What does disruptive technology mean for information professionals more precisely? At one time, searchers could rely on traditional databases to answer many questions posed by their users and clients. Supermarket database vendors accumulated hundreds of databases into one large system, today facilitated by and generally called platforms. Information professionals could typically depend on finding quick answers or in-depth information for research projects using two or three supermarket vendors, although one could never make a claim about finding everything on a topic because of database lim itations such as incorrect information, sometimes referred to as dirty data, and the fact that searching is subjective. A searcher’s background and experience can influence results. Results may depend on both a searcher’s knowledge and search strategy skills. In addition, a searcher’s prowess grows and is enhanced with experience in conducting a variety of different research projects.
Although thousands of sources can be searched simultaneously and relatively quickly compared to manual research, not all information is available in full text or even online. Most of the first databases were bibliographic, consisting of citations and abstracts. That’s still the case today for many STEM (science-technology-engineering-medicine) databases. Searching full-text articles and documents may be advisable but not always possible despite the fact that far more full text is available now than in the past. Significantly, many research projects are limited by time, budget, and sources and subscriptions available to a searcher.
Web research became a topic of discussion and presenta tions at librarian conferences in the mid-1990s just before Christensen’s book Disruptive Innovation was published in 1997 and gradually developed into a definitive disruptive technology for the information industry. A generation of in formation professionals increasingly adapted to the many tools necessary for internet research as a go-to approach for finding answers. Some of those tools have come and gone while new technology keeps coming. At times, however, it seems that even today, there are librarians who do not always take full advantage of free resources available to them via the web, something I’ve observed in Q&A discourse among information professional discussion lists. Using tra ditional sources without incorporating web research is folly. Premium databases are absolutely required in many instances and in particular are essential for scholarly research. At the same time, embracing web research must not be ignored. The web should be included in research plans and become an essential part of the searcher’s toolkit. One reason web research is so imperative is because publishers disseminate information digitally on their websites. The digital information is not part of premium databases. The New York Times has included digital-only content for 2 decades according to Quint in her April 2011 Searcher’s Voice column (infotoday.com/searcher/apr11/voice.shtml):
Electronic collections of periodicals may seem as massive as when they began decades ago, but the periodicals may have shrunk or been discontinued even. In any case, most traditional archival collection—sadly and perhaps even shamefully —have failed to keep up with the enhanced digital content offered by publishers. More than a decade of The New York Times ’ digital supplementary content is gone and lost forever.
It is extremely important for information professionals to be aware that many of the subscription databases lack digitally produced articles, which are found only by searching the web. Although scholarly sources and norms for academic research must be used in academic settings, there are indeed questions that cannot be easily or fully answered using academic resources alone. It’s important to point students in other directions and recommend realistic solutions. After graduation, students will no longer have access to the schol arly databases, or, if they do through alumni offerings, licensing disallows them from using these databases for commercial purposes. Librarians should teach students about alternative sources and research methods that students can use in their real-life settings post-graduation.
Speaking of the role of information professionals brings up the speculation as to whether librarians are doomed. In our conversation, Quint suggested that incomplete sources endanger the librarian: “I hate to tell you this, but your supplier is bleeding, and your customer is bleeding.” According to Quint, it’s necessary “to be aware of what vendors are selling.” Librarians must speak up and push for more inclusion and better, fairer pricing, bearing in mind that additional sources are needed.
What Else Can We Do?
Librarians’ personal characteristics include flexibility and adaptability, our saving grace. We must also pay close attention to and embrace the technologies that enhance our work in order to remain safe as a profession while expanding our influence as a way to continue growing the profession. The past generation of searchers began their careers by answering reference questions. Some evolved by taking on in-depth research projects. Today, value-added reports with analysis and recommendations are in the mix. Here are tips important for continuing to move forward:
- Stay abreast of current trends in technology and innovation by subscribing to newsletters, many of which are free, about tech startup companies. See the Sources sidebar for a description of the CB Insights newsletter as one example.
- Become aware of and pay attention to vendors that provide analytical information about innovative companies. These include the likes of CB Insights, CrunchBase, DataFox, and others in this market space. As an aside, a number of academic libraries subscribe to CB Insights for their users. To find a library in your area, use the Google site feature and this search string:
( "CB Insights" OR cbinsights) (guide OR libraryguide) site:edu
- Use Owler.com to uncover competitors (see Figure 1 below).
Figure 1: Owler.com’s list of CB Insights competitors
- Attend conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt that focus on disruptive technology. According to its website, Disrupt is “the world’s leading authority in debuting revolutionary startups, introducing game-changing technologies and discussing what’s top of mind for the tech industry’s key innovators” (techcrunch.com/event-info/disrupt-sf-2016).
- For other conferences, simply Google these terms: disruptive technology conferences.