Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 10 • Nov/Dec. 2001 

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How a Librarian Can Live Nine Lives in a Knowledge-Based Economy
by Brunella Longo

"Like cats moving through their fabled nine lives, I think that teachers and librarians should redefine their own roles beyond the confines of their respective traditions."
In 1995 I decided to leave behind 13 years of work as a librarian, documentalist, and information manager to take part in the development of the growing industry of Web content. I was sure that my studies and experience as an information professional would help me construct appropriate formulas of service. I wanted to learn new methods for disseminating information and to discover new ways for collecting and processing information.

I was convinced that, with the coming of the Web, we were entering an entirely different era and nothing would be the same in the circulation and access of knowledge—and in saying so I also felt too young and too inclined to innovation to wait for the new technologies to mature and grow into the traditional structures. Thus, somewhat crazily, with a business plan that would end up being entirely useless, I founded a small company, Panta Rei. (The name of the company means "everything flows" and derives from the famous sentence of Eraclito—the ancient Greek philosopher known in English as Heraclitus—who understood the importance of change and of the continuous modification of our reality: "Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.") The company's mission was to offer consulting, research, and online training services.

Today, in 2001, I can say that most of my intuitions of 7 years ago were correct: The Web is the universal interface of access to information and nobody doubts anymore that libraries, be they hybrid, virtual, or digital, must have Web interfaces. It is also true that I haven't abandoned the values, methods, and techniques that distinguish the traditional role of information professionals: Just as it was 10 or 15 years ago, when I'm doing research or creating new contents, my attention is focused on quality control in the process of selecting, evaluating, and creating products and services that must meet specific needs.

And still, I see the world of information and my own professional identity with very different eyes than I did before the Internet came along. I have integrated into my professional experience skills that come from fields still foreign to the formal education of library and information science, such as human-computer interaction, cognitive psychology, educational sciences, and information design theory.

I think I've learned more since I started my own business in 1995 than I had during the rest of my scholastic and professional life! Above all, I couldn't have imagined 10 years ago that my abilities and skills would become like Lego bricks to be built and rebuilt continuously in new combinations, on the basis of my work hypotheses and my users' requests. Every 12 to18 months or so, these combinations have repercussions on the very nature of my business and require us to fine-tune the organization of its activities.

In 1998 (only 3 years ago), more than 50 percent of my time was devoted to Web site designs for clients and the rest of my time to preparing courses and research. Today, in 2001, the majority of my time (47 percent) is devoted to distance education (Web-based training for librarians and other professional communities). The rest of the time I am consulting on electronic publishing projects (34 percent) and performing various management and research activities. The latter also includes supervising a digital interdisciplinary library about online services. This library was born as an internal tool in support of consulting and training, and since 1999 it has also been accessible to outside users and clients for a fee.

I have no doubt that, in another 3 years, things will be different again. Within 10 I will probably be working on things I currently know nothing about, and I may even be involved in another dramatic revolution in information access: the use of conversational interfaces.

What is the guiding principle I have learned from this entrepreneurial experience relative to my professional identity? I believe that information professionals, like cats, have nine lives to live in this hyped-up new digital, knowledge-based economic order! In this article, I am attempting to extrapolate some strategic information both from my personal experience and from the needs that I find daily while designing librarian-training courses. I am offering some reflections to discuss the skills librarians need in order to continue performing useful activities for society and companies, in any type of public or private structure.

The Web as Our Workplace
As an information professional, I began working with Web sites using classification, abstracting, and structured writing techniques. In the beginning, when I proposed a useful citation order to develop the contents of a site and design interface, I immediately saw my clients' eyes light up. To single out categories, extrapolate concepts, and define pertinent principles of ordering and labels is a game that many try to play: Everyone comes to meetings with their home pages designed on a piece of paper or with some ideas floating around. Luckily, in 1995/1996, when all this began, my plans always ended up being much more convincing than the others'. However, my librarian's pride ends here! These skills were not, in fact, enough. I quickly realized, thanks to my collaboration with clients, engineers, and users, that my designs were missing something. They were effective for those of us involved in planning the sites, but took little consideration of the context of using the interfaces; they did not suggest a priority of actions coherent with the purposes of the site; they were inflexible with respect to marketing or communication needs.

So, toward the end of 1995, I began an intense period of study, informal learning, and experimentation in a field that was new for me, human-computer interaction. Here I discovered new "user-centered" design methods, based on the construction of experience. Interface design must begin from the understanding and definition of the goals and activities of the user, and not from the classification and ordering of the information.

I see that few American library and information science schools have included human-computer interaction in their curricula in recent years, and I have no doubt that, for information professionals of the Net generation, the design of Web interfaces will be much easier in the future than it was for us pioneers. In the meantime, we need to bat around new ideas. We must read outside our professional milieu in order to find answers. Stay in tune with different sources and be engaged by viewpoints from different sectors. Try to find out important trends that will affect how users access, create, and share information.

How people read and learn is no longer a total mystery!You can get an idea of the different ways people work in computer-mediated environments if you study and process the data from log files of Web servers. You can discover how users behave inside an interface, what they are actually searching for, and what routes they take. This is a veritable revolution for publishing and education, not just for libraries.

In the era of print-based information, the reader's conduct was indecipherable and unpredictable, without resorting to costly market researching. But as we enter another of the nine lives, we now have log files that are powerful tools to help us design effective interfaces. Today we have immediate feedback on the most-researched topics and the most-consulted information. We can integrate this feedback as we select and acquire sources. But we can also try to predict future demand and thus build much better proposals for communication, professional training, and education.

Always Landing on My Feet
My Web Based Training projects were thus born, in 1997. I started with the analyses of logs of informational sites for which I had done content development and prototypes. I also based the work on another important experience: my observation of students participating in traditional classroom-based instruction on HTML, the use of the Internet, and search engines.

The startup of the classroom was the largest investment I had made with the profits from my first year of activity. I had understood that customers of our Web consulting services needed training for their internal staff in order to maintain, update, and grow the online services that we were developing. My first courses were therefore sold exclusively to existing clients. Then we began receiving several requests for training on search engines from individuals, institutions, and information professionals.
"Just think how our society of knowledge would be richer if everyone were 'a little librarian.'"

In the classroom, every person had his own computer at his disposal. We tried to design workshops with time blocks of 10 to 15 minutes maximum, using a simple storyboard to organize contents and actions. Like in a film script, we planned every action of the teacher and tried to imagine every possible action of the attendee. We also used the storyboard to improve the design of the Web site of every course. The participants and the teacher had at their disposal the same site to work on. In the times established by the script, the teacher had to introduce a topic, explain some basic ideas that were indicated in the site, and guide the user to complete certain actions.

The courses had a terrific success among the participants and client feedback was very positive. However, we noticed that participants tended to get sidetracked by the site links and exercises during the day. Very few were able to follow the teacher carefully and consistently.

These and other considerations led me to conclude in 1998 that the courses would be much more effective if they were taken individually through the Net, giving individual participants the freedom to organize their own actions and interactions with the teacher according to a personalized storyboard. In the meantime we had learned a lot about how to create content and about interaction among students, the teacher, and the network. So in 1999 we began to offer online courses aimed at information professionals, librarians, and end-users from marketing, media, and publishing sectors.

Organizing the contents and experiences ofWeb-based training also requires other specific skills, which were also extraneous to my expertise as librarian. In particular, the ability to understand and interpret human behavior before and during the learning experience is essential. So I have been getting to know the communities of professional teachers from whom we can learn new underlying assumptions and methods about learning processes. Since 1998 I have had an active role in the Italian Association of Teachers where, in 2000, I created a working group on e-learning (

In the meantime, at Panta Rei we stopped offering courses in our physical classroom and my employees and I began to telework. But the classroom continues to be used: Since 1998 we've had an agreement with Chemical Abstract Services whereby all the workshops and seminars for Italian customers of the CAS and STN database take place in our classroom. In short, even physical classrooms can still have a second life!

We're All Knowledge Workers
Over the centuries, the librarian and teaching professions have become elite groups that are currently losing their exclusive privileges in the access to knowledge. We see the emergence of figures that reinvent the old role of "guide to the sources" and come from the most varied fields. Consider the human guides of "": What are they? Reference librarians? Journalists? Teachers? Engineers? Psychologists?

Creating, acquiring, and managing information have emerged as the central focus of the digital economy. Now we are all knowledge workers: We create and use information using Web sites, e-mail, databases, forums, etc. Creating and sharing information are the basis of social relationships within specific virtual communities. This sets up an enormous long-term challenge for every library or information center as well as for every professional involved in publishing and education. We need a new mind-set and we're all learning as we go. Like cats moving through their fabled nine lives, I think that teachers and librarians should redefine their own roles beyond the confines of their respective traditions. In my opinion the most promising road today is that of helping people develop their own cognitive abilities, understand their own needs, and learn how to express them correctly.

Thus, my advice is: Don't be afraid of passing on to users the "tricks of the trade." Just think how our society of knowledge would be richer if everyone were "a little librarian."

"I think I've learned more since I started my own business in 1995 than I had during the rest of my scholastic and professional life!"
New Life = New Learning
Another very important consideration in the digital context is the criteria with which we choose the technologies to adopt, monitor, ignore, or reconsider in another 6 months.

In my first life as a librarian, my relationship with technologies was characterized by a quest for efficiency. I used software packages designed to efficiently catalog and move the collections, i.e., to manage the organizational machine of the library, not to supply customer services.

My perspective changed in subsequent experiences: From working with users of online databases, I saw I needed to consider the software as providing a service that enabled the immediate acquisition of useful information.

Over the course of my previous lives I have developed the antibodies to combat a very dangerous syndrome—technological specialization! On the one hand, this has created over the last 20 years a class of experts in library automation who cannot see beyond the standard Z39.50 and look with suspicion at any innovation that comes from non-library environments. On the other hand, many librarians are scarcely more agile than the end-users when it comes to information technologies—they can effectively use a software product but cannot write a document of specifications. I think that this situation reflects the over-specialization of skills in library personnel and in personnel in medium-to-large documentation centers.

Thus, we must avoid the risk of becoming trapped in narrow solutions that could quickly become obsolete, inadequate, or insufficient with respect to the expectations of users, the potential of information services, and the opportunities offered by technological progress.

Wisdom I've Gathered from Living Several Lives
I know that future changes may force me to reinvent myself again and again. But from the "different lives" I've lived so far, I have amassed a few bits of wisdom:

  • Continuous learning and a constant passion for research have been my keys for the growth and development of my professional identity.

  • I believe it is very important to have a plan for attaining new skills based on continuous learning, on motivation, on the vision of the whole.

  • In sum, I believe that we should be aware of the dynamics with which human activities change because of technological innovations, and at the same time be aware of the dynamics with which we, at a personal level, accept, anticipate, and resist changes.
We should consider that our profession, just like our lives, evolves through continuous minute changes as well as through "jumps," or discontinuous events that are not always predictable (like a birth, a death, a move). That creates fear, resistance, and stress, right? Well, you didn't really think you could live nine lives for free, without paying any price, did you?
Further Reading

Each of these following books, papers, and articles has added something to my professional life over the last 7 years, and facilitated some changes in my mind. You see them listed in the order in which I read them.

D. L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak (1995), "Commercial Scenarios for the Web: Opportunities and Challenges." Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Special Issue on Electronic Commerce, 1 (December).

Jocelyne Nanard, Marc Nanard (1995), "Hypertext Design Environments and the Hypertext Design Process." Communications of the ACM, 38, n. 2, pp. 49­56.

Donald Norman (1988), The Psychology of Everyday Things. HarperCollins.

D. L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak (1996), "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations." Journal of Marketing, July.

Gui Bonsiepe (1995), Dall'oggetto all'interfaccia. Feltrinelli. See for more publications in English or German.

Sherry Turkle (1996), Life on the screen. Touchstone Books.

Desmond Keegan (1990), Foundations of Distance Education. Routledge.

Armand Mattelart (1991), La communication-monde. Histoire des idées et des stratégies. Editions La Découverte. [For an English translation see: Mapping World Communication: War, Progress, Culture. Translated by Susan Emanuel and James A. Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1994.]

Patrice Flichy (1995), L'innovation technique. Editions La Découverte.

Michael G. Moore (1995), "The Death of Distance." The American Journal of Distance Education, 3.

Clayton M. Christensen (1997), The Innovator's Dilemma. Harvard Business School Press.

Robert Jacobson, ed. (1999), Information Design. The MIT Press.

"The future of learning: an interview with Alfred Bork" (1999), Educom Review, 4.

Alison J. Head (1999), Design Wise: a guide for evaluating the interface design of information resources. CyberAge Books.

Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian (1999), Information rules. Harvard Business School Press.

André Schiffrin (1999), L'Edition sans éditeurs. La Fabrique-Editions.

LC21: "A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress" (2001). See the "Openbook" HTML version of this book at

Brunella Longo is the founder and executive manager of Panta Rei, based in Milan, Italy. She writes books and articles, and provides consulting services in electronic publishing. She is responsible for the design of Web-based training courses for librarians and end-users. Previously, she spent 5 years as librarian at the public library of Cremona, 2 years as information officer at J. Walter Thompson, and 5 years as manager of the documentation and information center at Fininvest Group in Milan. Her e-mail address is, and her Web site is
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