The Days of Big Data

These are the days of big data. Humans are creating, sharing, and consuming more data and information today than at any time in history. In 1960, the typical American had access in their homes to 3.4 television stations, 8.2 radio stations, 1.1 newspapers, 1.5 recently published books, and 3.6 magazines. In a world of information scarcity, libraries played a significant role in expanding access to information. They provided depth and breadth to personal information gathering, connecting researchers and readers to a world of well-balanced information and knowledge.

A study from 2005 now estimates that for every minute we consume information, more than one thousand additional minutes of content are available to us. Thus every moment of information intake is a decision — one source chosen, with a thousand others set aside. The same study suggests that one effect of having such a wide range of sources to consider is a reduction in the diversity of resources and perspectives chosen. In other words, in a world of 3.4 television stations, we were more likely to watch all of them and therefore gain a variety of perspectives. Today, we are more likely to default to a smaller and smaller set of resources because we lack the perspective — and more importantly, the time — to choose the best one.

In a world of attention scarcity, the role of the library remains exactly the same as when information was scarce — to connect researchers and readers to information. However, while libraries used to expand the universe of possible information, today they work to define and filter it in order to make it manageable at a human level. The role of librarians as teachers to expand the information skills of researchers and readers is more important today than ever. Even the best search engines will only return a small sampling of available resources, and rarely do they expose the deep and rich resources owned and licensed by libraries.

Google and Wikipedia are examples of the many outstanding tools and resources for academic work now available online. They gather and present good information that can serve as a starting point for academic research. Increasingly, today’s students do not look beyond these tools and the links generated therein to generate academic work. Given the complexity of our information landscape today, can we blame them?

Throughout the 2012-13 academic year, the United States Military Academy Library will be expanding our efforts to ensure that cadets, faculty, and staff feel equipped to navigate the information minefields inherent in twenty-first century academic research. We will be working to expand our visibility and presence as librarians outside of the library, as we recognize that academic research takes place all over the Academy, particularly in academic departments. We will be working with each academic department to better understand their information literacy-related outcomes for their majors and design specific initiatives to ensure those outcomes are met. We will be working to improve our Internet-based discovery tools that can more effectively deliver and refine the best academic information to our users (most of which are not available publicly on the web). We will be working to expand support and services to mobile users, recognizing that the need for information retrieval in today’s world happens everywhere. We will be expanding our efforts to communicate with users to better provision them with skills and knowledge of how best to use library resources.

While these areas will be of particular focus during the 2012-13 year, they will continue to guide library initiatives and efforts into the future. The universe of information will keep expanding at rates beyond what we can imagine. Some researchers estimate that we will see a fifty-fold increase in information over the next decade. That estimate may be conservative. While our digital tools to harness that information will certainly continue to improve, there is a very bright future for information professionals who can rationalize an incredibly complex world of data to make it functional, useful, and more humane in support of high quality academic research. Doing so is our goal in service to the cadets, faculty, and staff of the United States Military Academy now and into the future.

Reference: Neuman, W. Russell, Yong Jin Park, and Elliott Panek. “Tracking the Flow of Information Into the Home: An Empirical Assessment of the Digital Revolution in the United States, 1960–2005” International Journal of Communication 6. (2012).

Published in USMA Library Program Review 2011-2013