Vol.8, No. 10 • Nov/Dec 2000
More or Less
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

I’m not happy. And I don’t know any professional searcher who is these days, at least not while we’re practicing our profession. This whole information revolution thing is way out of hand. It’s always too much or too little. We’re loping across the great prairie wearing our cowboy hats and riding our PC Cayuses, but when the dust of the trail clears, either we can’t get a glass of milk from a whole herd of cows or the foreman announces that from now on we’ll be herding cats. Now there’s a skill I’d like to acquire!

This isn’t the first information revolution I’ve seen close up. My tenure in the profession is long enough for me to at least remember sitting around the campfire hearing tales of the Post-WWII Information Explosion. Of course, that explosive revolution occurred in a confined arena, science and technology, and the solution to the problems came from the same area, to wit, computer technology. The solvers of the problems tended to come from one sector, the not-for-profit one, made up of the federal government, scholarly societies, academe, and libraries. Together they managed to build the bibliographic and document delivery infrastructures needed to identify and deliver scholarship and the educational environments needed to create new users.

Today’s revolution is global. It covers all information and all information users. It serves the expert and the amateur and the bone ignorant all at the same time with the same tool, our friend (hmm), the World Wide Web. And it’s the private sector that dominates the arena. Even public sector contributors seem to model their behavior after the approaches taken by the private sector.

Bottom line, it’s the bottom line that rules, not the need to inform.

Here’s a perfect illustration. Sometime ago, Dialog carried a charming little database called Coffeeline. Produced by the International Coffee Organization, this petite little database provided comprehensive coverage of all aspects of the coffee industry — the growing of coffee, the marketing of coffee, the biology of coffee. When it came to coffee, this little file knew its beans. (Ouch.)

So what happens? Well, clearly this file did not get a ton of usage, but it was nice to know it was there when you needed it. And it served its particular market. In fact, having it online on a supermarket service probably introduced a lot of coffee people to a broader range of online sources.
Still, no major usage meant Poof! — no more Coffeeline on a supermarket service.

So I just heard from a competitor editor (alright, alright, Marydee Ojala, now editor of Online magazine) that Coffeeline is back online. You can now find the database at BUT, if you want access, you have to pay $100 a month for the first password, $75 a month for the second, $50 for the third.

And so we see the niche marketing strategies at work, grinding away and carving up the dream of universal information availability. But don’t just look at this small example. Read the article on linking practices in this month’s issue by Carol Tenopir and Jill Grogg or even the interview with our good friend, Allen Paschal of Gale Group. More and more, fear of the all-open, all-free Web has driven people into these shells where they aim to “make their nut” by selling data to a small set of customers and confine its usage to within those institutional boundaries.

The result? Insiders only. Heavy users only. Institutional users only. And if you’re not among the blessed, go shinny up a tree. Many won’t sell to occasional users at all. The payment model of pay-per-view continues to decline in vendor support. The ones who do practice it regularly often set such a high charge that professional searchers find it hard to justify, certainly hard to resell to Web’ed-up clients.

Who do I blame for this sad state? Well, not just the vendors and publishers. Lord knows, they’ve got problems of their own and a “fiduciary responsibility” that overrides altruism. We information professionals, however, are ethically pledged to serve the interests of clients and, in this global information world, that means comprehensive service to the clients we serve directly and, one would hope, a degree of service to clients everywhere.

In the past, not even the most idealistic librarian or information professional could hope to serve a universe of users, but that was yesterday. The universality of the Web and digitized data requires us to rethink our definition of clienteles. If we apply our energy and intelligence, there is no reason why our profession cannot now serve, at some level, the whole world. Already we see many librarian Webmasters creating meta-sites that service the needs of users without regard to institutional borders.

No longer can any of us rely on vendors to do our jobs for us. In fact, we must try to correct the deficiencies that narrow-minded vendor marketing strategies have created. Remember how dumb many of us felt for signing those dippy license agreements that came out back in the early days of the late, great CD-ROMs? The contracts with the clauses that said anyone who decided to cancel the subscription, who chose to stop paying for an electronic version priced at least as high as the print product, would have to return all the CD-ROMs to the publisher? Never had to return the print versions, but the print versions wouldn’t fit into an envelope. If they had supplied the CD-ROMs for a tenth of the price of the print, it might have made some sense. No getting around it. This was a rip-off, and we were foolish to agree to sign contracts with that clause in them.

Well, here’s a suggestion. As a profession, librarians have made a collective commitment to collegial exchange of information. We call it interlibrary loan. It seems to me that any contract that disallows librarians to perform the interlibrary loan function adequately should be fought and changed. Would you accept a contract that prevented half your faculty or student body or corporate personnel from accessing a licensed database? No. Because you owe access to all your clients. Well, in pursuit of a broader view of our professional ethics, you owe some service to colleagues and clients outside the institution too.

But why should vendors listen to us? They will know that we cannot hold our own direct clients’ interests hostage to the benefit of outsiders. They’ll know that any boycotting we tried to do would fail if they hung tough.


How about creating a new benefit cycle, a new legitimizing of outside clients? Let’s turn the library into a revenue center. Let’s open up avenues of gathering revenue from outside clients. Many public and academic libraries have fee-based information-broker services available to both local and outside patrons. Some corporate libraries too have started such services. And many, many libraries have Web sites that reach out to their local communities. What we need to do is attach some way of setting a price and collecting funds. A coordinated effort should make that easier to attain. In this hungry Web universe, we should find a lot of Net newbies willing and eager to offer to help libraries add this function to their service. The more traditional among us might even use the payment mechanisms to collect charges for unreturned books.

At the very least, we could light a fire under the vendors who do not offer effective pay-per-view outlets. We could insist that our licensing agreements allow us to use our revenue-collecting methods to plug the hole in their delivery. On the other hand, if they have transactional payment options in place — or develop them quickly — we will agree to offer their products to our own Web audiences. All they will owe us for this partnership is a small cut of the royalty payments or a reduction of our licensing charges — or both.

Bottom line: We professional searchers have a duty to make sure that at the end of the online day we and our clients end up with MORE, not LESS, access than we had the day before. We need to extend our commitment to guaranteeing the availability of reliable, accurate, or at least critically reviewed information to all the people who need it. In time, we should develop universal access to the universe of information — a library for a world of clients. And if our vendors cannot or will not help us, then we’ll due it ourselves.

By the way, what was the number of the folks at JSTOR again? Thanks, I needed that.
P.S. Speaking of universal information, honesty forces me to admit that not even Searcher magazine is the alpha and omega of all knowledge in our field. (Sigh.) For late-breaking news and an array of vendor information, I urge all Searcher readers to subscribe to a free e-zine called Newslink. Go to the Information Today Inc. NewsLink page, [] or simply enter your name and e-mail address below. Bingo. You’ll receive a weekly alert on Newsbreaks, tables of contents of ITI publications, a neat new Digest of stories from vendors written with a dash of reality, etc.

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