Information Pro

An Information Professional Faces the Future

by Norman Desmarais

 

The last decade has seen the closing of several schools of library and information science in the U.S., including prestigious ones like those of Columbia University and Case-Western Reserve. The high costs of maintaining such programs partly accounts for this change. Decreasing enrollment presents another factor. Fewer students perceive library and information science as an economically attractive profession. Expected beginning salaries balanced against the requirements in subject, language, or technical expertise have prompted many prospective candidates to enroll in other programs that promise them a greater return for their education dollars.

Schools offering strong programs in computer science have assumed some of the role abandoned by the schools of library and information science. Practitioners in these fields index electronic documents and develop search and retrieval engines for rapid retrieval. They work for vendors who design software for libraries and business enterprises. They also serve as information managers -- all functions previously the exclusive domain of librarians.

Information resources continue to increase in cost as libraries experience budget cuts or, at best, level funding. This is forcing cutbacks in library hours, the closing of branches, or the reduction or elimination of some services. Yet, the public's information needs continue to increase, forcing information professionals to do more with less.

The adoption of computer resources has added to the high operational costs and will continue to do so as systems get upgraded with new hardware and software. While the soaring costs of technology may mean reductions in allocations for information resources, the technology permits increased cooperation in resource sharing and in the exchange of professional expertise and information. Librarians can identify resources at other institutions and request to borrow them. They can communicate and collaborate easily with their colleagues and benefit from their expertise, even though separated by great distances. In essence, modern technology extends the library or information center from a single room or building to the global village.

As the "virtual library" gradually becomes reality, the gap between the information rich and the information poor will widen. The more affluent will have the advantages that technology offers while the indigent will not. The public library may find itself in a situation analogous to the emergency room or the local clinic, serving the underprivileged. Many of these people may not recognize their information needs or realize the resources available to them. Information professionals may need to do some "outreach" work to publicize their services.

The virtual library will require fewer people to perform the traditional library functions of preparing materials for circulation, checking them out and in, etc. The information professional's work will concentrate more on the organization, management, and retrieval of information.

Organization and Management of Information

Catalogers have specialized in the organization and management of information. While financial realities and resource sharing has resulted in reductions in the numbers of catalogers, the virtual library will require more of them. The Internet, which provides access to the virtual library, is noted for its lack of structure and organization, making it very difficult for the average user to locate pertinent information.

Users marvel at the wealth of resources available at their fingertips. But they soon become frustrated by the large amount of time they spend exploring. They begin to realize that what they seek may be located anywhere. Once they find it, the location may change without notice. They need easier access. Tools like Archie, Veronica, and Gopher provide some assistance; but more needs to be done. Information professionals will find this a major area of concentration in the coming decade.

Information Retrieval

As information retrieval devices (personal computers or interactive televisions or some other similar devices) become more widely adopted in homes, people will have less need to go to places like libraries to get their information. Many of them will rely on self-service methods to satisfy their information needs. We are seeing this happen in the financial world with electronic fund transfers, direct deposits, and automated teller machines (ATMs). People no longer have to go inside a bank to transact their banking business. Similarly, they will not have to go to the library to satisfy their information needs.

Observations and studies have shown that the average user often selects inappropriate resources and uses them inefficiently and ineffectively. Most of them seem happy to retrieve any information on their topic, regardless of quality. While few people currently recognize the need for improving their information retrieval skills, education in research methodology may become a growth industry in the coming decade.

The business and commercial environment is more stringent. The need here is usually for specific bits of information. As the quantity of information continues to grow exponentially, this need will become more acute, requiring experienced researchers and information managers to retrieve and organize pertinent data. Companies that have cut or eliminated positions for information professionals because they were not a profit center will re-instate them.

Many firms that never had such positions will create them as they gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the role of information in the business world. More executives will recognize that their own information resources consititute strategic assets that give them a competitive advantage over their competition. They will appoint information managers to administer these riches. Many of these managers may come from schools that have strong programs in computer science rather than from schools of library and information science.

Changes of Lifestyle

The increasing importance of high technology in the workplace also will change the life of information professionals. The greater importance of technology will require greater expertise and proficiency with various types of equipment, software, and search and retrieval systems in addition to subject expertise and language skills. The rapid rate of change and development will continue to produce stress and anxiety, so-called technostress, among information professionals as they try to keep abreast of developments in their fields. Everyone faces the problem of "information overload;" but most subject specialists only have to deal with limited areas of coverage. Information professionals work in several subject areas and must keep up with them as well as developments in information science. Even here, the disciplines are becoming more interdependent. For example, catalogers can no longer ignore acquisitions and reference functions in performing their duties.

Telecommunications capabilities will reduce the importance of having to live near one's place of employment or of commuting. It will mean that information professionals will work increasingly with people they have not met or that they rarely see.

Since a large amount of current workplace activity involves social interaction, personal relationships will change in an electronic environment. Information professionals will find themselves interacting with other humans through machines (telephone, fax, videoconference, computer and modem, etc.) rather than face to face. This will probably create some adjustment strains in a profession that has always had a high degree of social interactivity.

New Directions

In the coming decade, the traditional roles and responsibilities of information professionals will undergo some changes. The number of traditional positions may remain constant; but the increasing need for organizing and managing information should create some new opportunities. There will probably be positions created to manage copyrights and monitor compliance.

Information professionals may find themselves serving either the high end of the information scale -- those who have complex information needs -- or the low end -- the information poor, those who do not have the knowledge, the equipment, or the resources to obtain their own information. The large middle portion of the spectrum will probably rely on self-service methods.

Information is becoming a critical factor for work and life in the twenty-first century. Everybody will need skills to retrieve and manage information to get along. Many will probably find the large quantity of information overwhelming and seek education or assistance in improving their information retrieval and management skills. We have an opportunity to mold our future. Shall we take an active role in constructing it; or shall we let others chart the course for us?


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