[ONLINE] feature

The Revenge of the Library Scientist

Bob Ainsbury, Co Founder, EoExchange
Michelle Futornick, Product Manager, EoExchange

ONLINE, November 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


Business professionals would be surprised at just how suited librarians are to the dot com world.
It's not the title of the latest Hollywood movie. Not yet.

Much like the work of aircraft mechanics, library scientists don't get enough respect. Twenty years ago, library scientists ruled the information retrieval world; they just didn't know it. Now they are poised to return to the top of the far more lucrative Web world, and my hunch is they still don't know it. If you are a Master of Library Science (MLS) or similar, you have a great opportunity in front of you. But to take advantage of it, you will have to change your ways.

If you look up the term "stereotype" in the dictionary you will see a picture of a library scientist, and it will be female. It's high time for business professionals to thoroughly understand the profession. They will be surprised at just how suited librarians are to the dot com world. Lets explore the Valley of the Librarians. Traditionally, they have been responsible for conducting research, gathering information, and organizing information. To do so they have been trained in several key areas.


Librarians have always had to evaluate information when fulfilling a research request. A good librarian will not just give a long list of documents and sources to the requestor. They are trained to evaluate the source of information and to look for different characteristics that indicate quality. One way librarians have evaluated information has been citation analysis. In short, the analysis of linkages between published articles and authors. If one article is cited by other (respected) articles, there is a reasonable chance that the cited article has merit. Sound familiar? It should. It's the foundation premise behind Google, IBM Clever and the like. The more Web pages that point to a page, the more likely that page is of interest.


Building complex organization schemes is an everyday event to librarians. They understand that the information must be organized in multiple ways if it is to be retrieved efficiently in myriad situations. Libraries of information are not simply cataloged in alphabetical order by title. Long before there were computers, librarians understood the true potential of metadata and semantic relationships.


When people look for information they often do not know what they are looking for. Much less, where to look for it. An essential librarian skill is the reference interview. Someone comes to the reference desk and asks for information about a topic and the librarian is trained to ask follow-up questions to help the person focus their inquiry. For example, what aspects of the topic are you interested in? Do you want an overview or an in-depth treatment? Do you need statistics and analysis? Pictures? Often the person's query isn't fully formed in their own mind until the librarian asks these questions.


Librarians understand that information can only be organized effectively when you understand who is going to be looking for it. For example, to help someone find information, you have to know something about that person: is he an expert in the field or a novice? What types of resources does she prefer? In many situations, the client doesn't know what they want, they just know that what the librarian gave them was not it. The librarian uses this negative sample to zone in on the desired. Once again, modern technology has tried to use algorithms to capture these techniques. Ask Jeeves tries to get the user to ask questions rather than input terse phrases. AltaVista (and many others) try to suggest other information sources when presenting a list of articles. Search for Britney Spears on AltaVista and it will bring back some results along with the following related searches: Britney Spears lyrics, Britney Spears pictures, Britney Spears breasts. Strange algorithm! There are literally dozens of companies staking their future on the value of profiling users to help improve information retrieval efficacy.


Librarians have a long history of developing standards and recognizing their importance. There are standard classification schemes, standards for exchanging information (MARC), and standards for recording metadata (cataloging rules)–all long before the advent of XML.

Arguably, it has been 20 years since the information retrieval world was dominated by MLS majors. Since that time, we have witnessed the eras of:

"Science Is Better Than Experts"–The golden days of AltaVista

"Information Junkies Should Build Directories"–The ascendancy of Yahoo!

"The Masses Should Build Directories"–The pervasive Open Directory

"Topic Experts Should Build Directories"–Topic portals like Looksmart and About

Where have the librarians been during these fast-paced times? After all, librarians have had the best knowledge all along! Library scientists coupled with great databases and software can beat all comers. So why aren't they the ones revolutionizing information retrieval, starting Web companies, and profiting from these skills? To answer that, and to keep the movie thread alive, we have to turn to the dark side.

Sadly, the skills listed earlier are not the only ones needed to flourish in the dot com world, and librarians have, on the whole, not exhibited many of the other necessary traits. At EoExchange, an Internet start-up based in San Francisco, there is a healthy posse of smart and highly valued librarians. We asked them why their profession has not realized its full potential. Their answers were surprising and yet strangely obvious.


Until recently, librarians weren't trained in computer technology. They were trained how to use it (such as how to do sophisticated database searches), but not how to build it. So most librarians haven't had the technical knowledge to create an automatic classification system, for example, or a link analysis system. Even though they have long understood the principles behind them. Librarians have considered computer scientists as people who can manipulate information, but who don't understand the content they're manipulating. But it's the computer scientists who have ignored their lack of training and continually innovate new ways of organizing and retrieving information. At least it's new to them!


Librarians are proud that their profession is one of public service; making information available to everyone. This laudable quality is in conflict with the innovator who wants to develop proprietary ways to organize information, protect the invention, and proceed by making money from it.


This is a stereotypical perspective, but remember that librarians came up with these responses. There's a lot of insecurity among librarians about what they know that other people don't. The truth is that non-librarians often believe they can find and organize information. The lack of formal training has not stopped them from diving in and trying. It is similar to the programming profession where there are plenty of people who lack formal computer science education, but nonetheless they start to program. The difference is that trained computer science majors are not in any way threatened by the "hacker" and they continue to garner the top programming positions.


Librarians are not creators of information or of systems. They are much more reactive; reacting to information that's already created or reacting to other people's questions and needs. Librarians did create classification systems, true, but the emphasis in training librarians isn't really on how to create new systems, but how to use the existing ones. This does not attract the entrepreneurial, creative visionary.

So the story goes that librarians are uniquely trained for the Web, but others don't know it. Worse still, many librarians are reluctant to speak up. If you are a dot com executive and content is in your charter, see if you have got the right professionals on your team. Ask yourself if you can succeed with mere information hackers.

In closing, its time for librarians to stand up and say "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" Can librarians play a strong role in AltaVista, Yahoo!, About, Looksmart, EoExchange, and many more? Hell yes. But just remember, fortune favors the cocky.

Bob Ainsbury (bainsbury@eoexchange.com) and Michelle Futornick (mfutornick@eoexchange.com) are Co-Founder and Product Manager respectively of EoExchange, a San Francisco-based startup that produces the EoCenter research engine and EoMonitor personalized tracking service, which provide a search, monitor, and notification infrastructure for more than 40 leading Web sites.

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