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Magazines > Searcher > February 2006
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Vol. 14 No. 2 — Feb 2006
COLUMN
What's next
by David Grossman | Independent Writer

"Don't tell me libraries won't exist in the future," quipped a colleague when she learned I was writing a column for Searcher magazine about the future of librarians. Before I had even put my fingers to the keyboard to write my first sentence, I was already receiving strong, unsolicited feedback. And what did it mean? Was my colleague saying that I shouldn't say libraries won't exist in the future because she disagrees with the prediction? Or was she afraid to face an uncertain future devoid of printed books, where everything she's ever learned in 20 years of library work will have flown out the window?

Perhaps a combination of both scenarios compelled this librarian to burst my balloon before it ever left the ground. But that librarian isn't alone. She is in good company with many other custodians of the book who echo her feelings. How do I know? A couple of years ago I was in the grand ballroom at the New York Hilton watching a proposed name change for the Special Libraries Association go down to defeat. In a bitter argument that raged for years and still continues today, more than one-third of the librarians present displayed their unwillingness to let the "L" word go from their identities. This thwarted an effort that required a two-thirds majority approval to change the name of the organization to Information Professionals International or simply shorten Special Libraries Association to SLA.

All that fuss over a silly word. I wondered why it mattered so much to some people. My first act as a solo librarian in a small chemical company was to change my title from corporate librarian to information specialist and the library to the information center. That small title change almost 30 years ago may have been ahead of its time, but it increased the perceived value of my function and launched me on a lucrative career path, which most people describe as an "alternative career" for a librarian. Over the next quarter of a century, I went from practitioner to vendor to database creator to Web site manager and more in a variety of settings. Although I never worked again in a traditional library after that initial job, every subsequent position involved creating, managing, or distributing information. And each new position was accompanied by a substantial rise in compensation.

If anyone were to remake the 1967 movie The Graduate today, I am certain that the word that friend of the family would whisper in Dustin Hoffman's ear would be "information," not "plastics." Information has always been a vital component in our lives, whether a formula for a new drug to fight cancer, the passenger list on a flight from Paris to New York, or the recipe for tonight's dinner. But these days, when people have questions, they don't climb into their cars and drive to libraries; they turn to Google.

Though many librarians now work with virtual or digital libraries, that doesn't necessarily indicate the demise of the book. Television did not replace radio, and books have survived the onslaught of audio tapes, video tapes, CDs, DVDs, and more. With the rise of the Internet, the role of the book may change and even diminish, but I believe both media will coexist in the future.

However, it is important to recognize that much of the compilation, organization, management, and dissemination of information is currently happening outside the walls of the traditional library and that this phenomenon will continue to proliferate.

You Can't Go Home Again

In recent years, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, has changed its School of Library Science to the School of Information, and my Master of the Arts in Library Science degree has been replaced by a Master of Science in Information. Other library schools are following suit. The students emerging from these programs today are equipped to enter the work force in a much wider variety of jobs than their M.L.S. predecessors. The skills I had to garner in my succession of jobs are being taught directly to those graduating from these information programs today. For myself and others of my generation who fell into employment in "nontraditional" roles for a librarian, our evolution was more of a series of accidents than a planned career path. I was recruited by an online services vendor after I had earned my stripes as a practitioner. This gave me the ability to explain, demonstrate, and teach online searching to people who had never tried it before.

From enlisting and training online searchers, I moved next to a traditional publisher, Marquis Who's Who, that wanted to jump on the online bandwagon and make its traditional reference books accessible in an online format. The world of online databases had now morphed into the field of electronic publishing and is on the forefront of a rush to put the world's greatest reference sources online.

After launching an online version of the Who's Who books as Dialog File 234 and on a few other online services of the day, I fell next into the world of nonbibliographic databases with map and atlas publisher Rand McNally. Graphics software was quite new and still very rudimentary in the late 1980s. Creating electronic maps was certainly very different from converting a printed biographic directory into a searchable database. But the skills used in constructing biographic databases and in understanding the fundamentals of online retrieval provided a foundation that made me a logical candidate to tackle the project. The products I developed with Rand McNally were early versions of global positioning databases and systems, like those that power directional products such as MapQuest and the navigation systems deployed in many automobiles today.

Along the way, one of my bosses encouraged me to return to school to get an M.B.A. from Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. That business degree definitely improved my earning power and made it easier to find new jobs, but it was the underlying information management and organization skills acquired in my library training and subsequent database development work that separated me from the rest of the pack of information-deprived M.B.A. grads.

Following my stint at Rand McNally, where I also developed databases and retrieval software for both highway and railroad travel, I moved on to the airline industry. At that time, airlines had begun opening their computer systems to the public and allowing travelers to make their own flight reservations, access their frequent flier accounts, or obtain real-time information on the status of flight departures and arrivals.

Once again, information management skills made me the ideal candidate to build intuitive systems that consumers with no prior exposure to online search and retrieval could really use. Still, in the pre-Internet era, airlines had to partner with CompuServe or other online gateways to allow users to dial into airline mainframe systems through a personal computer and a modem.

In time, those clunky old dial-up online products migrated onto the Internet and their popularity soared. Once again, information organization, management, and retrieval skills were vital in the process of migrating tools to airline Web sites and managing what became electronic commerce services. Though still steeped in information management, my career had now gone far afield from my traditional library roots. The airlines I worked for had no idea that the most important asset they had purchased in hiring me to develop consumer travel booking systems had its foundation firmly planted in the library world. Other airlines that hired internal candidates to run their Web sites and online systems often launched products with fatal flaws because they did not understand the principles of information access.

Let me share one of my favorite examples of a faux pas due to a lack of understanding of information search and retrieval fundamentals. One airline loaded all the airports in the country into its consumer access online reservation system without any relational information or clues to help the user determine the correct airport to use. If a geographically challenged consumer selected the Detroit City Airport, for example, the system told him that there were no flights to Detroit, because it wasn't smart enough to know that most commercial airlines fly into Detroit Metropolitan Airport 25 miles away, while the Detroit City Airport is mainly used for general and private aviation.

To ‘L' or Not to ‘L'

My Web-based travel booking products automatically solved this taxonomy problem by retrieving flights from all nearby airports associated with that city or region, so that the user wasn't baffled by the return of a null set. Today, most online travel booking products have finally figured this out. But once again, even though I may have known nothing about the airline industry, my library skills helped create products that worked for users.

Had I tried to explain the value of my library/online background to any of my employers, they would
not have understood what I was talking about, because, as we all know, most people only associate libraries with that nice, but not necessary, neighborhood branch public library. As long as that gap exists between the popular view of librarians and the actual skills of the folks who are information and database experts, the more likely potential employers will skip over folks who cling to the "L" word.

I'm not trying to eliminate the "L" word and I don't ever see it completely going away. But that "traditional" library image will continue to leave too many talented people earning traditionally low librarian salaries and with limited employment opportunities. Those who embrace the information umbrella will be able to go much further and do much more for the users who need their talent and commitment.

Fortunately, things are changing in the academic and professional worlds. The University of Michigan and other information schools are educating employers on the skill set of the graduates they are now cranking out. Hopefully, these potential employers will begin to understand that they need someone with a solid information management background and will know where to find one of those individuals. The career that I happened upon by accident will become one of many new traditional paths for the new information school grads and anyone else in the former "L" profession who wants to follow that lead.

Here We Go

With that background in mind, the purpose of this column is to shed light on functions formerly outside the realm of traditional librarian jobs that now fit the definition of a mainstream career for an information professional. Some columns will explore a particular information role or function, from research to reference, consultant to cataloger, intranet manager to indexer, and everything in between. In some columns, those who have made the transition into the new mainstream roles for an information professional will detail their experiences and offer advice for those contemplating similar career moves. In other columns, experts or opinion leaders in the information field will be called upon to discuss their visions of the future and what practitioners will need to do to make the transition into these new roles. And finally, some columns will present controversial issues, such as the effect of blogging or the impact of the digitization of libraries by outfits like Google and the Open Content Alliance. All the discussions will focus on the future of information, because the field of information is the future of librarians. And that's "What's Next."      

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