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.
|"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."
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
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
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
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 (http://www.formatori.it).
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 "About.com":
What are they? Reference librarians? Journalists? Teachers? Engineers?
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
New Life = New Learning
|"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!"
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
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
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:
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?
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.
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."
of Computer Mediated Communication, Special Issue on Electronic Commerce,
Jocelyne Nanard, Marc Nanard
(1995), "Hypertext Design Environments and the Hypertext Design Process."
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 http://www.guibonsiepe.com 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),
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,
Clayton M. Christensen (1997),
Innovator's Dilemma. Harvard Business School Press.
Robert Jacobson, ed. (1999),
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.
Carl Shapiro and Hal R.
Varian (1999), Information rules. Harvard Business School Press.
André Schiffrin (1999),
sans éditeurs. La Fabrique-Editions.
LC21: "A Digital Strategy
for the Library of Congress" (2001). See the "Openbook" HTML version of
this book at http://books.nap.edu/books/0309071445/html/index.html.