Put a Good Librarian, Not Software, in Driver's Seat in the Information-Gathering Business, the Human Touch and Expertise Are Irreplaceable

By Bonnie A. Nardi, Vicki O'Day, and Edward J. Valauskas. Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist Technology Group Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. " Vicki O'Day is a computer scientist . Edward J. Valauskas is a librarian and writer. He is co-editor of "Internet Initiative: Libraries Providing Internet Services and How They Plan, Pay and Manage. " | The Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Put a Good Librarian, Not Software, in Driver's Seat in the Information-Gathering Business, the Human Touch and Expertise Are Irreplaceable


Bonnie A. Nardi, Vicki O'Day, and Edward J. Valauskas. Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist Technology Group Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. " Vicki O'Day is a computer scientist . Edward J. Valauskas is a librarian and writer. He is co-editor of "Internet Initiative: Libraries Providing Internet Services and How They Plan, Pay and Manage. ", The Christian Science Monitor


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 generally understood.

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. …

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Put a Good Librarian, Not Software, in Driver's Seat in the Information-Gathering Business, the Human Touch and Expertise Are Irreplaceable
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