Finding Our Voices in an Internet World: Although It Might Change, at This Point Search Engines and Electronic Information Do a Very Poor Job of Sensing the End User's Specific Context

By Abram, Stephen | Information Outlook, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Finding Our Voices in an Internet World: Although It Might Change, at This Point Search Engines and Electronic Information Do a Very Poor Job of Sensing the End User's Specific Context


Abram, Stephen, Information Outlook


We're still hearing that hackneyed old comment, "Almost everything's available on the Web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?" It's coming from al quarters, especially in these financially tumultuous times, It's time to assemble some quick ways to respond to comments like that.

Make no mistake. It's not an option to leave these challenges unaddressed, whether they're explicitly spoken or just lay there as assumptions in conversations. If were don't respond, we put our organizations at risk. We have a professional duty to educate and inform our world about the role of librarians and information professionals.

So, here's a modest attempt to develop a few strategies for talking to key folks in our world who may try to hurt our organizations and the society at large because they haven't thought through the real-world issues of the Internet. Principally the Internet:

* Contains too much information;

* Has no clear bias toward quality or authority;

* Is subject to manipulation by third parties through search engine optimization;

* Offers potentially different answers, depending on our geographical location, personal profile or pervious search behaviors;

* Is primarily focused on meeting the needs of its primary customer-advertisers-which may include your competitors; and

* Is available to everyone which means that you have absolutely no competitive advantage.

So, what kind of story can we tell that gets our point across in the context of those folks who would seek to cut our staff, slash our budgets or eliminate our roles entirely?

We have an interesting relationship with financial professionals. Organizations value their role as keepers of statistics and measures, and for making money-based analyses of our overall enterprise or specific programs. As a general rule, they look for cost savings. Often they have an incomplete understanding of the operation of some units beyond the ledger. This isn't bad, it's an opportunity for education. When one of your valued bean-counter colleagues come up to you and utters the dreaded question, "Almost everything's available on the Web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?" don't run screaming from the room and don't leave the question unanswered. People love being agreed with. Agree that it's a valid question, then suggest that there are greater opportunities for savings. As their eyes widen in anticipation, note that bigger saving would come from putting a calculator on everyone's desk, thus drastically reducing the ranks of number crunchers in the organization. After all, if putting free content and information tools on every desktop instantly made all workers information literate, then a calculator that contains all the numbers and formulae in the world would clearly endow everyone with the ability to perform advanced bookkeeping, budgeting, auditing and financial analysis.

Some Important Lessons

Putting tools on desktops merely gives people tools, and giving people content merely supplies them with content. The magic is in making sure they're the right tools, that they are used properly, and that they align accurately and competitively with the organization's mandate, vision and need for productivity. The lesson: Tools don't come with the knowledge to use them.

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Finding Our Voices in an Internet World: Although It Might Change, at This Point Search Engines and Electronic Information Do a Very Poor Job of Sensing the End User's Specific Context
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