Do You Have Information Anxiety?

Decisions Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions listed by Richard Saul Wurman in his book,  “Information Anxiety 2”?

  • “I find myself frequently bemoaning the fact that I just can’t seem to keep up with everything going on.
  • I feel guilty whenever I think about all the reading that is piling up in my inbox, my briefcase, my ereader and desk.
  • Everyone else knows all about the topics that I don’t.
  • I have a fear of “missing” critical information when I’m searching.
  • I’m so busy finding all the information sources, I don’t have time to read and digest what I’ve found.
  • I have difficulty efficiently sorting through all the “noise” of information I receive to identify the nuggets of information I am seeking.”

If any of these sentiments sound familiar, you may be joining the growing crowd of individuals who suffer from “information anxiety”(IA).  Information anxiety is the cost we experience when information overload occurs.  Wurman defines IA as “the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It is the black hole between data and knowledge, and what happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.” 

Baldwin and Robertson (“The Dark Side of Information: Overload, Anxiety and Other Paradoxes and Pathologies”, Journal of Information Science 35(2) 2009, pp. 185) says IA is more than just a reaction to the volumes of information that we are faced with on a daily basis. Also adding to our stress is the difficulty experienced when trying to locate information when needed  as well as the inability to use and understand the information that is already available. Sometimes, they assert, the information may be incomplete, but just as often the problem may be that the information obtained is disorganized and gathered in a piecemeal fashion from a number of different resources.

Carol Tenopir (“Online Information Anxiety”, Library Journal  115(13) 1990, p 62) relates the effect of IA to the challenges faced by librarians, stating, “With access to hundreds of bibliographic, directory, full-text, numeric databases online, the fundamental problem of today isn’t finding information, it is filtering and helping users make sense of all we find.”

So what does this mean to us as librarians? Even as some voices are declaring the library (and its librarians) superfluous in this age where individuals can consult the Web for all their information needs, we also see a refocused attention on the issues of information overload and information anxiety in business, academia and the general population.  And people are stepping up to address the issues.  They call themselves information experts, business consultants, social media gurus and productivity coaches just to name a few titles. The underlying concepts they are applying, however, are very familiar to librarians. They are simply applying and adjusting them to address the information environment of today: a world connected by information streaming from many different media forms at a faster pace than ever before.  We need to repackage our very capable skill sets and redefine what the world imagines a librarian to be.  Our users need us as never before.  They just have to realize it.

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