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
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
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
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
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."