March 16, 2018

Information Literacy in a World That’s Too Big to Know | Peer-to-Peer Review

I was delighted to see that David Weinberger will be speaking at ALA this June. I enjoyed reading his most recent book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room, which does a good job of sketching out the implications of networked knowledge. He uses the format of the book—a linear long-form argument, broken into chapters, building sequentially up to a conclusion—to describe how things no longer work the way they did when much of our knowledge was published on paper. It wears its academic  garb lightly (Weinberger’s PhD is in philosophy and currently he hangs his hat at Harvard’s Berkman Center), mixing history, technology, science, and popular culture in an immensely readable, thought-provoking form.

Yet as I read the book I kept saying to myself “wait, knowledge has always been networked.” I’m old enough to remember life before the Internet, when it took a magnifying glass to make out the coded entries on the tissue-paper pages of the Science Citation Index. In those days I was reading Kenneth Bruffee and Thomas Kuhn and thinking about how we construct our understanding of the world, not through the accretion of facts assembled like bricks on a firm foundation, but through social networks.

Old-school social networks
The oldest publication on my CV is a 1990 article in RQ titled “Teaching Research as a Social Act.” I can’t link to it because it’s nowhere online, but it was an argument that collaborative learning was a pedagogically useful way to help students see all knowledge as an ongoing conversation. Perhaps because it was my first foray into writing for the professional literature, I can remember how I did the research for it. It was nothing like the research process we were teaching students back then—not nearly so systematic or tool-based. I got the germ of an idea in 1987 when I attended a retreat for new faculty, where a colleague in the English department talked about collaborative learning methods and mentioned the work of Ken Bruffee. Reading Bruffee led me to several writers on the sociology of knowledge. A few months into the job, I audited a history of science course, finding in quantum mechanics a confirmation of something that was beginning to take shape for me: that nothing is certain, that not everything is knowable, though we can make a pretty good guess based on probabilities and designing clever experiments. That took me to Thomas Kuhn’s description of how ideas, tempered in the tension between what we’re sure we already know and what is newly discovered, can sometimes test our foundations to the point where everything we thought was true is overthrown.

I didn’t search any indexes or abstracts for authoritative sources. I didn’t use any specialized encyclopedias. I only used the catalog to locate books I had discovered by other means. At the time I was working on the article, Tim Berners-Lee was just drafting a proposal for software project that later became the World Wide Web, but I did my research by following links and finding connections. Though the links were slower, the process was not significantly different than what I do today (or than what author Steven Johnson believes is enabled and unique to online networks).

Students then and now
The year that article was published, I began a project to interview undergraduates who had successfully completed a research assignment and learned their processes also bore little resemblance to librarians’ advice. They didn’t have that much trouble finding sources; they had trouble finding a focus for their research and knowing enough about an unfamiliar topic to see where the interesting questions lurked. They were seeking patterns rather than looking for nuggets of prepackaged truth produced by experts.

They were building authority from scratch and looking for scholars whose publications could help them. Sources weren’t truth; they were people with ideas. I repeated the interviews ten years later, after the library had gone through a tremendous shift from paper to digital tools, and found students described their processes in ways almost identical to students whose research was entirely paper-based.

The postmodern Internet
None of this probably would surprise David Weinberger. He points out that postmodern thought predates the Internet, or as he puts it, existed “before the Internet showed us the Postmodernists were right.” But what the new networking does to knowledge is provide opportunities for it to be bigger, more public, more open to visible disagreement, and better able to take advantage of collaboration on a massive scale.

In describing how this has affected science, he shows how knowledge can thrive in the absence of certainty and established authority.  As he puts it, “the Net’s rebooting of science has revealed that the old ways were more broken than we thought. In a phrase: Science had been a type of publishing and now is becoming a network.”

Scientists never thought their work was done just because it was published. But the record was found in the publications. Today it’s possible to see it happening in real time, to do it at a larger scale, and to see it spill out and link to other kinds of knowledge. Weinberger writes,

Knowledge is not something that gets pumped out of the system as its product. The hyperlinking of science not only links knowledge back to its sources. It also links knowledge into the human contexts and processes that produced it and use it, debate it, and make sense of it. The final product of networked science is not knowledge embodied in self-standing publications. Indeed, the final product of science is now neither final nor a product. It is the network itself—the seamless connection of scientists, data, methodologies, hypotheses, theories, facts, speculations, instruments, readings, ambitions, controversies, schools of thought, textbooks, faculties, collaborations, and disagreements that used to struggle to print a relative handful of articles in a relative handful of journals.

Filtering, not finding
Ever since reading this book, I have been wondering whether we have been thinking about information literacy the wrong way. Just as I was dissatisfied with advice commonly given students about how to conduct research back in 1990, wanting instead to help them figure out how to enter ongoing conversations, today I’m dissatisfied with a model that starts with articulating a need that we satisfy by finding and using sources. I wonder if we should focus less on how to find and more on how to filter. Though we give a nod to evaluating sources, we tend to start with finding them, and that’s backward. We need to help students understand the vast web of meaning in the making and develop ways to shape their own ideas about what parts to pay attention to. They need to know not just how to find finished information but how to grasp meaning as its made and how to participate in its making.

Though this is much more valuable than how to coax articles out of databases that will be closed to them as soon as they graduate, it’s hard to pull off because too often students face tight deadlines and are convinced by their professors that the knowledge that counts is found in finished and formal scholarly articles.  I had a frustrating time this week helping students explore databases, which seem like supremely clumsy boutique shopping sites for products that are each sold separately, detached from the network that produced them.

For next week, these students are reading Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay, “As We May Think.” The hypothetical Memex machine he described was one in which texts would be linked by researchers through their own trails of association that could be shared and curated. What he envisioned looks more like the Internet than the intellectual property showrooms that libraries have turned into. It’s more like the future of knowledge that Weinberger sketches out, one in which knowledge is abundant, linked, public, unresolved, and permission-free.  Instead libraries provide the appearance of abundance with a barely-functional network in which most of the links are broken by design.

Perhaps we should stop spending so much time trying to help students learn about knowledge as a type of publishing. That concept of knowledge is much too small.




Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller



  1. Barbara has pointed out a key issue in the information literacy movement – we have focused on search, as if it is difficult to find things, and have not focused on meaning and making sense, the task of evaluation. Our students struggle most with navigating the information landscape. They can find some things, but they struggle with finding the best things. They can match their keyword searches with results that bear those keywords, but they really struggle with determining whether they actually have the results that will meet their research goals.

    I have come to the conclusion, explained in my new book, Teaching Research Processes – – that we need to be teaching students how to do the work of the disciplines they are studying, that is, how to become disciplinary researchers, understanding how information works in a discipline and how best to navigate through it. That’s the broader evaluation piece.

    This is a whole lot more challenging to teach than “introduction to databases” but a whole lot more rewarding to students.

  2. I’m confused. I see where information has become “abundant, linked, public, unresolved, and permission-free.” I see how the network links information “back to its sources” and how it links information “into the human contexts and processes that produced it and use it, debate it, and make sense of it.” And I wholeheartedly agree that any information literacy program worth its salt will address the networked nature of information.

    What I fail to see is why these properties of networking are being ascribed to knowledge. Sure, the network has modified how we interact with and share recorded knowledge qua information, but knowledge in the epistemic sense is in a separate category of inquiry altogether. I’ve read Weinberger’s book and he just equivocates between the philosophical meaning of knowledge and the information-theoretic account of recorded knowledge. Perhaps you could shed some more light on how the networking of information (recorded knowledge) affects truth, fact, and epistemic knowledge. To me, it just seems like a category mistake.

  3. I think he feels it’s artificial to try and separate out data from information, information from knowledge, knowledge from wisdom (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot and others); he also is (I think) focused on how we come to know through conversation, through building on one another’s ideas, and this is how the room can be the smartest person in the room (or the stupidest, or the most venal, or … you name it; the conduct of the room does matter.)

    I’m probably guilty of the same category mistake, but what is knowledge if it isn’t connected to other knowledge? Built on other ideas, tied to related things? Can it exist apart from its context? I don’t really know the difference between how we express knowledge and epistemic knowledge and fact and truth.

  4. A few years ago, Weinberger wrote a fantastic post on the DIKW hierarchy for the Harvard Business Review ( Then, he argued that it’s artificial to treat information and knowledge as an inseparable continuum (i.e., filtering and refining information does not lead to knowledge). I like Weinberger a lot, and I think this book gets to me because it seems like such a radical departure from the philosophical acumen of his earlier work.

  5. Thanks – what a cool little essay. Here’s a bit I especially liked: “Knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.”

    It’s interesting reading this in conjunction with John Ziman’s 1996 essay in Nature, “Is Science Losing its Objectivity?” in which he argues that organizing the ends of science for practical and productive means (having some authority decide on what questions to ask and measuring productivity through artificial means) is bad for scientific values and one instance he cites is the transformation of public knowledge into intellectual property – which to me is an even more profound shift than the DIKW notion. DIK-IP?

  6. Ziman is certainly correct that scientists need to understand the social forces that affect the scientific enterprise, that is, they need to avoid abject scientism. But I don’t buy his straw-man characterizations of the philosophical and scientific approaches to rationalism, objectivity, and knowledge. Susan Haack has a great book called “Defending Science…within Reason” that directly answers Ziman’s style of thinking.

    Anyway, I still think that Weinberger is playing fast and loose with his philosophy. When most philosophers talk of knowledge, they are talking about true belief. When social scientists talk of knowledge, they are talking about commonly accepted belief. When information scientists talk about knowledge, they are talking about recorded statements about beliefs. The fact that the Internet has changed our commonly accepted beliefs goes without saying. But that has no bearing on what it means to be true, or to be knowledge qua true belief. It’s either clever wordplay on his part or just sloppy semantics, both of which are par for the course in postmodernism, but neither fly in epistemology.