What the new
millennium will no do is
change the imperatives
of online research
ONLINE, January 2001
W elcome to the new millennium. Yes, I know, all the celebrations happened a year ago-cities around the world lit up with fireworks and splendiferous events while techies huddled in data centers like they were bomb shelters, waiting for a Y2K meltdown that never materialized. For curmudgeonly purists like myself, who know that the third millennium begins in 2001, not 2000, the extravaganzas of the past New Year's Eve failed to address some fundamental issues confronting information professionals.
It is my overall impression that the past few years have been a series of steps forward and steps backward. Databases have disappeared from traditional online hosts to reappear on the Web, sometimes with added functionality, more often with diminished functionality. On some traditional hosts, sources have been added, but with much less fanfare than in the prior millennium. Everyone is struggling to understand availability, pricing, format, and delivery mechanisms. Search engines mutate overnight. Stability of information is problematic. The very definition of research is being redefined. Shopping sites that display prices are deemed to be research worthy if they include descriptions of products. Somehow that's not the definition most information professionals give to research.
The nineties were a time of upheaval. The combination of corporate mergers, library closures, and ubiquitous information has transformed librarians into Web designers, content acquirers, primary researchers, information architects, technology analysts, taxonomists, and a whole host of other job functions. Those who still use books in their work, and I know quite a few, are beginning to feel some guilt. They shouldn't. Ironically, as more information is digitized, or created in digital form with no print equivalent, the more precarious is its continued accessibility, permanence, and value.
Accessibility is determined by a slew of issues: legal rights, media deterioration, not being listed by a search engine, file corruption, improper categorization, and server downtime. Permanence, that once seemed so assured by electronic media, is now more like permafrost that can melt, given our global warming environment. Value may be the most difficult issue of the new millennium.
Value is the most subjective of criteria. As was pointed out to me years ago, you don't care about poison preventative methods until your child swallows something that is potentially lethal. Then the instantaneous access to poison control is imperative. Likewise, up-to-date and accurate information of a company is vital to a due diligence operation. Once a deadline is passed, the value of the information diminishes to zero. You can make similar arguments for intellectual property, scientific, and technical information.
What the new millennium will not do is change the imperatives of online research. Techniques change, sources change, technology changes. But the ethos of the information professional remains constant: Find the best, most accurate, most timely, most relevant information. Analyze it and present it in the format best-suited to the requestor, whether it is a CEO or a student.
Most professional information aficionadios agree that a mix of traditional (usually fee-based) and Internet (usually free) sources are necessary for a complete research endeavor. The challenge will be integration of resources, cost-effective access to needed resources, and creation of new resources.
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