The Information Industry Revolution:
Implications for Librarians
By George R. Plosker
the "L" word.
The profession has been debating whether or not to
use the "L word"librarianfor quite some
time. The debate has found its way through the naming
of graduate (library) schools, which have emerged with
multiple permutations, including School of Information
(no L word), Graduate Library School (traditional),
and hybridSchool of Library and Information Science/Studies.
Over the course of the past 3 years or so, the Special
Libraries Association has engaged in a similar debate.
The key issue: Does the word "library" adequately convey
the utility and value of what librarians, in this case,
corporate or special librarians, contribute to their
This debate reflects a profession in transition.
Information professionals have been dealing with change
brought on by technology for over 30 years. The year
2002 marked the 30th anniversary of commercial service
from Dialog; 2003 brought the same anniversary for
LexisNexis. Technology has touched every aspect of
library services, including cataloging, reference,
interlibrary loan, document delivery, circulation,
With the coming of the Web, change moved at a dramatic
pace, as patrons and corporate users began to use online
services on their own. Changing user expectations and
needs have resulted in new models of library serviceuse
of print and actual visits to the reference desk are
down; remote usage of library services is up; and instructional
models have gone through major revisions both in approach
and curriculum. The roles of users, librarians, publishers,
and vendors have all been impacted.
At the 2003 annual meeting of the Special Libraries
Association (SLA), I found myself in a position to
discuss and discover the key factors influencing the
work of the information content profession today. Following
an invitation from Jane Dysart, past president of SLA
and a well-known industry speaker and conference organizer,
I found myself on a panel called, "Information Industry
Revolution," which was part of the always-stimulating
SLA Hot Topics Sessions.
My fellow panelists included two gurus of the SLA
world, Gary Price and Stephen Abram. Gary is a librarian
and renowned author of the book The Invisible Web,
and he also creates a daily updated Weblog, The Resource
Shelf [www.resourceshelf.com]. Stephen is an industry
luminary who just received SLA's highest honor, the
John Cotton Dana award. The three of us emphatically
agreed that "Information Industry Revolution" was an
apt title for the discussion and for the environment
in which we find ourselves.
MOVING AT HYPERSPEED
We wanted to give the attendees a frame of reference
for how to react to the daily changes taking place
in our industry and to suggest specific tools and tactics
for successfully dealing with library users in today's
environment. Looking back, this panel served as a tangible
counterpoint to the branding and name issues facing
the conference attendees.
Long before the conference, Dysart challenged the
panelists by asking us to react to this statement and
ensuing questions: "Hyperspeed changes in our industry
sector and new alignments and mergers are surprising
and shocking us every day. Why would Google buy a blogging
software company and what does it mean for us as information
professionals? What do we do when our subscription
agent disappears overnight? Is the number of suppliers
of information resources we need shrinking? And, what
does that mean for my paper and electronic collections?"
Calling Gary, Stephen, and I "experts in the field
and industry watchdogs," she asked us to predict the
following: "How will these changes impact on our work
in the future?" Jane envisioned that the panel would
provide a "snapshot of the state of the information
industry and its implicationsfor practitioners,
publishers, and vendors."
In the ensuing months, Stephen, Gary, and I exchanged
numerous e-mails, had several conference calls, and
received suggestions, guidance, and encouragement from
Jane. We essentially ranted and raved regarding the
state of our industry and what is going on with Web
searching and information retrieval, industry consolidation
and business development, and user expectations and
behaviors. Our discussions were based on our prior
experience, what we were seeing and reading about in
our day-to-day professional lives, and on the work
that we were doing. Several key themes emerged:
The Open Web and the information professional
Changing roles and responsibilities
Marketing and communications programs
OPEN WEB INFILTRATION
Based on feedback at presentations and on-site visits
to well-regarded special libraries, we became increasingly
concerned that professionals and researchers sincerely
believe that searching the Open Web, particularly Google,
is "good enough." Groups with degrees from excellent
schools, Ph.D.s in environments that included technical
R&D, and even biomedical and pharmaceutical professionals
were using Google, not recognizing the significant
differences in authority and quality between the Open
Web and premium subscription content typically provided
by the information centers/libraries.
We heard stories in which common misunderstandings
about electronic content were leading to disastrous
results. Consider the article that appeared in late
May in the Rocky Mountain News, "Denver Health
Expected to Shut Medical Library." In an effort to
trim $12 million from the public hospital's budget,
it was expected that the organization would close its
medical library by July 1. "Chief Executive Officer
Patricia Gabor would not confirm the closure. But,
she said that because of the availability of electronic
journals, closing the library, which has been under
discussion for some time, is likely." We wondered if
Ms. Gabor had read the story of an unnecessary death
at Johns Hopkins University during a clinical trial
when the researcher did not consult an experienced
It became clear in that the Open Web would be a large
portion of our discussion, but we also observed the
on-going number of mergers and consolidation in the
information content vendor world. We called this the "one-big-vendor" phenomenon.
Was industry consolidation having an impact on the
added value that vendors provide to corporate libraries?
What could librarians do about it?
Following the Tasini decision and its aftermath,
significant discussion occurred throughout the profession
regarding the completeness of online databases. Separating
the facts from the fiction was difficult. What is going
on with content completeness today? What effect were
publisher exclusives having on content aggregators
and their customers? Is the industry going backward
as Patrick Spain, founder of Hoover's and current chairman
and CEO of Alacritude, asserted at his keynote address
at the InfoToday 2003 conference? We even heard a new
termdisaggregationemerge. Can technology
initiatives, such as e-journals, Open URLs, federated
searching, DOIs, and open ILL systems overcome these
trends in terms of providing complete electronic content
While these are significant issues influencing user
behaviors and expectations, we all agreed that ineffective
marketing was perhaps the most important and controllable
concern. With the pervasiveness of Open Web search
engines and super bookstores, the profession is simply
not adequately or effectively communicating the value
of libraries, library resources, and the librarian.
With plenty to talk about, we decided to recruit
Jane as our Oprah and to keep us under control and
focused by using a moderated Q&A format. After
composing and reviewing the questions, we headed to
New York for the conference.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK;
THE PANEL ITSELF
The panel took place in the Morgan Suite of the New
York Hilton on June 9th, 2003. We probably could have
used a larger room. Every seat was taken, people sat
on the floor, and there was a large group standing
in the back of the room literally bulging out the back
As might be expected, our discussion of the Open
Web and its impact on the profession began with Google.
The panel agreed that Google has done a great job.
No one in the information content profession can deny
Google's influence, both real and perceived, on information-seeking
behaviors and expectations. Google's incredible response
time, relevance ranking and page rank algorithms, subtle
business model, clean look, and ease-of-use were appropriately
We particularly admired the incredible marketing
that Google has done, mostly through word-of-mouth "viral
marketing." In a very short period of time, Google
went from newbie to industry leader. Its well-known
brand has even spawned a verb. "To google" now means
to search, find, and explore. (Google, as a company,
is trying hard to squelch this verbification.)
To obtain a sense of Google's scale, we quoted Craig
Silverstein, the director of technology at Google.
He recently stated that Google is now getting 250 million
search requests per day! According to Searcher editor
Barbara Quint, Google gets more searches in 3 days
than all libraries combined globally get in 1 year.
This volume and popularity have made electronic access
to information ubiquitousa good thing. What remains
to be done is to inform and educate users that there
is more to the content world than the Open Web.
DOUGHNUTS, COFFEE, AND QUALITY INFORMATION
Stephen Abram, the master of the analogy, compared
high- and low-nutrition diets with content quality.
He often has breakfast in the hotel lobby during his
frequent travels and these "breakfasts" on the road
might consist of a Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. While
he appreciates the taste (and marketing) of these popular
commodities, would he want to have doughnuts and coffee
for breakfast every day? Similarly, while Google
and the Open Web are excellent as a short-term fix
and for distinct categories of content, would he depend
on them on a daily basis? The panel thought not.
Fortunately, information professionals, especially
reference librarians, have for the most part overcome
their initially tentative relationship with the Internet
and the World Wide Web. Librarians have gradually recognized
the added value the Web brings to their ability to
answer a broader range of patron questions. Now, there
is widespread acceptance that, either alone or in combination
with more traditional resources, the Web expands the
capabilities of reference professionals. We all see
that Google has a place in the spectrum of information
The panel discussed the issue of going with, complementing,
and becoming authoritative in the current environment.
In order to be credible and to communicate with today's
user, the profession can no longer resist these influences
on the content environment, nor maintain dated points
of view. What we learned in library school is not enough.
We cannot sit at the reference desk and proclaim, "We
only support premium content databases." The audience
was praised for their willingness to continually update
their professional knowledge.
We then moved into the disruptive nature of the Internet.
It has impacted all industry playersauthors,
publishers, vendors, intermediaries, libraries, and
other organizationsand changed the content landscape.
Participants are no longer clear about their roles
and responsibilities. In some cases, the current environment
has created a regressive view of self-interest.
We discussed the "Industry Insights" column by Leslie
Jacobs in the May/June 2003 issue of ONLINE,
in which Leslie states that vendors and publishers
are not "working and playing well with others." Even
when libraries, information centers, and practitioners
are coming to these vendors with a clearly articulated
vision of what they want to accomplish in their environments,
they often find themselves unable to fulfill the vision
due to lack of cooperation or compatibility from their
vendors. Jacobs specifically cited that "recent examples
of e-content logjam include problems when combining
sources from multiple vendors, frustrations when integrating
electronic journals into a library collection, and
difficulties in providing documents in a preview mode."
The panelists also cautioned against an over-reliance
on technology or vendor solutions without appropriate
expert management by information professionals. We
have seen a variety of new technologies emerge, all
trying to provide libraries with a search environment
that is more compelling and complete in order to compete
with the appeal of the Open Web. While no one on the
panel had a problem with more powerful contextual linking,
Open URLs, or federated searching, we did stress that
it is critical for the content expert to maintain control
of vendor implementations.
It is important not to accept "default" technical
solutions that are really in the best interest of the
vendor rather than the library or library user. For
example, some of the tools mentioned above have a range
of customizable settings that can be utilized to overcome "defaults." The
panelists stressed that the "reference engineer" must
assume a project management role in these implementations
to ensure that technical choices and solutions add
up to the right answers and responses for the typical
patron. It is especially critical to not ignore the
tenets of our profession. Content/database selection
should retrieve the best answernot just
any answer, or worse, retrieve enormous numbers of "hits" due
to the broad recall search algorithms built into the
ONE BIG VENDOR
From the Open Web and professional responses to the
Open Web, we then moved into the area of industry consolidation.
Jane asked us, "Are you worried about the ONE-BIG-VENDOR
phenomenon? What do you think all these mergers will
As always, it is the detail that matters. The panelists
felt that there were essentially two ways to look at
this industry trend. On the good side, mergers and
acquisitions can drive synergies that benefit the client.
Mergers have created new generations of products that
provide superior navigation and powerful content integration.
In some cases, we have seen considerable vendor investment
in the underlying structure of these tools, such as
re-engineered authority files that allow for content
linkage and improved navigation.
Of course, we have also seen the bad sidea
lack of common product structure, tools not tied together,
no common vocabulary, artificial divisions maintained
based on a financially driven point of view. Customer
support is fragmented. There is no common billing,
or perhaps more importantly, purchases across the formerly
separate companies are not tied together for discount
purposes. We meet with representatives who really don't
know how these products are related, at least in the
client's mind, in terms of providing more complete
Mergers usually focus on the financial side of things,
as opposed to being customer- or market-driven. In
the worst case, the acquisition comes at too high a
costthe acquiring company overpays. In that case,
in addition to traditional expectations on operating
income and revenue, the new company must also pay off
the debt burden. This results in more financially driven
thinking, less investment in new and improved products,
and more pressure on the vendor-customer relationship.
ROLE OF THE AGGREGATORS
Jane then moved us into the area of existing products,
pointing out that many librarians depend on information
aggregators for the value-add they provide to contentindexing,
metadata, licensing, abstracts, and conversion. What
is happening with quality? In the post-Tasini era,
what is happening with content completeness? Are there
special challenges happening here and how do these
challenges change the roles special librarians and
information professionals must play?
In what became a common theme, the panelists saw
an increased burden/responsibility for the information
professional in terms of monitoring the status of current
products. Practitioners need to remain vigilant about
what is changing in the products and to ask questions.
Is indexing applied to all document types?
Is a keyword strategy casting a broader
net than using a thesaurus-dependent search?
What content is in the product?
What content is not in the product due to
exclusives or other publisher approaches?
Organizations that purchase premium databases
must report content issues and problems to their vendorsmight
alert a vendor to a problem with a conversion vendor
or internal system
Customer advocacy is a must"What would
Barbara Quint (our own Ralph Nader) do/recommend?"
One panelist (OK, me) told a story about a client
who would sign her e-mails to various customer service
departments, "The Pest." In truth, customer service
found her input so useful and insightful that her comments
were often shared throughout the organization. We really
considered her to be a "bellwether" customer, and over
time, product and technology teams when making changes
to a product often requested her input. This reminds
me of the line we have heard from all of our mothers: "If
you don't ask, you won't get."
RELATIONSHIPS IN THE INDUSTRY
Jane then asked about the status of key industry
relationships. "In the past there was a virtuous circle
of a relationship among publishers and vendors and
intermediaries. There appears to have been some pretty
big disruptions in these relationships. Can each of
you comment?" Several themes emerged from those comments:
We need to stay on the high roadcommunication
Disruptions to the relationships are based
on lack of understanding of the common challenges
facing the players. We need to focus on the big picture
the common challenges we are facing.
We need a new definition of
self-interest for the parties.
Old values are still relevant in terms of
powerful content alternatives to the Open Web.
However, we need to position premium content
tools in a context and in the language that the end-user
understandswe must include awareness of their
perception and view of the information landscape.
The panel described an environment where it is increasingly
necessary for librarians and vendors to work together
to provide content solutions that go beyond the convenience
of the Open Web. There are two key areas in which this
is particularly true. First, it has become more critical
than ever for libraries to let the public know about
the content jewels to be found as part of the library's
services. In other words, marketing. It can no longer
be assumed that individuals will find their way to
the library for information. We are not the only game
Second, these tools must provide both superior content
and powerful intuitive navigation that make the Open
Web look like a device designed for novices. Given
our quality, content, and better service, the library
world needs to take back some market share. If it is
critical to differentiate the content alternatives
now available to the public, how can we do it?
MARKETING LIBRARY SERVICES
Marketing needs to include some basics. The panel
agreed that it is more important today for outreach
communications to be in the user's language and approachable.
A message something like, "Yes, you can really do this," needs
to be included when guiding users to library solutions,
especially to remote access tools, where a physical
librarian is not available to help out. Messaging needs
to elucidate benefitsbetter content and better
decisionsrather than a list of URLs and functions. "A
world of information compiled and organized by information
professionals" is not sufficient. Remember the user
is interested in "what's in it for me." Stress that
library content is not selling anything. We are talking
about humankind's recorded knowledge. Be specific.
Pick themes that are meaningful to your patron groups
or constituencies. [Editor's Note: Subscribing
to MLS: Marketing Library Services (www.infotoday.com/mls) would be a great way to pick up new library marketing
The panel also thought that point-of-use support
materials need to focus more on database selection
and less on search strategy. Let's face itsearchers
will do the search strategies that make sense to them.
If we can at least get them in the right body of content,
chances are that success rates will increase noticeably.
The panel also agreed that remote access to premium
databases, an engineered reference solution, is a powerful
mechanism to extend library services beyond the four
walls of the library. These remote access solutions
must offer quick paths to the needed content as well
as describe why the specific content tool has the needed
answer. Today's Web searcher is accustomed to "drill-down" via
topic treeslibraries should leverage this know-how.
Make it easy to locate the right source for the topic
Finally, the panel felt that some level of cooperative
marketing would be useful for the entire professional
community. How can we get the players in the premium
content industry to work together to meet this common
challenge? For example, we might consider some type
of overview marketing campaign. Look at the example
of the dairy industry: "Got Milk?" Why not, "Got librarians?"
Information professionals should work with SLA to
improve the resources and marketing messages available
via the www.sla.org Web site. Also, we should work
with our vendors. Discuss your marketing plans with
them. How can they help? Most vendors provide a wide
range of free marketing and support materials, frequently
on their Web sites. Free marketing materials typically
include posters, publicity guidelines, templates, bookmarks,
fliers, print ad templates, and even radio scripts.
Be flexible and open regarding today's user. Work
to engineer solutions that work for them. The old model
of one-off reference is no longer adequate. Don't be
afraid to use your knowledge. Hold on to the values
that demand quality and completeness. Improve the overall
marketing situation. All too many people have no idea
what libraries and the content industry can do for
them. A major goal for information professionals in
the information industry revolution is to communicate
the substance of the profession to those outside the
Plosker [email@example.com] is principal of George
Plosker & Associates, a consulting firm providing
services and training to the information industry, technology
companies, and libraries on content deployment and marketing,
information access, account, and staff development strategies.
The author wishes to thank Jane Dysart, Gary Price, and
Stephen Abram for their contributions.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.