Vol.8, No. 4 • April 2000
Good, Bad, and Indifferent
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

History teaches many lessons. Unfortunately sometimes the good students are dyslexic and seated in the back of the classroom; the bad students spend all their time disrupting discussions; and the indifferent majority yawn and slip into slumber. Worst of all, however, the teacher — named Clio, according to the ancient Greeks — has lost both the curriculum and the lesson plans. In Miss Clio’s class, one can never quite tell which civil war is the topic for the day — the American, the English, or the Yugoslavian. The confusion makes it difficult for students to draw meaningful insights that could help them with today’s problems. Despite her culpability for the chaos, all the kids know that Miss Clio will flunk you in a heartbeat and, when she does, that means summer school. After all, “He who cannot learn from history is condemned to repeat it.”

The other day a colleague and I were discussing the current state of the information profession, specifically the competence of information professionals. She deplored the lack of professional knowledge among many new practitioners. In her opinion, they lacked necessary background knowledge, the familiarity with sources from various formats. Instead, according to my colleague, the newcomers to the profession held to the delusion that all information — or at least, all the information their clients would ever need — existed on the Web.

I had to consider these comments seriously. Not only is my colleague a highly intelligent professional with long experience as a searcher, but she is also one of the most “Web-aware” people I know. On the other hand, these opinions did kind of start the “geezer-alert” alarm bells ringing. (I put the GeezerDetector™ settings on high when we crossed the Millennium barrier. Have to watch out for age-ist thinking as one grows older, you know. By the way, I got a very good deal when I purchased my GD. The dealer gave me trade-in value for all my old “Never trust anyone over 30” bumper stickers.)

People often develop a kind of natural modesty when it comes to the things they know, particularly knowledge of long standing (“If I know it, anyone can”). A seemly modesty is always pleasant. On the other hand, like most inaccuracies — and think of how long it took you to learn all the things you know — it has a down side. It can also lead to unjust condemnation of those who don’t know what you know (“If I know it, everyone should”). Personally, the event that caused this reality to come into focus for me came when a teenage daughter of a friend of mine did not know who Jimmy Stewart was. I couldn’t believe any cinematically literate person wouldn’t know the star of It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention many other of his many films. On the other hand, Stewart had stopped making movies before she was born; in fact, he had stopped starring in movies before I was a teenager. And the golden age of television rerunning black-and-white movies — the era that had induced my cine-mania — had ended long, long ago.

You’ve got to consider the circumstances and environment in which a person lives and learns before you judge their knowledgeability. (After all, I couldn’t name any rock band since Santana — although, according to the latest Grammy Awards telecast, that group seems to be back in action, Supernatural!.) For example, if a client population will only accept data gathered off the Web and priced accordingly, then there would seem little purpose in spending a lot of time and energy learning non-Web sources. Or if foraging the Web for essential information eats up the bulk of time and energy on search after search, then one’s work environment would hardly educate one as to non-Web sources.

My colleague is certainly right when she deplores ignorance of key sources in any information professional — old or young. On the other hand, one has to admit that such ignorance has had an unseen benefit. It encourages, and even forces, all vendors into putting their data onto the Web. The thought that all data exists on the Web may be an illusion, but it’s a self-fulfilling illusion.

In any case, does this concentration on the Web as the primary, even exclusive, source of information mean that new practitioners lack the intelligence or professionalism of elder information professionals? Personally, I don’t think so. Older professionals came from an information world dominated entirely by print to the introduction of online innovations. We knew print and learned online. Newer professionals are born into an online world. They know online and may learn print.

The larger question lies in whether today’s information environment will give new information professionals — or older ones — the time and space to learn print sources or anything else useful to their profession. The vast chaos of the Web, a confusion that increases exponentially, forces searchers to spend all their time and energy and resources just staying afloat. Actually, I have tremendous admiration for recent entrants to the profession. It takes a hardy soul with a lot of commitment to enter this arena, imperiled by the forces of disintermediation, end-user fantasies of competence, shriveled funding.

Not that today’s situation is without historical parallel. When I attended library school way back in !#!@#!!! (darn those Quark macros!), the issue of the day was the post-World War II information explosion. Driven by massive Cold War spending as well as post-War economic recovery booms, scientific and technical research output exploded. In response to the flood of information, output channels — scholarly journals, government reports, technical studies, gray literature — proliferated. Established libraries grew by leaps and bounds, and new libraries began to appear where none had existed before. They served to archive the material. Trailing along behind came the development — or substantial expansion — of the great secondary abstracting and indexing sources. Finally, in response to the massive size of the secondary publications, we saw the development of the first online services.

Today, we stand in another such situation. The problem is exploding quantities of information. Solutions to the Web’s growth may take a different order, but will probably contain much the same components. With the portals and Web search engines, we see the abstracting and indexing. At this point, most of the well-known Web monitors cover all sorts of Web subjects, but we have seen the rise of vertical search engines and the expansion of meta-sites that apply critical judgment to the Web data. Unfortunately, the archiving is not in place. However, once information professionals have identified the quality sources, the archiving could — and should — follow.

So if today’s latest additions to the information profession seem obsessed with the Web, perhaps they have an excuse. And we should salute any professionals willing to take on the task of taming the Web. After all, look at how many of the expensive information vendors have stood aside from facing that task and, instead, keep trying to show us the medal they got 40 years ago for victory over the dreaded post-WWII information explosion. Personally, I’d feel a lot better if the veterans of former wars weren’t still trying to collect combat pay for the war they’re not fighting today.

Hey! How long do you expect one of my editorials to stay conciliatory?!? You must be the new kid on the block!

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