by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
“Times have changed,” intones the commercial.
Apparently, Match.com has data establishing that one out of five “relationships” now start online. Hmm. Wonder where it got that stat? Times may have changed, but it’s still hard for me to believe that the Census Bureau would employ such a fuzzy term as “relationship” in its questionnaires. But TV commercials never lie, so I guess times have changed.
I had a striking lesson recently on just how completely times have changed. I ran into a little medical crisis. (Don’t ask. The details are just too dreary to recount.) Actually, my definition of a medical crisis used to be any time I might even consider going to a doctor. My last crisis was 6 years ago and the visit I made to that physician was the first I had made in a quarter-century. That check-up established that I was immortal, justifying my avoidance of health professionals. After all, why pester doctors who should be busy healing mere mortals?
But this latest crisis did involve a serious array of health professionals — a general physician, several specialists, nurses, pharmacists, case managers, physical therapists, insurance agents, home health care … AARRGGHHH!!!
So what does this have to do with the interests of information professionals? Watching the information-gathering of my home healthcare nursing aide was eye-opening. She went zooming in and out of one website after another, gathering general advice on medical conditions, specific advice on health equipment, diet, medications, etc., shopping info on where to buy or rent items, geographic maps on how to get to nearby facilities, and on and on. I’m not even mentioning the times she did her own personal research. Finally, in a pathetic attempt to assist her masterful foraging, I loaned her my iPad. Until then she had been doing all this work on her smartphone. By the way, my new concierge physician uses his BlackBerry to monitor my recovery.
While I feel sure that my “caretaker” has a fine background in nursing, I doubt that she had any substantial training in information retrieval. It’s become something that people just do, motivated and energized by personal interest, not by any formal professional commitment to information-handling specifically.
Online information gathering is just so damn normal these days! I tell you, it makes any vendor using a strategy of denial of service (“Pay me or else”) seem so out of it. Even if the vendor relies on OPM (Other People’s Money), with the data looking free to the end users, such as databases licensed to academic libraries, how will these end users transition to a post-campus content delivery that requires users to pay?
Even efforts to impose academic standards on information gathering may backfire. An academic librarian told me the other day about a student refusing to use a licensed database because the professor had warned the class not to use the web. She tried to convince him that the professor hadn’t meant library licensed databases, but the web was the web to the student.
No, these days, the conduct of online searches depends entirely on will and interest. Even those who resist the pull of the internet cannot help searching. Further investigation showed that my caregiver’s prowess began when she acquired a computer for her daughters and determined to avoid a future filled with rolling eyes and, “Oh, Mom, re-a-lly,” by learning to use it herself. But I have two friends who take a different attitude. One is a technological minimalist. She considers hours spent in front of the screen wasted time, specifically mentioning reading email. That seemed shockingly unfriendly to the people with whom she corresponded, which would include distant family. But further inquiry revealed that though she started the screen time to read her email, she kept getting distracted and let one trivial curiosity after another turn into time-consuming web work.
We ancients who were present at the creation of online may find this brave new world a little daunting. Whatever happened to the people who needed our help to get anything out of online databases? Where are the snows of yesteryear? Yet we can be proud of sticking by our commitment to online through all those difficult and thorny early years. I can remember the cruel disappointment I felt when IBM issued its first PC into the consumer market and omitted to add a modem to the package. I remember mourning that online access should be the main reason for the average Joe/Jo to buy a personal computer. That failure may have delayed the advance of online for a decade.
But it’s here now. It’s everywhere. The dawn of the new day we all worked and prayed for has come and gone. Though high noon may not have arrived yet, mid-morning certainly has. And we who waited through the dark can take a certain modest pride in every search Joe/Jo is conducting.