Caught in the Middle: Librarians, Scholars, and Information Revolutions Today and Tomorrow
Presentation for the NFAIS Conference, Crystal City, VA, Feb. 22, 2015. Session
entitled “The User Experience: Increased Demands We Must Satisfy.”
This presentation is based on my personal experiences and perceptions. My research
and publication focus is on the emergence of new roles and operating principles for
librarians, specifically the development of what’s known as embedded librarianship.
As I approached the topic of “The User Experience: Increased Demands We Must
Satisfy”, I first thought of the information revolutions that are disrupting the work of
information professionals, including authors, publishers, librarians, and others. These
revolutions are not only disrupting our pre-existing models, they’re pulling us in
opposite directions at once.
The first example is Steward Brand’s famous saying, now almost 30 years old, that
“information wants to be free, and information wants to be expensive.” He was right
of course and we have seen the principle in operation for a long time now.
Another example occurred to me as I was reflecting on the news regarding
autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things and so forth – at the same time that we
are witnessing the proliferation of social information. We now have more ways to
share our facts, news, opinions with friends and with total strangers, anywhere and
everywhere, than we could have dreamed a generation ago. So, I propose that we are
simultaneously moving in the opposite directions of “information is for machines”
and “information is for people”.
This all make for a pretty dynamic environment – there’s too much going on to deal
with all of it in this presentation. It’s bewildering. Thinking about these grand
developments, we all: scholars, librarians, publishers and vendors, may see ourselves
as being caught in the middle of them.
But there is another sense in which we are all “in the middle”. That is, each of us is in
the center of our own
Information world. And as I look outward, I have a “Personal Information
Management System” that represents my efforts to filter, manage, organize, and
retrieve the information I need for my professional work. However systematic or
unsystematic it may be, it represents the totality of my efforts in this regard.
My Personal Information Management System is essential to me, because I’m
inundated with important information from a wide variety of sources, via diverse
channels, in disparate formats, which is absolutely critical to me. My Personal
Information Management System consists of tools by which I control the flow of
Note that the arrows are bi-directional. That’s because I publish as well as consume
information, and I have the same options for publishing as I do for consuming.
I wish I could say that my Personal Information Management System ran like a high-
performance sports car – sleek, beautiful, powerful, highly functional, and especially
fun to operate. It would deliver a tightly integrated set of capabilities, including:
• Control of all my various subscriptions and feeds, regardless of source
• Seamless integration of new content into my personal repository
• Transparent importing of metadata, including subject terms, and organization of
new content into whatever categories I’ve pre-determined
• Full text and image search
• Convenient insertion of citations into documents I create
• Tracking and capturing my publications
• Safeguarding, and not misusing, my personal data.
Instead, the truth is that my system is more like an old clunker that barely runs. It gets
me from point A to point B, but it’s hard to start. The body is scratched and dinged.
From time to time I make basic repairs, but nothing’s going to make it new again.
Why do I allow this state of affairs to continue? When I reflect on my time and
priorities, the answer becomes clear. The stark truth is, managing information is not a
high priority for me. Here’s my estimate of how I spend my time.
So, to shift metaphors from transportation to housing, I’d like to go out and buy a
Personal Information Management System that would be like living in a fantasy
castle. But the truth is, I don’t have the resources – in terms of time, if not money –
to do my homework: analyze the marketplace, and my needs, and pick the solution
that fits me the best. So, I continue to live in my old shack of a Personal Information
Management System. I’m satisficing my information management needs – not doing
the best I could, just doing enough to get by.
In doing that, I’m well aware that information vendors – such as many of you in the
audience – are constantly working to upgrade your products. You may well have the
answer to my wishes. And you are trying to connect with me – to attract my attention
and show what your products can do. But I don’t have the time and attention to
connect with you.
How can you reach me? How can I take advantage of what you have to offer?
Enter the librarian. Building on my work with embedded librarianship, I think that the
librarian can be the information specialist in any team of knowledge workers, be they
academics, corporate marketers, government program managers, etc. As a full
member of the knowledge worker team, the librarian understands and addresses the
information dimensions of the work like nobody else has the time and perspective to
Embedded librarians whom I know are making it their mission to optimize the use of
information and knowledge within and among the teams in which they work.
So here is my formula for how we might solve some of the challenges of the
information revolutions that are taking place around us.
We are caught in the middle of multiple opposing forces which are related and feed
upon one another. Yet the information vendor and the librarian can be multipliers of
one another’s efforts, and thus reduce the impact of the opposing forces on the
average academic knowledge worker – thus leading to a happier, more productive
This is not meant to sound like a trite, simplistic, easy solution. It’s hard, or we would
already be doing it more than we are. Both vendors and librarians need to change
some of their attitudes and behaviors in order to scale this up. But I do believe there
has been progress, and I’m hoping for more. Thank you.
And here are the credits for photos I’ve used in this presentation.