Browsed by
Month: January 2007

How Information is like Beef Brisket

How Information is like Beef Brisket

The difference between an academic (and by this I mean a person who completes a PhD and goes on to take a variety of sessional positions at a school of higher education and vies for, but does not always gain, a tenure-track position) and a librarian is something I’ve been pondering a great deal lately. Having spent time in both universes, and thus having passed from one paradigm to another, I’m regularly intrigued by the differences. All of it is in the training, I find.

One of the things I think is fairly universal with academics is a general disdain for tertiary sources. I thought this was mostly a bias coming from the particularly snobbish elements of the history and literature crowd, but I sense that it’s much more wide spread than that. Witness this recent college ban on Wikipedia, which is supported with statements like, “oh, it’s not just that we don’t trust wikipedia! Students shouldn’t be citing any kind of encyclopedia, they are silly sources, you know, for kids!” (My paraphrasal, of course.)

In my experience, there’s a hierarchy in the world of documents: primary sources are best. I have met more than one professor (at a certain Ivy League institution with which I have some familiarity) who have lectured on at length about the purity of luxuriating only in primary sources, letting them sink into your skin, swirl around in your mouth, run its fingers through your hair. Read the primary sources and ignore everything else. Original interpretions arrive in this way, from the very font of the river, not from any other direction. Primary is first, and first is always the winner.

Secondary sources are still up there in high esteem (unless, as I say, you’re a certain kind of Harvard professor), but on the whole only because they are the discussion board of academe. This is where the action is, this is where we fight over our intepretations of the real stuff (those Primary Sources!). Secondary sources are the speeches academics give to each other. They are excellent because we have excellent ideas about primary sources, and the rest of the (academic) world should hear all about them.

And then we have tertiary sources. Tertiary sources are full of what an academic might write as a lark one afternoon (post tenure) when a colleague is editing some title or other. Tertiary sources are what non-academics tend to write, with the education they gleaned from greater minds. They consist are short, bland, normative, reductionist descriptions written with junior high school students as an audience. This is knowledge for the unwashed. Fast food knowledge. Knowledge in bite-sized chunks. Knowledge for the ADHD generation. I suspect that it’s widely believed that they employ a particular, watered-down terminology so as not to intimidate their readers with big words. Encyclopedias have pictures. Therefore, they are a relative of picture books.

I’m very familiar with the bias against tertiary sources. I felt it myself well into library school. They are considered reduced information, and thus somehow suspect; they are designed (so it seems) for the housewife market, those people who take encyclopedia salesmen up on their offer to provide a wealth of information for little Johnny. Encyclopedias are for junior high, not for smarty pants grownups like us. If knowledge is gained by experiencing it first hand, a twice-removed paragraph on it is a far cry from sufficient.

It’s hard to explain the value of a reference collection when so many people have no regard whatsoever for tertiary sources.

The other day I woke up with this rather awful metaphor in my head that relates to this. Imagine that information is meat. Meat in all its forms; ribs, filet mignon, peameal bacon, smoked turkey sliced from the deli counter, a side of wild boar. An academic will tell you that the best way to find out anything about a new piece of random meat is to cook it up and taste it. That way you’ll understand what it is, you’ll savour it’s qualities, sense the care that went into feeding this animal, the preparation it went through, and this way you will glean the kind of cut you ended up with, the freshness of it, etc. etc. The only way to really know the meat is to be one with the meat; dive right in! It might take a lifetime to get through all the different kinds, but you will understand the meat if you persevere. Particularly if you stick to only one particular kind of meat. Say, beef brisket, in all it’s variety. For guidance, speak only to other beef brisket connoisseurs. Subscribe to beef brisket journals. Travel to see far-away butchers to learn from their ways. This is an academic take on understanding meat.

Now, on the other hand, a librarian seeking to find out what sort of meat we’re dealing with will look at the label on the package, check the date and the supplier, and tell you exactly what kind of meat you’re looking at. her report will not in the same loving detail, not by a long shot, but she will give you exactly what you’re looking for.

This is because librarians are one with tertiary literature. Librarians deal in metaknowledge. When I first discovered that information is organized like meat in a butcher shop, I was shocked. I’d always been told I had to eat my way through the store to find what I was looking for. Who knew someone had already slapped a useful tag on it, and I might even find it before it went off?