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Reviewed by:
  • Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America
  • Eric Charles Novotny
Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America, ed. William Aspray and Barbara M. Hayes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 359 p. $60 (ISBN 0-262-01501-3)

This is not the book I expected. Anticipating a dense, theory-laden exploration of information seeking, instead I discovered a jargon-free, surprisingly accessible work, filled with fascinating historical anecdotes documenting the ebb and flow of information over time. Seeking to inform American moral choices, nineteenth century reformers flooded the country with a paper tidal wave. Between 1829 and 1831 the American Tract Society distributed 65 million pages of persuasive pamphlets; over five pages for every person in America. (p.81) Early airline travelers suffered from the opposite extreme - they lacked reliable information. Overbooked flights were cancelled without notice and passengers risked being bumped if more lucrative cargo became available.

The majority of the essays cluster around two themes. Three chapters explore information gathering techniques in commerce (cars, airlines, travel), while four examine the pursuit of hobbies and recreational activities (sports, genealogy, comics, cooking). Additionally, there are chapters on government information and on text messaging. The authors explore how people gather and use information to inform ordinary decisions. Significantly, the library is largely absent from this process. More common sources include: friends, co-workers, websites, social media, television, radio, fellow enthusiasts, and experts.

Despite diverse topics, the contributions follow a common format. Each looks not only at the recent information landscape, but also at how information gathering has changed over the years. In most cases, the authors, many of whom are recent graduates, are not presenting original research, but are surveying what is known. A notable exception is Jenna Hartel's research using interviews and observations to explore the information habits of gourmet cooks. Other essays succinctly synthesize discoveries from multiple disciplines, including information science, history, business, and psychology. These overviews provide a scholarly road map for those wishing to explore in more depth.

The gathering of disparate topics in a single collection allows for convenient [End Page 103] comparisons and the identification of larger trends. The role of external factors in shaping our ability to satisfy everyday information needs emerges as a theme. Government intervention looms large, impacting the amount and type of information available. Congressional investigations of graphic content resulted in the restrictive Comics Code, drastically reducing the options available to comics readers. In the 1960s, government concerns over automobile safety helped address an information imbalance between buyers and sellers.

Equally powerful has been the rise of the Internet, which the editors call an "information enhancer." The Web has dramatically increased the information available for sports fans, travelers, automobile buyers, genealogists, cooks, and others. While the Web can be disruptive (displacing travel agents), the essays suggest that more often than not the Internet has been complementary to existing technologies. People added the Internet to their information toolkit while continuing to use traditional sources. Charitable giving campaigns are still conducted in churches and through mail, but now they also take place online. Genealogists continue to use multiple technologies, including print and microfilm to locate their ancestors. Trusted information sources, including friends, experts, and magazines like Consumer Reports remain vital. This last point seems particularly relevant to libraries as they seek to define their role in the digital age. Trustworthiness and reliability will likely become more valuable in a world awash in information.

Everyday Information will appeal mostly to general readers interested in information science and history, and librarians serving these particular user groups. Experts steeped in the literature on comic books or genealogy may already be familiar with much that is covered here. While not breaking new ground, or offering new interpretive models, this collection offers a vivid and compelling account of the American information landscape. The essays highlight what research has been done, and identify gaps in the literature. The editors hope their self-described "modest effort" will spur additional research. Like most good books, this volume raises as many questions as it answers, such as how satisfied people are with their information options, or how people evaluate the many information resources available. Some say...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7131
Print ISSN
1531-2542
Pages
pp. 103-104
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-13
Open Access
No
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