The following was originally written for a local Chamber of Commerce newsletter:
Everyone knows that a library … be it a books-and-mortar library or a database … holds a great deal of information. But knowledge, however, is rather different.
Knowledge, narrowly speaking, is something a person has locked into his or her head. It is what a person knows. It is also, as the word is commonly used, that which can be known (there was an old word for this concept, “knowledges,” that went out of use long ago and its absence has led to much confusion).
Consider a person marooned on a desert island. He or she comes across an encyclopedia (which holds information) and, being able to read it, thus acquires a vast amount of knowledge that might well be useful to a person stuck in that situation. (You may recall the book or movie of Swiss Family Robinson here!)
If the encyclopedia is written in Greek, or Russian, or any other language the person does not know then the person has, well, a lifetime supply of toilet paper. There is a vast difference between information and knowledge.
Libraries with printed books, video or audio recordings, and databases hold information. It is what you bring to the table, be it the ability to read or the life experience needed to make sense of other media, which converts information to knowledge.
Now, that all said, libraries have developed two ways to help you obtain knowledge from the information the libraries own. The first is the self-help catalog. If you know enough about your subject to be able look up the information you need (perhaps by an author’s name, perhaps by the subject) then you can find the information you need arrayed on our shelves (or available in our databases).
The second is the “reference department.” These are people who have training in the various types of resources (once books, now much more) that the library owns or has access to … and who also have the background knowledge and people skills needed to match your information need with an appropriate source of information. They also, of course, have each other to help them when your request isn’t something with which they have any familiarity.
This is why I always recommend that business people introduce themselves to the people working at the local public library reference desk. They’ll need to know something about your needs, your business, if they’re to best help you turn “information” into “knowledge.”