Information Overload: the Tooth Fairy of the Internet

By Kate Sheehan |

I never quite got the hang of believing in Santa. Flying reindeer seemed suspect to me, but the real problem I had was the speed at which he made it around the world, in and out of all those houses and back in a single night. Even accounting for time differences and the International Date Line, I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea.

Like Santa, Information Overload has never quite settled properly into my mind. Every time I read an article (and there are oh so many to read) about the perils of the Information Age and the overwhelming amount of information we’re all drowning under, I find myself squirming.

I know there’s exponentially more information available to us, I know we all feel overwhelmed at times and I know those two factors intersect, but I could never bring myself to set out milk and cookies for Information Overload.

At the recent Web2.0 Expo, Clay Shirky explained why, like Santa, Information Overload is a myth. One meant to make us feel better and keep some magic in our lives, but something that does not exist.

The problem, Shirky tells us, is not more information, but outdated filters. This should resonate with librarians who have helped people use the Internet for the first time and watched the careful left to right tracking of their eyes across the screen, treating everything on the page as if it had equal importance… as if it were printed material.

Compare that to teenagers who can keep several chat windows open, hang out on Facebook, listen to music and work on their math homework simultaneously. Filters that evolved with the Internet are fitter.

Over at the reference desk, our job has evolved from information provider to information filter. “Here are the materials on your topic” isn’t good enough anymore, not because people are lazy, but because that stack of material is gigantic and in order to truly help our patrons, we have to help them parse what’s in there.  

Sites like Chowhound and Yelp have become wonderful reference tools because they filter information through the obsessive lens of people who really care about a subject. Tagging, reviewing and discussing things online aren’t just ways of adding user-generated metadata to objects, they’re a way of sifting through the information onslaught. People who are passionate participate and create a better way to get at the nuggets of information we really want.

It’s not enough to point people towards the Dewey range, database or websites that they need. We have to become that passionate filter for their topic for the five, fifteen or fifty minutes we spend working on it. We have to page through the books, search for articles, dig through the discussion boards and really engage with their topic.

Everyone who’s worked a public service desk has had the experience of chasing after a patron with “just one more article” after the patron was satisfied (and possibly frightened of the librarian’s zeal). Engaging with content is, in many ways, nothing new for librarians and we need to keep tapping that professional quirk that makes many of us great at Trivial Pursuit or pariahs at family gatherings.
The gatekeeper model that says “I will show you where the information you need is” is dead. The gates aren’t locked; they aren’t even closed. The world is flooded and our value will shine when we extend our hands to our patrons and jump in with them.