TRUE BUT NONETHELESS WRONG
I've been getting many concerned e-mails from friends who are aware that I live in Davenport, Iowa, a nice little town the media never mentions except when they can show pictures of sandbags. And it is true that down by the riverfront, things look bad. Our baseball stadium is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mississippi, a few houses are only visible from the second floor up, and River Drive is underwater. No wonder I have received offers of water wings and life preservers.
Which I don't need, thank you kindly. What the intrepid reporters in their hipwaders fail to mention is that 99% of the residents of Davenport live well uphill from the river. On Tuesday, the day the flood waters crested, the sun was shining and I was mowing my lawn, planting flowers, and watching the construction crew that's building a sunroom onto my house.
The primary way that most of us are affected by the flood is that it has screwed up traffic. River Drive, also known as Highway 61 and Highway 67, is one of the five busiest streets in Davenport, and provided an onramp to one of the two functioning bridges which is now closed. That traffic has been rerouted, and the tie-ups on the alternative routes and bridges are pretty bad.
Relatively few downtown businesses are underwater, or even in danger. Those of us who do business downtown are inconvenienced by the number of streets that have been barricaded -- we have to find indirect routes to the banks or expo center or the library, and there's less parking available. We don't complain about it, mind you, since when we might otherwise be grumbling about having to pick our way around the barriers, we have a clear view of the Dock restaurant, now an island.
In short, life goes on comfortably for most residents of Davenport, but there's no way any of my far-flung friends would know that, based on the incomplete reports of the media, whose focus, naturally, is on great pictures and high drama.
Herein lies a cautionary tale about the nature of information. Every word the reporters said was true. It was merely incomplete. The cameras were steadily focused due south toward the river, which means they missed three fourths of the picture.
I suspect this is always the case. We, who are in the business of unearthing answers, will find answers -- but only to questions reporters and observers of the past thought to ask and answer. History and science are only conditionally true, subject always to revision when new questions are asked, new documents and fossils and archaeological objects found.
Sources we rely on may actively have been trying to distort the historical record with self-serving explanations of events. They may have been incapable of seeing the events through any lens but that of their own beliefs and experience -- think how few accounts there are of southern history as told by slaves or by economically marginalized whites. Our sources may have been casual or limited observers, paying attention only to the aspect of the situation that concern them directly -- a Humane Society volunteer helping to rescue animals sees a flood differently than the head of the water treatment plant trying to preserve the city's clean water and health, or the owner of the minor league baseball team who's figuring out how where his team can play for the season and how much it's going to cost him.
Even if we assemble a montage of all those different viewpoints, our information is still going to be incomplete. So, a little humility is called for when we deliver answers, an understanding that the answers are only true up to a point. We need to remember how misleading truth can be.
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The truth shall make ye fret.
Terry Pratchett. The Truth. [The first newspaper in DiscWorld uses "The truth shall make ye free" as its motto. However, their proofreading leaves something to be desired.]
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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM CONTENTVILLE
Steven Brill's new web enterprise, Contentville (http://www.contentville.com/), aims to supply readers with a more complete experience than the online bookstores do, for a price. It doesn't limit itself to offering books that will meet a customer's information need; instead, the default search through all content covers nearly all formats in which information is delivered. For example, a search on the topic of censorship yields books, court cases, speeches, transcripts from TV public affairs programs, magazine articles, dissertations, and the first chapters from several books.
We can learn from the breadth of this approach. Often, when we construct homework help web pages, or business or medical reference pages, we limit ourselves to carefully chosen web sites -- which is to say that, however good the information on those sites may be, we are giving our users a limited portion of the available information AND NOT reminding our users that our library collection continues to be a vital resource.
It seems to me that the idea library web page of this sort would take a topic like, for instance, literary criticism, and point the student not only to excellent web resources like the Internet Public Library's Literary Criticism Collection http://www.ipl.org/ref/litcrit/, but also to our online journal databases, encyclopedias, and NoveList (if we have it). We could then point them to reference books and key magazines, journals and book reviews in our collection as well. We can also link in any online tutorials we've written on how to research in a particular subject area or how to use specific databases. And for sure, we should include the reference e-mail address and phone number.
By doing this we can remind people that not all knowledge is on the net, show them a more thorough research method that embraces a wider variety of sources, and let them know, if they didn't already, that we've provided full text magazines and journals they can search through. If we're doing this for homework help pages, we can also take the opportunity to link in sources that help students with the mechanics of writing a research paper and attributing sources properly in MLA, APA and Chicago style.
We also remind them that there's a knowledgeable human available to answer their questions.
And THAT Contentville does not offer. They don't do it for free either.
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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.