Long Thoughts, Big Dreams
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
There’s an old saying in the aviation field: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are NO old, bold pilots.” And there’s a lot of truth in that wise warning. It brings to mind the tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his two passengers. Why didn’t he cancel the flight when a passenger’s late arrival pushed back the flight time? Did he somehow think his beauty, wealth, and fame would let him negotiate his way out of the dangers of nightfall with a plane and pilot not equipped to handle them?
But then I got to thinking of Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Legend has it that 2 days before his historic 1947 flight, he broke two ribs and concealed the injury despite the pain and disabling effects to make sure the Air Force didn’t replace him. A buddy rigged up a broom handle to use as a lever so Yeager could get the hatch closed. Now some might consider that a pretty bold pilot, but Yeager flew for 60 years, so he definitely qualifies as an old pilot. I think it’s a matter of defining bold. With years of wartime experience as a fighter pilot and more years as a test pilot for all kinds of airplanes and jets, he knew how to handle risks. He knew his abilities based on experience and expertise. But there was something more. He knew that the mission itself was a bold one, one deserving the taking of risks, even great risks. And, after all, he was in a bold business, where the trick was learning enough and working hard enough at one’s trade to get away with boldness. Yeager had “The Right Stuff” (and I recommend the movie of the same name).
So what do all these musings and historical anecdotes have to do with the life of Third Millennium information professionals? Good question. It leads us to more musings. For years now, I have wondered about Google — specifically, why we info pros, we librarians, we information industry veterans, didn’t invent Google ourselves. I can understand why we didn’t invent the internet — awfully techy and more focused on communication than information at the start. I can even understand why we didn’t invent the web — again awfully techy and not text-y enough at the start. But by the time Google came along, it was pretty clear how vital the internet had become, how pervasive the web was becoming, and how essential accessing the information flowing through the web had become already and would grow in the future.
So why not us? First, not our job. Even today, most of us still see ourselves as serving a specific master, a specific institution with specific goals and members. Solving the problems of the world — or the World Wide Web — was beyond our job description or the expectations of our employers. Then, of course, even among the more farsighted and visionary of our number, there was probably the eternal fear of failure. Starting our own firms to do something new didn’t come naturally to us. For those of us in information industry firms already, discussions about the future of the web might make interesting topics for staff meetings, but the idea of doing something without a firm idea of where the money was coming from — well, advocating such nonsense might mean a quick trip to the personnel department for an exit interview. (“And tell me, Soon-to-Be Ex-Employee X, when did you start thinking that the company had decided to become a charitable institution?”)
But one possible explanation for our lack of foresight I still doubt. We may not have known how to do what Google did or have the sense of destiny that it was our job to do it. But we did know it needed doing. We did know that success in such a venture would make for a better world. The thing that’s always impressed me about the early days of Google’s history in particular is that it saw what people needed and gave it to them and expected or hoped that the funding would come later. This also explains Microsoft’s slow entry into internet development. The ancient prejudice against doing anything for free persisted as it did in the information industry. But information professionals, particularly librarians, have a professional ethic that inspires service to as wide a range as possible. Unfortunately, our institutional limits, our ZIP code constituencies can tie us to limited service to limited clienteles even today.
But here we are in a Google world. Here we are in a Facebook and Twitter and social networking world. Here we are in a mobile computing world where smartphones and iPads bring not just text but streaming video to hands holding the devices in homes and offices and street corner cafes and airport waiting areas and anywhere you can name. Here we are in a world where people expect to get any information they need or want and practically any entertainment they prefer, both at a moment’s notice without any particular effort. They not only don’t want to wait for a library to open its doors, they don’t want to leave their current location. They want round-the-clock service, fast and accurate and easy-to-use as defined by their own usability standards.
We’ve got to give it to them and on their terms. We’ve got to turn the word “library” from a noun describing a place or an institution to a verb describing a function or an app. The verb has got to mean finding the best information on a subject. It’s got to mean archiving information safely and permanently. It’s got to mean reaching out to qualified information professionals for the essential support and protection of users’ interests only we supply.
We need to network our skills using all the latest and coming technologies to ensure the best value to users everywhere. We need to build on those skills, acquiring new expertise ourselves or hiring the expertise we need from others. We need to build a Librarians’ Seal of Approval that means something to the world. We need to see ourselves as serving the world and not just narrow clienteles.
And we need to get started now. There’s no time left to waste.