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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Sine Qua Non
Volume 38, Number 2 - March/April 2014

Sine Qua Non. [Latin, Without which not.] A description of a requisite or condition that is indispensable.

Boy, those ancient Romans knew what they were talking about! It may not sound as good in translation, but it lays it on the line: without which not! Bottom line, anyone in a service profession faces the ultimate challenge of defining themselves by what their clienteles—or potential clienteles—cannot do without. You don’t like doctors? Suffer and/or die. You don’t like lawyers? That metal-on-metal sound you hear is the door of a jail cell closing, or maybe it’s just the sound of your ex-spouse’s divorce lawyer towing away your car.

But what happens to the hoi polloi if they don’t like librarians? Well, usually the answer sounds a lot like the sine qua non for teachers. You don’t like teachers? Stay stupid. For librarians, the answer might differ to “Stay ignorant.” Teachers usually enable people to perform basic functions such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, capabilities without which anyone is going to look really, really stupid. Librarians fill the gaps in coverage and application of those and other learned functions after the client has left the hands of the teachers. You know, like all those years and years and years following graduation day.

We are information professionals and we inform. We are also archivists of human knowledge and we preserve. But we are no longer alone in performing these tasks. We may not even be at the head of the pack. As the Information Age has spread its winning ways into every home and office and practically every phone and vehicle, we seem to have fallen out of sight. Not that we should expect any gratitude—“how sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child…”—for the decades during which we stood fast in protecting and advocating and supporting the infancy to adolescence of online. But now that everyone is online, we have to find some way to serve our clientele that not only provides real service, but carries enough bling to it, enough radiant clarity, to let the world know what it would be missing were it not for our presence.

I’ve got an idea. By the way, whenever I use that sentence, I flashback to the episode of I Love Lucy when Ethel, worn to a frazzle by decades of suffering as Lucy’s partner in one goofy plot after another, finally turns to the fervid-eyed redhead and responds, “The four most terrifying words in the English language are you saying, ‘I’ve got an idea.’” Nevertheless, here we go.

How about becoming the go-to profession for How To? Think about it. It’s an area of universal human need. Sooner or later, everyone finds themselves staring at something and scratching their heads, trying to figure out how “it” works. In most cases, those head scratchers would prefer to have some kind human voice walk them through the learning process. But even if they want to study the manual, someone’s got to provide that manual, make sure it’s the right one, find the section that precisely fits their needs, etc., etc. By the way, I’m not just talking fancy high-tech gismos. I’m not even talking just gismos. Every time someone wants to make something happen effectively and efficiently, we’re the first people they reach out to.

Accepting this as our primary responsibility, as the identifying function of our profession, would involve layers and layers of effort by all of us. It would be building a new information service with the new tools at hand. We would coordinate our skills so that, at any given moment, we could tap another librarian’s knowledgebase as well as our own. We would push our vendors to give us new, highly specific tools. We would identify all the flows of information concerning specific tools, the blogs, the tweets, the Facebook pages, the ancient list servs. We would know the experts and be able to reach them, but focusing on how-to issues, not general discussions. We could build sections in those forums that cull the how-to information from the general flows. Once we isolate all the sources, we could build customized search engines to target just that content.

Along the way, we could identify what’s missing. The other day, I ordered a gadget that arrived with the briefest of instructions. Battery-powered though it was, the instructions did not even indicate what size batteries it needed. Even the most sophisticated high-tech devices can come without enough instructions, particularly when their creators apparently assume that there are some eternal verities that everyone must know from the cradle. It took me years for my technical advisor to finally train me to right-click every time I seemed to run afoul of a Windows feature. And when I bemoaned the fact that my latest copy of Word seemed to have eliminated the Help function, it was he—and not the unprinted but digital guides—who told me about the universal use of F1.

Clearly there are opportunities here. O’Reilly publishes an entire series called The Missing Manual to help computer users who want to read what their expensive tools can do for them. But if you buy the latest manual, will it apply to the latest version of the device? Maybe you need an earlier manual for the equipment you bought the day the device launched or shortly thereafter. A library could have a collection of the earlier editions. A librarian could push a desperate customer toward the right edition for their needs. Even better, a librarian could read them the appropriate text.

Those of us old enough to remember the halcyon days of intermediary searching—I know, I know, these are the good old days, not then—can recall how sweet it was to be the center of attention, the source of all online goodies, the living, two-legged Google. Aaah! Wouldn’t it be nice to see the reference desk light up again with phone lines buzzing and computer screens gleaming with customer requests? How to ride a horse? How to cook a turkey? How to back up a computer? How to build a treehouse? Whenever you need to do something and you don’t know how, just call the librarians. If they don’t know off the top of their heads, they’ll tap into their databases and have it for you right away. If it’s a really hard question, they’ll get back to you within 24 hours with the answer from a librarian that does know how to.

One final benefit. If we got on top of this, how long before information industry vendors looking to supply us with needed tools, hire some of us to design and market those tools? In fact, how long before industries of all kinds start hiring us to build the missing tools to help customers the right way—the librarian way?

Sound like an idea?

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


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