Sometimes it seems we information professionals can get too caught up in the institutional decision making of our organizations. We spend our time working with vendors, thinking about their products and services, comparing them to those of other vendors or sources, perusing legal contracts, discussing aspects of purchases or potential purchases with colleagues. We worry about budgets, about staff reactions, about orders from on high—real or imaginary. We compare our professional activities to past years in our institutions or to performance at comparable institutions. We turn our professional faces toward institutions and their processes.
But in these challenging and revolutionary times, concentrating on institutions basically focuses our efforts on the traditional, on what has been achieved in the past. But what did the people who created those institutions see when they began to make the institutions we see today? What got them started? One can only imagine, but it had to have been the drive to fill a need, a need to serve a clientele, and a clientele that probably didn’t realize all they needed until asked and prodded and introduced to potential future solutions.
Back in the dawn of online services, I proselytized all over the country—usually to librarians and other information professionals, but quite often to “real people.” After one of my “Come to Jesus” presentations in front of a group of journalists, I found myself trapped in a chair outside the auditorium for 2 hours as practically the entire audience lined up to ask what online sources could help each of them on their individual stories. The next day at the airport, three more attendees caught me at the boarding gate with their questions. I remember asking one of them whether his paper belonged to a chain. It did. And I told him to get his chain to set up a central 24/7 service with full access to online sources. That way each local paper could have services equal to The New York Times library. Right?
The world no longer waits for information professionals to open the doors to online technology’s bounty, and that’s a good thing, a very good thing. It’s what we’ve worked and sweated to achieve. And we should take a sense of pride in the orchards of knowledge that grew from the seeds we so patiently planted and watered and protected back when the trees were just seedlings.
But now what do we do? What new tasks need doing? How can we serve “real people” in the present and the future? To answer that, we have to get back to basics. To find out what we do next, we have to find out what people need done, what would serve today’s clients and tomorrow’s, what they know they need and want, and maybe more than they’ve ever imagined they might need or ever have.
Information audits are the answer. Not audits of institutional activities, but of individual needs. Here comes that bookstore owner who sometimes buys our discards at the Friends of the Library book sales. Wonder what else he needs? Hmm. You know he might want to sell some of those books through an online outlet. Maybe he needs to know what services exist that could support such an effort. I believe he carries a lot of out-of-print books, some classics in the public domain. Maybe he could put together packages with free ebooks accompanying a hardback sale. Wait a minute. Why is he holding that book so close to his face? Does he have vision problems? If I knew what the problem was, I could probably find him some medical reading or where to find good, inexpensive contact lenses. You know, all the years I’ve seen him around, we’ve never had time for a good long chat. I’ll bet he has lots of interests that I know nothing about but could probably help him with.
Oh, it must be 3:30. Some teenagers just came through the door, probably straight from class. They usually stop in on their way home. It’s amazing how they can talk to each other while still talking to someone else on their smartphones. I wonder what apps they all use. We should have a get-together about that. They might give us librarians lessons on what’s hot and why. We might have some suggestions of our own to add. We could start a database of apps in use by our clients. Might give us some ideas on what to add to our website links or even what content to license next year. The next time I go to a library conference, I would love to be able to alert some of those high-priced vendors as to what my users really need to get their jobs done or their lives lived well.
Hmm. Just walked by two women discussing plans to buy some new appliances while their husbands discussed new car purchases. I wonder if they have fully examined the digital features in their decision making. It’s amazing how the Internet of Things has revolutionized so many everyday objects. But we don’t have the time or resources here to do a comprehensive job on identifying all the digital features of potential purchases. On the other hand, we could do some of the job. We could do a library guide on key resources for different categories of objects—refrigerators, automobiles, etc. Then we might use a Google Custom Search engine to penetrate the sources identified. I think I’ll try this idea out on a professional forum, an old-fashioned list, or a more au courant social network. There might be colleagues out there who are already doing this sort of thing. We could piggyback on their work or, at least, share what we do with them. Where were those women and their husbands? Are they still near the stacks?
You know I can’t keep relying on chance encounters to find out what clients need. I have to find some more assertive approach. Hmm. A questionnaire on our website? Necessary, but still too passive. An email push? Better, but it should be tied to personal interviews—phone or face-to-face. Hmm. I wonder if there might be some blowback on this, people thinking we’re trying to violate their privacy or being just plain nosy. Well, we can set up some anonymity features. In any case, people still have some respect for the librarian image. They tend to trust us. Might not think of us as the brightest of the bulbs in the online light show, but they do think that we beam long and steady and that we shine a friendly and a kindly light for them.