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User Needs, Library Mandates, and Information Magic

Magazine article Online

User Needs, Library Mandates, and Information Magic

Article excerpt

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

                                Arthur C. Clarke
                             The Lost Worlds of 2001

Our mission as librarians is to bring information and people together. A good library is run by librarians who put satisfactory information access first, and set the institution's priorities according to their users' needs.

The most successful librarians are, therefore, those who create an environment in which patrons obtain information quickly and effectively on their own, with little interference from any middlemen coming between patrons and their information source. Following this theory to its logical conclusion, the best libraries would not have librarians. If the information access system is adequately developed, librarians aren't needed. Correct?

Of course not. It is one of the ironies of our profession that as better, bigger, faster, more capable information access methods are created, our goal of achieving the best in information delivery recedes further into the future. We can do more every day; yet the possibilities seem endless.



Not everything in libraries has been designed to put people and information together easily. From day one, a librarian is taught that information is "naturally" arranged in prescribed fields labeled Author, Title, Subject, and Descriptor. As much as we librarians believe information must be categorized this way, library patrons seldom define their information needs according to our guidelines.

Patrons think more in terms of their research needs - statistics, quotes, spellings, pronunciations, facts, theories, examples, maps, pictures, formulae, prices, criticisms, dates, symbols, discoveries, philosophies, and recommendations. When they approach a reference or information desk, most expect to receive their specific information, just as when approaching a license bureau they receive a license or money from a bank teller machine.

Yet, how often is this the type of service library users encounter at a library desk? Patrons come to us for information and we often give them the kitchen sink, but not always what they asked for in the first place and often not in the exact form they want it.

To patrons, the reference interview amounts to a persnickety librarian keeping them from finding the information they want. Instructing a user in searching the online system with Library of Congress subject headings is tantamount to forcing them to pay a penalty before collecting any information. Yet, we are supposed to have made progress in delivering information to library users?


Progress has definitely been made concerning methods to organize, store, retrieve and disseminate information. Computer and telecommunication breakthroughs have increased both our ability to deliver information and meet users' expectations.

Computerization helps us ease information access for our patrons. HyperCard and computer-assisted-instruction have been steps in the right direction. They require substantial up-front effort but remove the middleman (librarian) from between the user and information source. These tools can also be used repeatedly without librarian involvement (until the updating has to be done, of course...). Well-designed CD-ROM systems also require less mediation (interference) between librarians and patrons, and have been well received by end-users.


When CD-ROM technology was introduced, it went online "one better." We could finally turn computer searching over to users without fear of clock-timed costs. We were secure in the belief that most users would find much of what they wanted. It was a major leap forward. During the past few years, CD-ROM has found a grassroots clientele in places ranging from vast research institutions to small, one-librarian grade school libraries. …

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