Managing information through hubris

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime. 

-Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

This reminds me of when I worked at NASA, running a technical library (contract style). Our overseer was convinced that our researchers no longer needed a library: they knew how to get the information they needed. We should not bother ourselves in getting in between them and their searches, but worry about, well, whatever else it was librarians worried about. 

Her ideas may have well and good, until they weren’t well and good. Yes, a good number of researchers were very savvy research gatherers. They held many degrees and were part of the smartest people in the world in their fields. But...

The information field had changed — was constantly changing. Many people didn’t know what to do with the information they had. They could find things, but they didn’t know how to interact with all this information they were gathering themselves. That was a micro problem. And my bosses thought they could get around that by building more tools. What also happened, the organization at the macro level didn’t know what to do with all the information their researchers were collecting and work they were doing. 

Librarians can come between the researcher and her research in bad ways. They can interrupt without understanding the needs of their patrons. They can throw too many irrelevant tools in their faces. But librarians are knowledgeable about the research process, the lifecycle of this information.  

What I came away from that job was a lesson in the problems non-librarians create running a library. But the issue was something different — a question of hubris. Not only did my overlords have too much faith in their machines, but they also didn’t want any help where they needed it most — how they handled their information.