Searcher
Vol. 10 No. 8 September 2002
SEARCHER'S VOICE  
The Eternal Watchdog
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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The answer to one question still eludes me, even after all the work done to put together last month's issue on "The Third Millennium Information Professional." What exactly will information professionals librarians or professional searchers or whatever you want to call us do in the future? What set of skills will we possess that will both identify us to our clients and earn us the big bucks?

When I began in the profession, there were certain tasks all of us could perform from the novice fresh out of library school with the ink still wet on their M.L.S. degree to the senior citizens of the profession only hours away from retirement. All librarians could handle the tasks connected with storing, inventorying, and arranging access to a collection of printed material. All librarians knew the infrastructure of published reference sources. All librarians could catalog, index, and retrieve cataloged and indexed answers. By the midpoint of my career, another skill had been added. All librarians could conduct online searches of digital versions of that print material.

Well, here we are on the other side of the Y2K breech with the 21st century stretched out before us. Now what? The talent for handling print will not see us to the end of the century. We'll be lucky if it will last us till the end of the quarter-century. Now I'm not saying that print collections will cease. Of course not. And print collections will always need people to care for and tend to them. But the predominance of digital information is beyond a challenge; it is an established fact. And the acceleration of that dominance will continue to increase. So what unique skill set will snap into people's minds when they hear the words "info pro" or "librarian" in ten years time? What will they see us doing in their minds' eyes? And, more important, what skill set will have them reaching out to us preferably with money in hand?

Several roles come to mind Trainer in Information Skills, Organizer of Personal Information Collections, Institutional Shopper. Some of these roles already dominate the daily worklife of many information professionals. But here's another one Information Watchdog. And, in this regard, our friends in the information industry may have instituted a benign conspiracy for eternal employment. As the vendors release more and more end-user products and services, especially those tied in straight to our institutional intranets, the clients now doing their own searching will need watchdog services oftener and oftener.

For example, look at the curious situations that "coopetition" has wrought. As publishers and database producers came onto the Web and started delivering services directly to subscribers, the need for using third parties, such as online services, diminished. On the other hand, two set policies still kept third-party arrangements firmly in place: First, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, i.e. if users are comfortable coming in through a third party, don't distress them by forcing them to find your data somewhere else. Second, never stop a revenue flow, especially in these tough times. So instead, the database producers or publishers seeking to persuade customers to use their new direct services simply chose to hold out data from the third parties, data that made their own in-house services more complete or more current or more usable.

Now, the third parties may have complained behind the scenes or may have figured that they had skimmed the cream and the more detailed reporting of full records or documentation would simply clog their systems. But in case they were wrong, the third parties database aggregators and/or search services never tell the user that the database producers feeding their system have anything more to offer than what the coffers of the third parties contain. After all, does a department store pass out maps to local outlet centers?

Bottom line: Users who come to the search services think they're getting it all and they're not and users who come to the individual producer sites may think this represents the only way to access the data and often it's not. And if that isn't weird enough, now many publisher Web sites supply special data for free to lure people to their sites data that is not provided to paying customers on third-party services. Take a look at Dun and Bradstreet's search engine sometime. Didn't know D&B had company URLs, did you?

Then there are the incident-driven disasters that can leave fallout damage across the whole industry. The Tasini case comes to mind. When the decision came down, I made a series of impassioned pleas to the industry to inventory the damage and share the information with customers. I even suggested keeping the inverted file entries from Tasini removals active with pointers to entries noting the item was removed due to copyright problems. By and large, the industry has uniformly failed to respond to this need in any orderly fashion. I've heard a lot of excuses, but the scales fell from my eyes as they say when one executive told me, somewhat sheepishly, that it was too late. The database aggregators had been removing articles from their collections under instruction from publishers for years, ever since the Tasini case was filed. They hadn't waited for the final Supreme Court decision. They couldn't inventory the damage even if they wanted to and they didn't want to.

Too often, when information professionals approach help desks in a quandary about why they cannot find data they think they should have found, it seems like the vendor representatives try to "gaslight" them into thinking that there's something wrong with them for asking the question. In one case in this very issue, a vendor representative tried to convince one of the nation's finest searchers HAH! you can't guess which article from that! All Searcher authors qualify as leading national searchers! that the feature she claimed to have seen, and now could not find, never existed. The searcher almost fell for it, until she stumbled across an old manual from the company with an illustration of the feature.

Personally, I always hate it when you ask a technical question about a feature or a substantive question about the content in a file and the ninny on the phone only wants to know what state you're from and refuses to pass you through to anyone but your "local rep." A database on the Web serves an international audience. Why should I have to go find some local sales rep, who's probably stuck in traffic somewhere with their cell phone running low on batteries, when I've got the people who build and maintain the file in the home office already on the phone? Hmm. Makes me suspect that this company slices and dices and warps and woofs its data so much that only local reps would know what reality each customer has access to. Or maybe the company has a policy of passing potentially difficult questions through enough layers of "he said/she said" referrals to give them Plausible Deniability in case the customer manages to find the unattractive truth.

But even if vendors have an open-book policy towards sharing information on their products with users, that open book may have a lot of pages. For years, I've been trying to persuade a prominent patent searcher (no names) to write the definitive encyclopedia of patent searching. Think about all the small, medium, and large changes that can alter the effectiveness of searching in that most troublesome area of online searching fields. What happens to a new searcher entering the field? Where will they find all the notes on how databases in the field have changed over the years? And when? And why? But without that knowledge, mistakes could be made that could cost their clients millions.

And these examples only touch on our friends established vendors in the library/infopro marketplace. Imagine how many more problems lie out there in the vast oceans of data on the Web pay for placement on search engines, inventory-only decisions by online book vendors, etc.

Without a watchdog service, what will happen to the poor souls given into our care?

But first we need to convince those poor souls and our managers and the world that our profession can fulfill this essential role. In that regard, here's an example of how not to promote that role for our profession. The Council on Library and Information Resources published the results of a national survey on the effects of Internet use on libraries [http://www.clir.org/pubs/issues/issues27.html#national]. The results showed that over one-third of the students and faculty interviewed (over half in the fields of business and engineering) now use the library less than they did 2 years ago.

Now I wonder about that figure. If the students have completely abandoned all published sources for the tender mercies of Google and the Web, that's one thing. But don't you suspect that many of the students and faculty members have simply stopped going to the physical library and use the campus network to access digital resources? But, if that is the case, let's hope the study and the librarians on campuses surveyed have made it overwhelmingly clear that any and every time someone uses the campus network to access material chosen by a librarian, they found this data courtesy of the resident information professionals. In other words, they did use the library, just the virtual version. And that, without their own info pros/librarians looking out for their interests and accruing content for them, life would be a hollow, empty shell, hardly worth living.

Let us also hope that every networked setting being fed digital data selected, arranged, or negotiated by information professionals has a feedback mechanism built into it for reporting back to those info pros. The vendors have never bothered to incorporate such mechanisms, but we watchdogs know that before the posse can start for the swamp, the bloodhounds have to have a piece of the culprit's clothing to sniff. And it helps the doberman pinschers and rottweilers roaming the site at night to know which sections of fencing are most vulnerable to penetration.

Pant, pant...sniff...pant...sniff, sniff...grrrr...WOOF, WOOF, WOOF!!!
 

...bq 
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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