On one sparkling October day in 1979, I was called to the office of a senior executive of one of IBM's international divisions. After a few perfunctory words of greeting, he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. I noticed that a large map of Australia was spread out across his desk, which was slightly larger than the New York City apartment I lived in at the time.
The resounding blast of silence was somewhat unnerving, and I began to get the feeling that I had committed some unforgivable transgression of corporate etiquette and was about to be given a choice overseas assignment in Wangaratten, Australia. I recalled my Australian friends' comments about the place: "Not the end of the world, note...but you can see it from there."
Before my imagination could wander much further afield I heard the words which were to set me on another quest for information. This particular executive was soon to set off on a business trip down under. Meeting with senior government officials were being arranged and a briefing book had to be put together. That's where I came in.
As Manager of Management Communications, I had responsibility for collecting, organizing, and presenting vast amounts of information which ran the gamut from internal financial performance and marketing results to political, economic, and social data about a country or region. Familiar ground for me and nothing out of the ordinary in this case. But as I was about to leave, I was thrown off guard by a parting request: "By the way, find out where the aborigines came from, and get back to me tomorrow on that. Many thanks."
As I retreated to my office, I had already begun to develop a plan to get the project off the ground. A few quick phone calls got the wheels moving to generate the internal data which would fill part of the briefing book. Finance, planning, market research, personnel, and a few other departments had built a foundation of information upon which the business depended. Want to know how many storage devices we sold in past last month? No problem--the answer was readily available.
The external information was always a bit more difficult to obtain. And my usual contacts on the corporate librarian's staff were most often the first step. World Bank reports, publications from the Commerce and State departments, United Nations statistical data...all are gold mines of information. Our library, mutually, was fairly well stocked with periodicals. But much of the information needed to be integrated and analyzed, and very often the statistics were several years old. In corporate America, data older than 90 days is automatically suspect and apt to be heavily discounted or dismissed entirely. Senior management has been trained to think in terms of quarterly results; sales up 10% quarter-to-quarter, revenue up 5% quarter-to-quarter, and so on. International trade statistics typically run a year or two behind, and it is a constant challenge to get reliable international economic data which reflects the current state of international economic affairs. Per capita income statistics are notoriously deceptive, for example, and relying on United Nations statistics to demonstrate that the average citizen of Brunei is "better off" than the average American or Swede is risky. The librarian who complies the data for the user is performing a critically important function and applying some very special skills and talents. But if the contribution ends there, the role of the librarian is only partially fulfilled.
Like the request for anthropological insights into where Australia's native people came from, many of the request for information which filtered through my hands have been of an ad hoc, unanticipated nature. And in many cased, the staff of our numerous libraries were frequently at a loss to suggest practical ways to respond to these requests in a cost efficient, timely way. All too often they regarded these questions as frivolous intrusions rather than legitimate, challenging assignments. …