Information, knowledge, authority, and democracy
Citation: Hunter R. Rawlings III (2007) Information, knowledge, authority, and democracy.
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Rawling's keynote address is an entertaining, historically based, reflection on the role of authority. Given at the membership meeting for the American Research Libraries, it discusses how authority has been created in the past.
Rawlings begins his speech with an extended anecdote about James Madison and about how James Madison began an authority (perhaps the authority in the early United States) on issues of governance and democracy by immersing himself in scholarship on the subject and engaging deeply in the practice of governance in the early period of the United States. Rawlings suggests that Madison believed that he lived in a "knowledge age."
Rawlings moves from early American history to the Internet age and continues to focus on the issue of authority. His concern with the Internet is in how it has changed or troubled the means through which authority is constructed, negotiated by the public, and understood. While he suggests that the Internet is democratic in ability to distribute information, he mentions Wikipedia as an example that seems to complicate conceptions of authority through increased democratization.
Rawlings discusses the work of Jon Kleinberg in some depth. Kleinberg's seminal work on search engines uses the term "authority" as one of the types of information that can be pulled from network data on the web. Rawlings cites this concept of authority (essentially, a model of unequal voting) and asks his audience to juxtapose it with classic sense of authority. Rawlings returns to questions of authority as seen by Plato who he argues believed that authority could only come from deep thinking and debate with others who did the same.
After briefly returning to the example of Madison, Rawlings emphasizes the importance of critical judgment as of equal or even increased importance in the context of the Internet and suggests that research librarians will play an important role in helping construct and emphasize this authority going forward.