Is Knowledge Power?


You can’t get through a course of study in librarianship without hearing the adage “knowledge is power” or its variant “information is power”. It’s often repeated but rarely examined, though a few cynics have asked why, if it’s true, librarians are not running the world.

Well, a current news story gives us a fresh opportunity to examine the validity of that old saying. The New York Times version is headlined “Nine Charged in Insider Trading Case Tied to Hackers” ( ) According to the story, the scheme involved breaking into the computer systems of news distributors like PR Newswire and Business Wire, getting advance access to press releases, and trading on the information in advance of its becoming public. The Times says the scheme yielded over $100 million — pretty powerful.

Yet there’s nothing exotic about the information the hackers obtained — millions (billions) of us have access to the same news on the web and our favorite digital library resources. We have the same information the hackers had. But they had a few things the rest of us lacked: timing (they got it first), context (they knew what the news meant), ability to act (they had the mechanisms to trade on the information), and motivation to act (they were willing to take the risks — in this case legal — to use the information).

So I think this story is yet another reminder that knowledge, or information, alone is not power. The value of information is not inherent in the information by itself. And if librarians want to make a difference (what are power and influence after all but “making a difference”) then we cannot just deal with information in isolation — we have to be engaged in the use of the information: timing, context, ability, and motivation to act.

While you’re doing that, though, just keep your ethics with you at all times!


3 Responses to “Is Knowledge Power?”

  1. rdmaxwell55 Says:

    Hi Dave: I am taking Blogging 101 and today’s assignment is to post replies to 4 blogs. As I was reading your blog (which is always interesting and enlightening, btw) and thinking about a response, a link came in on my twitter feed on predictive analysis and big data. If course, the key to big data predictive analysis success requires your tools of timing, context, ability and motivation to act, and last but not least, we all hope, ethics. Your timing could not have been more perfect!

    Here is the link:

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Thanks for your comment, and the link, Ray! I agree — both stories are indicators of how pervasive data and information are in society, yet they aren’t enough by themselves.

  2. Intellectual freedom and the role of the librarian | Beta Librarian Says:

    […] Embedded Librarian asked this question, arguing that information or knowledge alone is not where power lies. Instead […]

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