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Cat Herding
By
Volume 39, Number 3 - May/June 2015

“It’s like herding cats.” We’ve all heard the expression and winced at the very notion of trying to corral and mosey down the trail pushing members of a species with the least sense of herd mentality imaginable. In fact, the larger members of that species actually consider herd-minded types cuisine. Oooh. An even worse image occurs. What if the herding included all types of cats from cuddly kittens to slinky, full-grown pets to tigers and lions and cougars and …? Then there’s those feral cats you see in alleys or rumbling in dumpsters, cats so wild that you’d probably have to herd them separately just to keep them away from the cats you wanted.

How do I get into these overdeveloped fantasies? Well this one derived from background research for this column. With deadlines pulsing like jungle drums, I decided to prompt my creative powers by catching up on background reading. After reading through a half-dozen issues of publications in the field, I happened upon one page that contained a list of new products alongside a column evaluating a worthy website. Suddenly it hit me. It wasn’t one idea from one article that lit me up. It was all the good ideas, all the intriguing announcements from all the different issues and, indeed, other articles I’d edited recently and even columns such as Internet Express by Irene McDermott that extended back across decades in this publication and my defunct Searcher.

What are the major problems facing information professionals today and tomorrow? First and always foremost is the eternal problem, the permanent challenge of fulfilling the information needs of clients everywhere, even the clients one never meets. The goal of the information professional remains to inform, to provide high-quality sources to answer questions, even questions yet unasked. The second and sometimes more immediate challenge is to defend and promote the role of the profession in solving people’s problems. We have to stay in the game, obviously for our own welfare, but less obviously, though no less truly, for the welfare of everyone who needs good information—and that is everyone!

So how does that get me to cat-herding? Well, all the different publications I read had article after article identifying—in some cases, reviewing in detail—sources that had real merit. Some were very traditional and encased in barriers to access such as paywalls and license controls and differing copyright protocols. Some were open to all, as free as the wind. Some were healthy and robust, while others were more tenuous but no less valuable—at least in concept, if not execution. Some were very specific, designed to serve niche needs of defined communities. Others were broad and massive, covering vast areas of human knowledge, often by format more than subject, e.g., digital libraries or web search engines. Some involved dynamic interactions in which the quality of information could vary from participant to participant. Others were set in stone by imperious censors gathering archives for the ages. Most appeared in multiple venues, with venues varying in their coverage and the utility of different features. And some of the latest product offering were indirectly content-oriented, but packaged with and promoted as apps designed to do something when prompted, e.g., a widget from Reprints Desk that will find alternative pricing for an article from different sources, or an app from an advertising consortium that would trace the impact of a press release. Once executed, the results of such apps could provide content, but unused, the content would remain encased in whatever silos it came from.

All this perceptive discovery and insightful evaluation by information professionals in the literature of librarianship is truly wonderful, but the real wonder is how much effective impact it has. In the case of paywall licensed content, a good review may lead a librarian to acquire a source, but does that mean everyone who could use the source—even only the immediate clients of the particular library—will get access? No librarian I’ve ever encountered would make that claim for what they license. And what about all the other people in the world who could use the source? How often have we seen vendors confine their product to big-ticket subscribers and provide absolutely no way for “real people” to get access to individual items? And, of course, what about the ocean of products available on the open web or through “freemium” options? You read a good review or just notice an intriguing announcement, but what are the chances you will remember that source a month—or even a day—later? And if you, the info pro, can’t find that source, how can you make sure your clients—or the world of needy minds out there—will find it?

We have to find a way to group all the sourcing efforts done by information professionals wherever they may publish it—from Library Guides to articles in The Charleston Advisor to conference speeches to library listserv commentary to whatever—and make it useful and visible to the profession and the world. A decade or more ago, I argued that the best way to do this would be to get a dot-lib going. I still think the idea has merit, but other approaches might work too. To begin with, the mega-resource would have to be objective and inclusive. It would need a clear, easy-to-remember name. It would need promotion on every outlet possible, e.g., a link from every library website, advertising on popular websites, search engine optimization for popping up to the top of search results, partnerships with other leading sites in the field. It should be designed to interview the user through automated questioning and even link to live service (though that might take some time to achieve). It should become the first line of approach for smart users everywhere with real needs. It should use the Google Custom Search Engine to drill down for specific answers.

It should involve the networked participation of every information professional and become the pride of the profession. It should teach the world that when you need real information, you come to the librarians first.

So how does this relate to herding cats? It doesn’t—or it shouldn’t. Because the tools exist now to do this and have existed for quite some time. And who would or should know better how to use those tools than we of the information profession? Who would or should know better what people need and how they ask for it? Who would or should have a greater professional commitment to the general welfare of human minds? Who would or should need such a tool more than anyone just in the course of our daily tasks? If we can’t or don’t get this kind of tool into existence, then we may end up looking like a herd of cats meandering along, wandering away from the crowd, getting distracted by a passing fancy. We need to coordinate the contributions of all information professionals into a single, highly visible service designed to answer the information needs of users everywhere—a service benefiting humanity and bearing the neon-lit stamp of the information profession.


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.

 

Comments? Contact the editors at editors@onlinesearcher.net

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