by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Aahh — sweet memories of the good old days, the dear dead days of yore. Actually, when you look a little closer, those old days sometimes turn out to be a little less attractive, sometimes even more like a Purgatory than a pre-snake Garden of Eden. Closer looks can challenge one’s settled notions as well as one’s memories. For example, have you ever thought that international terrorism may have its upside in comparison with what preceded it? Look at the Vietnam War or the Korean War. The latter was called a “police action” but involved full-scale military battles. Look at the casualty and damage count for 9-11. Awful? Horrible? Appalling? Of course. But in terms of “real” wars, a walk in the park. Bombers — from either side of the English Channel — would have considered those kinds of casualty and damage numbers a very poor daily performance in everyone’s favorite “good war” — World War II. In a sense, the problem with terrorism is that it actually is more a criminal activity than a military one and requires a true “police action” to deal with it. One no longer goes to war with a nation, one deals with gangs, collections of overly well-armed individuals.
But let’s get back to happier thoughts of happier days. Veteran searchers recall the days when all searches were intermediated ones. No matter how eagerly the earliest online vendors tried to entice end users with their primitive online services, they couldn’t lure end users to spend the time and energy and money needed to climb the steep learning curve. But they sure did try. I can remember an ad program put out by Dialog when it was still owned by Lockheed Aircraft that boasted how using its service would mean you would never have to bother going to a library again. Wow! Did Dialog suppress that ad quickly!! I always wondered how a service that only carried bibliographic citations — and, of those, only a few with abstracts — thought the user was supposed to take advantage of search results if they never had a library get them the actual articles or books to read. Well, logic and marketing have never necessarily been joined at the hip.
Today end-user searching completely dominates the world of searching. And we veteran searchers can take pride that we kept
on plugging away at serving clients and spreading the word about the wonders of online until the web revolution could finally bring it to everyone. Of course, these days the disruptive force of search has destabilized the traditional content provision that underlay the services we once used with such panache. Open access threatens established scholarly journals. Although many librarians would relish seeing scholarly publishers finally get a richly deserved come-uppance (images of hellfire and brimstone may even come to mind), the fact is that scholarly communication needs stable and established quality confirmation and archiving. But these days, more and more people are thinking of ways to do that without traditional publishers. For newspaper publishers, the world is even more tenuous, with much less of a safety net than scholarly content.
So in a world where even the content sources we have relied upon and specialized in retrieving have begun to vanish or morph into all-digital formats locatable through the Great God Google, has the intermediated searcher gone the way of the American bison? Have info pros become a niche profession, restricted to collectors of odd services — like personal valets or nannies — and utterly vulnerable in hard economic times when self-indulgence becomes unaffordable? Well, if you look at what’s happening to news librarians, you might well think so. Many of those still employed have left the “library” or “research department” and gone into the newsroom or technical support divisions under new job titles. Are they doing the same work? We’ll see. Whatever they’re doing, I’m sure their backgrounds as librarians will make them uniquely qualified.
However, some areas of knowledge remain uniquely suited to intermediated searching. Patents, of course, come first to the mind for “money searching” assignments. Searching patent literature without a professional patent searcher at the helm would be the act of a certifiable moron, an accident waiting to happen, a tragedy in the making. The only people who would look on such amateur efforts with any enjoyment would be patent lawyers who would, as the poet says, be doing lazy circles in the sky.
Competitive intelligence and data set work also come to mind. While much of the knowledge used in such efforts comes from the open web, as much comes from the hidden web and special sources. Data sets require careful handling. One has to avoid the fruit salad that mixes apples and oranges. One has to check for bias and avoid pretty but simplistic solutions. Again, when serious matters are at stake, you don’t use amateurs. A colleague of mine was once pressed by a client to produce a comparative review table for a specific type of financial instrument. She told the client she would get to work on his research as soon as she finished two projects for other clients. He huffed and puffed his way off. Two hours later, he pranced back to announce that he no longer needed her help. He had found the answer on his own. And so he had — a lovely spreadsheet table with all the product names neatly typed and rows of evaluative criteria checked off. It was probably just my colleague’s narrow-minded jealousy of his web searching prowess that led her to point out that the source at the bottom of the lovely table was a vendor of that particular instrument and — wonder of wonders! — that the vendor’s products always scored highest.
But that’s not all that info pros can do to earn their keep. In the course of writing this column, I got to discussing the topic with another colleague, Donna Cohen of D.L. Cohen Information Services. She had worked with the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) in developing a service survey. She inspired me to expand the list of money tasks well beyond searching, for example, the management of all kinds of information including documents and records; website development, design, and usability testing; information needs assessments and audits; library development; digitization projects; etc. To quote Searcher Cohen, “Info pros do sooooo much more than research.”
Now if only we could get the message out to the whole wide world, life could get very, very interesting … and maybe even more remunerative.