinberger, can no longer afford to wait around for librarians to catalog resources in traditional ways; these resources are already being used, written about, re-created, and exchanged. An online resource, such as a blog that contains contributions from multiple scholars and comments and questions from students, for example, would be a slippery resource to catalog. It is, however, easy for a user to tag using a social bookmarking site and find others who are using the information.

There are librarians working on a new view of the library, the "Web 2.0 Library," which is described by Jack Maness (2006) as "user centered," where users participate in the creation of library content. "The consumption and creation of content is dynamic," notes Maness, "and thus the roles of librarian and user are not always clear." The new library, according to Maness includes users' presences:
This is perhaps the single most important aspect of Library 2.0. It rests on the foundation of libraries as a community service, but understands that as communities change, libraries must not only change with them, they must allow users to change the library. It seeks to continually change its services, to find new ways to allow communities, not just individuals, to seek, find, and utilize information.
There are some problems associated with Weinberger's view of users being the only classifying agents of information using only tags. Weinberger alludes to this problem in Chapter 8 where he mentions the non-computer version of 20 questions. There is, in contrast, an online game called "20 Questions" that basically asks you to think of an object and then it asks you twenty questions and guesses the object. For the uninitiated, it can be disconcerting having a computer "guess" what you are thinking. It is, of course, a database that stores answers to your questions and compares them to past attempts and in that way, looks for patterns in the data. The website has a counter that as of this writing notes that there were 53 million games played. That is a lot of data for comparison. This database "tags" data with the responses to pre-programmed questions. This pre-programming is what Weinberger calls a "gatekeeper." If you stump the computer, it will, afterwards, ask you a series of questions about the questions it got wrong. It will store more information about those questions in an attempt to become more accurate with later attempts. It is a pre-programmed process that will allow it to "tag" questions with more data. The illusion only works when the database uses wrong answers provided by the users to improve its performance in subsequent attempts. This is what our librarians can do with information for us -- act as gatekeepers to keep the "tags" accurate and useful.

Despite Weinberger's enthusiasm for tagging, there can be a point when there are so many tags that the piece of information becomes useless. One has to sort out what tags are actually needed. In other words, an item can have so many tags that it shows up in every query you perform. To avoid this problem, one can limit how tags are used. For instance, I use the online social bookmarking site, del.icio.us, in two ways: one account for work and another account for personal use. The one for work is tagged only in limited ways. In contrast to Weinberger's vision, this limiting is what makes the tags and the information useful. It is used as a repository for multimedia on the internet for all of the different disciplines that are taught at our college. The items are tagged only with a few descriptors. This is what makes this collection really useful.

My personal collection, however, is more in the spirit of Weinberger. It is tagged with a wide variety of tags because I need to access the information from many different contexts. In the first collection, a website with some Bach recordings would be tagged "Bach," "Music," and maybe "Humanities." At home, the same site might be tagged "Bach," "Music," "transcriptions," "guitar," "godelescherandbach," and "hofstaeder." This is because the work site has a specific purpose that defines how information is tagged; it allows instructors in those disciplines to find multimedia online.

Despite Weinberger's pessimistic view of librarians as "gatekeepers," there are librarians who see themselves as information managers as well as educators. The new role for librarians should be to increase information literacy, critical thinking skills, and provide training in using the tools of information management. That is what their jobs have been at least since the Great Library of Alexandria. Then, the building and the shelves were the means of delivering information. A good librarian today should be able to do that job in his or her pajamas.

Again in contrast to Weinberger's view, Peter Godwin (2007) says that librarians will need to be become proficient in Web 2.0 "using the new tools where appropriate, to promote our services, and engage and teach our students." Librarians should use this technology if
they are to appear relevant to the Internet generation. We can then encourage them to use tools such as blogs and wikis but to be critical about the content. In the information age of the amateur, the provenance and validity of content becomes blurred; IL [information literacy] becomes even more critical, and librarians and academic staff have new teaching tools which attract rather than patronise or bore our students.
Much like the twenty questions game, we will always need gatekeepers -- someone, some thing, or some principle that will ask "did you really mean 'x'?"

David Weinberger asks us think about how we use our own information sources. That examination has led me to some changes that are making a difference in how I use online resources. This is an important book on many levels, however, I find the misspellings and inaccuracies in his online bibliography annoying and ironically Wikipedian. Professional scholars are usually more careful with sources and language. I tend to avoid books without indexes or bibliographies as they are less useful than those that have them. Nevertheless, Weinberger's book is an astute description of the state of information today.

Godwin, Peter. (2006). "Information literacy in the age of amateurs: How Google and Web 2.0 affect librarians' support of Information Literacy." ITALICS, 5(4). eLIT 2006 Special Issue. Last retrieved from www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/italics/vol5iss4/godwin.pdf on March 5, 2008.

Maness, Jack M. (2006). "Library 2.0 Theory: Web 2.0 and Its Implications for Libraries." Webology, Volume 3, Number 2 (June, 2006). Last retrieved from www.webology.ir/2006/v3n2/a25.html on March 5, 2008.


Geoffrey B. Cain:
Geoffrey B. Cain is an instructional designer and English teacher at Tacoma Community College. His research interests include distance learning, web 2.0 applications for teaching and learning, and the pedagogy of multi-user online virtual environments.  <gcain@tacomacc.edu>

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