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Information Professionals as Sherpas – Part I

09 Mar

I have two favourite facts in all the world. One is that there are more people alive than dead. (Oh my God! There are more people currently walking about on earth than have walked on earth in all of previous civilisation put together! Eeek! etc)

The other is to do with the way many animals are born ‘older’ than humans. As we all know, a human is absolutely defenceless and fairly useless when it is born – it needs to be fed, and protected, and it can’t walk, or really do anything. Your average horse, by contrast, is born, stands up, and is basically ready to gallop off down the shops for some fresh coffee and a copy of the local paper. Many animals go through the bit where they are helpless before their birth, meaning they are better equipped to survive once they are born. The main reason humans can’t do this relates to our previously having walked on four-legs, and via evolution having made the transition to two-legs – in order that our hips and pelvis could support us as bipeds, they had to become much stronger. That meant (if you don’t like the phrase ‘birth-canal’, look away now…) narrowing the birth-canal, which means we humans have to born earlier if we’re to get out at all. Hence, we arrive ‘younger’ and ill equipped to deal with the world.

I think there are parallels with information in both cases.

The first is fairly frivolous, but nevertheless – there is much, much more information in the world today than in all of human history before us. (In fact, it is thought that more information is produced each and every day, than existed in total 100 years ago.) Here’s a scary ticker showing the amount of information created this year alone, courtesy of EMC.

It is increasingly being recognised that we will soon be drowning in a deluge of information, and I’ve said before I think too much information is as prohibitive as too little. So the Information Professional has a role to play here, separating the good quality information from the stuff you can’t trust.

In the second case, the digital revolution has effectively allowed information to be ‘born younger’, just like us. As the line between creator and consumer blurs (with the internet itself providing an instant publishing medium, and the increase in sharing and user-generated-content that defines Web 2.0) then information is increasingly available to us earlier in its lifecycle – perhaps prior to peer-review, or referencing, or even fact-checking. Where previously information had to go on a fairly lengthy journey between being written down by an author and ingested by a reader, now the two can happen all but simultaneously. And as such, some information is, like a human baby as opposed to foal, in need of help and guidance. We Information Professionals can help nurture information and ensure it gets to consumers in good health (which is to say, in a useful state).

In both cases, the Information Professional takes on a sort of Sherpa role. I’ve thought for ages that we’re headed that way – with the amount of information in the world, negotiating it successfully will be increasingly impossible without a qualified guide. Seth Godin uses the word ‘Sherpa’ too, in his now (in)famous blog post on the future of libraries. And of the 12 differences between yesterday’s libraries and tomorrow’s libraries from Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk blog (you know, the one I totally ripped off for my last post! :) ) the one that struck me the most was:

9. Yesterday’ libraries were all about organizing information by a set of rules.
Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about helping users organize information in ways that make sense to them

As I said in the comments, it illustrates the shift from Enforcer to Sherpa that we must undergo, and hopefully are undergoing already.

There are already signs that consumers of information are ready to be guided, as I will try and illustrate in part two of this, tomorrow.

- thewikiman

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