Ah, the halcyon days of youth! I remember them well. Sigh. Born and bred into the glorious epochs when intermediate searchers reigned as the only way to reach the wondrous benefits of online searching (however primitive and minimal by today’s standards). I can recall one instance in which I got an invitation to speak by a joint venture of two SLA divisions at an annual conference. The bulk of my travel costs were born by SLA’s soliciting two major vendors for funds. The vendors paid even though—by then—I had already developed something of a reputation for not always being the vendor’s pal. Of course, it wasn’t my fault. No matter how often vendor reps would accuse me of just looking for trouble, I always told them the truth—namely, that I didn’t look for trouble, trouble looked for me!
Just before I attended this SLA conference, trouble had found me again. This time it was in the Dun and Bradstreet Million Dollar Directory. By the way, D&B may have been one of my sponsors for attending the conference. Sigh. But really! “Intl Bus Mchs” as a company name search, “Minn Min M!!” Way, way back in those days, publishers would convert print reference tools into online by just loading up the machine-readable text used to print the items. In this case, the entries for Million Dollar Directory followed a 30/30 character limitation for fields. Why? Excellent question. Because D&B also used the Directory for mailing labels, and that was the limit on the sticky labeling stock. These oddball abbreviations would work as long as human intelligence and human fingers could find the entry in the book at its appropriate, alphabetically correct location, but computer searching and scanning were pretty hopeless. I had the whole room laughing at the absurdity and snarling at the useless online budget expenses of same.
Three months later when I went back to check for IBM in the Dialog file, lo and behold—“International Business Machines Corporation.” That was clout. Not mine, SLA’s. Corporate librarians. Information professionals. We were the market, and vendors knew it. They also knew we were setting the measurements for value and worth they would have to live by. Not all of us could afford all their wares, but we did know when those wares were worthy of wanting. And we stayed in touch with each other to make sure that we got the best at the best price.
In case you haven’t noticed, times have changed. We still stay in touch, even closer touch with social networks and listservs added to regional and national conferences. The Charlestonco.com pubs still kick the digital tires. Library consortia still battle with vendors for the best prices. But the vendors with whom we argue no longer dominate the online scene. They are miniscule by comparison to the universe of end-user-oriented services. As we info pros reluctantly must admit, we largely use the same tools as our clients, but those end-user services don’t come knocking on our doors for good advice. They don’t even take our calls. The problems of maintaining quality and getting the best to our clients have grown immense in a world where nobody hears us, where nobody—vendor or even patron—listens. We may grow unsure ourselves of how valid our judgments remain, even how much our clients should listen.
We must find new levers to move the mountain of data players. We must analyze our remaining assets. We must build new paths to visibility and impact. We do have some angles to follow. First is our enduring good (though dull) reputation with real people. For this, we can thank the public librarians, I expect. They have answered calls, helped the unemployed find employment, kept children busy and safe while parents got a break. Sounds corny, sounds ordinary, but it has kept our image as one of kindly, wise beneficence. I still remember the FedEx delivery person making his Saturday delivery of the last Harry Potter book. We were chatting, and I told him that despite all the embargoing controversy between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, public libraries had gotten their boxes of the books a week ago. “Well,” he said, “if you can’t trust librarians, who can you trust?”
So how do we convert that trust into leverage? Here’s where I once again (and again and again) send out the siren call for our professional organizations to go after a DOT-LIB. Puh-leez!! But even without that oh-so-obvious tool, there must be other ways to link together our collective professional wisdom and provide filtered quality judgments of content sources. We have them for ourselves, but we must find ways to make them apparent and instantly accessible to patrons. And in this web world, we must define patrons as everybody, at least everybody digitally connected, and that’s about everybody these days. Whatever sourcing advice we give must connect to real experts, especially information professionals. More questions build better answers. And if we can influence real people, we can be heard by anyone—from Google to the corner bookstore.
We’ve got to be able to deliver a market to vendors but differently than we have in the past. Direct connections to ordering systems is hard for some librarians to accept, but we must be realistic. If we can get discounts or transfers of books and digital content to our collections through a purchasing program for our patrons, let’s do it. Let’s hit up our consortia or pet vendors such as OCLC to get to work on the details and integration into our systems. If these groups won’t do it, then it’s time for some eager beavers to get to work. And if they succeed, history shows that the eager beavers will probably get bought by the sluggish, established vendors in time.
A second route to leverage could be solid support for open access and other user-generated content sources. Following this path, we might find another way to market our patrons. Many of today’s open access and user-generated content sources operate very well, but how long will these sources last? Where will they be in 50 years or even 5? We could give them institutional support and more visibility. In turn, we could connect them with some of the support they need from vendors. We might even become the vendors for this flow of content. For those puritanical idealists who eschew the world of grimy commerce impinging on the ivory tower of libraries, consider another factor: One of the basic duties of all libraries, librarians, and information professionals is archiving. Historically, we haven’t even trusted commercial vendors and publishers to perform that function for humanity, despite the economic interest underlying their ownership rights. When it comes to open access and user-generated content, it may be our duty to archive. If we don’t, who will?
Well, those are some ideas for growing our roles as advocates and critics of the digital scene. How about you? Have some more ideas? Keep them coming. Not only does our profession need them, more important, the world does too.