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
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
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
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
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
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!
"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.