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Magazines > Searcher > February 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 2 — February 2003
The L-Word
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

All great librarians — and there are so many of us, aren't there? — can tell tales of clients who adore them. Reference librarians have the most, of course, since they supply such personalized service. But technical service librarians have their own tales of patrons in awe of their ability to capture a book lost to the ages, to discover the unknown gems that completed the perfect bibliography.

I remember hearing a tale once of such a fan of librarians who got a major executive promotion. Opening the door to a vast expanse of beautiful office space, a veteran corporate officer turned to his new colleague and smilingly informed him that he should start thinking about what he wanted to do with his promotion budget. Apparently, the elevation involved special funds which the promoted could spend on whatever he thought would make his work life more productive. And the company left it to the promoted to decide what that might be — new furniture, artwork, cappuccino maker, even staff. Staff!! The new executive's eyes lit up. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to buy for himself what he never thought he would have — his own librarian. Turning to his secretary, he told her to find out where you shopped for librarians and how much they cost. When she returned with the information, he looked at the dollar figures in shock. "Is that all?!," he said. "Buy two!"

That tale stuck in my mind as a reminder of what a good deal we are, how much bang for the buck we offer. Alright. Alright. It also reminds one of how underpaid we are. But lately, with all the challenges to our profession, I've thought of it in terms of employment. What would a single individual do with two librarians? Any executive perspicacious enough to perceive the singular value of librarians would never be silly enough to waste one on performing tasks others with less unique qualifications could perform. No "gofer" duties. But most librarians can handle numerous clients. How would one spend one's time serving just one client? And how on earth would two librarians serve just one client?

Let's think. Well, first, the lead librarian would examine all the information-seeking behavior of the adored one. An information audit would only be the beginning — checking out all the files the executive created and how the files were built, the timing of the creation, the gathering of data, the e-mail messages and Post-it notes that went to staff requesting info, interviews with secretaries and researchers and contacts. (One can only hope that he never finds out that the new security measures the librarian advocated include a tiny camera in the corner of his office, one which only the librarian and a guard whose hiring the librarian suggested can access.) Then there's the long series of conversations with the executive — some semi-official surveys, some personal histories, some just drinks at the bar.

Of course, throughout the research process, the librarian will also handle questions the executive knows he needs answered. But the real accomplishment of the executive librarian will come after the completion of an extended analysis of the executive's patterns of information acquisition and processing. Then the librarian will recommend an upgrade. Most of the recommended changes will involve subtle shifts that the executive may not even notice as the librarian builds more efficient interfaces, adds and subtracts content flows, tweaks and turns the executive's information toolkit. The goal — as always with modern librarianship — is to move the data mountain, not to move Mohammed, i.e., not to force the executive to learn any new techniques unless absolutely necessary and then with as little effort as possible.

Wonderful, huh? But what's the second librarian doing? Well, any executive who can afford two librarians must have significant managerial duties, a large staff of people reporting to them, including high-paid knowledge workers. So as the primary librarian begins to change the executive's life into a dream of efficiency and successful application of information resources, the far-sighted executive will realize what wonders librarians could achieve for others in the company. So the executive assigns the second librarian to start spreading the sunshine. First, he loans the librarian to deprived colleagues, but quickly stops that practice! Being a team player is one thing, but sharing the best tool anyone could devise for moving up another rung on the corporate ladder is just a little too self-effacing. Let colleagues get their own librarians! And they do, as they watch their Johnny Jump-Up colleague showing off at executive board meetings!

With colleagues starting to catch up with their own needs to hire librarians, the executive moves quickly to pass his second librarian to key managers reporting to him. Those managers in turn gather key personnel together and request improvements across work groups. Now the second librarian has to hire more librarians to take on the new duties corporate-wide.

And pretty soon, librarians, librarians, librarians, everywhere you look. (All subscribing to Searcher magazine!) Best of all, none of them will be seen as custodians of any particular format or indeed of specific information sources of any kind. Instead, we will be seen for what we truly are — custodians of clients.

So what will the "L" in "Librarian" stand for then?

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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