Vol. 10 No. 9 October 2002 
Critical Conditions
by Barbara Quint 
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Socrates once stated that his greatest claim to wisdom was that he did not think that he knew what he did not know. The prime wisdom to Socrates was the critical eye, the cautious and even skeptical examination of all knowledge and especially any knowledge one was cocky enough to claim to possess.

Sounds like Socrates would have made a good information professional. But could he have made a living in the 21st century?

According to a Gartner DataQuest report, sometime last April, the one billionth personal computer was sold. Gartner forecasts that we should expect to hear of the sale of the 2 billionth computer in 6 years. The leading tool to handle knowledge has become a mass-medium product and online information has followed suit.

As generalists, information professionals pride themselves on having the critical eye, on inspecting and evaluating their sources of knowledge, on educating clients to distrust unexamined claims of expertise. Unfortunately, with the Web turning information into a liquid commodity that flows like water from a tap into every home and office, people no longer look to information professionals to provide information in bulk. What they want from an info pro are answers, final, complete, authoritative. What they want from us now is pertinent, decisive, final Truth. 

"Houston, we have a problem." 

As a profession, we claim that we can handle any information request in any field from anybody, but we can only make that generalist claim because of our skills in critiquing sources and data. We do not delude ourselves that we will always have sufficient personal knowledge of every subject that a client could need. We do assert that we can find information on any subject and then judge its general value. We also claim that we can work with clients until together we can make sure that the material we have found covers all the necessary points that the client needs. But on no account will we allow the client to trust information more than its inherent worth or the client's individual requirements would warrant.

Unfortunately, the market for this cautious, meticulous approach to handling information has dried up and it looks like the drought years have only begun to wither our professional futures. People are drowning in information. What they want are answers answers upon which they can make quick and effective decisions.

So now what? As usual, the October issue of Searcher focuses on technologies. More and more, technologically advanced information products and services focus on just that approach the Answer. However, as several articles demonstrate, technological advances in delivering information relevant and sufficient to serve client needs workbest when information professionals assume the driver's seat. We need to direct the tools, to design the services, to monitor their performance, and most of all to make sure that the clients' interests and needs remain the only criteria of success.

All information professionals need to keep current with new technological developments. We need to acquire new skills and to structure our jobs so that we have the time and resources to acquire more. In many cases, we need to hire missing skills. We should expect to employ professionals outside of our own field throughout our careers. However, although we must pursue Answers to survive as a profession, we should never forget our obligation as a profession to educate clients to distrust any source of information they have not tested rigorously including us.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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