Not a news flash:f Our information world is undergoing radical changes. We're using social media for serious research. We're reaching out to our users via customer relationship management (CRM) systems. We're discovering new sources of information for business research. We're seeing digital libraries that will reshape the landscape of what we mean by the word "library." We're wondering how much to rely on crowdsourced information. We're rethinking almost every aspect of the information world and information work.
I've been reading some historical fiction lately. Apart from making me appreciate modern plumbing and dental care, these tales reinforced an image (fantasy?) of mine about the gentleman scholar (and, yes, in the 18th century, most scholars were men). I picture a quiet, wood-paneled study; floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with all the knowledge anyone could want; a desk covered with open reference tomes and papers with new knowledge and insights scribbled on them; and a scholar painstakingly pursuing his research passion.
Today's research world is not that quiet study. It's hectic, it's noisy, it's overwhelming, and it moves very quickly. It's multicultural, multigenerational, multilingual, and multidisciplinary. It's 3 seconds on a webpage before moving on. It's breaking news that people believe until it's proved wrong a few hours (or minutes) later. It's rumors proliferating on social media. It's scholarly research withdrawn from peer-reviewed journals. It's information redacted. It's chaos. What it's not is concentrated research. Our powers of concentration have diminished in an internet world.
As for the future of online searching in our distracted state, everybody's crystal ball is different. Will it be digital? Is it about access rather than ownership? Should it depend on culture? Will we pay for information or demand it all be free? Will discoverability increase or decrease? To different degrees, I think the answer to all these questions is "Yes."
If we view libraries as platforms with a transformational mandate to change raw data into knowledge and librarians as alchemists who convert information into insights, we may have to lose my vision of a quiet study dedicated to concentrated research. Of course, in the 18th century, the internet didn't exist, information flowed slowly, and misinformation was common-and not just about plumbing and dentistry.
Online provides alchemy for the 21st century. If information delivery is designed for those with short attention spans, where does that leave online searchers? It should increase our value. Even without hours of dedicated, uninterrupted research time, we can quickly spot the anomaly, intuit the problem area, and discern avenues to proper answers. We're the experts who turn raw data into meaningful information, who knit together the various threads uncovered from a multitude of sources, and who see how new technologies benefit our operation. Although I'm nostalgic for concentrated research, I'll accept the huge research benefits that come at internet speed.