PROVENANCE: Volume 1 - Nov. 04, 1995

THE BOOKISH IMAGE: Losing Ground In The Information Professions

- by Teresa Murphy, MLS

The following article was originally written in July 1995, for the Special Libraries Association, Western Canada Chapter Newsletter, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The author is: currently the Research and Policy Analyst for the British Columbia Real Estate Association (BCREA). She is also the Public Relations Chair for the SLA Western Canada Chapter, based in Vancouver, B.C.

PROVENANCE welcomes Teresa Murphy, as a multi-talented information professional and as our AFTER HOURS: Travel & Vacations columnist.

"Information technology cannot deliver on the one overwhelming mandate of users. It cannot by itself transform data into knowledge. This is inherently a human process...and who is better positioned to handle it than people with "information" already in their titles? 1

Read the previous paragraph and replace the word "information" in the last sentence with "librarian." Sounds like it's from a recycled library school class handout from anytime during the past few years, doesn't it?

But it's not. It's from the very glossy, July 1995 Special Issue of CIO magazine, devoted to the "Knowledge Enterprise," Here, four feature articles and countless short pieces exhort IS (that's Information Systems) professionals to take their corporate bosses by storm by "looking at information, filtered, edited and presented in ways that are relevant." 2

Jewels in this issue range from the advice that "now a growing percentage of the information that workers want to see is external to the corporation,"3 to a warning that many corporate workers are "anxious that they're missing out on the purported information explosion...(and) demand access to external data from myriad sources: commercial online databases, newsletters, journals, trade magazines, user forums, electronically connected colleagues, CD-ROMs, and, yes, even hide-bound, hard-cover reference books."4

The prominent feature article, entitled "Scavenger Hunt," offers up as visionary advice that an "ever growing treasury of data sits in databases, government agencies, trade journals and scientific papers, just waiting to be exploited." 5

Is the word Librarian even mentioned in this journal?

Just once that I could find, in an article entitled "Hiring Outside of the Box," where author Laurence Prusak writes that "to convert information into strategic knowledge, companies must focus at least as much on information content as delivery." 6

Wrestling with what he calls the "big issues," Prusak ponders "what information actually is, how it is used, how it brings value..." 7

Here Prusak finally states, "the notion of hiring a librarian may sound anachronistic, but the profession has a far longer and richer history of information expertise than IS."

I suppose librarians should be thankful Prusak even mentioned us, old and anachronistic as we are.

But what really interests me is the underlying message of the entire magazine, which is that somehow in the past few years, when we were busy doing our jobs, "IS professionals," or anyone else who decided to turn in their communications degree or MBA or systems experience for the exciting world of information, has been steadily taking over bits an d pieces of our jobs, or replacing us entirely. We're now "outside of the box," when it comes to information services.

What's commonplace and routine to us - talking about the importance of information to the bottom line, using commercial databases and the Internet, is now jazzed up under the title of "IS Professional."

In the world of corporate downsizing some of these people taking over our jobs may well be down the hall in the systems department. Some may be other professionals like marketers who have taken evening Internet courses. Some may even be our bosses - the ones with the two year community college computer diplomas who started out as programmers, to ok a few IS courses, and are now the information experts.

I'm sure you've all met them. They're the ones who didn't bother to attend the open houses you've been having for years, where you demonstrated the potential of the Internet, - the ones who thought it was all boring "library stuff."

Now they're the ones espousing the "information is power" slogan and trying to relegate us to the "you shelve books, don't' you," stereotype.

Don't think it isn't serious. It is. CIO magazine and many other magazines from Internet World to Wired may seem to us like simplistic rehashes (albeit with great graphics) of dated library journals, but to non-librarians it's all new and exciting, - and very male dominated.

Take a look at any of these journals and you'll find the majority, and sometimes all of the articles, are written by men. It's these men, with the high-tech titles, talking up an information storm, that get paid big bucks for often doing a downscaled version of librarian's work.

In a recent issue of Fortune magazine, the feature article "How Does Your Pay Really Stack Up?" lists salaries for a plethora of professions from accountants and architects, to book editors, economists, nurses and purchasing agents.8

Under the category "Information Services" the typical top pay for a database specialist is listed as $69,000, a systems analyst, $49,270, and an MIS director, $210,000.*

Guess What? Librarians aren't included. Even sales trainees rate a category, but not us. Our market share of the information industry isn't just declining. Based on Fortune magazine, we don't even exist.

What Can We Do?

In her fifteen year library career, SLA Western Canada PD Chair Linda Stanfield has had plenty of time to reflect on the image of librarians and the growing threat to what we do for a living.

Linda, who consistently maintains a high profile as the "Senior Information Analyst" at Electronic Arts Canada, has proved to be a master at gaining respect in a company whose mission is to become the leading worldwide interactive entertainment company.

How Does She Do It?

"I focus on what it is that I do that's different or better than anyone else. Then I do it."

For Linda that meant being perhaps the first librarian in Canada to have a showpiece virtual library, and one of the first to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer.

Serving her clients can no doubt be problematic since they're often inventing prototype software. Daily, Linda must find information on products that don't yet exist, for clients on tight deadlines because of product competition.

Her secret? She's built on her library skills by becoming an Internet whiz, by knowing her industry inside and out, and by knowing what the competitors are up to.

Most important, Linda isn't afraid to take risks when looking at the big picture. "I make it my job to know what teams are working on, to find them information they don't know about, that they haven't asked for, and that I think will benefit them."

As for protecting our profession as IS and others take over our share of the information pie, Linda recommends that SLA begin by asking who it represents, who it may not represent, and how it can better serve the membership.

"Who are the librarians who are succeeding as information professionals?" asks Linda. "Do they belong to SLA? If not, why not?

According to Linda, if SLA isn't reaching librarians who are making a niche for themselves as information professionals, it's time to find out why. Then we have to get these people to SLA conferences, as speakers.

"We're the experts on what we do," states Linda. "We don't need experts outside of our professional to train us or to tell us what we should be doing to save our jobs.

Instead, Linda believes SLA needs to reach the people who are at the forefront of our profession and have them share their knowledge. Then we have to find out what they're needs are, so they'll be willing to join SLA.

As for me, I'd like to see Linda give a workshop at the next SLA conference. I'd also like to make the editors of CIO and Fortune attend so they can hear what an information professional is all about.

Copyright © 1995 - Teresa Murphy


*All figures are in US dollars.
1 Buchanan, L. "The CIO Role: The Medium and the Message," CIO: The Magazine for Information Executives. July 1995, p. 68.
2 Mayor, T. "The Outside Track," CIO. July 1995, p. 80.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Buchanan, L. "Scavenger Hunt," CIO. July 1995, p. 38.
6 Prusak, L. "Hiring Outside the Box," CIO. July 1995, p. 98.
7 Ibid.
8 Martin, J. "How Does Your Pay Really Stack Up?" Fortune. June 26, 1995, p. 79

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