I was gratified that Al Gore’s keynote address was quite complementary to information professionals. He feels that what we are doing is crucial to the future of our country, our quality of life, and our economy. His new book deals with the role that information should play when we make decisions. SLA has spoken deftly and well about the many information policy questions that currently must be dealt with. We face a challenge keeping up with the incredible explosion of information as well as a challenge in describing who we are and what we do, why it’s important to everyone. As a result of our efforts, people are starting to understand that issue, and many of us are benefiting intellectually from unexpected opportunities as we take on more complex challenges.
In this age of search engines and PDAs, it is also true that there is much misunderstanding by some who think that the role of information professionals is diminishing. There is no better illustration of that than the battle being waged on the closure of the EPA libraries. Imagine the very idea that libraries be closed because the information can be digitized! How will you digitize the information and how will you find it? Most organizations in a competitive environment now understand that the ability to hire the best professionals is a strategic and competitive advantage in today’s world.
Physical matter is being replaced by innovation and information, so the “Information Society” is now a reality. Just as oil was in the past, information is the key strategic resource now. As information becomes a strategic resource and an increasingly important part of our economic future, information professionals play a more important role. Gore pointed out that because information is now widely available to individuals through the Internet, that does not mean that professionals aren’t important. The difficulty of finding what we need has increased. We need to get the right information professionals to characterize the information and make it quickly available at the right time to the right people. Rapidly changing technology is itself a big challenge, but many of the basic skills remain the same—finding and characterizing information in obscure places and translating it into ways that it can be communicated easily. Gore noted that his early career as a reporter helped him become an elected official because he learned about the importance of information and how to use it.
As an example of the importance of information, Gore spoke about today’s climate crisis. He said that it is different from anything we have confronted in the past. The voluminous information available on the climate crisis is like what we commonly have to deal with in our libraries and specialized organizations. Deriving the essential meaning from scientific findings is an enormous challenge. Gore stressed that we need to look at the big picture because if we try to absorb information bit by bit, we are not playing to our strengths. Humans can still see huge amounts of information in ways that computers cannot. What has changed is how information flows through our society and the architecture of the information ecosystem. Why have we not acted on the climate crisis? It is not because there is a lack of information! The information is available, but it has not been characterized, organized, and communicated correctly.
Today’s libraries are products of the revolution in printing that grew out of Gutenberg’s press. When knowledge became widely available, the rule of reason became the important source of authority. It allowed individuals to use knowledge as a source of wealth and power, and they could go to libraries to find it. Any individual could gain knowledge and use it as a source of influence, and Gore feels that widespread access to information led to the formation of the USA.
Today’s information ecosystem has dramatically changed from when the US was founded. The dominant medium today is television; over 40 years have passed since most Americans got most of their information from the printed word. The problem with television is that it is in one direction only, and it is controlled by a small group of large conglomerates and a small number of individuals and corporations that have wealth, power, and political influence. With the Internet, we now have a new challenger to the dominance of television, and it is beginning to make a huge difference.
Gore concluded by urging the audience to become deeply involved in helping the country and to participate in making sensible information policy choices. He drew a large and enthusiastic response when he said that it is critical to the future of the country that we have net neutrality and free access. America’s strategy for the 21st strategy depends on information flows. We must ensure we have the best evidence on which to make right decisions.
Columnist, Information Today
Columnist, Information Today