The World’s Information Desk (Part one)

Posted by jlubans on July 14, 2015

Caption: An early, now just ASK, Google competitor.

Back in 2000, Google’s co-founder, Sergy Brin had some lofty aspirations: “In five years I hope (search engines) will be able to return answers, not just documents.” “… Google will be your interface to all the world’s knowledge – not just web pages.”
Among the hallmarks of a good leader is the ability to read visible trends and to share a vision with followers. Looking back from today, Mr. Brin does appear, by one measure*, to have attained about 75% of his target to become the World’s Information Desk.
Why am I writing about this? One reason is to consider just how long organizations take to change, even when action is urgently needed. I was among a few in my field of work in the late 90s to declare that the Internet was changing us irrevocably. My field was academic libraries, large research libraries. At the time we were still pretty smug about our dominant role in information provision. After all, for many years libraries were the only show in town. Often, we held a region’s unique copy of a book - only accessible through our card catalog - and if you needed help even with simple informational questions you came to or phoned the library. Librarians were genuine intermediaries or gatekeepers. An even more literal image comes from the days of closed stacks, a library staff member either approved or denied you physical access to the books.
With the introduction of e-resources libraries began to lose their monopoly on information.
Preceded by the World Wide Web experimentation of Mosaic, Yahoo and Google soon made information (and sometimes, answers) readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. One student observed back in 1998, “(The Internet’s) moved library resources to my desktop.”
So, how did libraries respond to this erosion of what was clearly the bread and butter of their business?
Well, we return to leadership or non-leadership. A colleague told me: “It seems like all we did (at her library) was to re-act to whatever came our way.” My colleague was yearning for action, not reaction.
Leaders are presumed to have a vision for their enterprise. Actions are to flow from that vision. The best leaders are blessed with an inner compass, a sense of true north, which guides them through uncertainty. I have met a few visionary leaders who demonstrate this capacity. When confronted with a situation needing resolution, they do not delay. Convinced, they act. A few might be accused of foolhardy haste, but at least they are taking action not standing on the sidelines. They step into the fray without waiting to be asked, without seeking permission, or being prodded. If their efforts stumble and fail, they and their organizations learn and are better for the experience.
So, how did leaders respond? Initially there was denial. As I said earlier I was one of a few who observed that the long lines at the reference desk were no more. Even though there had to be fewer questions along with less demand for our services, we continued to staff the desk as if nothing had changed. When I did a simple calculation showing that the costs in answering those decreasing questions were now increasing, that still did not garner much support.
Or, maybe our denial was attributable to simply not knowing what to do, either at the service level or in the executive suite. In any case, I got the feeling back then that this was a taboo topic, only to be aired at some personal risk.
Apparently, it no longer is a taboo. Perhaps the dark clouds have passed and beams of sunshine play upon calm waters and bluebirds of happiness again flutter in the book stacks. A recent report suggests that our denial was of several years duration. While I observed voluminous drop offs as early as 1992, some libraries were still claiming their reference desks were unaffected by the user’s new found independence, “The top five (research libraries in 1995) handled over 500,000 questions each.” The writer appears to share my incredulity: “I’m sure in those early days there were some interesting approaches to collecting the data as well as different interpretations of a reference query.”
Let’s be clear again. I am not hyperbolizing the Internet’s role in information finding and using. It’s swell, up to a point. But, to test googling’s limits, type in a complex question. Unless you intend to always keep life simple, you will not get instant answers to your questions. There’s an avuncular bit of advice passed on by bright college seniors to college freshmen: “befriend a librarian.” That’s still a very good idea whether you are on or off campus. If libraries have lost the bread and butter piece of their business, they still have the main course – the meaty part. That’s the ability to help users navigate and find answers to complex questions.

Part 2 of this essay will be on how and why some library organizations and leaders successfully came to terms with and reduced resistance to Internet-wrought change.

*If in 1995 research libraries answered 20 million questions vs. 5 million in 2014, the difference might be ascribed to independent information seeking and finding outside of the library.

© John Lubans 2015
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