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The difference between information and knowledge: a riposte to Helen Milner on libraries

7 min read

It's been nearly a decade since I was employed in the public library sector, and I thought I'd become immune to reacting with blind fury to every mealy-mouthed consultant that proposes "reinventing" the library for "the digital age"... but apparently not. Here's the latest facile salvo in a war of attrition that's been ongoing for about fifteen years, if not longer, from a "digital inclusion charity", no less. A snippet for flavour:

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture.” Helen Milner, Tinder (No, not that Tinder... brilliant bit of misbranding, wot?)

There are two points I'd like to make in response to Milner's transparent shilling for more funding to be diverted in the direction of her own operation.

The first is to peel away the euphemism of "community hubs" and show what that tends to mean in practice. What it has meant for at least a decade is that in addition to the core functions which libraries were intended to provide -- of which more later -- they have long served as spaces of refuge for the homeless, and for those with mental illness; when governments speak of "care in the community", libraries are one of the places it happens. The same goes for troubled and truant adolescents, lonely older people, and the other groups left on the margins by neoliberal socioeconomic dogma. Library staff, especially the frontline staff, have two jobs, if not three: they are library staff, and they are de facto care workers and PCSOs as well (while lacking any of the training or legal protections given to actual care workers and PCSOs, such as it is). And of course "library staffing" also covers the running of the more visible and celebrated "community hub" functions. If you think for a moment library staff spend their days sat on their hands waiting to shush people, then you've clearly not visited one in a long, long time. They're busy, bustling places, and the lending of books is -- tragically, and often quite literally -- the very least of what they do.

And for fifteen years or more, they've also been acting as de facto free-to-air internet cafes, often under the patronising banner of "The People's Network". To be clear, I fully support the provision of internet facilities in libraries, and I support even more fully the provision of free internet access for those unable to access it elsewhere -- not least because the Daniel Blakes of this world need that access in order to avoid being sanctioned for failing to apply for work in the approved manner, which is to say online.

The error was to assume that internet provision for libraries and internet access for more general use could be delivered together. It certainly saved some beancounter somewhere a lot of ugly red marks on a balance ledger, but locating the People's Network in public libraries actively damaged the core functions of libraries -- predominantly by consuming vast amounts of staff time, through dealing with administrivia and managing the resulting queues of people, but also through eating into floor space and operational budget... and also, truth be told, by eating into the image of libraries as places of relative peace and quiet.

Now, my second point: let us recall what a library really is -- or what it was, at any rate. Milner's position seems to be something along the lines of "libraries store information; the internet stores information; but the internet is newer and better and faster and cheaper, and should therefore supplant libraries because [markets]."

This is a dangerous comparison, and this is why: libraries are not merely stores of information, they are curated stores of structured knowledge with the ultimate in natural-language query interfaces, namely human beings trained to understand how to answer the most complicated and random questions imaginable. (And believe you me, people ask some profoundly complicated and random questions of library staff... and those staff take pride in being able to answer them.)

The internet is not a library, because -- considered as a whole -- it is not curated or structured; indeed, these are the considered to be the internet's great selling point (and with some justification). The internet, as people have started to notice, isn't very good at supplying knowledge; there's knowledge out there, but one needs to know where to look for it, how to judge its veracity, which sources can be trusted on which topics. Knowledge is structured information; the internet is just information. 

But before you decry the curation and gatekeepering of knowledge represented by the archaic structures of libraries, recall that the internet has its librarians, too. The bodies now curating and structuring knowledge on our behalf have names like Google, Bing, Microsoft, Facebook. They are not trained to understand people at all; they are trained to provide what the customer wants, even when the customer doesn't know what they want. They are algorithms, larded all through with the implicit biases of their creators. They structure information, but they do not structure knowledge; algorithms can't do knowledge. Knowledge is a cognitive function of sentient beings; it requires not only the sorting and ordering of information, but the parsing and evaluation of information. And no amount of repeating the words "artificial intelligence" or "expert systems" will ever change that fact. Information -- or data, if you prefer -- can only become knowledge through human activity. All an algorithm can do is sort information into vaguely related piles, and let you sift through it yourself.

And that's why we should fear those who would see librarianship disappear, to be replaced by rows of gleaming terminals -- fear them, and fight them to the last. Because whether knowingly or not, they seek overturn a practice that has underpinned civilisation itself for thousands of years, and replace it with a digital teddy-picker.

Think of the inside of a library, for a moment: picture the orderly shelves, the labels on the spines, the ranks of books sorted by subject and topic, the staff waiting to not just give you a book, but give you the book which will best answer the question you've brought.

By comparison, the internet is a warehouse with a huge undifferentiated pile of books in no particular order, staffed by little robots who can find you any book which has the words of your question somewhere in its text, but who always present you with the book that was closest to the top of the pile, on the assumption that it's being on top of the pile means it gets used the most, and must therefore be the most relevant, because otherwise why would people keep asking for it?

That's why we live in a world of Putins, Trumps and Brexits. And that's why if you decide that we need to provide more free internet access for "the people" -- which, to be clear, I think would be a good thing to do -- you either need to separate that provision from library services to some extent, or alternatively provide the funding not only for the terminals and the network connection, but for _more_ trained frontline query staff than ever before, able to teach questioners how to evaluate the information that the algorithms provide -- able to teach people how to build their own knowledge, in other words.

And when you phrase it like that, it becomes pretty clear why the state would be happy to see the library system disappear. "Libraries gave us power," as the Manics once sang -- the power to empower ourselves, to acquire knowledge without being patronised, flattered, or dripfed falsities by partisan media and multinational corporations with expensive agendas to advance.

We mustn't let them take that power away. It was too hard won for that.