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Transparency, Objectivity, and Independence–Or Not?

I posted the following message this morning; librarian types, I’d love your thoughts.

I’ve been looking at these comments [internal discussion of the conference issues] from the consumer’s point of view. So I’ll say my librarian thing and then return to my Thursday morning publishing gig.

Transparency can be good–part of “the people’s right to know.” But one thought that bobs to the surface is that transparency can also be a crutch, or even an excuse. “I told my readers what I was about, so what’s the deal?”
Where do readers see these disclaimers? On every blog post? Buried somewhere in the archives? In an About page? And how well does that actually serve the people receiving this information? Where is the user-behavior data demonstrating that people read and understand this information?

Even when a blogger intends to be transparent, the technology can fog the glass. Think about RSS readers. Content delivered through an aggregator gets stripped of some or most of its context. RSS is fabulous–I use it all the time, and evangelize it among end-users and librarians. The digital library I manage produces two RSS feeds. I even subscribe to feeds recommended by third parties I trust without looking twice at the blog. I’m a librarian, like you I’m an info superuser (on the Web since 1991, web page since 95, blah blah blah), and I don’t care about book jackets. But are novice users (or as you call them, readers) truly well served by reliance on transparency?

Quite a few of the assumptions in this discussion are about a techno-elite serving a techno-elite. They are not about the information needs or challenges of the average person, let alone those still climbing over the digital divide. On the other hand, people can be conditioned new ways to receive information. Which makes me think that the learning component is something else missing from this discussion–again, unless we are restricting our concept of “audience” to the digerati.

Then there is objectivity. I agree journalism has some problems to grapple with. I’m still in mourning over Dan Rather. But I wonder if you folks are in too much of a hurry to reject objectivity as a goal (even as a “North Star”). I am also fuzzy on the syllogism driving your conclusions. Are you saying that objectivity does not exist? That it is inherently bad? Or that it is difficult to achieve? Librarians, as information providers, come to the information table aware that our biases and backgrounds present an obstacle. Interestingly, we struggle to be UN-transparent–to be as neutral as possible and to leave ourselves out of it, and to struggle toward objectivity in our own flawed human fashion. If you want three websites and three books on the subject of abortion, I’ll do my best to cover the issue from all angles and keep my voice out of it. Would our users be better served if we abandoned our commitment to neutrality?

Finally, to the call for independence, I would balance that with the concept of community. Yes, we all benefit from voices who have “independence from their employer, from their government, even from their own point of view.”
But we also benefit from information providers–journalists, librarians, bloggers–who are in some way accountable to a community. Communities can establish group standards, hold feet to the fire, set examples, and share core values. (Yes, communities can also be bad–the gatekeeping nature of librarianship has meant that it has taken forty years for librarians to fully accept “nonprint,” i.e. non-book, materials as valid library services.) It is community–which implies a loss of independence–that has made librarians so aggravating to feds who want us to hand over patron data on a platter, censor the Internet, and spy on the people we serve. A couple of years ago, in some incident where a library worker shared confidential data with the press, lo, was there much tsking and clucking and feather-fluffing, and good on us for being so concerned. A Librarian Gone Wrong, and we all knew it. We have also established awards in the name of Zoia Horn, a librarian who went to jail rather than violate patron confidentiality. We can all see similar community-building memes within journalism, and within blogging communities. So I’d be very careful to balance the concept of independence with that of accountability.

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