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Access is Not Equal to Know-how

Posted by Stephen Abram on 1/30/2018
Stephen Abram
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no-know-how.jpgAre you still hearing that hackneyed old comment, “Most everything’s available on the web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?” I certainly am! Arghhh! It’s coming from all quarters and other professionals too. In financially tumultuous times, when every cent is being scrutinized to within a centimeter of its life, we can expect this ugly example of shallow thinking to raise its head again and again. It’s time to remind ourselves of quick ways to respond to these comments.

Make no mistake. It’s not an option to leave these challenges unaddressed, whether they’re explicitly spoken or just lie there as underlying assumptions in our conversations. If we don’t respond we put our organizations at risk. We have a professional duty to educate and inform our world about the role and value of special librarians and information professionals. So, here’s a modest attempt to develop a few strategies for talking to key folks in our world who may try to hurt our organizations and society at large because they haven’t thought through the real-world issues of a web that:

  • Contains too much information
  • Has no clear bias toward quality or authority
  • Is subject to manipulation by third parties through search engine optimization
  • Offers potentially different answers depending on your geo-location, personal profile or stored previous search behaviours
  • Is primarily focused on meeting those needs of its primary customers—advertisers—which may include your competitors
  • Collects data on what you might consider private, confidential or proprietary
  • Is potentially available to everyone, which means that you have absolutely no competitive advantage

So, what kind of story can we tell that gets our point across in the context of those folks who would seek to cut our staff, cut our budgets or eliminate our roles entirely?

Bean Counters

We have an interesting relationship with these folks—MBAs, CPAs, and financial professionals. Organizations value their role as keepers of statistics and measures, and makers of dollar based analyses of our overall enterprise or program success. As a general rule, they often look for cost savings. Often, they have incomplete understandings of the operation of some units beyond the ledger. This isn’t bad; it’s an opportunity for education. So, one of your valued bean counter colleagues comes up and utters the dreaded question, “Most everything’s available on the web now, so exactly why do we need librarians?” Don’t run screaming from the room and don’t leave the question unanswered. It’s an opportunity. People love being agreed with. Agree that it’s a valid question and that perhaps reviews of what is useful, safe, high quality and authoritative might be well worth offering to the enterprise. And note that you do that regularly, even on an hourly basis, every day.

Then suggest that there are greater opportunities for savings. As their eyes widen in anticipation, note that bigger savings would come from putting a calculator on all staff desks and drastically reducing the number of number crunchers in the organization. After all, if putting free content and information tools on every desktop instantly made all workers ideally information literate, then a calculator which contains all the numbers in the world and all the formulae would clearly endow everyone with the abilities for advanced bookkeeping, budgeting, auditing and financial analysis. Putting tools on desktops merely gives people tools and giving people content merely supplies them with content. The magic is in making sure they’re the right tools, users are trained properly, and that the tools align accurately and competitively with the organization’s mandate, vision, and need for productivity. Tools don’t come with the knowledge to use them.

Legal Beagles

Years ago, an administrative officer at a major national law firm closed the firm’s library and laid off nearly all of the librarians in favour of the web and intranet alone. Lawyers, attorneys, barristers and the like are true information junkies and all of their work involves information-based decision making. The world of librarians was appalled. Of course, it wasn’t long before librarians started trickling back into the firm. The experiment was a disaster, even if there was no public admission. In parts of my career I was involved in projects that placed a very significant amount of common law cases, statutes, treatises, analyses and more online. By most counts the law in North America is one of the most electronic domains. So, “Most of the law is electronic now, so exactly why do we need librarians?” Again, does anyone feel it is now unnecessary to consult a legal professional for legal advice? After all everything is there for the searching. Clearly, there is a difference between access to content and know-how; a big difference.

Vampires and Other Medical Pros

I often tell the story of a major illness I once lived through. I believed at the time that I was a somewhat talented information professional, so I decided to search the web and the big well-known databases like MEDLINE about my illness and treatment options. As with law, a huge corpus of medical literature and major medical reference books are also easily available—and lots of information and many answers are out there for the searching. It was a personal disaster. I scared myself halfway into a depression as I learned every awful thing that could happen, every contraindication, every side-effect, every potential for death and a long cruel journey there to boot. I fled into the warm embrace of an excellent, local, consumer health information professional who provided me with just enough information at my level of health information literacy and put me back on the road to health. Information has context and so do end-users. Although it might change, at this point search engines and electronic information do a very poor job of sensing the end-user’s specific context. Google cannot tell the difference between a kid in grade nine searching STDs for a health project and a worried adult needing a support group. It’s just a big stupid empty search box. Personal service senses the difference easily.


Enterprises are based on—and make their success on—what is in the pipes, not just the pipes. A plumber can practice her skills whether the pipes are flowing with water, gas, oil, oxygen or whatever. There are subtle differences but the basic skills are similar. When our pipes—online, web or intranet—are flowing with information, questions and collaboration, we improve the quality of what is in the pipes. This is an opportunity for teamwork with the people who know how to make the pipes better. It’s a desirable relationship to be on the best of terms with the people in control of the keys to the technology. Either way, if any IT professional tells you that “Most everything’s available on the web now,” simply ask him to show you! Have fun.

Others in the Information and Knowledge-based Economy

We are undeniably entering a world where the best jobs, the best positions and the best strategies are in the field we have chosen—libraries and information science. It’s time for us to find our voices and use them. In an information and knowledge based economy, who holds the keys? US! Who shares? US!

Tough times need tough people who speak up.


Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming soon!



Topics: Special Libraries, Marketing