Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Not knowing.

It's a big, big world of information out there. On the net I sort of get that in a vague way, but there's nothing like stepping into a biggish library to remind you of all the things out there that you'll never have chance to read. Take the University of Hull's Brynmor Jones Library (about the only building in the city not named after either Larkin or Wilberforce, as it happens). Seven floors, plus a basement full of things that the library staff will bring out if you ask (probably still slightly damp from the floods we had last year), and an assortment of e-books and e-journals. Even with that, there are still a lot of things we don't have, otherwise known as whatever I particularly need at any given moment.

I've been looking into peripheral areas not really connected to my research, but brushing it enough to be worth a few references. What seem like tiny, insignificant areas of thought will, when looked into, still turn out to have a dozen works on the subject. There will be debates I've never heard about, but have to get the hang of quickly if I'm going to be at all coherent.

What does all this mean to anyone who isn't engaged in ultra-specialised research? Well for one thing, it points to a plurality of viewpoints on almost any issue. For another, it's humbling to remember how much there is out there that none of us will ever know, even if we set out to become full blown polymaths. It also offers a bit of a reminder to be careful with information we get from the internet. It's almost invariably only one fragment of a greater whole, usually simplified to be more "accessible".

It's also surprisingly frozen. Where the ease of updating things should mean the possibility for current knowledge in a way that shouldn't be possible with traditional print, I still run into ten or fifteen year old history articles that, if I didn't know better, I might take as the current state of knowledge. Not that the availability of information isn't wonderful, it is. I'm wondering though if it doesn't occasionally lure us into a false sense of our own knowledge, when perhaps knowing how much we don't know might be better.

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