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I sound my quasi-heretical yaw over the roofs of the world

(I typed that “foofs of the world” and almost left it.)

The Dialog event today–I hesitate to call it a “training,” since it was not focused specifically around learning to use the tool–was interesting and fairly enlightening. (Heads up to any readers in SLAPSG: we may have a Dialog tutorial in the works. I have no more details than that.)

To back up a bit: The word “library” used to bring to mind the public library, for me. Like many MLS-seekers, past and present, I spent a large portion of my childhood in a public library (though I think I had the grace not to say so on my application to library school). But I’ve been pretty academic-library-centric in my LIS education, thus far, for a variety of reasons that I may or may not get to later in this post. I work in an academic library (or three, depending how you count), I am taking Academic Librarianship, and my classes thus far have all been taught by academics of one stripe or another (even a practitioner in an academic institution is still an academic, I say). This immersion–which I made reference to, in a different way, in my last post–has kind of colored my thinking on the field of librarianship.

Today’s event really drilled into me a different way of thinking about the library field, though. Certainly, as an SLA member and technically-inclined person, I was aware of corporate librarians–I have even applied to work as one–but I never really sat back and pondered to myself whether my philosophy about librarianship as a field applied to corporate libraries. Today I realized it does not, and that is exciting.

Whereas, for a variety of reasons*, I think the long-term goal of academic and public librarians (field-wide more than individually) should be to build tools that allow for nearly complete disintermediation: as opposed to continuing to fail at making the “but you don’t know how to find things! Google doesn’t have everything!” sales pitch and leaving most of the population with a poor view of us and poor information, to boot, the goal should be … something else. We need to talk about what that something else is–do we team up with Google? Do we build our own tools to search our collections? Do we buy Serials Solutions’ very, very sexy new Enterprise Search tool? I don’t know, yet, and it’s clearly going to take more than just me to figure that out. But before we can get there, we have to drop the self-indulgent view that computers will never compete with us (hey, they already are, and even if they aren’t doing as good a job as we could, they’re winning in market share) and the self-interested view that having a job is better than not (nobody likes that programmer who writes deliberately-confusing, uncommented code in hopes of retaining his or her job; let’s not be that guy). We owe it to the general public, college educated or not, to build them tools that make information accessible to them without our interference. Because, increasingly, they are uninterested in asking us for help.

I’m not totally crazy, though. While I do think most authoritative information can be made accessible this way, and I even think it’s a fairly affordable undertaking if we stop working so hard to recruit technophobic liberal arts majors into our ranks and instead beef up the “bright technical mind” bastion of librarians–not a small group, already. (Let me say, I dearly love several technophobic liberal arts majors. I do. But I still don’t think they should become librarians unless they can lose the fear of technology.)

Anyway, as I was saying, not totally crazy: I think there will still be a need for professional data finders. Take the consulting firm I used to work for: great firm, hired some great people. But I had and continue to have a fundamental disagreement with their approach to professional development. They believed that a consultant should be all things–good with whatever engineering/IT specialty they had, good with people and management and customer handling, and also good with writing and presentations. We did our own research. I can see where they are coming from, and it seems to work fine for them ($4 billion in income a year is nothing to sneeze at). But, from a gaming perspective, I believe there’s a real benefit in min-maxing. I think, if you have a really brilliant technical mind, there’s no good reason to stick you behind the proverbial typewriter, as long as you can communicate the technical details to some genius writer you have on staff. Similarly, why would an engineer waste a bunch of time doing research for a literature review when an information specialist could do it for her, freeing her up to go to the lab? Why would a marketer waste time finding statistics that an information specialist could find faster? … Having everyone trying to do everything is inefficient. Sure, there should be some overlap; the writer has to understand technology, and it helps if the information specialist (you see how I’m not calling the person “librarian” anymore? the word is rooted in the idea of books; no wonder people see us the way they do!) has some domain knowledge. It also helps if the engineer or marketer has a clue how searches are constructed. But each person has their area of expertise, and they spend the bulk of their time really excelling in the work they enjoy, rather than muddling around with things they aren’t as good at.

I think corporate librarians will prove themselves indispensable, and I think they will bring some of the esteem back to our field. One day, people won’t immediately assume an MLIS means shelving books and “being paid to read.” I’m kind of excited about that.

(I’m also not sure I’m going the corporate route. I’ve sent out applications to several very different jobs. Only one is corporate, and I would love to do that job. The others are all, so far, academic, and I would love to do any of those jobs, too. I get so excited about each job, as I apply for it, and it’s kind of hard to realize that I’m not going to hear back for a little while, and I need to keep looking. On one hand, it’s a little rollercoastery and a little hard on the motivation, both to keep applying to places and to keep working on homework. On the other, hey, wow, there’s a lot out there that I’m really excited to do. That’s great, right?)

*Most of it comes down to “Not everyone attends information literacy classes, even on a college campus. Too many people are slipping through the cracks.” Honestly, even tenured professors don’t all know how to use the tools we provide, or to come to us for help; how many students do we miss? UVA and CMU both missed me (for real, my Master’s thesis is online; I haven’t had the gumption to go back and look, but I’m sure you can see how abbreviated my literature search was), even though I was one of those people fortunate enough to earn both an undergraduate degree and a Master’s degree. What about all those folks who didn’t, whose parents didn’t take them to the library as a kid (or who were, like me, too shy ever to find out what a reference desk was [I know now :)]) and therefore don’t even know librarians exist to answer their questions? How many people are finding bad medical, legal, or other information on the Internet, even as you read this? It’s too big a problem to ignore, just for our own egos’ sakes.

Published inengineeringhiring and employmentlibrarianshiptechnology

2 Comments

  1. somcak

    I agree, folks that are not info specialists shouldn’t be forced to do the bulk of thier own research. In most law firms, the rule of thumb is if the attorney or paralegal can’t find the rule/case/whatever in 15 minutes, you send it to the firm librarian. I think that’s a good rule of thumb in any corprate setting. The best librarian would be one who would give the result and show how s/he performed the search that retireved the results. In that way, the user is learning how to perform better searches, and eventually (in a perfect world) would need to rely on the librian less, yet still be an efficient researcher.I’m interested to hear about the Dialog tutorial. Get me details ASAP!!

  2. Coral

    As soon as I know anything, I’ll pass it along. Denise C. and the Dialog rep. are working on it. I’m pretty excited, though. Dialog is a really powerful tool, and I want that power for my very own. (Preferably NOT with a fee-per-time-spent-searching, but sometimes you have to take your lumps.)

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