As the world continues to reopen and take cautious (or hasty) steps toward a new normal, we are surrounded on all sides by competing voices, expectations, advisories and theories.
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 are suffering anew from “information anxiety”(IA) in this brave new world of ours. 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 brick and mortar 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 (along with every other type of anxiety) in business, academia and the general population as we all struggle to cope with the deluge of conflicting information this pandemic has created. 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 this new world imagines a librarian and a physical library to be. Our users need us as never before. We need to come together, all our creativity and skills in hand to meet the new challenges that are now before us. We are supremely equipped, socially distancing appropriate, to join our virtual hands and meet the needs of our users with the united knowledge and expertise of our profession as never before.