CREATING YOUR NICHE ON THE NET
by Marylaine Block
I always tell people that I'm an internet guru by default. I'm not the most knowledgeable, or the most technologically adept internet librarian; I was just one of the first, building Best Information on the Net <http://library.sau.edu/bestinfo/default.htm> back in 1995 when there were hardly any selective annotated directories of quality web sites. And you know something? If you're first, you don't have to be the best possible. Hershey's didn't advertise for the first hundred years of its existence and it still remained number one all those years because it was first. Being the first to perform a particular kind of service, or address a particular issue, gives you ownership of it, and makes you the person reporters put in their rolodex.
Of course some of the first librarians dipping their toes into the net WERE the best possible. In 1997, no librarian had done a systematic study of the different content filter systems, so Karen Schneider started TIFAP, the Internet Filter Assessment Project, and became the person everybody went to for expert advice on library filters. Gary Price, with all his web sites and the book he wrote with Chris Sherman, became the acknowledged expert on The Invisible Web.
In 1996, law librarian Sabrina Pacifici started LLRX <http://llrx.com/>, a "free Web journal dedicated to providing legal and library professionals with the most up-to-date information on a wide range of Internet research and technology-related issues, applications, resources and tools." At about the same time, Genie Tyburski was starting The Virtual Chase <http://www.virtualchase.com/> to assist legal professionals in conducting legal research on the Internet. The two of them became the go-to people for legal information on the net. When Mary Minow started LibraryLaw.com, she became the person to call on for any questions on legal issues affecting librarians.
Charles Bailey became the recognized authority on scholarly publishing online by starting the Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography back in the days of telnet, and he is still publishing it, along with the Scholarly Electronic Publishing Weblog <http://info.lib.uh.edu/sepb/sepw.htm>. Bernie Sloan has cornered the market for research on digital reference <http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/bernie.htm>, Eric Sisler has become the best-known expert on Linux in Libraries <http://gromit.westminster.lib.co.us/linux/linux-library.html>, and Bill Drew made himself the guru of Wireless Librarians <http://people.morrisville.edu/~drewwe/wireless/>. Rory Litwin staked a claim on progressive librarianship at Library Juice <http://www.libr.org/Juice/>, as did Jessamyn West at http://www.librarian.net/. And those are just a few. I could name lots more.
The moral is, get in on the ground floor. If there's an issue you care a lot about and nobody else is addressing it, start a weblog or a web site, and get me and Jessamyn and Blake Carver at LISNews.com to announce it. Bingo, you're now the expert on it, unless you fall on your face in public. It's a great career move, because you can use it, as I have, as a platform from which to propose books and articles and topics to speak on at conferences. On the basis of her web work, Jessamyn became a very logical choice to edit Revolting Librarians Redux [see http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib180.html]. Genie Tyburski and Gary Price have also become regular and welcome speakers at professional conferences.
But let's take this a step farther and think about what internet niches our libraries could fill, what unique services we could render that would make librarians the go-to people for our bosses and for our local community.
Yes, of course, we're already performing a number of those, what with the databases we license and offer for free to our users, and our web pages of business resources and health information and reader information and such. But we don't OWN those services, since many other people provide similar ones, and the information is not clearly vital to our entire community.
Think about what we did right after September 11: we put up web pages that consolidated many different kinds of information, including some that most people wouldn't have even thought to look for. We linked in news stories (both from the US and abroad), contact information for charities, schedules of local memorials, maps, articles, and backgrounders on terrorism and Islam and the middle East.
We could do the same for other pressing local issues for our community or company or school. Finance is a tough issue for everybody right now, and we have access to a wider variety of information and news than anybody else has, about state and federal funding, grant and training opportunities, and good ideas others in our situation have implemented. We could bring that all together on one web page, or blog or e-mail newsletter, and update it daily. If there's a major local controversy, we could post background information and links to news stories, position papers and interviews by the people involved, a discussion board where citizens could post their questions and opinions, maybe even a library-sponsored webcast. (In fact I assume at least some California libraries are already providing extensive information on their web sites to help voters make decisions about the recall petition.)
In my town, whether or not it's in flood stage, the Mississippi River affects every aspect of our community -- its economy, transportation, water supply, recreation, and more -- and yet no one source consolidates all the information we need about it. News, statistics, flood prevention and relief information, documents, maps, and laws and regulations, are generated by Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Department of Transportation, FEMA, equivalent agencies from the surrounding states and their legislatures, newspapers, magazines, journals, and professional associations, and other sources.
If my local library put together a page that guided people to ALL the information about the river, that would be an utterly unique, personalized service for the Quad Cities, providing value to business owners, the military, planners, utility providers, and the entire power structure of local government on both sides of the river. Librarians could add an FAQ file, and even a weblog and e-mail service with frequent news updates. The library would OWN that information niche.
Similarly, any library in California could assemble an equally complete data file on earthquake information, with the community and state disaster plans, geologic maps, contact information for relief agencies and insurance companies, etc. Given that communication lines could be severed in an earthquake, librarians could even post a map of wi-fi hot spots where people could connect for information.
The web is too useful a tool to waste. And being first to provide an important service is too valuable an opportunity to waste.
By all means, we should use the web to stake our claim on a particular information niche and make ourselves known to our peers. But more importantly, we should use it to stake our library's claim to the right to exist, by providing information that is absolutely critical to our community, right now, and then promoting it like crazy.
Because once they see us as the indispensable source for THAT information, they might just stick around to see what else we have to offer.
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What’s in old libraries? You don’t know until you find it. But in order for that to happen, you have to preserve the old holdings and original documents. You also have to keep the library from being burnt. Until last week, the holdings of the National Library in Baghdad were part of the common inheritance of human civilization. We know some of what was lost. We’ll never know all of it.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden. From Making Light, April 21, 2003. http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/2003_04.html#002590
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