Libraries provide the content you need,
meet them on the Internet

by Jorgen Albretsen


The Internet takes it all. The media puts an honour in reporting on the shortage of bandwidth and people queue up to get connected. Addressing issues like rating and providing good quality information in any media, libraries must again evaluate their role in society. Major research libraries feel a combination of frustration and relief watching the "Library bypass" happen as patrons pull articles off the net and surf databases all on their own. Given that libraries will be around, in the traditional sense of the word as well as in some digital form, what role does the librarian play assuring a proper implementation and use of information technology. This article tries to report from current experiences and give advice what to look for, as seen by a computer scientist.

What is happening?

We both as librarians and as information professionals must ask ourselves the question if the information flow in society can do without libraries. In some places I'm afraid the answer is "Yes". Once again we must recall how a normal person interested in a subject reacts: "How can I get at information the fastest way? If a reasonable source seems to be available on a network, this is where I'll look first. If I need any help, I expect it to be online". A librarian may crumble at this!

A traditional library used to be made up of information sources printed or written on paper, preserved, cataloged, and made accessible. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"The origin of libraries lies in the practice of keeping records; as early as the 3rd millennium BC, records on clay tablets were stored in a temple in the Babylonian town of Nippur."

On the other hand the Encyclopaedia Britannica ends its entry on libraries with a most updated viewpoint:

"Rapid developments in computers, telecommunications, and other technologies have made it possible to store and retrieve information in many different forms and from any place with a computer and a telephone connection. The terms digital library and virtual library have begun to be used to refer to the vast collections of information to which people gain access over the Internet, cable television, or some other type of remote electronic connection."

For a moment it could seem as if the role of the traditional library and its staff of librarians was made easier given that much of the information is already residing on media the patron can access by him- or herself. I don't think so.

Changing the Library

Given the above definitions, we must at least start to think in new ways to organize the work at the library. Depending on the type of library the process can be more or less elaborate. A public library having maybe a staff of one to five needs to be provided with network access and training to be part of a larger networked community. This task could be filled by larger central libraries, if they in turn are prepared for this challenge. Often the development is the reverse. The excitement to have an information never seen before at hand can make small scale libraries act as a point of attraction for the usual patron and even smaller industries.

A personal experience is that librarians contrary to what is generally believed are able to switch their way of work with an incredible pace! Patrons normally regard the library as a place where you borrow books and maybe sit down to read them. And that was all there was to it. When they are confronted with this new library profile they encounter what could be called a "smashing of the stereotype." A small collection from the field of terminology lists the librarian as a mixture of: "Cyberdetective, Infonaut, Knowledge Engineer, Cybrarian." Indeed a change.

Everywhere experience shows that new technology is the major factor in the change of job content for the staff in public as well as academic libraries. This is actually good news. Information technology can be a benefit to librarians as a means to be brought to the forefront of development inside an organization. Business corporations start to notice that within their organization the library is the answer place, and not necessarily their research teams. So this seems all in all as a very productive development. However, problems occur.

A problem and maybe a solution

This change of job roles does bring about a problem. The usual organization within the library and the work tasks needed haven't changed. Providing information from networks like the Internet and communicating it is being added to the daily work of the librarian.

On top of this the expected ability to provide literature such as journals, newspapers, research papers, and even books in an all-electronic form can mean a dual track record keeping in serving patrons who need information from both paper as well as digital material. This is an example where patrons easily feel they can do better themselves given tools like AltaVista and a speedy Internet connection.

The economical aspect plays as always a dominant role. In university libraries budgets are not allowed to grow even with this new task entering the scene. The same is most certainly seen in industry.

Part of the solution is a more flexible work structure within libraries combined with the support for change from the surrounding organization. Everybody will benefit from this new idea of passing information around inside the different departments in a corporate structure. The central role of the librarian is to be the person able to provide knowledge about information and be an important link in the information flow.

The Information Hub

In my opinion a suitable model for this structure is to put the library as a kind of "hub" from which information streams out into an academic or industrial working environment. One of the means for introducing this is clearly the network as a component that assures a fast and reliable way for searching and retrieval.

The librarian can be thought of as an information provider. However, this role must not be imagined to imply that the library is the primary source of information. Often the library and its staff will be the place patrons of any kind will come to get an evaluation on information they've already found on different networks.

This consulting could take place via networks as well. The often used term virtual library does in my opinion imply a sort of virtual librarian! More and more academic libraries have their librarians communicate with patrons via electronic networks as the default, while the so to speak "physical" patron rarely shows up in the librarians' office.

This idea will certainly spread to industry and eventually to the general public, where your local library is going to be just another URL on the network, or indeed just another channel on the cable television network. The challenge is then to make this channel the favourite choice to many people. Maybe you even want to go there and borrow a book!

The future

"Every cloud has a silver lining." If the cloud was the Internet seen as a threat from the stacks of books in a dusty library, then surely the librarian will provide some of the silver in the form of knowledge about information. We can't say they provide all the silver as this is a joint effort much in the tradition of doing research within a team. But there definitely is a need for a combination of a librarian and an information specialist.

Change is inevitably coming to the library as in any part of society. The Internet has shown itself not to be a dark cloud of useless and incomplete information, even if we could easily do without parts of it. A lot has to be done to provide better tools to structure information. The use of intelligent robots is just now beginning to appear. For the moment these robots are no more than an elaborated search profile for a given user. My guess is that this research field is one of the forums where librarians can provide a most needed input as how to structure information and to make it available in a form suited the demand.