Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information or Communication? – article comments

Dervin, Brenda. 1976. Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information of Communication? (Part One of Information: An Answer for Every Question? A Solution for Every Problem?). Journal of Broadcasting 20, no. 3 (Summer): 324-333.

I quite enjoyed this Dervin article.  But what I did not enjoy was not having access to any of the 30 citations!  [A rant on this head is in the works as a separate post.]  This is a mid-70s critique of the influx and impingement of the concept of ‘information’ on the field of communications, the misplaced overemphasis on it in everyday life, and the assumptions behind this which redirects research to the wrong questions.  Also addresses why so many of the things seen in communications research contradict what they assume or are even told is important by subjects.

The main article focuses on 10 assumptions and their ramifications “which have unwittingly hindered efforts focusing on the information “needs” of average citizens” (326). These are:

  1. Objective information is the only valuable information.
  2. If a little information is good, a lot must be better.
  3. Objective information can be transmitted out of context.
  4. Information is acquired only through formal information systems.
  5. Information is relevant to every urban need.
  6. Every need situation has a solution.
  7. Information that is not now available or accessible can be made so.
  8. The functional units of our information systems equal the functional units of users of those systems.
  9. Time and space can be ignored.
  10. The connections between external information and internal information can be assumed (326, direct quote).

Again, not really a review.  I pulled out some choice bits, for my purposes anyway, and added some commentary.  My goal in these article commentaries is to give you enough that might entice you into reading them for yourself if they fit your research or interests and not to make it so you do not need to.

“Directly or indirectly, each of these scholars has begun to take the scientist’s dilemma of “creation versus discovery” and pull it out for review. Does humankind discover reality (and, therefore, simply collect information about it)? or does it create and invent reality?

The question is not answerable. But, we behave as if it is. Despite the relativistic nature of our empirical findings, we continue to assume that objective information about reality is obtainable. We assume that only if we work hard enough, long enough, we can have complete knowledge and that knowledge is orderable.3 We assume there is a given order and we are but discovering and confirming it. …

… This view of knowledge essentially posits homosapiens as a totally adaptive creature, using information about reality to adapt to reality. Yet, the history of humankind is marked … by creation, invention, and control of surroundings. Humankind at least in part, creates its own reality” (325) [some formatting issues left in].

The above addresses a fundamental disconnect between communication theory and reality-as-observed.

A “three-type formulation of information is suggested as potentially more useful than our current cybernetic denotation of the term10” (326).

“Information1 – the innate structure or pattern of reality; adaptive information; objective information; data” (326). [Only included as this kind comes under critique below.  If you want to know all 3 read the article.]

The following will address bits and pieces from the sections on the 10 assumptions.

A1 : Misses a “great deal of information-relevant behavior because it appears in unexpected places” (327).

Exactly!  Information science (IS) is just as guilty of this.  Well, truthfully, IS is guilty of all of these, or certainly was in 1976.  We, as well as Comm, have made some progress I would like to believe.  Our theories are beginning to back away from these seriously limiting assumptions but I see little evidence of that theoretical progress informing the design of our systems.

A1 : “Instead of positing the use of advice, rules, and interpersonal help as an informing function (information3), we label this high use of informal sources as a “law of least effort” that operates in the acquisition of information” (327).

Reading this was like the hard slap in the face that I needed.  Besides the (seeming) general insider superiority of one uttering the “law of least effort” I was also bothered by it for reasons I could not put my finger on.  But this so-called law has simply been a smoke screen for our (and Comm’s) unwillingness to tackle the complexities of behavior and situations “covered” by this law.  It is not a law; it is simply laziness on our part.  And damaging laziness at that. Please realize that I am not saying that no one takes the road of least effort on occasion, myself included, but that much of what is covered by this “law” is not that. It only looks that way to us as we, as researchers, have taken the same road and have not adequately theorized the divergent behaviors we have lumped together under this “law.”

A2 : “Yet, if individual knowing is some unknown combination of objective reality plus personal reality, then being informed is not the same thing as having information1. We have focused on the “information” and not the “informing”” (328).

We are so utterly guilty as charged here.  As is much of society, popular and scientific, which seems to think that having or supplying information is the same as being informed/informing.

A3 : The assumption of objective information mapping to reality and that this is orderable leads to certain approaches to education and the mass media.  “We are bombarded with isolated facts. Because each fact is assumed to have a proper place, each fact is assumed to have informing utility” (328).  But this approach leads to much information being “rejected and ignored as being irrelevant and meaningless” (329).

There is also a tie-in to information literacy (IL) instruction here due to the fact that “our education system is geared primarily for the transmission of information1 rather than instruction and practice on how to become informed” (329).  If our educational system did focus on these important areas of becoming/being informed then there would be less need for IL at the college-level, or perhaps it could focus primarily on library-related systems instead of the ridiculous breadth of topics IL instruction is trying to undertake today; particularly ridiculous given the extremely limited amount of time instruction librarians have with students.

A6 : “We equate having solutions [which is “(after all, the raison d’être of the the system …)”] with being informed, being able to construct one’s own reality, being able to develop personal answers20” (330).

But see work on medical communication and seriously ill patients frustration with the system.

A8 : “As citizen’s begin to use information1 systems “designed for them,” they collide with those systems. The citizens, on the one hand, are asking for functional units that are meaningful to them. The systems, on the other, are protecting the functional units in which they have vested units” (331).  Kapitzke also had a critique on this head as it relates to IL, although I did not address it in my post.

A9 : While we have acknowledged that people are embedded in social situations, we have been on a quest for situation-free generalizations. … Yet, we continue to search for enduring personally traits, enduring information processing strategies” (331-2).

A10 : We assume the connections between external reality and internal reality must exist based on the assumption of an ordered universe. But we do not study them. “Thus, we know little about how people do inform themselves and make connections30” (332).

I apologize for not being able to tell you what those superscripts refer to.  Keep watch for a rant on that topic.  Soon.

Cited by:

Dervin, Brenda. 1977. Useful theory for librarianship: Communication, not information. Drexel Library Quarterly 13: 16-32.

Information Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of Outformation – article comments

Kapitzke, Cushla. 2003. Information Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of Outformation. Educational Theory 53, no. 1: 37-53.

I wrote on the paper after finishing it, “provides a valuable critique of entrenched views (positivist?) of knowledge, information, and learning; but assumes postmodernism and the digital age have changed everything, when in fact, these critiques have existed for a long time and ought be fully applied to a non- or pre-digital world also. Thus, ahistorical.”

I think this article does provide a very valuable critique not only of the assumptions behind and motivations driving information literacy but also of entrenched views of knowledge, information, and learning in the educational system, libraries, and librarianship (and by extension, in information science).

The article is situated within the context of school education, professionally trained media center specialists and teacher-librarians and employs a poststructuralist theoretical perspective (37).

Article outline:

  • Libraries as Contexts for Literacies
  • Information Literacy as Panacea
  • Information Literacy: Defining the Indefinable
  • Information Literacy: A Poststructuralist Critique
  • Toward a Hyperliteracy
  • Conclusion

“My thesis is that, because of its positivist philosophical orientation, the information literacy framework is incompatible with emergent concepts of knowledge and epistemology for digital and online environments” (38).

As I stated above, these emergent concepts have been emerging for a while; in some cases, quite a while. But the point is still a valuable one and should be taken seriously.

“In sum, the notion of being “information literate” was the library profession’s response to technological change and to the proliferation of information. [19] Perhaps it is timely to consider whether a preoccupation with technologization has caused them to overlook less tangible but more profound developments around issues of knowledge and epistemology” (42).

[19] Sorry, this footnote is too long and has too many sources for me to type here.

I think the first statement there is an overstatement. It is certainly one way to spin the story but it is certainly only one of many, and it is overly simplistic. Perhaps just as, or more, relevant would be the search for professional relevance. No doubt, there are others.

“Furthermore, resource and information use in schools is framed within the discourse of positivism and based on three misconceptions: (1) the school library provides a neutral service, (2) the library user is an autonomous individual, and (3) language is a transparent conduit for the transmission of meaning in information” (45).

Clearly, all of these are highly flawed views. For general information on positivism see the Positivism article at WikipediaThe Enlightenment also receives a fair few lashes of the rhetorical whip in this article, some of which is justified.

Again, these critiques are valuable and generally spot on, but they also precede the poststructuralist/postmodernist. Postmodernism invented little, or nothing, that did not already exist. It only collected many of these, tossed them all together as if in doing so they could cohere in a sense that was hauntingly similar to the sense of coherence of knowledge that they were critiquing.

“Library practice and the discipline of information science are deeply rooted in Enlightenment notions of Western science. Library science literature shows how the spatial organization of knowledge in libraries contributed to the institutionalization of scientific knowledge through the classification and physical arrangement of collections into orders of hierarchical materials [32]. These materials—served historically to construct and privilege disciplinary and curricular boundaries. Librarian and library user alike viewed print collections as reifications of natural and social realities and of the research practices for defining and objectifying those realities” (45).

[32] John M. Budd, “An Epistemological Foundation for Library and Information Science,” Library Quarterly 65, no. 3 (1995): 295-319.

No argument from me on this one.

“Libraries are one of the “most visible and important temples” erected by society to the positivist belief in an ordered world that can be described and classified according to a set of universal principles” (46).

I would argue that this belief seriously predates positivism.

In describing the tension between order and disorder, Kapitzke takes a particularly cheap shot at librarians by mentioning that, “Classical and popular literature alike, …, provide memorable cameos of stereotyped, repressed librarians, victims of their own fetish for organization and order [37]” (46). I am really unsure what this is supposed to do in support of the case being made.

[37] Gary P. Radford and Marie L. Radford, “Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” Library Quarterly 67, no. 3 (1997): 250-267.

Here are some quotes showing what I think is a lack of correct application of the critique being made, and/or an overemphasis on the poststructuralist critique and the digital:

“Linear and hierarchical approaches to thinking and learning are inadequate for the webbed cyberspace of information” (47).

No, they are inadequate, period.

“Within the present context of an information glut, librarians and users spend their time not so much searching but interpreting, filtering, and value-adding by creating relationships among ideas across a range of media” (47).

This should happen glut or no, digital or no. And, I would argue has applied for centuries, if not millennia. And, of course, if one wanted it can be, and has been, argued that an information glut has existed for almost as long as humans have recorded information. Regardless, even in some mythical state of being involving the perfect amount of information (whatever that might be), the primary purpose of librarians and users of libraries ought be “interpreting, filtering, and value-adding by creating relationships among ideas across a range of media” and whatever other description you want to add that adds up to the creation of meaning. Searching, even for librarians, is never an end in itself.

One more example of this myopic view of the digital and the new:

“The proliferation of chaotic digital information, and the increasing disparity of end-point textual products and knowledges, have created a situation where knowledge is located not so much in the text as such, but in the co-construction of situated meanings among learner, teacher, and media center specialist” (48).

It has always been thus; we have just pretended otherwise.

The author’s suggested solution is a “hyperliteracy.”

“The concept of “information literacy” privileges the role of information in learning and teaching” (50). I agree with this but would also argue that this is due to the prior privileging of information and, thus, the problem is much larger than information literacy.

“A hyperliteracy approach draws from and extends two theories of literacy pedagogy: multiliteracies and intermediality [50] Hyperliteracy represents approaches to text, authorship, and knowledge that are located within a postpositivist paradigm. They seek to problematize their own assumptions and practices” (50).

[50] The New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” in Multiliteracies, eds. Cope and Kalantzis; and Ladislaus M. Semali and Ann Watts Pailliotet, eds., Intermediality: The Teachers’ Handbook of Critical Media Literacy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).

If you want more information on this topic see the article or perhaps those sources, which I doubt I will be tracking down. [That is not meant as a statement or critique of those sources but just that this is not my arena for now. At the moment, I am far more interested in the critique of the concept and practice of information literacy than in any suggested cures.]

“Disciplinary logics and rationalities different from those imposed by Aristotle, Melvil Dewey, or the Library of Congress are now possible” (53).

Um, yes. And they have been for *a very long time.*

All in all, I think this article provides a very valuable critique of information literacy and continuing established views of learning, knowledge and atomized information. But its biggest fault lies in the importance that it overly attaches to the poststructuralist/postmodernist critique. This fault does not invalidate the critique in any way, but it does cast a pallor over the rhetoric employed to make its points.

Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice

Tuominen, Kimmo, Reijo Savolainen, and Sanna Talja. 2005. Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice. The Library Quarterly 75, no. 3 (July 1): 329-345. doi:10.1086/497311.

I found this article on the main page of Library Quarterly‘s website as one of the most cited when I went looking for Archie Dick’s 1988 article on epistemologies in LIS [to be discussed soon].

I quite enjoyed this article as for me the upshot, in essence, is that they align information literacy with a domain-centric viewpoint.

The authors, whom I have read several papers by, whether together or with other authors, are social constructionists.  I am not quite sure how this theory and its close “rivals” fit in with my work. They all have distinct advantages to their way of looking at the world, but none of them focus on all that is relevant. As of now, I am a pluralist as far as these theories go. I feel that slavish adherence to one and only one would cause one to miss other relevant and important ways of viewing the world, or the slice of the world one is trying to analyze. [See my upcoming comments on A. Dick’s holistic perspectivism.]

As it stands, social constructionism seems only slightly orthogonal to Hjørland’s domain analytic view.

Let me state up front that information literacy (hereafter IL or info lit) is not my arena.  Also, this paper is 5 years old so some of the critiques that it makes of our professional organizations’ formal statements on IL may have been addressed. Then again, as fast as our professional organizations move I would not count on that either.

Outline of article:

  • Introduction
  • The Background of the Information Literacy Movement
  • The IL Debate
  • Conceptions of Information and Learners in the Generic Skills Approach
  • The Social Context of Information Literacy
  • Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Problem
  • Conclusion

I am not going to cover much in the way of their critiques of these formal statements. But I will say that I fully agree with them.  I guess I’ll quote this passage as a reasonable summation of their critique but be aware it is more varied and detailed than this makes it sound:

“The IL movement has not often seriously attempted to call its own premises into question or to suspend the obvious and, as a result, has been preoccupied with the binary logic of discerning facts from nonfacts and biased from nonbiased information. Such dichotomies reflect the values of traditional print culture, however, rather than the social and multimodal networked technological environments. In interactive digital environments, actors can simultaneously be readers and writers, consumers, and producers of knowledge. Knowledge is not located in texts as such—or in the individual’s head. Rather, it involves the coconstruction of situated meanings [33, p. 48] and takes place in networks of actors and artifacts” (337-8).

[33] Kapitzke, Cushla. (see below)

The authors’ critique of info lit comes from the literature on “The IL Debate.” It begins with a simple but important observation attributed to Mutch. “The difficulties with the IL concept stem partly from the fact that it marries two concepts (information and literacy) that in themselves are ambiguous and resist exact definitions [29]” (332).

[29] Mutch, Alistair. “Information Literacy: An Exploration.” International Journal of Information Management 17, no. 5 (1997): 377-86

That simple critique, in and of itself, ought give one pause regarding any attempt at defining “information literacy.” [Damn! I know I written about definitions on my blog in the past but I cannot find anything useful. I really and truly need a powerful blog search engine for my own blog; natively, that is. Anyway, this reminds me that I really need to reread Harris and Hutton on definition and write a one-page statement of my views on the topic.]

“The term “practice” shifts the focus away from the behavior, action, motives, and skills of monologic individuals.  Teams, groups, and organizations can be seen as the entities that become information literate in a specific knowledge domain, that is, they enact information practices and use suitable technical tools. Seeing IL as consisting of sociotechnical practices that differ from one knowledge domain to another mandates empirical research efforts that concentrate on actual organizational environments and on routine and mundane ways of performing situated actions and interactions with and through social and technical resources needed for their accomplishment.

What we propose here is that as practices give rise to individuals as epistemic subjects in the fist place, they are primary in understanding the acts and deeds of individuals” (339).

There is much more in this article that should help one rethink, or think about for the first time, the traditional, and mostly implicit, assumptions of information literacy. This view does, in fact, complicate IL but then many of our concepts need a little (or a lot of) complication.

I find it powerful and useful in that it makes IL more about the actual processes of human communication; more social, as literacy is; and firmly situates IL in domain practices.

Highly recommended.

Harris, Roy, and Christopher Hutton. 2007. Definition in Theory and Practice: Language, Lexicography and the Law. London: Continuum.

Kapitzke, Cushla. 2003. Information literacy: A postivist epistemology and a politics of outformation. Educational Theory 53, no. 1: 37-53.