The explosion of Internet resources, new software applications,
and ever-faster, more-powerful computer systems has led many
budget-cutters to replace people with technology.
But could an "intelligent software agent" do what, say, a
librarian can do?
We conducted a study of corporate libraries at Apple Computer in
Cupetino, Calif., and Hewlett-Packard Research Labs in Palo Alto,
Calif., to find out. Our conclusion in this version of Kasporov
versus computer chess: It would be virtually impossible for a
software agent to replace librarians for several reasons not
First, librarians are more than technicians. They are, it seems,
information therapists who analyze problems as well as find
answers. At Hewlett-Packard, for example, a client wanted to be
enlightened about "the presence of HP in Japan and Europe." The
librarian pointed out the problems with this request: "Is the
person thinking about market share or the number of units? Does he
mean plant size or relative presence? Does he need something
economic like conversion ratios?"
A skilled librarian can focus the search and add other possible
areas of interest to clients. This occurs through artful
conversations that librarians modestly call "reference interviews,"
which would be impossible to duplicate or at least time consuming
and incomplete if done through keyword searches.
Just the facts, please
Librarians can seek information even when their clients can't
figure out just what they want. A management consultant described
how he needed to get a feel for the size of a new industry: "...
whether it's smaller than a bread box, bigger than a house - just
size it." Perhaps someday software will exist that can evaluate
such a request. But not today.
Librarians understand that information wears all sorts of
disguises - as financial data, scientific articles, analyst
reports, news, product reviews, and patents, just to name a few.
Unlike software programs, librarians can judge the reliability of
sources (are they rumor or fact?), estimate costs, and find
material with a particular slant or perspective.
They also think of useful things clients wouldn't think of
themselves. For example, one librarian said whenever she receives a
request for all of an author's technical papers she asks whether
the client wants the author's patents as well.
No wonder clients often become attached to a librarian who can
personalize their searches. …