Post Information Age Positioning for Special Librarians: Is Knowledge Management the Answer?

By Abram, Stephen | Information Outlook, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Post Information Age Positioning for Special Librarians: Is Knowledge Management the Answer?


Abram, Stephen, Information Outlook


"Knowledge is power, not information. Information is power only if you can take action with it."

Daniel Burris

In this article, I will take a few heretical positions that will challenge some of the sacred cows of our profession. Unlike most heretics, though, I will suggest a replacement for these views that I hope will steer us on to a better course to the future of special librarianship and, at the very least, initiate a debate on the best positioning for SEA and special librarianship.

Heresy Number One: "Special Librarians are not in the information business"

We, as special librarians, made a potentially disastrous error, those many years ago when we decided to position ourselves in the "information business." Information businesses are marked by their ability to create information and disseminate it widely - often for a profit. Generally, special librarians do not, as part of our core mandate - create information. While we do create information about information (metadata), I believe this is a higher-level calling in the knowledge continuum. The drive to stake out territory by positioning special librarianship as being in the information business has produced a number of negative behaviors that have, in my opinion, limited our ability to make as much forward progress in our profession, as we might desire. Examples of this behavior include:

1. The growth of data professionals and technology experts into information roles has been perceived as a threat by many of our members. This has driven behaviors that mitigate against making a partnership with the very group that has access to the advanced technology and data skills we seek for success. We lose the ability to display our complementary skill set and are forced into a competitive positioning.

2. We view the natural progression of our traditional partners and supporters - information suppliers and publishers - as a threat, too. Their strategies to access the information end-user at the desktop is the next, most logical, step for them to survive. Suppliers and publishers must protect and expand their traditional professional end-user markets as their old retail, library, and direct mail channels are disintermediated by the Internet and WWW.

3. We view the entrance of new players into the information field as a threat. Indeed, we've seen some library associations putting forward position papers to the traditional suppliers asking them to slow the pace of change and adoption of new technologies! Of course, we would all like the pace of change to be a little more leisurely - but asking for traditional suppliers to ignore the threat of the new players to their real information businesses is not a viable request. Indeed, a number of these new players present opportunities for major future alliances for both our profession and our association.

Heresy Number Two: "Special Librarians cannot manage knowledge"

Currently, we are running the risk of lurching headlong into a new positioning of our profession and our role as "knowledge managers." The plain fact is that knowledge, per se, cannot be managed. In fact, capturing knowledge in any form other than into a human being's brain, reduces it to mere information, or worse, data. Only the knowledge environment can be managed.

The reality is that special librarians - possibly all librarians - have operated at a level superior to mere knowledge management. We play a role in the knowledge "environment" as key catalysts in the knowledge continuum. Information systems technology professionals will have grown from their data roots into information management and the systems to support information - including delivery, integration, search interfaces, etc. Our success as a profession has historically been when we are associated with knowledge-based enterprises (universities, media, engineering, accounting, consulting firms, etc.) or with the knowledge intensive portions of corporations (research and development, sales and marketing, strategic planning, etc. …

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