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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Rethinking Roles and Responsibilities
Volume 39, Number 3 - May/June 2015

The library and information science profession has been rethinking itself the entire time I’ve been an information professional, which is more than 30 years now. When I was a newly minted librarian, we debated who should be responsible for conducting online research. It sounds ludicrous in today’s environment, but in the late 1970s, respected, well-known members of the profession believed strongly that no one but trained librarians should be allowed to search bibliographic databases. Personal computers and Google made that belief obsolete.

Those outside the library profession still associate us with books—and it’s mostly about shelving them and checking them out. Acquiring resources remains an important role. As resources become increasingly electronic, the acquisitions role expands to include contract negotiation and technology implementation. Contracts that allow for text and data mining are tricky, but increasingly important, not only in science and technology but also in the humanities.

Information professionals operate in a variety of work environments. Technology looms larger in all of them. Those working in corporate sectors have a greater responsibility for acquiring data sources, evaluating the worth of resources in the context of their organizations, understanding the complexity of the information, working with textual and numeric data to uncover new knowledge, performing research and analysis, interpreting information, and being an equal partner on the research team. Are there resources within the organization that could be digitized and put on a public website, thus enhancing the prestige of the organization? It takes an information professional to see the opportunity, convince management, and implement the project.

Academic librarians have many of the same responsibilities, but with a bent toward education. The trend toward embedding librarians in university departments presents opportunities for subject librarians, or whatever their institution might call them, to show their information-finding skills, teach students and faculty about research tools and methodologies, and share their knowledge of specific disciplines. Scholarly communication opens up new avenues for assisting faculty with publishing activities.

Roles and responsibilities for information professionals abound when it comes to technology. New technologies require evaluation to ascertain if they’re fit for purpose. Websites seem to be constantly in need of design and redesign. Creating APIs for many different purposes is becoming an increasingly vital part of the information professional skill set. Knowing where open source fits in and when to opt for a fee-based product can be a nuanced decision, but it should be part of what information professionals do.

Information professionals have skills related to managing knowledge, organizing information, creating viable user interfaces, designing workable websites, and evaluating search engines that go beyond the standard library environment. These skills are often unappreciated outside the profession, probably because we don’t explain well enough how our skills relate to what interests our employers.

Successful information professionals seek out new roles and responsibilities. Doing things the way we’ve always done them won’t make our employers value us. Research skills remain important, but information professionals need to expand their horizons, embrace technology, and actively look for nontraditional opportunities. 

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed 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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