Ten years ago, in the Spring of 1996, I was learning of my acceptance to library school and introducing myself to the world-expanding wonders of the internet. (I intend that sentence to be read without irony, as I can recall clearly what a revelation it was when I first browsed the web, sent and read emails, and chatted online, and how immediate was my awareness that my life would be forever changed by this technology.)
I remember the way the web was discussed in the news media and in my library school classes during that time period. In the popular mind, there was both anxiety and excitement about the democratizing aspect of the web and how it would enable both popular dissent and popular deception and irrationalism. What a threat it could be, people thought, that just anyone could put up a web page as “real”-looking as something that came from an authoritative source, and “fool people.” Librarians, anxious about comparisons of the internet to a “huge library in your own home,” immediately saw that the public’s anxiety could work to our advantage, and that it might in fact be the salvation of our social relevance. “Librarians,” we said to each other, “can be the professionals the public looks to for help sorting out the good from the bad. We are, after all, information experts.” And so began the thread of discourse that, based on the librarian’s role in selecting authoritative reference materials, attempted to place the librarian in the role of gatekeeper to the “good information” on the web. The idea of the librarian’s stamp of approval of internet resources was born.
Librarians do indeed evaluate reference materials for authoritativeness as a source of facts; that is one of the primary criteria. But rather than the rule for collection development, evaluation of reference materials is really a special case. Outside of the reference collection, decisions about what to buy are not based so much on the question, “Can I trust it?” but on a host of other questions relating to relevance in terms of the mission of the library (as well as to a concept of quality and also to the limitations of cost). What was disregarded in this discourse about the librarian’s stamp of approval was the fact that the wide-ranging, incredibly diverse internet is not analagous to a reference collection, but to a whole library and something much broader than a library. The internet is more than something to refer to as a reference for facts. In fact, the audiences and purposes of the billions of pages on the web are broader and more diverse than any library. What this means is that any decisions about what to include in an internet directory would, if based on standard ideas in collection development, have to deal not so much with authoritativeness as with a much expanded idea of relevance, because there is no one institution in question and no one mission at play.
Seen in terms of a carefully-selected, authoritative reference collection, the idea of a “librarian’s stamp of approval” has a certain attraction, the attraction of security. But once you acknowledge that the internet is not analagous to a reference collection but to the world of publishing as a whole, an approved list of websites becomes analagous to an approved list of books. Now, it is often appropriate for librarians, doing readers’ advisory, to recommend a book or a website to a patron based on an understanding of their specific information need – their specific problem, perspective, educational background, and sometimes taste – and the ability to do this, to apply our knowledge of the information world to an individual’s situation through interpretation and empathy, is part of our professional role. (We understand that relevance is relative.) And it is also often appropriate for us to publish indexes and bibliographies that pull together resources on a topic for a particular audience according to particular standards. But it has never been appropriate for us to publish a list of “approved books,” selected from the totality of the published record, for an audience of all people. Such a thing would obviously be seen as a totalitarian conception.
Over the years, as we and the public have gotten used to the internet, we have come to conceptualize our role in relation to the internet somewhat differently. Rather than answering the question, “Can I trust it?,” we now tend to answer orienting questions like, “What is this?,” “How does it relate to my need?” and “Where does this come from?” Helping to teach users how to answer this type of question for themselves, and how to decide whether a resource is right or wrong for them rather than right or wrong in some universal sense, is now how we see our role in teaching information literacy. How we translate this educational role into a web presence is an unsolved problem, but I think most of us are, at this point, unsatisfied with simply telling patrons whether a website is “good” or “bad,” and feel that if we give patrons that kind of oversimplified, easy answer we are robbing them of an educational opportunity and pandering to their laziness.
This is why, after considerable soulsearching, I am uncomfortable supporting the Librarians’ Index to the Internet in their campaign to have their full funding restored. As you have probably read, this year’s California State Library budget cuts their funding in half, which has implications for their staffing. Librarians tend to support LII because they represent a major presence for librarians on the internet. (The website statistics for LII are undeniably impressive.) But LII is the primary manifestation on the internet of the “librarian’s stamp of approval,” their slogan being “Websites you can trust.” I think this “stamp of approval” orientation of librarians to the internet is a part of the past, so I think I rather support the funding cut. Now I think the creative work ahead is to find ways to make the librarian’s real role as an educator and an orientor to information, with the consciousness that “relevance is relative,” more present in the web environment. I welcome with enthusiasm projects that work in that direction.