Library Issues

I fight authority…

So in a recent entry, Jessamyn talks Wikipedia and how librarians are going to have to get over their love affair with authority:

The debate we’ve seen happening over the authority, or lack thereof, of collaborative information systems such as Wikipedia is just scratching the surface of the debates we’ll be seeing in the years to come. Librarians ignore Wikipedia, and by extension the new face of information, at their peril. Keep in mind I’m not saying that we all have to run to the Internet to answer our questions, just that if we fail to see the impact these systems are having, and the openness and transparency they bring with them, then we fail to learn something crucial about the downsides to the inflexible authority of print.

Indeed…in a talk I gave the other day, I discussed a lot of new hip and trendy things in LibraryLand, but it never fails that I get gasps of astonishment when I show academics the Wikipedia. I’ve never been fond of authority as the answer to our information instabilities, but I’m even less so now with the living antithesis of authority on hand (and so remarkable!).

I blogged a bit ago about an academic paper I’ve got rattling around in my head having to do with new ways of viewing information sources as relating to the Coherence Theory of knowledge. Spoke briefly with Jeff Pomeratz from UNC regarding my idea via email, who said:

I agree, librarians are too hung up on authority as a criterion. It reminds me of the story I remember reading about early Renaissance scientists trying to discover how many teeth horses have. After checking all books that might have a reference to horses’ teeth & coming up with nothing, it was decided that it was an unanswerable question! That said, I don’t think authority as a criterion can be dismissed: I’d trust the accuracy of a statement on a topic from an expert on that topic over a statement from a non-expert any day. But why? That I leave to you to answer in a philosophically principled way. So I’d argue that authority has to be positioned relative to other criteria.

Authority as a criterion may not ever go away completely…as I said to Jeff, when I’m sick, I go to a doctor, after all. But as an end point for deciding validity or truth, it is clearly not the only answer that should be given. In libraries, we have the concept of a “subject expert” who is responsible for things relating to that subject…selecting books, answering tough reference questions, producing research guides. That’s an authority concept that I don’t really mind. Would it be better if they did this work in concert with other “experts?” I would argue yes…the more brains on the problem, the better.

When making arguments for a position, I think that examining the web of interconnections to that position is a better form of support than simply a reference to authority.

This all seems so self-evident to me, that sometimes it is difficult to present well. I’m re-reading stuff on coherence theory now, and hopefully can more fully form some actually arguments at some point. I’d love any thoughts that anyone might have to spur my brain in the right direction.

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.

5 replies on “I fight authority…”

Studying the web of interconnections is a good idea, certainly. However, as academia can attest to, gathering all of the “experts” in one place, or even in one virtual environment, can bog down a process beyond belief. With no one to lead the group or set goals and expectations, a lot of times there can be too much pointless discussion on tangents, or too much time spent on two people’s particular argument that isn’t really the main issue.

This is not to say that considering all aspects and opinions on a problem is counterproductive. However, without a deadline or as sense of urgency, often all you get is academic discussion and no real product. Authority can sometimes provide that sense of urgency and produce the final word.

Yeah, but you’re conflating process with judgment. I’m talking about the judgment of “what is knowledge” or “what is true.” In cases where one must decide the veracity of a statement or belief, authority is, I argue, not the best way to make that judgment.

Wow, that horses’ teeth example sounds pretty goofy out of context.

I just reread your Thoughts on Epistemology and Authority post & it occurred to me that one argument for authority is this: an authority is a person who has a network of facts at their fingertips, who knows what the surrounding pieces of knowledge are. It’s not that information is true because an authority says so, stone-tablets-and-Mount-Sinai style. It’s that an authority is more likely than a not-authority to know what truth is, because they’re walking around with the relevant network of facts in their head. To borrow your doctor example: it’s not that I have whatever disease because the doctor says I do, it’s that the doctor can look at my symptoms & bring their knowledge & experience to bear & determine that I have whatever disease.

Anything in the coherence theory literature about how a network of justification in one person’s head maps to a network of justification in the world, or vice versa?

[…] As I think I may have mentioned, Authority is my pet peeve when it comes to information evaluation. We’ve seen the sorts of trouble we get into when we put to much stock in authority. Why do we keep using it? I believe that it’s a holdover from a pre-network, pre-Internet, pre-digital world, where cross-checking many things was simply too difficult to manage. We upheld authority in those cases due to a simple inability to compare pieces of information easily and determine what is supported by research and what is not. That’s not the case anymore, however…nearly anything is easily fact-checked, or at the very least examined to determine if it coheres with other facts. […]

Yeah, but you're conflating process with judgment. I'm talking about the judgment of “what is knowledge” or “what is true.” In cases where one must decide the veracity of a statement or belief, authority is, I argue, not the best way to make that judgment.

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