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Magazines > Searcher > March 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 3 — March 2004
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

So the information profession is at a crisis point and the future holds only a horizon filled with crisis points. So now what do we do? Well, before we all book passage to Jonestown and order up the Kool-Aid, let's take one giant step back and see if there's a possible upside to the new developments looming over our profession.

By the way, did you know that there are competitive recipes for Jonestown Kool-Aid in circulation? One involves Stoli strawberry vodka, sour mix, Grape Pucker (whatever that is), and 7-Up; the other uses Southern Comfort, Amaretto, and Cranberry Juice. Yech. Oh yes, if you don't recall the Jonestown massacre (11/18/1978) — or want the specifics on the drink recipes — just go to...well, you know where to go, where everybody you know goes these days for information, where everybody in the world will soon be going.

The tasks of selecting, acquiring, storing, and insuring access to print or print equivalents, such as microform or digital copies of print publications, seems clearly doomed to a declining role in the future. With more and more people — including our bosses — getting more and more comfortable with seeking information online and finding it adequate, the budgets for acquiring expensive information seem more and more irrelevant and endangered, especially as the use of the free information exceeds the use of the expensive. And, to tell the truth, question for question, none of us information professionals can guarantee that the expensive sources will do a better job than the free ones, which could explain why we all tend to start our searches with the freebie tools too. Now don't deny it!

In a sense, we professional searchers are a victim of our success. For years, we have urged the world to go online. Now the world has done so. So who needs us to tell them? And who needs us to conduct their searches any more? Is the end inevitable? Probably. In any case, as we remarked in last month's editorial, when it comes to even the most futuristic definition of a library, there will be fewer, though bigger and better, libraries around.

In the heart of every lemon is a dream of lemonade. Where's the sweet side in this nightmare? Well, we all should have a lot more free time. Free...what a nice word. Free. Free to do what? What about free to do the things we've never had the time or resources to do before? (And I don't mean retirement.) What about free to do the things that will need doing most as the New Information World Order continues to change the world we have known?

For example, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could unify the delivery formats of all the information in our charge? Government document librarians have GPO Access et al. bringing federal documents online. Academic librarians have converted a good portion of their serial collections to digital, with more going that way. Corporate librarians have tied in-house networks to collections of business and professional online sources. But what about books? You can't have a library without books (she lied glibly). Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could provide digital copies of all the books we had acquired? Wouldn't it be especially wonderful if we didn't have to pay publishers again (and again and again) for digital copies? So why don't we work out contract or licensing arrangements that guarantee expanded access to the full text of books on Amazon, more access than Amazon's current narrow focus allows, but contingent upon our buying the books? Perhaps Amazon would be satisfied with our buying the books through them to cover the additional costs involved; perhaps Amazon would require a nominal (!) surcharge or institutional subscription. In any case, Amazon would probably appreciate the library community putting pressure on publishers to join its supply chain gang for full text. We might come out of this with a unified, almost all-digital (at least for current material) collection at a reasonable price using search interfaces already familiar to our end-user clients.

What else? Well, as more and more answer products emerge from the sophisticated text-mining breakthroughs underway — especially small but critical "answers" fed into the tiny interfaces of PDAs, wireless gadgetry, and other evolving hardware — someone is going to have to check out its accuracy and relevance. The practicalities involved in judging accuracy and relevance necessitate detailed understanding of the information needs and usage patterns of users. For example, market researchers may not need to know any more about a drug, like Nexium, than that it comes in purple ("the purple pill called Nexium" — all those TV ads and I still haven't figured out what it claims to cure). Pharmaceutical researchers or health professionals may need a lot more technical information and their requests for that information may not even use the term Nexium. Understanding the changing and evolving needs of client communities will become the new institutional form of reference interview, an ongoing in-depth examination that never stops. Or shouldn't, anyway, if information professionals want to continue practicing.

Anything else? How about integration of all sources — internal and external — and an integration that incorporates those quality criteria determining accuracy and relevance? Now that we have more time to spend away from acquiring external material, we information professionals have time to work with internal sources. No longer should we leave company archives and intranet-based data flows to IT departments that may view the tasks involved from a technological perspective, rather than from the info pro's perspectives of content quality and client needs. With our wider view of external sources in our fields, we may even recognize some opportunities to use the information itself as a possible revenue source. For example, the head librarian at Stanford University also manages the university press and Highwire Press, a journal database aggregator service.

You want more? Education comes to mind. We could work to integrate distance education and in-house training with library-owned or -delivered content. We could develop or acquire reference material for attachment to our content that might assist users to "get up to speed" in an area. Besides external training, we could link users back to their own information professionals for private tutoring service, to avoid any possible embarrassment in front of peers.

Hey, you know, this is kind of fun? If you don't look down and stop seeing the ground hurtling toward you, if you keep your eye on the sky and practice some fancy aerobatic moves, skydiving is incredibly exhilarating.


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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