by Lora Johns
In recent years, websites have sprung up that allow the anxious professional to input her job title and find out when she will be replaced by automation. Based on the calculations of an Oxford University report, Will Robots Take My Job? puts the reference librarian’s chances of obsolescence at 65%.
Tools like this tap into one of our fundamental anxieties: in the age of Google and information aggregators, what is the point of us? Most people, after all, can find most of what they need most of the time with a natural-language web search.
Physicist and author William Poundstone offers some hints. In the recently released paperback Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up, he charts our complicated relationship with information and the truth.
In it, he identifies a major information problem: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This principle holds that “those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack.” They are ignorant of their ignorance. Americans grossly overestimate the proportion of minority groups in society (leading, perhaps, to a fear that straight, white, native Christians are endangered). They overestimate unemployment by more than a factor of five. Yet only a third of those polled admitted “I was just guessing” on questions whose answers they did not know.
The implications are troubling, especially when you consider that it applies to knowledge of the news—fake or mainstream—and informs how people react to current events. People don’t think they need to know facts because they can always look them up—but people won’t look up facts that they don’t know they don’t know. How can we make people care about smartening up when they don’t even know they’re, well, dumb? Moreover, let’s say someone does recognize her own ignorance on a topic, so she Googles it to find out more. How will she assess the credibility and agendas of the websites she encounters? Can she tell good information from bad?
This is where the librarians can come to the rescue far more than any AI. Computers can serve up information quickly and cheaply—but that information is either undifferentiated or overly cherry-picked, keeping the reader locked in a filter bubble that only lets in concurring viewpoints. Librarians train themselves to not just find sources of information, but critique and assess their quality. We are a profession dedicated to information literacy, and people know it—in an August Pew Research survey, 78% of U.S. adults said they rely on the library to help them find trustworthy, reliable information.
Law librarians have an especially important role to play. Poundstone highlights attorneys as people who function knowing “nothing except where to look up what [they] need.” After all, no one can know by heart each line of the Federal Register. Yet living inside a Dunning-Kruger bubble is as bad for a law professor, lawyer, or legal scholar as it is for a journalist or scientist. But in this media-rich age, there’s more information available than any individual could ever hope to survey, let alone appraise and digest. As law librarians, we can provide the kind of information curation and gentle nudges to expand one’s horizons that Google (or Westlaw or Lexis) don’t and can’t. When information on law and politics is easier to find and harder to verify than ever before, we can help, to borrow from James Madison, “refine and enlarge the public views” by illuminating the gaps in our patrons’ knowledge and helping them find the most credible sources to fill them with.
Plus, as humans, not commercially-developed artificial intelligences, we can critically evaluate the algorithms behind services like Google Search and Washington Post’s customized news app that determine what content the user sees. Being outside the automated process of information delivery allows us to better apprise our patrons of the reliability or bias they may find within these helpful tools.
In short, we are nimble, socially responsible information professionals, trusted by the public and constantly evolving. Siri’s got nothing on us.