by Barbara Quint
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
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 email@example.com.