Our Professional Duty
Finding Our Voices in an Internet World
by Stephen Abram
Originally published in Information Outlook, December 01, 2008.
--reprinted with permission of the author
Although it might change, at this point search engines and electronic information do a very poor job of sensing the end user's specific context.
We're still hearing that hackneyed old comment, "Almost everything's available on the Web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?" It's coming from all quarters, especially in these financially tumultuous times. It's time to assemble some quick ways to respond to comments like that.
Make no mistake. It's not an option to leave these challenges unaddressed, whether they're explicitly spoken or just lay there as assumptions in conversations. If we don't respond, we put our organizations at risk. We have a professional duty to educate and inform our world about the role of librarians and information professionals.
So, here's a modest attempt to develop a few strategies for talking to key folks in our world who may try to hurt our organizations and the society at large because they haven't thought through the real-world issues of the Internet. Principally, the Internet:
* Contains too much information;
* Has no clear bias toward quality or authority;
* Is subject to manipulation by third parties through search engine optimization;
* Offers potentially different answers, depending on your geographical location, personal profile or previous search behaviors;
* Is primarily focused on meeting the needs of its primary customers-advertisers-which may include your competitors; and
* Is available to everyone, which means that you have absolutely no competitive advantage.
So, what kind of story can we tell that gets our point across in the context of those folks who would seek to cut our staff, slash our budgets or eliminate our roles entirely?
We have an interesting relationship with financial professionals. Organizations value their role as keepers of statistics and measures, and for making money-based analyses of our overall enterprise or specific programs. As a general rule, they look for cost savings. Often they have an incomplete understanding of the operation of some units beyond the ledger. This isn't bad; it's an opportunity for education. When one of your valued bean- counter colleagues comes up to you and utters the dreaded question, "Almost everything's available on the Web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?," don't run screaming from the room and don't leave the question unanswered. People love being agreed with. Agree that it's a valid question, then suggest that there are greater opportunities for savings. As their eyes widen in anticipation, note that bigger saving would come from putting a calculator on everyone's desk, thus drastically reducing the ranks of number crunchers in the organization. After all, if putting free content and information tools on every desktop instantly made all workers information literate, then a calculator that contains all the numbers and formulae in the world would clearly endow everyone with the ability to perform advanced bookkeeping, budgeting, auditing and financial analysis.
Some Important Lessons
Putting tools on desktops merely gives people tools, and giving people content merely supplies them with content. The magic is in making sure they're the right tools, that they are used properly, and that they align accurately and competitively with the organization's mandate, vision and need for productivity. The lesson: Tools don't come with the knowledge to use them.
Years ago, an administrative officer at a major national law firm closed the firm's library and laid off nearly all of the librarians in favor of the Web and the Intranet alone. Knowing that the work of attorneys involves information based decision making, the world of librarians was appalled. Of course, it wasn't long before librarians started trickling back into the firm. The experiment was a disaster, though there was no public admission.
In parts of my career, I was involved in projects that placed a very significant number of common law cases, statutes, treatises and analyses online. By most counts, there is more electronically based legal content in North America than any other kind. That being the case, why do we need librarians? Again, does anyone feel it is now pointless to consult a legal professional for legal advice? After all, everything is there for the searching. The lesson: Clearly, there is a difference between access to content and knowledge-a big difference!
I often tell the story of a major illness I once lived through. I believed at the time that I was a somewhat talented information professional and decided to search the Web and the well-known databases like MEDLINE about my illness and treatment options.
Aside from the law, a huge corpus of medical literature and major medical reference books are also easily available, and lots of information and many answers are out there for the searching. It was a personal disaster. I scared myself halfway into a depression as I learned every awful thing that could happen, every contraindication, every potential for death and how long and cruel the journey there would be. I fled into the warm embrace of an excellent local consumer health information professional, who provided me with just enough information at my level of information literacy and put me back on the road to health.
Although it might change, at this point search engines and electronic information do a very poor job of sensing the end user's specific context. Google cannot tell the difference between a youngster in ninth grade searching STDs for his health project and a worried adult needing a support group. It's just a big stupid empty search box. Personal service easily senses the difference. The lesson: Information has context and so do end users.
We are undeniably entering a world where the best jobs, the best positions and the best strategies are in the field we have chosen-libraries and information science. It's time for us to find our voices and use them.
Tough times call for tough people.
STEPHEN ABRAM, MLS, is the president of SLA and is vice president, innovation, for SirsiDynix. He is chief strategist for the SirsiDynix Institute. He is an SLA Fellow, the past president of the Ontario Library Association, and the past president of the Canadian Library Association. In June 2003, he was awarded SLA's John Cotton Dana Award. He is the author of Out Front with Stephen Abram and Stephen's Lighthouse blog. This column contains his personal perspectives and does not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of SirsiDynix. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.