Thursday, April 13, 2006


Where does information come from? From the world, from the senses, from the mind? If sometimes it's self-evident, at other times it has no fixed form. So how do we know it when we see it? There is a running debate among some physicists about whether information can escape from a black hole. Current opinion says that it can. As quoted in Wikipedia, "Quantum perturbations of the event horizon might allow information to escape from a black hole." I have no idea what this means, but it is a theoretical fact, and evidently it occupies a privileged place in the mind of Stephen Hawking. To me, most information is like this: always on the move and about to be true, shape shifting, something to be declared, compelling our attention as it barely escapes the black hole of reality. Information, when we can remember it, gives us a way to describe the black hole we can't see. Reality itself has no meaning: it just is. Information mediates between states of being. This little column will show you some of the sites that have changed the nature of attention. With consciousness our screen on the world, information is our screensaver.

How does information get on the web? Well, people usually put it there, of course. Providers of information to the academic community are usually responsible professionals - writers, professors, journalists, publishers, educators, statisticians, scientists, government workers and others whose business is displaying, marketing and distributing information to those who need to believe that it comes from official, scholarly, peer-reviewed, verifiable, secured sources.

But information isn't generated only by researchers, nor only by people. Habit and method puts information out there too. Time, history, inertia, software, algorithms, computers, and search engines do their share. So do faith, creativity, egomania. Some information seems simply to emerge, like fractals. What musicians, novelists, architects and photographers create - gods, heros and villains - also becomes information. The brilliant, twisted, or mute obsessions of pilgrims and hermits, victims, soldiers, and inmates also become information. Selves gather unto selves, electricity makes waves, voices chat from collective throats and sound like nothing heard before. Virtual reality becomes more than a metaphor. Sometimes whimsy, accident and fanaticism put information there. No one knows what it will lead to. What does it have to do with librarians?

A quiet battle rages among academic librarians between those who believe that the information needs of patrons should come from databases on the "invisible web" and those who believe that authority should be drawn from the entire web. Of course it's easier to use the invisible web: it's a much smaller part of the world wide web. The trick is in getting to know and trust it: it takes time and intelligence. Proprietary databases are excellent for those who have password or proxy access to them, and the good luck to know where to find them; the general web is what's left, and is created by and for the masses. The better we get to know it, the more we shall be amazed by it.

Most of a library's databases consist of copyrighted "articles" and reports that must be purchased or leased, and are written by credentialed experts. Composed of indexed research and data submitted by experts and scholars to editor-peers, the "information" is retrieved and displayed in formats modeled on the print publications they replace. You pay a database vendor for lending you its authority, not for its convenience or ingenuity. The long arm of print culture often drags them slowly across the landscape of proprietary protocols. The free web, on the other hand, can seem like a lawless, borderless place where anyone can stake his authority on format and rhetoric, Google is king, experts are self-described and keywords like photons illuminate cyberspace generating relevance.

Now let's look at some of the internet-based websites that contain the shapes information weaves across the web. In their creativity, subject matter, graphic design, user interface, and application, websites like these can often provide far more than is asked or expected of the conventional panoply of library databases. But they do little good if they languish in neglect. Take a moment and look at them. They are important, independent information sources with a life and a magic of their own. Some of them have taken light-years to reach us. To base information literacy solely on knowing proprietary databases is like learning only the nouns of a language. Such a tongue-tied approach to our search for knowledge is bound to be disappointing.

1. International Archives for the (Hammond B-3) Jazz Organ

Try to imagine anyone other than a music fanatic from Germany putting together a database like this, annotating over 10,000 recordings made by jazz organist on this famously definitive instrument, making it searchable by many parameters, and offering it as a downloadable archive. Links to everything else in the Hammond jazz world - concerts, videos, festivals, new recordings, polls, history, discussion forums - are also given. Why are these labors of love always free?


Having a hard time finding a good novel to read, and you don't like your husband's taste? Have a computer connected to 150 responsible human readers do it for you! This engine allows you to find new titles by selecting the degree of appeal in a book of such qualities as safety, violence, sex, seriousness, sadness, optimism, race, age, setting, and thematic description. Only books published after 1995 are listed, but the century's young. After you input your preferences, titles are summarized briefly. If you live in the UK, you can even find out where to borrow it.

3. Feature Films from the Internet Archive

Yes, at no cost you really can view or download over 640 full-length feature films on your computer, like Salt of the Earth, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Quiet One, Malice in the Palace, The Last Woman on Earth and New York City Ghetto Fish Market 1903. When you've seen them all, there are still another 30,000 unusual short films you can explore. Having a powerful computer and connection helps.

4. Speech Accent Archive

Ever wonder why American actors never speak with a foreign accent? Hear how the same paragraph in English sounds when spoken by hundreds of foreign-born speakers, including those whose first language is Punjabi, Hunanese, Afrikaans, French, Sindi, Dinka, Serbian, Pidgin English, Mortlockese, Tagalog, Swedish and Yoruba.

5. Avibase

Why spend weeks looking for an Adelaide's warbler, a three-toed jacamar or even an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker when a few mouse clicks will fill your virtual checklist? Here is a searchable metasite in 13 languages with links to every imaginable aspect of birds and birding worldwide: descriptions, maps, checklists, sounds, photos, videos, research centers, conservation, travel, trip reports, bird name etymology, books. But do birds fly in cyberspace?

6. Live Air Traffic Map from JFK

See a dynamic (if slightly time-delayed) map of flights departing from and arriving at JFK Airport. Gain new respect for air traffic controllers. Individual flights are marked, altitude and speed are given, aerial views and major roads are shown from a 5-to 80-mile radius. With this software, some other airports can be seen as well. Should this site exist?

7. Exploring The Wasteland

Where were you when you first heard the droning recital of T.S.Eliot's The Wasteland? In class, or asleep - or both? Future students never need lose sleep over this assignment again. This site provides a detailed, automated line-by-line critical, textual and historical commentary of the famous poem, and was created by a software engineer who, though he has no degree in English, didn't major in it, doesn't teach it, and took only one course in English Lit, has a thing for Eliot, and is proud of it. See under: labor of love.