by Barbara Quint
Well, if we’re not going to do what we’ve always done, or if our justification for doing whatever we do has to change to work effectively, what will we do then, and how will it fit into someone else’s budgeting plans? That is the problem before us. Solving it would ensure the survival and better than survival of our profession. So let’s start working the problem.
First, let’s shake off the blues, the depressing fantasy that we information professionals, we librarians, have failed and have no future. We’ve got to stop asking the question, “Would you send your child to library school?” followed by a mournful negative shake of the head and a deep, noisy sigh. We’ve got to stop thinking of our future as something someone else may not allow us to have. Instead, what do we want to see happen? What do we want to do with our talents and energy and experience and principled commitment? After all, it is those qualities — talent, energy, experience, principles, and commitment — that brought the world to where it is today, to the Information Age. As long as we have those qualities in us, we can make a new future both as individuals and as a profession.
Second, what do people need done now that they may have not needed in the past? Well, in the good old/bad old days, people needed information they didn’t have and most likely didn’t know how to get. If they were wise and diligent, they turned to information professionals, librarians, to get that information. When online arrived, those info pros/librarians were the intermediaries to tapping the ever-expanding collection of online resources. Most of those resources were formerly print-only items moving into digital. Librarians were familiar with the good sources in one format and moved smoothly into the new format. With the arrival of the internet and its web, the number of sources didn’t just explode, it went nuclear.
So now the biggest problem potential clients have to wrestle with is not information scarcity, but information overload. If you could assure a client or a client community that with your help, they would never again have to open an email box and find one single useless, time-consuming message, much less spam, nor ever again feel the rushing waters of a social network stream lapping about their neck or even their knees — well, if you could back that claim, you’d have something to sell. And if you could combine freeing clients from the online monkeys on their backs with the delivery of quality and only quality sources tooled to deliver specific answers for specific questions and — at least as important — the specific questions clients need to ask as well — WOW (Winners Of the World),
Individuals will tattoo your cellnumber on the palms of their hands. Companies will name their productivity of the year awards after you. Governments will compete to hire the most talented and most respected members of the profession. OK, OK. I may be overstating the case just a bit, but I still think there’s an attractive service role there, attractive enough to draw money to our sides.
And if we aim ourselves at this role, we have some advantages. For one, the problems are persistent. The need for the service will not go away as more and more digital services and sources keep arising. Just look at mobile apps or speech recognition and generation technologies and how they have multiplied the load. And there will always be more and more users and changes in the lives and abilities of established users. Of course, we will face competition from vendors selling their services, but here we still have the advantage of our traditional professional commitment to the interests of clients over vendors, even vendors of free services, maybe even one whose name starts with a G. For one thing, our clear orientation is to see people use less online, just the right stuff online. Of course, once we give people what they want and need and eliminate any waste of their time and energy, they’ll probably go online even more. We may face competition from other specialist information professionals, but maybe the enemy will be us or at least someone we can hire. It’s the information profession we are defending, not just librarians.
So how do we do all this? By providing more personal, more tailored services based on researching and understanding the needs of individuals. (Here comes that Information Audit idea again from last month’s Searcher’s Voice entitled “The Doctor Is In.”) By integrating studies of individual needs with institutional goals and programs. By becoming expert in all the tools and technologies available today and tomorrow to filter and reduce information flow constructively. By negotiating with vendors for prefiltered services or products that integrate with output reduction tools. And, most importantly of all, by networking with colleagues both within and outside our institutions as to every advance, every new tool or technique, every insight into serving a particular type of client community, every library school program, conference, or webinar on relevant subjects, and every talented potential hire on the marketplace.
Why is networking the most important factor? There are several reasons. If this thing takes off, our services will no longer be passive — waiting for someone to come to us. They will be dynamic with aggressive, door-to-door marketing. Public libraries will start the process by marketing the service to all senior government staff. From there, it will go to local business and social leaders. And from there, to the populace as a whole. Though individual auditing will be an option and create the knowledgebase underlying the service, ways to consolidate the efforts must emerge with individual service tweaking and customization of the overall effort. To do this successfully and for the betterment of the profession, we have to use the opportunity to break the chains of ZIP code constituencies. The techniques and tools will work for different types of client communities in different ways. Solid networking will ensure that we do not keep reinventing the wheel. It will let us find the talent and experience needed for any task and link it up. Those linkings will educate each of us into what other colleagues have learned and applied with whatever consequences for whatever clientele.
Many, many years ago, I heard a story about a corporate manager who got promoted to a corporate executive position. The policy of his company was to offer people promoted to his new level a menu of perks — window office, new advanced equipment, etc. This executive — no flies on him! — told his secretary to find out what a librarian cost. She did. And when she told him, he shouted, “Really? Buy two!” Well, these are tough times. So maybe now he’ll only get one. One for him and one for every other executive and one for each department and one for each major client and one for each major client’s executives and …
Are we having fun yet?