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Magazines > ONLINE > November/December 2009
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Vol. 33 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2009

The Power of Three
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

When my son turned 3, he became fascinated with all things three. “I’m thwee,” he’d say, not being terribly good at pronouncing the “r.” It’s a good thing he’d hold up three fingers, since it sounded like he was saying, “I’m free,” a rather curious statement from a young child. He also had three friends, three favorite games, three stuffed animals, and probably some threes he didn’t share with me.

This came to mind recently when Colin Beverage posted a challenge on a LinkedIn group—describe what you do in three words. Now I took Latin in secondary school. I know Gaul was divided into three parts. My Latin teacher declaimed, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” as she acted out the part of Julius Caesar (“I came, I saw, I conquered,” which is six words in English but only three in Latin).

Some people who answered Colin took the Caesar approach, using three disparate words separated by commas. “Eat, sleep, drink” was the least professional. I said, “Think, research, write.” Others came up with “define, create, refine,” which sounds a bit shampooish (lather, rinse, repeat). “Converse, plan, deliver” caught my eye, as did “communicate, negotiate, collaborate.” Some of these phrases implied a process: First I think, then I research, finally I write. I could change that sequence to researching, then thinking about what the research revealed, and finally writing up the results. Others reflected three separate activities. If it was a solo librarian, I could imagine “research, analyze, manage,” which could be in any order. How about an archivist? “Collect, preserve, digitize.”

The non-Caesarian approach was to write a three-word sentence that bordered on a tagline. David Gurteen, known for his Knowledge Cafes, said, “I have conversations.” An independent information professional expressed the essence of consulting when she said, “Informing client decisions.” The person who said, “Fight the Hydra” may have been having a bad day. “Reduce legal risk” is an extraordinarily powerful three-word statement. I’m hoping it was from a law librarian. What about “information saving lives” for a medical librarian?

I then thought about renaming all the articles in this issue to three-word phrases. Steve Arnold’s could be “real-time search,” Alka Bhatnagar’s “library web analytics,” and Emil Levine’s “police information online.” Jeff Wisniewski had already fortuitously supplied a three-word title, invoking the real estate mantra of “location, location, location.” But condensing Nancy Herther’s conjectures about the brains of digital natives and digital immigrants into a mere three words defeated me, while Carol Doms’ explication of two advertising databases definitely required more than three words.

The power of three is not an absolute. Still, describing your job responsibilities or your business mission in three words remains an interesting endeavor and a fun challenge. If you share your powerful three words with me (, I’ll share them with other readers of ONLINE—attributed or not, your choice.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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