It wasn’t so long ago that a young person’s formal introduction to research and authoritative sources was a teacher or librarian pointing to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the sum of human knowledge. Or the majority of American adults relied on Walter Cronkite to tell them “the way it was” for a given day. Or information about money came from the banker, disease from the doctor, war and education from the government.
These were the norms I was born into and since then a consensus developed that we used to invest authority in too few sources. It’s true—but my, how the pendulum has swung the other way! I’d argue that the prevailing norms have severely disrupted our ability to identify authoritative sources. The guidelines are still reasonable but the content has been subverted.
Standards for even our best journalism privilege speed over accuracy. A significant portion of the scientific and medical knowledge we create is subsidized, sponsored or ghostwritten by industry.1 And digital technology has enabled the worst excesses of the academy, bloating scholarly publications with dross. It’s not all bad, of course, but there sure is a lot of garbage floating around the good material.
I’ve read many times that librarians know how to find the most authoritative sources. Based on my experience & observations, that claim is wearing thin. In the academic realm, I think it’s truer that librarians know how to use their databases and trust (perhaps too readily) that the information they contain is authoritative. Of public librarians, I’d say many, many are overwhelmed and not any more equipped to sort and sift information than an average intelligent patron.
It’s a law of nature that equilibrium will be reached. I see a great opportunity for libraries to influence and expedite this process. (What a rich topic this is, and how I’d love to collaborate with folks within the library community to craft a manifesto.) For now, I’ll offer some advice and questions for libraries that might help get the ball rolling.
Set a high standard for locating yourself and establishing your authority
Refer only the most authoritative sources
1Interview With a Ghost (Writer) describes how this takes place in the medical literature.