Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Gatekeepers and Lemons: the nature of information provision to minorities

I was recently introduced to the concept of gate keeping. Upon hearing the term, I imagined an ogre keeping some billy goats from crossing a bridge. Instead, I learned that gate keepers “control the flow of information to many people within their communities and become links between the community and the larger society” (Metoyer-Duran, 1993b). Gatekeepers are particularly important for the functioning of culturally diverse communities such as ethnic minorities (Metoyer-Duran, 1993a). This gate-keeping role has been identified in other knowledge practices. In science studies, for example, Susan Leigh Star (Bowker & Star, 1999; Star & Griesemer, 1999) identified the importance of “boundary objects” for brokering between disparate communities and Peter Galison notes the existence of scientific “trading-” and “pidgin-languages” (Galison, 1999). Malcolm Caldwell has similarly identified the importance of “connectors” in the creation of fads and trends (Gladwell, 2000).

If gatekeepers are a fundamental part of our information environments, the question for researchers becomes: how do we use gatekeepers in information provision and which technologies do we provide for them?

Joyce and Schrader (1997) give us a look into the information practices of a particular minority: the gay males of Edmonton. Interestingly, the notion of gatekeepers didn’t emerge as a key information source for gay males but rather the public library was identified as the most important information source. Unfortunately, the library has some shortcomings:

“In response to an open question, the most common suggestions for improving EPL [Edmonton Public Library] holdings coalesced around three major themes: expanding the gay collection; providing more current gay information; and subscribing to gay magazines.” (Joyce & Schrader, 1997 pg. 33)

I would counter that these concerns are not limited to the gay community but rather to any particular group with a strong sense of identity and well developed information needs. Bird watchers, for example, may call for: “expanding the [bird watching] collection; providing more current [bird watching] information; and subscribing to [bird watching] magazines.”

What I do find interesting about the Joyce & Schrader article is their observation that the EPL actually has a fairly good gay collection but that it is difficult for neophytes to access. It seems that the information has been hidden by the classification scheme used by the library. Elaine Svenonius maintains that classification systems should collocate items to ease navigation and guide patrons by way of an “invisible hand” to the documents they desire (Svenonius, 2000). This classification problem may run deeper than simply a difficulty in accessing information. Classification schemas shape our cognitive processes (Rowley & Farrow, 2000). If an issue like homosexuality isn’t necessarily fully cognitively established in our current cultural context and language, how can linguistic minorities possibly survive? What other crucial issues are modern social constructions—to use Foucault’s description of homosexuality—and how can we possibly incorporate these aspects into the provision of information services?

We may learn some lessons by looking beyond the library literature to related issues that don’t involve aspects of hegemonic discourse. Regardless of sexual orientation or linguistic origin there are certain issues that we all have to face. At some point in time we all experience some sort of major information need—perhaps when faced with a medical emergency or when we have to make a major purchasing decision. Buying a car, for example, requires a lot of information and we often rely on an expert—or a gatekeeper—for some type of specialized knowledge that we are unable to get. This issue is largely ignored by the library literature but specialized online help groups have been established to support this community. The business literature, however, does provide some valuable insights:

1) When purchasing a car, information seeking decreases with repeat purchases (Bennett & Mandell, 1969)
2) When making purchases, an individual’s subjective knowledge (or what they think they know rather than what they actually know) is the main determinant of resulting behaviour (Flynn & Goldsmith, 1999)

How can buyer behaviour possibly inform how we provide information services to minorities? I posit that the first insight informs us that we need to provide information that is pertinent to major life transitions. This point resonates with Joyce and Schrader’s observation that the information seeking of gay males peeked during their “coming out” phase (Joyce & Schrader, 1997) and with Metoyer-Duran’s observation that individuals generally went to gatekeepers for information about finance and housing (Metoyer-Duran, 1993a). The second insight—the importance of subjective knowledge—corresponds to the gay male’s desire to learn about themselves and the practices of their new community.

In short, to improve information provision to minorities we should focus on two things: allowing people to know themselves, and helping people through major transitions.


Bennett, P. D., & Mandell, R. M. (1969). Prepurchase information seeking behavior of new car purchasers: The learning hypothesis. Journal of Marketing Research, 6(4), 430-433.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Flynn, L. R., & Goldsmith, R. E. (1999). A short, reliable measure of subjective knowledge. Journal of Business Research, 46(1), 57-66.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point : how little things can make a big difference (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.
Joyce, S., & Schrader, A. M. (1997). Hidden perceptions: Edmonton gay males and the edmonton public library. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science-Revue Canadienne Des Sciences De L Information Et De Bibliotheconomie, 22(1), 19-37.
Metoyer-Duran, C. (1993a). The Information and Referral Process in Culturally Diverse Communities. RQ, 32(3), 359-371.
Metoyer-Duran, C. (1993b). Information gatekeepers. Paper presented at the Annual review of information science and technology. Vol.28, Medford, NJ, USA.
Rowley, J. E., & Farrow, J. (2000). Organizing knowledge : an introduction to managing access to information (3rd ed.). Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, Vt.: Gower.
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1999). Institutional Ecology, "Translations" and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 503-524). New York; London: Routledge.
Svenonius, E. (2000). Bibliographic Objectives. In The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge: MIT Press.


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