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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2001

Book Reviews

The Social Life of Information

Lea Wade
Science Librarian and Chair of Reference
University of New Orleans

The Social Life of Information. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000. 320 pp. ISBN 0-87584-762-5. $25.95 cloth.

Futurists have been foretelling the demise of print materials and the inevitable dissolution of libraries for years. The Social Life of Information sets to prove them wrong. John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist at Xerox Corp. and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and Paul Duguid, a research specialist for Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California at Berkeley, argue that information acquires meaning only through social context. Their view is that the rapid increase in the creation and use of electronic products has led to a "tunnel vision" with a single-minded focus, not integrating the social patterns and historically relevant cultures which play into the human field. In the same sense that print materials will always be important, so too are the human aspects of technology. An old joke in the Internet world is "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Brown and Duguid want us to recognize that our social interaction consists of many visual cues, such that it is much simpler to understand people in person than it is on the flat screen of an internet web site. Which is not to say that the authors are anti-technology; they simply want to place technology into the social context that helps people understand what information means and why it matters.

The digital library is an example of the importance in understanding social constructs within a technological world. With electronic access to materials previously available only within the walls of the library, patrons feel more in control of their research, and more able to self-direct their search for information. Hidden from them are the people who make that direct access possible -- the catalogers, web authors, selectors, designers, publishers, editors, referees, coders, and the university itself. Without these invisible supports, the digital library would not exist. Similarly, the authors state that the recent push toward a "knowledge management" environment requires the need not for more information, but for "people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it." Brown and Duguid are the new voice for all librarians and computer technicians who work in virtual seclusion, no longer in dusty backrooms, but are entering into the new age.

A sympathetic look at the people who make the information age possible and worthwhile, this book is recommended for all university and public libraries. It contains extensive endnotes and a well-documented bibliography, including some URLs and the dates those web pages were viewed. An index provides a quick guide to the book's contents. Readers who enjoy this book may also want to locate an earlier article by the authors, "Universities in the digital age." Change. July-August 1996, v26, n4, p10-20.

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