12 January 2021
Understanding Infodiversity: An Interview
A commitment to promoting access to information is a unifying factor across the global library field. In a changing information space, there is therefore value in trying to build understanding of what information is and how it affects us.
One approach comes through the concept of infodiversity, adopted by many, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, as a tool for exploring and explaining trends and developments. We interviewed Jonathan Hernández-Pérez, IFLA Governing Board member and Associate Researcher at the Institute for Library and Information Research (IIBI) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to find out more.
I would like to start by pointing out that as human societies became more complex there is a stronger need to understand the impact of information on society. Over the last decades, we have seen a number of terms trying to address all the dynamics around information, the trend at the moment is the so called "infodemic".
With this brief context, infodiversity refers to all the variety of types, forms, and formats in which information is produced and consumed. It also encompasses and acknowledges all expressions produced by different social groups over time, within a geographic area, through media (television, radio, internet, etc.), or historical periods. It is a way to understand and see a larger picture of what and how we produce, consume, and share information.
2. Where does the idea come from, and what makes it interesting as an area of study?
The idea of "infodiversity" comes from 30 years now, mostly from an academic perspective. During the early nineties, there was an interesting reflection about the inequalities in the demand and supply of information for the underdeveloped countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean region.
One of the first approaches of this term was from a library perspective. During the nineties, LIS researchers like Morales Campos reflected on the way monopolies and big information companies had created one-sided and loaded flows of information, hindering access to all the diversity of information produced particularly by the multiple cultures and ethnic groups with a strong involvement in social, economic, and political matters. They tried to mould society to consume only one source, format, or type of information. Of course, this is now a hot topic with the rise of digital technologies like algorithms or filter bubbles.
There are other perspectives on infodiversity, some of them involve the different ways of structuring the variety of information particularly the differences that exist between museums and libraries. Others relate to digital rights and access to information, and there is an interesting one where the diversity of information is seen as being as essential to social development and human survival as biodiversity and cultural diversity. And there are other ideas related or complementary to infodiversity, such as the infosphere, information geographics, among others.
What makes it interesting as an area of study is that infodiversity takes us beyond thinking about traditional ways in which information is produced, consumed, shared and preserved, to thinking about information through an evolutionary approach. As digital life continues to develop, I think there is a necessity to consider divergent views of the term infodiversity.
3. What makes it particularly relevant in Mexico and the wider Latin America and Caribbean region?
Even though this concept has been addressed in other parts of the world, in Mexico it is a formal research area at the Library and Information Research Institute at UNAM. Outside of Mexico, there was a journal from the Library Research Society in Argentina called "Infodiversity", and many discussions on this matter have been addressed in Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica. I would like to highlight that the 2007 International Library Colloquium at the Guadalajara Book Fair was titled "Infodiversity : the library as a multicultural center" and this was precisely to think the library as the heart of diversity.
4. Could it also be applicable elsewhere in the world?
Sure, I think that we can agree that our world is diverse in terms of cultures, ethnic groups, biological species, and so on. So our information landscape should reflect this plurality and diversity not only from one region but of the world we live in.
5. How does it relate to the idea of bibliodiversity?
This is very interesting because even that both terms have the same "essence" on the recognition of a variety and multiplicity of perspectives and ideas, bibliodiversity is applied to the publishing sphere, this idea was coined mainly by the independent publishing world as a consequence of the predominance of the big publishing groups.
On the other hand, infodiversity refers to information in every format, from ancient scrolls to tweets, from printed books to sounds recorded, from musical score to memes, every piece of information recorded in every format, and the way this diversity coexists. At a content level, infodiversity implies the sum of ideas that humanity has produced over time, from religious beliefs to scientific knowledge, and so on, with all the complexity that implies the information flows.
It is also important to mention that one of the biggest coincidences between these two ideas is that both of them advocate for availability and access to all the variety of information they promote
6. What are the main topics that infodiversity researchers are currently trying to address?
Over the last years, we have linked the infodiversity with topics such as access to information, open access, copyright, and ethical use of information, we take infodiversity as an umbrella concept for all these complex matters on information. Since 2017 to date we have focused our research on the understanding of misinformation and its impacts on libraries, social media, and citizen participation.
7. How does it relate to wider questions, such as open access and open science?
In all societies, information has been a driver for development, and the digital moment we're living in came to highlight this, particularly with the rise of the open movements. Open access and open science face important challenges in terms of infodiversity, such as the gap between languages - the prevalence of a single language suggest that all important information is in one language - an increasing oligopolistic market, and the rise of policies that may exacerbate existing inequalities. As the world realizes the high importance of open movements (we had an experience in 2020 on how open science can save lives) these will have to improve their dynamics in terms of diversity and inclusion.
8. What are the main policy challenges – and opportunities – for infodiversity today?
One of the core characteristics of infodiversity at the moment of its conception was that the recognition of a diversity of information is not enough for the public good, it must be accompanied by information policies that make sure of an equitable access to this information. That's probably the main challenge because it involves aspects on privacy, censorship, the constant tensions between stakeholders in the digital environment, and many others. I'm confident that technology can bring us more opportunities to advocate for a well-designed and well-applied information policies than could embrace an infodiversity perspective in society.
9. What can libraries and library professionals themselves do in this regard?
This is a good point, libraries and librarians have always been advocates for diversity, I think this is one of the library field strengths. We have several examples of this, from multiculturalism and linguistic perspective which is addressed at the IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto pointing that "cultural and linguistic diversity is the common heritage of humankind and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all", that's where information diversity plays an important role. We can see other forms of recognizing and analyzing the diversity in the library field, as the diversity of library users', sexual diversity (in 2013, IFLA approved the LGBTQ+ Special Interest Group), in an organizational way with the bibliographic universe, and many others.
There are many ways in which libraries and librarians can involve and promote infodiversity, I would like to point out four dimensions for this.
First of all, it is important to recognize all varieties of forms in which information is created and used it, always with open and critical thinking, this reminds me of the long-standing controversies around Wikipedia as a trustworthy source.
A second perspective should be based on skills, as we are increasingly socially and ideologically isolated as a consequence of algorithms and other technologies. Yet he need for a diversity of sources is more important now than ever before, so information skills are crucial to get the right information that may have a critical impact in our opinions, decisions and lives.
A third dimension lies in preservation, as many formats and media have been born digitally and they are evolving rapidly, there is an urgent need to preserve these materials, I'm glad to see many libraries with an internet archive, sound archive, and even providing and preserving local content which enriches the global infodiversity.
Finally, none of these dimensions could have success if we don't advocate for an equitable availability and access to information diversity, so a last point should be an equitable access to information.