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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Are We in the Knowledge Business?
Volume 40, Number 4 - July/August 2016

Information professionals have long lived by the Samuel Johnson quote, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” Occasionally, we identify with the first of those two kinds of knowledge. In academia, subject specialists/liaisons know the important subject matter and sources for the departments to which they are assigned. In the corporate and government worlds, information professionals understand the nature of the business and the concerns of the company/government agency.

We always identify with the second of Johnson’s knowledge types. We are the people who know how to find information. Not that simply finding information is sufficient. We find not just any information, but information that is current, unbiased, relevant, and accurate. More recently, information professionals say they take “found” information and transform it into “knowledge.”

Are we in the knowledge business? Or are we in the information business? Can we be in both? We all possess knowledge of some type, but it may not be applicable to our work situations. Based on our hobbies, life experiences, reading in a particular genre, or web browsing, we have acquired information that transcends the knowledgebase required for our jobs. When we approach a new research area, we quickly come up-to-speed and emerge from the research as experts on the topic.

Sometimes the knowledge gleaned from our research is amplified by the knowledge ingrained in us by personal experiences. This is one of the tenets of knowledge management, which distinguishes explicit knowledge from tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge comes from personal experience.

A recent challenge posed by Google’s Dan Russell on his SearchReSearch blog ( concerned archaic language. What would a spa have been called in the 1890s? How was death by stroke described in the 18th century?

In comments to the blog post, an acronym emerged: FMOK (from my own knowledge), meaning the commenter already had prior knowledge that informed how that person formulated a query. The question becomes whether starting with FMOK always works. What if your personal knowledge is faulty? What if you are convinced that spas were called bathtubs? Or that distemper was the archaic word for stroke? In case you’re wondering, spas could have been called sanitariums or hot springs (with several variations on types of springs). Stroke was apoplexy 3 centuries ago.

If we’re going to say we’re in the knowledge business—or even if we say we’re in the information business—we need to be able to prove it. Instead of becoming angry and upset when people ask us why our organization still needs a library, we need to be prepared with an answer. And that answer should revolve around the actual information and knowledge needs of our individual organizations. Because your FMOK isn’t my FMOK—and it definitely isn’t the FMOK of employees making strategic decisions.

Are we in the knowledge business? Yes. Are we in the information business? Yes. And both businesses require our active analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of found information, not merely its passive distribution.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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