Gleick’s “The Information” and Participatory Libraries

HG Wells, 1940.
Early form of telegraphy; invented in the 1790s by Frenchman Claude Chappe – a system of wooden shutters on a tower, which could show 63 different signals.

Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” (2012) covers five millennia of humanity’s engagement with information with portraits of key figures’ contribution to the development of a modern understanding of information. The author whisks us from European explorers’ fascination with African talking drums as communication forms to nineteenth century telegraphs to the digital nature of information we now know as bits.

How does Gleick align with the course content? Gleick argues that communities form around information and knowledge sharing and creation, where such information communities can emerge and function without geographical boundaries, such as cyberspace. What “makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions…” (Gleick 2011). Telegraphs crossed geographical boundaries, but they were still tied to specific physical lines which required a middle man to send information in order to share knowledge. The internet, however,  has a broader reach to anyone with access to it. 

Enter our course, where the “evolving Web and related emerging technologies are signifiers of a broader cultural shift: toward an open, collaborative and participatory society. This course examines emerging technologies within a framework of participatory, hyperlinked library service” (Stephens 2019). The Hyperlinked Library embodies Gleick’s argument that information gives birth to human engagement, despite physical boundaries. 

So what can librarians glean from Gleick’s “The Information”? And how might the focus of “The Information” impact library service? Gleick refers to a current “information glut”,  where he pictures humanity wandering the corridors of an imaginary library which has in store every possible book in every language, searching its’ shelves for “lines of meaning among the leagues of cacophony and incoherence” (Gleick 2011). Gleick seems to lament that, “the old ways of organizing knowledge no longer work” (Gleick 2011). The way we store and share information is changing, and library professionals need to address this. 

Gleick contemplates the problem of turning information into useful knowledge, and notes a similar role for blogs and aggregators, Wikipedia, and the “vast, collaborative filter” of our connectivity with the internet. If it comes to this, library and information professionals should step up to the plate by identifying the information worth intaking and sharing with.

We can look at “The Information” as a way to explore what might be coming for libraries within the framework of participatory service (briefly, a culture of participation where the information flow is two-ways) with Gleick’s telling of HG Wells’ “World Brain”. Well’s collection of essays serves as an example of a dreamed community formed around information and knowledge sharing. Wells’ new world of an authoritative, unifying über encyclopedia foreshadowed the worldwide knowledge sharing community we know as  Wikipedia. Here, any individual or group can contribute or access this well of information. 

Michael Casey argues that the “participatory library is open and transparent… [it] engages and queries its entire community and seeks to integrate them into the structure of change”. So how does Gleick help us explore the library’s future in participatory service? It should serve as a reminder that the nature of information and the ways communities share them have always changed, and will always change- and as information professionals we need to equip our libraries for such change.

Gleick, J. (2012) . The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hi Jade, I like the visuals and I feel that they really help give me an idea of who Gleick was and what he was discussing. It’s interesting to see how even then we had diverse formats of communication. For 5 millenia and all over the world at that, we see the many ways that people are communicating. Communication carries on regardless of language or geographical differences.

    I remember reading that communication can flourish when communities form around a topic of which they are quite passionate for, something that evokes emotion within them. I liked learning that we have crossed the threshold of physical boundaries and seeing how we have progressed so far. The internet is truly a wondrous realm!

    It brings about many possibilities as the way that we converse and the way that we gather information changes thanks to the advancement of technology. It’s important to recognize that communication is now more open and wide spread than ever before and I agree that we need to be aware that our communication nowadays is shifting towards that of participatory culture.

    Though it might seem a shame, change will always happen. The world is not at all stagnant. I myself would be interested to see more of Gleick’s information glut as you described in the future. Perhaps, we have already made huge steps towards that vision because of the Internet.

    I have high hopes that libraries will take part in the participatory culture and work towards a change that will benefit everyone.

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