Experts on Everything

Posted May 5, 2010

At the recent Digital University Conference at CUNY’s Graduate Center in Manhattan, a diverse cast of media practitioners, digital content developers, academics, and academic publishers got together to “assess the impact of digital media on academic work and academic policy and authority.”

During a panel called A Digital Future?, Josh Greenberg – the New York Public Library’s Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship – spoke about an escalating phenomenon: the number of people who use the NYPL’s research libraries has gone into steep decline.

A major reason: an ever-increasing number of us are doing much (if not most) of our daily research online. The drawback? It’s a quest that, for many, typically goes no deeper than three or four Google search result screens. And only a tiny fraction of the material held by the NYPL (let alone thousands of other public archives) is available online.

The result, Greenberg suggested, is that heavy reliance on the web is watering down the scope and depth of the research even advanced students do during their school years. If true, what will be the impact when millions of graduates carry their ‘if Google can’t find it, the information doesn’t exist’ habits into their adult careers?

Blurring the picture even more are the legions of bloggers and other web self-publishers who, rightly or wrongly, now view themselves as creators and experts on virtually everything. That’s not to say that every library book is worth its shelf space. Greenberg acknowledged that the web’s open nature is powerful and exciting. But he also suggested that this cyber-cacophony is drowning out the voices and diminishing the impact of people who truly are experts in their fields. As he said, “We’re throwing out the baby (knowledge) with the bathwater (the oppressive, one way flow of information).”

Is Greenberg correct? Is the “just click here” online world blunting our collective ability to clearly distinguish knowledgeable expert from opinionated amateur? And is it eroding our patience for digging deeply?

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NBBJ’s New York experience design studio, ESI Design, transforms places into experiences that seamlessly weave the physical and digital worlds together.

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