the Bard of Avon were to return from his grave today and look out upon
the state of the World and its Wide Web, what would he say? Methinks, he
would shake his head wisely and sayeth, "TINSTAAFL, TINSTAAFL, aye, there's
the rub." In case you've forgotten, TINSTAAFL stands for "There Is No Such
Thing As A Free Lunch." Words to live — and die — by.
Reality has finally
caught up with the dot-coms and the burn-out continues to wreak havoc.
No longer can one anticipate the appearance of ever newer, ever shinier,
and ever freer Web services and products from outfits dreaming of IPO lottery
winnings. Those seem to have completely disappeared. Now we have trouble
tracking the survival of established services. Even "old-timers," like
that hoary ancient of e-commerce, Amazon, finds financial analysts, computer
industry gurus, and trade press reporters checking the company's vitals
The trouble with
having Reality as an enemy is that the opposition always arrives in force.
Not only do the dot-coms see venture capital and investment funds vanishing,
but dot-coms even find themselves under attack from employees, who have
seen the stock market's writing on the wall and will no longer accept being
paid off in the promissory notes of stock options. And with the downturn
in the economy still not significantly denting unemployment statistics,
dot-com management faces a greater need for quality people than ever, while
it has less ability to give those employees what they want.
So what has all
this to do with the life of the working searcher? Lots. Don't let's kid
ourselves. We all have come to rely on the products and services of the
dot-coms. Sure, we can offer our clients access to commercial services,
but the precipitous drop in intermediated searching indicates that in dealing
with commercial products, most of us these days handle aggregator content
in bulk. We license tons of data; we no longer spend our working days doing
individual searches for each customer, one topic at a time. But basically,
whether we still do some intermediated searches or just book data into
our intranets and train end users locally, most of us spend more time working
with open Web sources than commercial ones. As a rule, we try the Internet
and its Web first and then move on to the "expensive" services if the Web
has not satisfied our needs. In this, we usually parallel the searching
strategies of our end-user clients. Even intermediary searchers these days
find themselves doing primarily, if not exclusively, Web-based searching.
So how does the
dot-com burnout affect us? Well, it increases the critical need for knowledgeable
and aggressive vendor management.
In the old days,
with "the usual suspects" of commercial vendors, our vendors knew us and
we knew them. Heck, most of them were us! Vendors hired staff away
from client organizations, staff that came "trailing clouds of glory" A
K A MLS degrees. In olden days, vendors only had to deal with a handful
of trade and professional associations, a half-dozen major national trade
shows and exhibits, another half-dozen trade publications, and a measured
sales and training operation. With such an approach, vendors could expect
to reach almost every current and potential customer.
On the other side
of the table, professional librarians knew the names and direct dial numbers
of the several dozen vendor representatives with whom they dealt. From
some of those reps, they could expect invitations to major family events
— weddings, christenings, anniversaries ending in zero, etc. Librarians
knew the vendors' product lines, sometimes better than the vendors. Vendor
middle managers would have private lists of customers whom each new hire
should visit as part of vendor staff training. (Remember those visits where
you did all the talking and the kid in the corner just sat wide-eyed? Welcome
to Vendor Training Class 202 and, by the way, you're today's instructor.)
The information pros usually also had a pretty good bird's-eye view of
internal vendor politics. If the info pro didn't know, it was no trouble
to find out — just call a key vendor rep, ask a colleague, or post an inquiry
on a list.
But what happened
when the dot-coms came? No direct sales operation to speak of. No awareness
of the existence of information professionals as a market in most cases.
No advertising in the usual places. No appearances at the usual events.
No nothing...except for free data. But when it came to customer support,
you often got what you paid for.
Well, the dot-com
burnout may have created some opportunities, even some advantages. The
flakier ones with lots of hype and a nickel's worth of data have probably
disappeared or are in theprocess of same. The ones that started with a
reasonable business model, but abandoned it when the market of the last
few years started mailing them winning lottery tickets in UPS trucks, have
begun frantically hunting through their files to find and dust off those
old business models. And, in these harsher times, the new reality has them
turning to models that provide real revenue. Information professionals
remain a market that has always reached for its wallet when acquiring
information. The real dollars that we spend may have looked piddly next
to the funny money of the boom years, but it's looking a lot greener and
goldener (Hello, Sacagawea!) nowadays.
The problem still
lies in the volatility of the marketplace. Information professionals should
try to maximize the leverage their contributions can make. This includes
grouping funds into larger masses. Perhaps some of us might even consider
advising our organizations to take over a dot-com before it fails. Clearly,
only very large organizations with very focused interests would consider
buying an information service, but it is something to think about. More
conservatively, you might consider actions by library consortia or professional
or trade associations.
Perhaps the answer
lies in encouraging friendly commercial vendors to look at new dot-com
services that have proved their value to info pros. Today's information
industry has already taken advantage of the downturn to pick up some bargains.
Unfortunately, some acquisitions seem to have been designed to bury services
that have threatened the status quo. Customers pressing vendors to acquire
specific services may have more influence in seeing the acquirers set policies
of preservation, instead of destructive, Second Millennium retro policies.
But the key to
all this consumer activism is information, information, information. Searchers
must track vendors — both dot-coms and traditionals — closely. They must
know what's happening, hopefully before it happens. Finding out well after
it happens is too late to do anything. Listservs help many information
professionals keep in touch. Also consider routes for tracking press releases,
financial announcements, breaking news from the trade press. Information
Today Inc. has Newsbreaks posted each Monday as well as a Digest summary
of key developments and a Newslink service that will push news to you in
e-mail messages. But we're not the only source, nor are we sufficient.
You should have folders and files regularly monitoring key players.
Don't forget to
cover the "vendors" populating your Bookmarks or Favorites listings. If
you rely on a source for information over and over, then that source qualifies
as a vendor of concern. You should also consider adding the preferred sources
of your end-user clients too. After all, if your clientele's sources suddenly
dried up, they'd come running to you for substitutes. Get ahead of your
You have another
reason for concerning yourself with client sourcing. As the custodial information
professional serving the interests and needs of your clients, you have
to spot when the quality of a source has eroded, even though your clients
may not notice. When some trade press report indicates that a dot-com supplier
has halved their staff, info pros know that something has taken a hit,
and it could be the data. Time to start triple-checking currency, comprehensiveness,
et al. Again, get ahead of your problems.
Sounds like a lot
of work, doesn't it? Well, as the poet snickered, that's why they pay us
the big bucks.