Library Issues Personal

Thoughts on Epistemology and Authority

In a recent interview, Cory Doctorow discussed ontology, so I feel ok about pulling out some philosophy for this particular discussion.

One of the thoughts that’s been rattling around in my head lately is for an article related to the issues that librarians have with digital sources, specifically things like Wikipedia. The cry of most librarians is that digital sources (things like wikis, webpages, blogs) have no authority, no one standing behind them that lends them credence. Wikis are created by the masses, and can often be changed by anyone, and so, the argument goes, will simply devolve into the least common denominator of information.

But that assumes that knowledge is best judged by it’s origins, which is a highly debatable position. My favored epistemological position is a coherence theory of knowledge that is grounded in ontological realism. Knowledge (or Truth, as philosophers like to talk about it) is judged real when it is supported by a network of like facts. That is, if I were to attempt to convince people that I was 25 years old (by posting it on my website, putting an entry into the Wikipedia, etc…) that would only last so long as the surrounding pieces of knowledge weren’t known (no one checked my birth certificate, no one asked my mom, or many other ways of checking my claim). As soon as you start checking the coherence of my statement with other statements, it falls apart (and is thus now neither Truth nor Knowledge).

This speaks to basic information literacy skills. Blindly trusting one source, even if that source is the Oxford Dictionary of Biography is probably not a good idea, and why authority would naturally lend itself to information evaluation as a central criterion has always been beyond me. A criterion, certainly, but no more or less important than the other things surrounding the positited knowledge.

At some point all of this will come out in a nice academic article relating coherence theory to information evaluation as it pertains to reference work and library instruction. But that will take work and research. So for now, just the basic idea, captured and (hopefully) commented on.

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

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