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Magazines > Searcher > April 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 4 — April 2004
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Many years ago — decades actually — I had my first encounter with problems of governance. How long ago was it? At the dawn of online. A librarian colleague at a division of one of the world's largest banks told me that she couldn't get her bosses to approve subscribing to online services. Each time she got a request for an online search, she had to ask staff at the headquarters library to conduct it. Now this put the librarian in the position of either having searches done by people who hadn't interviewed the requester or of turning over a good client to a reference interviewer with no perceivable connection to her in-house library. Neither alternative would particularly encourage the growth of interest by her clientele in online services from her. Nor was either alternative likely to produce the quick turnaround in research responsiveness that was then, and still remains, one of online's most attractive qualities.

What else could she do? Well, there was one more alternative. She could bootleg a search from the legal library. Of course, the legal library was not equipped with all the database services she needed, but it was run by friends and was only two stories upstairs from her library. The problem was that the legal library had a mandate not to serve anyone in the building but the bank's lawyers. So she ended up hiding her "connection," ducking into the stacks if anyone who might squeal on her came around, calling ahead to see if the coast was clear, reformatting the results to delete tell-tale online source identification.

When I first heard the story, I remember thinking how ridiculous this was. After all, both libraries were supposed to serve the same firm. And, speaking of ridiculous, why should online searching be restricted to the headquarters library? Vendors would only have to supply an extra set of passwords to the branch libraries. Of course, this was back in the days before subscription pricing to enterprises where licensing agreements can confine access to specific facilities and specific hardwired network outlets.

Some years later, I heard of a situation where one vendor had taken advantage of governance confusion to sell their services to five separate divisions of an aerospace company in Southern California. Each division was paying an annual subscription fee plus usage costs. The happy situation (for the vendor) stopped after the company's librarians got together at a collegial lunch, compared notes, and began raising holy hell with the vendor's local manager. At this point, online had become popular enough to have advocates scattered across a company organization chart, advocates in a position to sign orders for services, but not educated enough in the wiles of online vendors to check with their librarians.

Back to the future. Here we are in the Third Millennium and the problems of governance have multiplied. Online vendors may have expanded licensing strategies to encompass telecommuters and road warriors, rather than limiting enterprise subscriptions to the office-bound, but they often find ways to circumvent corporate librarians and sell their wares to the unwary. And, sad to say, information professionals usually do not have a clear corporate mandate that would block those attempts.

Now, when online has become a universal presence, luring one and all to believe in its comprehensive coverage and simplicity of use, now more than ever before, end-user searchers need the help of information professionals. No longer to do the searches, but to make sure the searches done are effective. We need to be in a position to guarantee that everyone gets the best they can get. We need to have that role identified with our profession. The problems we need to solve and need to be seen to solve are all around us — pushing high-quality sources into the digital line of sight of our clients, digitizing offline archives, integrating search access to internal and external data, pressuring vendors to carve answers out of mounds of data, supporting the re-creation of scholarly communication, and more and more.

Most of the problems we face will demand a lot of leverage to solve. Most of them will extend to many institutions and myriad user groups. The world of problems we face stretches across the world, or at least the nation. None of them will respond best to isolated, individual action. Solutions will need a lot of pushing and a lot of pushers.

But with problems coming at us globally, most of us have governance situations that confine us to ZIP code solutions. Our governance limits us to serving the interests of specific clienteles — only this state, only this city, only this suburb; only this company, only this division, only this branch office; only this university, only this department, only this faculty project.

For centuries, the concept of universal service to all has been the impossible dream of librarians, the unreachable ideal. Now technology has brought us the opportunity to make that dream a reality. But our governance reins us in, holds us back, keeps us from reaching up and out to that grand goal. We must find ways of breaking out of the restraints. Some have already begun. Many heads of large research libraries have projects underway that explode beyond university boundaries. Library consortia have long linked acquisition and access beyond cities and townships. The Library of Congress and OCLC have launched a nationwide virtual reference support service in QuestionPoint.

Bottom line: Universal access to the world of online information is coming. The only question is whether it will come with all the good stuff on top, at the best price achievable, and usable by everyone who needs it. To reach that best of all possible worlds will take the coordinated action of knowledgeable and dedicated information professionals, preferably those knowledgeable about the needs of end users everywhere and dedicated to serving those needs first and foremost. This coordinated action cannot take place effectively if we have to sneak it by our management. We need governance as committed to the grand vision as we are.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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