If you are a MLIS student, at some point during the process of your degree you will be asked: what is information? You will be referred to Shannon & Weaver (1973), expected to elaborate on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom quadrivium, and inevitably questioned whether it is possible for anything to NOT be information. It’s a philosophical and often semantically-rich game we all play at some point and, for some, the conversation stops there: a topic left in the classroom and hastily replaced by the daily service needs of patrons.

But for those who specialize in the science of information, the question is a research cornerstone. That an answer exists (whatever it may be) is the raison d’etre for the field. Personally, the distinction between the LS field and the IS field is one that I never gave much thought to until I began reading for my Human Information Interactions course. For me and with my hopes of eventually working in public services, the question of what is information has always been a theoretical question, interesting in its own light, but not much use on the floor or at the reference desk. Nonetheless, the question is an essential one and thinking about it can be useful for serving the daily information literacy needs of our patrons.

Defining Information

How one defines information depends heavily on how one defines data and, moreover, whether data is defined as being known subjectively or objectively. Definitions of data range from the entirely concrete (e.g. data is binary code) to the entirely abstract (e.g. data is “raw” fact). For more information on how current scholars of information science define data, information, and knowledge, see Zins (2005). As to my definition…

Data. I define data as “a symbolic representation of an object or event.” The choice of  representation is often conventional and usually quantifiable. The object or event itself has no inherent meaning and it cannot be effectively communicated without giving it context.

Information. I define information as an imposition of meaning onto data for the purpose of communication or creating context, i.e. to make it possible to be perceived, usually in a particular way. Data, in a sense, is anything capable of carrying meaning and information is both the act of carrying meaning (information-as-process) and the meaning implied by that act (information-as-thing) (see Buckland, 1991). Information requires an intelligent agent and cannot exist outside the scope of perception. Recorded information, which does not have an agent acting upon it, is a fossil of data-once-perceived.

Relevance for Information Literacy

What then is the relationship of this type of theoretical discussion to information literacy? From day to day, librarians and information professionals work with students to help them make the move from the museum of data to the playground of information. We give them the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the vocabulary of data, its symbols and common representations, and how it is created, organized, and retrieved. We encourage them to explore and even question how data is used in the creation of information (i.e. of meaning) and what this says both about the data itself and the people (or machines) who create it.

If we are successful in that endeavor, we may see the ultimate fruits of our labor: the creation of knowledge. Students who gain the necessary information literacy skills move on to create knowledge, explore its depths, and broaden the horizons of human experience. It’s a self-enriching feedback loop that continues to till the intellectual soil of both the individual and her community. How lucky are librarians and educators to be prime movers in that cycle!

References

Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(2), 351-360.

Schramm, W. (1973). Channels and audiences. In Pool, I., Schramm, W., Maccoby, N., & Parker, E. (eds.), Handbook of Communication. Chicago: Rand McNally, 116-140.

Zins, C. (2007). Conceptual approaches for defining data, information, and knowledge. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(4), 479-493. doi:10.1002/asi.20508