What is information and how does it define us? One Adelphi specialist is putting the University at the forefront of this emerging field called the philosophy of information.

Cover of 'Whose Life is it Anyway'Adelphi spearheads new philosophy of information field to redefine information and identity in today’s digital world.

The digital revolution has ushered in a new era of human self-reflection, challenging long-held notions of who we are and how we relate to one another. As our interactions and recordkeeping move further into digital spaces, a pivotal philosophical question arises: What is information and how does it define us? One Adelphi specialist is putting the University at the forefront of this emerging field called the philosophy of information.

Ken Herold, associate dean of libraries, digital initiatives and automated services, believes that “information itself as the subject of study has defied our abilities to generalize and synthesize effectively.” Still, his work seeks to find meaning in the wide world of digital information. Herold weaves together three separate disciplines—librarianship, systems management and information science research—to examine how humans share and absorb information and the effects of the “infosphere” on human reality.

After working in the library field for a number of years, Herold added a second career as an IT administrator and director in the late 1990s, concurrent with the dot-com bubble. “The Internet had burst on the scene,” he remembered. “The government, industry and entrepreneurs were gobbling up traditional library tasks of indexing, searching and complex retrieval.” Although the “old library school movement” eventually recovered and rebranded itself to attract knowledge workers and information professionals, Herold sensed that major developments in library science were on the horizon. After attending conferences and meeting scholars who shared his fascination with the fundamental principles of their field, he began to put these conjectures into writing.

In 2004 and 2015, Herold created two special issues of Library Trends, a journal for professional librarians and educators that focused on the philosophy of information. Herold’s foreword to the 2015 issue noted a “thriving world community of interest in expounding the philosophical aspects of information [in] library and information science”; contributors wrote articles on subjects like the philosophy of classification, public knowledge, cybersemiotics and information hierarchies. The two issues are now standard reading for many training courses in the information field.

Herold’s particular research interest lies in the assumption that libraries preserve the academic record. When librarians make physical and digital items available for patron access, he asks, how long are they required to maintain that access? Indeed, how do we name things and what is an “original”? Who is gatekeeping the digital landscape?

According to Herold, interrogating the ownership of intellectual products is key to understanding emerging cultural systems and communities in the digital age. It also invites us to consider the concept of plural identities— or selves that we present online and “onlife”—whereby knowledge and information have porous social dimensions. “I explore the idea of intuition as a bridge between what the knowledge experts possess and that collective sense we discover when we are ‘getting’ it,” Herold explained. “It’s about the healthy connections of our multiple roles in creating our learning environment, increasing the beneficial and relieving the harmful.”

All the world’s a digital stage, Herold contends, where the responsibility of preserving and applying data has made actors of every one of us. “It’s important that we realize we are all coding and programming now,” he said. “Every key stroke, click, swipe and gesture is actively building your environment and mine.” Because they dissolve barriers between our online and offline lives, these virtual networks of communication have the potential to create crowdsource-like forms of common knowledge. Herold compares “citizen science,” which encourages the collection and analysis of data by the general public, to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) initiatives that broaden our ability to learn contextually and adaptably. Uniting real-world and digital experiences, he believes, holds the key to “empowering the new digital citizenship.”

And as much as Herold’s research strives to articulate the redefined role of libraries and their curation of information, it also offers a useful lens for understanding how we can respond to other pressing issues in the modern world. From 3-D printers and drones to smartphone apps and cyberwar, new technologies are rapidly changing the ways we work, learn, entertain and define ourselves. The philosophy of information should not confine itself to scholarly study, he said—it has the power to shape policy that affirms ethical data usage. Armed with the knowledge that humans are becoming fully immersed in the infosphere, philosophers and citizens alike can work toward a future that democratizes information and defends our offline sense of personal identity.

Kenneth R. Herold has brought together career strands in librarianship, systems management and information science research to play a unique role at Adelphi. His research examines intuition, including its collective form, and the emerging understanding of abilities to share memory and logic, as a cultural system and a theoretical basis for citizen science. Herold has served as Adelphi’s dean of libraries, digital initiatives and automated services since 2015.

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