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Magazines > Online > Nov/Dec 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2003
The Information Industry Revolution: Implications for Librarians
By George R. Plosker

Ah, the "L" word.

The profession has been debating whether or not to use the "L word"—librarian—for quite some time. The debate has found its way through the naming of graduate (library) schools, which have emerged with multiple permutations, including School of Information (no L word), Graduate Library School (traditional), and hybrid—School of Library and Information Science/Studies. Over the course of the past 3 years or so, the Special Libraries Association has engaged in a similar debate. The key issue: Does the word "library" adequately convey the utility and value of what librarians, in this case, corporate or special librarians, contribute to their organizations?

This debate reflects a profession in transition. Information professionals have been dealing with change brought on by technology for over 30 years. The year 2002 marked the 30th anniversary of commercial service from Dialog; 2003 brought the same anniversary for LexisNexis. Technology has touched every aspect of library services, including cataloging, reference, interlibrary loan, document delivery, circulation, and training.

With the coming of the Web, change moved at a dramatic pace, as patrons and corporate users began to use online services on their own. Changing user expectations and needs have resulted in new models of library service—use of print and actual visits to the reference desk are down; remote usage of library services is up; and instructional models have gone through major revisions both in approach and curriculum. The roles of users, librarians, publishers, and vendors have all been impacted.

At the 2003 annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), I found myself in a position to discuss and discover the key factors influencing the work of the information content profession today. Following an invitation from Jane Dysart, past president of SLA and a well-known industry speaker and conference organizer, I found myself on a panel called, "Information Industry Revolution," which was part of the always-stimulating SLA Hot Topics Sessions.

My fellow panelists included two gurus of the SLA world, Gary Price and Stephen Abram. Gary is a librarian and renowned author of the book The Invisible Web, and he also creates a daily updated Weblog, The Resource Shelf []. Stephen is an industry luminary who just received SLA's highest honor, the John Cotton Dana award. The three of us emphatically agreed that "Information Industry Revolution" was an apt title for the discussion and for the environment in which we find ourselves.


We wanted to give the attendees a frame of reference for how to react to the daily changes taking place in our industry and to suggest specific tools and tactics for successfully dealing with library users in today's environment. Looking back, this panel served as a tangible counterpoint to the branding and name issues facing the conference attendees.

Long before the conference, Dysart challenged the panelists by asking us to react to this statement and ensuing questions: "Hyperspeed changes in our industry sector and new alignments and mergers are surprising and shocking us every day. Why would Google buy a blogging software company and what does it mean for us as information professionals? What do we do when our subscription agent disappears overnight? Is the number of suppliers of information resources we need shrinking? And, what does that mean for my paper and electronic collections?"

Calling Gary, Stephen, and I "experts in the field and industry watchdogs," she asked us to predict the following: "How will these changes impact on our work in the future?" Jane envisioned that the panel would provide a "snapshot of the state of the information industry and its implications—for practitioners, publishers, and vendors."

In the ensuing months, Stephen, Gary, and I exchanged numerous e-mails, had several conference calls, and received suggestions, guidance, and encouragement from Jane. We essentially ranted and raved regarding the state of our industry and what is going on with Web searching and information retrieval, industry consolidation and business development, and user expectations and behaviors. Our discussions were based on our prior experience, what we were seeing and reading about in our day-to-day professional lives, and on the work that we were doing. Several key themes emerged:

• The Open Web and the information professional

• Industry consolidation

• Product quality

• Changing roles and responsibilities

• Engineering solutions

• Marketing and communications programs


Based on feedback at presentations and on-site visits to well-regarded special libraries, we became increasingly concerned that professionals and researchers sincerely believe that searching the Open Web, particularly Google, is "good enough." Groups with degrees from excellent schools, Ph.D.s in environments that included technical R&D, and even biomedical and pharmaceutical professionals were using Google, not recognizing the significant differences in authority and quality between the Open Web and premium subscription content typically provided by the information centers/libraries.

We heard stories in which common misunderstandings about electronic content were leading to disastrous results. Consider the article that appeared in late May in the Rocky Mountain News, "Denver Health Expected to Shut Medical Library." In an effort to trim $12 million from the public hospital's budget, it was expected that the organization would close its medical library by July 1. "Chief Executive Officer Patricia Gabor would not confirm the closure. But, she said that because of the availability of electronic journals, closing the library, which has been under discussion for some time, is likely." We wondered if Ms. Gabor had read the story of an unnecessary death at Johns Hopkins University during a clinical trial when the researcher did not consult an experienced medical librarian.

It became clear in that the Open Web would be a large portion of our discussion, but we also observed the on-going number of mergers and consolidation in the information content vendor world. We called this the "one-big-vendor" phenomenon. Was industry consolidation having an impact on the added value that vendors provide to corporate libraries? What could librarians do about it?

Following the Tasini decision and its aftermath, significant discussion occurred throughout the profession regarding the completeness of online databases. Separating the facts from the fiction was difficult. What is going on with content completeness today? What effect were publisher exclusives having on content aggregators and their customers? Is the industry going backward as Patrick Spain, founder of Hoover's and current chairman and CEO of Alacritude, asserted at his keynote address at the InfoToday 2003 conference? We even heard a new term—disaggregation—emerge. Can technology initiatives, such as e-journals, Open URLs, federated searching, DOIs, and open ILL systems overcome these trends in terms of providing complete electronic content solutions?

While these are significant issues influencing user behaviors and expectations, we all agreed that ineffective marketing was perhaps the most important and controllable concern. With the pervasiveness of Open Web search engines and super bookstores, the profession is simply not adequately or effectively communicating the value of libraries, library resources, and the librarian.

With plenty to talk about, we decided to recruit Jane as our Oprah and to keep us under control and focused by using a moderated Q&A format. After composing and reviewing the questions, we headed to New York for the conference.


The panel took place in the Morgan Suite of the New York Hilton on June 9th, 2003. We probably could have used a larger room. Every seat was taken, people sat on the floor, and there was a large group standing in the back of the room literally bulging out the back entry way.

As might be expected, our discussion of the Open Web and its impact on the profession began with Google. The panel agreed that Google has done a great job. No one in the information content profession can deny Google's influence, both real and perceived, on information-seeking behaviors and expectations. Google's incredible response time, relevance ranking and page rank algorithms, subtle business model, clean look, and ease-of-use were appropriately recognized.

We particularly admired the incredible marketing that Google has done, mostly through word-of-mouth "viral marketing." In a very short period of time, Google went from newbie to industry leader. Its well-known brand has even spawned a verb. "To google" now means to search, find, and explore. (Google, as a company, is trying hard to squelch this verbification.)

To obtain a sense of Google's scale, we quoted Craig Silverstein, the director of technology at Google. He recently stated that Google is now getting 250 million search requests per day! According to Searcher editor Barbara Quint, Google gets more searches in 3 days than all libraries combined globally get in 1 year. This volume and popularity have made electronic access to information ubiquitous—a good thing. What remains to be done is to inform and educate users that there is more to the content world than the Open Web.


Stephen Abram, the master of the analogy, compared high- and low-nutrition diets with content quality. He often has breakfast in the hotel lobby during his frequent travels and these "breakfasts" on the road might consist of a Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. While he appreciates the taste (and marketing) of these popular commodities, would he want to have doughnuts and coffee for breakfast every day? Similarly, while Google and the Open Web are excellent as a short-term fix and for distinct categories of content, would he depend on them on a daily basis? The panel thought not.

Fortunately, information professionals, especially reference librarians, have for the most part overcome their initially tentative relationship with the Internet and the World Wide Web. Librarians have gradually recognized the added value the Web brings to their ability to answer a broader range of patron questions. Now, there is widespread acceptance that, either alone or in combination with more traditional resources, the Web expands the capabilities of reference professionals. We all see that Google has a place in the spectrum of information services.

The panel discussed the issue of going with, complementing, and becoming authoritative in the current environment. In order to be credible and to communicate with today's user, the profession can no longer resist these influences on the content environment, nor maintain dated points of view. What we learned in library school is not enough. We cannot sit at the reference desk and proclaim, "We only support premium content databases." The audience was praised for their willingness to continually update their professional knowledge.


We then moved into the disruptive nature of the Internet. It has impacted all industry players—authors, publishers, vendors, intermediaries, libraries, and other organizations—and changed the content landscape. Participants are no longer clear about their roles and responsibilities. In some cases, the current environment has created a regressive view of self-interest.

We discussed the "Industry Insights" column by Leslie Jacobs in the May/June 2003 issue of ONLINE, in which Leslie states that vendors and publishers are not "working and playing well with others." Even when libraries, information centers, and practitioners are coming to these vendors with a clearly articulated vision of what they want to accomplish in their environments, they often find themselves unable to fulfill the vision due to lack of cooperation or compatibility from their vendors. Jacobs specifically cited that "recent examples of e-content logjam include problems when combining sources from multiple vendors, frustrations when integrating electronic journals into a library collection, and difficulties in providing documents in a preview mode."

The panelists also cautioned against an over-reliance on technology or vendor solutions without appropriate expert management by information professionals. We have seen a variety of new technologies emerge, all trying to provide libraries with a search environment that is more compelling and complete in order to compete with the appeal of the Open Web. While no one on the panel had a problem with more powerful contextual linking, Open URLs, or federated searching, we did stress that it is critical for the content expert to maintain control of vendor implementations.

It is important not to accept "default" technical solutions that are really in the best interest of the vendor rather than the library or library user. For example, some of the tools mentioned above have a range of customizable settings that can be utilized to overcome "defaults." The panelists stressed that the "reference engineer" must assume a project management role in these implementations to ensure that technical choices and solutions add up to the right answers and responses for the typical patron. It is especially critical to not ignore the tenets of our profession. Content/database selection should retrieve the best answer—not just any answer, or worse, retrieve enormous numbers of "hits" due to the broad recall search algorithms built into the technology.


From the Open Web and professional responses to the Open Web, we then moved into the area of industry consolidation. Jane asked us, "Are you worried about the ONE-BIG-VENDOR phenomenon? What do you think all these mergers will mean?"

As always, it is the detail that matters. The panelists felt that there were essentially two ways to look at this industry trend. On the good side, mergers and acquisitions can drive synergies that benefit the client. Mergers have created new generations of products that provide superior navigation and powerful content integration. In some cases, we have seen considerable vendor investment in the underlying structure of these tools, such as re-engineered authority files that allow for content linkage and improved navigation.

Of course, we have also seen the bad side—a lack of common product structure, tools not tied together, no common vocabulary, artificial divisions maintained based on a financially driven point of view. Customer support is fragmented. There is no common billing, or perhaps more importantly, purchases across the formerly separate companies are not tied together for discount purposes. We meet with representatives who really don't know how these products are related, at least in the client's mind, in terms of providing more complete solutions.

Mergers usually focus on the financial side of things, as opposed to being customer- or market-driven. In the worst case, the acquisition comes at too high a cost—the acquiring company overpays. In that case, in addition to traditional expectations on operating income and revenue, the new company must also pay off the debt burden. This results in more financially driven thinking, less investment in new and improved products, and more pressure on the vendor-customer relationship.


Jane then moved us into the area of existing products, pointing out that many librarians depend on information aggregators for the value-add they provide to content—indexing, metadata, licensing, abstracts, and conversion. What is happening with quality? In the post-Tasini era, what is happening with content completeness? Are there special challenges happening here and how do these challenges change the roles special librarians and information professionals must play?

In what became a common theme, the panelists saw an increased burden/responsibility for the information professional in terms of monitoring the status of current products. Practitioners need to remain vigilant about what is changing in the products and to ask questions.

• Is indexing applied to all document types?

• Is a keyword strategy casting a broader net than using a thesaurus-dependent search?

• What content is in the product?

• What content is not in the product due to exclusives or other publisher approaches?

• Organizations that purchase premium databases must report content issues and problems to their vendors—might alert a vendor to a problem with a conversion vendor or internal system

• Customer advocacy is a must—"What would Barbara Quint (our own Ralph Nader) do/recommend?"

One panelist (OK, me) told a story about a client who would sign her e-mails to various customer service departments, "The Pest." In truth, customer service found her input so useful and insightful that her comments were often shared throughout the organization. We really considered her to be a "bellwether" customer, and over time, product and technology teams when making changes to a product often requested her input. This reminds me of the line we have heard from all of our mothers: "If you don't ask, you won't get."


Jane then asked about the status of key industry relationships. "In the past there was a virtuous circle of a relationship among publishers and vendors and intermediaries. There appears to have been some pretty big disruptions in these relationships. Can each of you comment?" Several themes emerged from those comments:

• We need to stay on the high road—communication between parties
is key

• Disruptions to the relationships are based on lack of understanding of the common challenges facing the players. We need to focus on the big picture of the common challenges we are facing.

• We need a new definition of self-interest for the parties.

• Old values are still relevant in terms of powerful content alternatives to the Open Web.

• However, we need to position premium content tools in a context and in the language that the end-user understands—we must include awareness of their perception and view of the information landscape.

The panel described an environment where it is increasingly necessary for librarians and vendors to work together to provide content solutions that go beyond the convenience of the Open Web. There are two key areas in which this is particularly true. First, it has become more critical than ever for libraries to let the public know about the content jewels to be found as part of the library's services. In other words, marketing. It can no longer be assumed that individuals will find their way to the library for information. We are not the only game in town.

Second, these tools must provide both superior content and powerful intuitive navigation that make the Open Web look like a device designed for novices. Given our quality, content, and better service, the library world needs to take back some market share. If it is critical to differentiate the content alternatives now available to the public, how can we do it?


Marketing needs to include some basics. The panel agreed that it is more important today for outreach communications to be in the user's language and approachable. A message something like, "Yes, you can really do this," needs to be included when guiding users to library solutions, especially to remote access tools, where a physical librarian is not available to help out. Messaging needs to elucidate benefits—better content and better decisions—rather than a list of URLs and functions. "A world of information compiled and organized by information professionals" is not sufficient. Remember the user is interested in "what's in it for me." Stress that library content is not selling anything. We are talking about humankind's recorded knowledge. Be specific. Pick themes that are meaningful to your patron groups or constituencies. [Editor's Note: Subscribing to MLS: Marketing Library Services ( would be a great way to pick up new library marketing ideas.]

The panel also thought that point-of-use support materials need to focus more on database selection and less on search strategy. Let's face it—searchers will do the search strategies that make sense to them. If we can at least get them in the right body of content, chances are that success rates will increase noticeably. The panel also agreed that remote access to premium databases, an engineered reference solution, is a powerful mechanism to extend library services beyond the four walls of the library. These remote access solutions must offer quick paths to the needed content as well as describe why the specific content tool has the needed answer. Today's Web searcher is accustomed to "drill-down" via topic trees—libraries should leverage this know-how. Make it easy to locate the right source for the topic at hand.

Finally, the panel felt that some level of cooperative marketing would be useful for the entire professional community. How can we get the players in the premium content industry to work together to meet this common challenge? For example, we might consider some type of overview marketing campaign. Look at the example of the dairy industry: "Got Milk?" Why not, "Got librarians?"

Information professionals should work with SLA to improve the resources and marketing messages available via the Web site. Also, we should work with our vendors. Discuss your marketing plans with them. How can they help? Most vendors provide a wide range of free marketing and support materials, frequently on their Web sites. Free marketing materials typically include posters, publicity guidelines, templates, bookmarks, fliers, print ad templates, and even radio scripts.

Be flexible and open regarding today's user. Work to engineer solutions that work for them. The old model of one-off reference is no longer adequate. Don't be afraid to use your knowledge. Hold on to the values that demand quality and completeness. Improve the overall marketing situation. All too many people have no idea what libraries and the content industry can do for them. A major goal for information professionals in the information industry revolution is to communicate the substance of the profession to those outside the profession.


George Plosker [] is principal of George Plosker & Associates, a consulting firm providing services and training to the information industry, technology companies, and libraries on content deployment and marketing, information access, account, and staff development strategies. The author wishes to thank Jane Dysart, Gary Price, and Stephen Abram for their contributions.

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