GURU INTERVIEW: DARLENE FICHTER
Darlene Fichter, Data Library Coordinator at the University of Saskatchewan Libraries and owner of an internet consulting company, is also a regular columnist for Online Magazine and a frequent speaker at such conferences as Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries. Among the topics she speaks and writes about are intranets, usable web design, and knowledge management. Links to her work are available on her home page, http://library.usask.ca/~fichter
MB: Why librarianship? What attracted you to the profession?
DF: Well choosing any career was a bit of challenge for me - there were just so many options. I'm a very curious person so many careers were appealing. In the end, I think librarianship actually chose me. As student and university graduate, I found it unbelievably easy to phone up a library and get a job. They just seemed to land in my lap. One day while pondering my choices for graduate school, I had an "ah ha" moment. I liked libraries, why not get a Masters degree so I could get a more interesting and challenging positions in libraries.
MB: How did your pre-internet library work prepare you to see all the possibilities of the net when it arrived?
DF: From the start of my Masters in 1986, I was using USENET, mailing lists and email and designing multimedia hypertext systems and educational computer programs. My interest in designing teaching and learning materials and multimedia content was then seen as bizarre and beyond the bounds of "librarianship". In fact, as I graduated the professor that I did the most work with on many of these projects said that I'd never be a librarian. I was astounded - of course I'd be a librarian. It's interesting to see how these areas are now part of librarianship.
MB: You could make your entire career just on your expertise in databases and the internet, but you continue your interest in gov docs, editing (or maybe creating in the first place?) the Government Information in Canada e-journal. What is it about gov docs that appeals to you?
DF: I love to learn and find many areas fascinating. It's a double edged sword. Briefly, for about a nanosecond, you could be at the heartbeat of the web as it was developing and believe that you knew it all. Now I find it impossible to keep up with all the things I find interesting.
Government documents are one of those things that I fell into as a job assignment. It was like a giant puzzle trying to figure out how the publishing and the collections worked and legislative papers. Recently we've seen a whole range of issues related to preservation and archiving arise around government information that I find particularly interesting. The librarian's advocacy role with government information and information policy has always had a strong appeal - librarians as champions of freedom of information and universal access to information as a cornerstone for a democratic society. At heart, I'm a bit of idealist.
MB: Talk a little about your work on the Saskatoon FreeNet. Was that your idea? What did you want to accomplish with it, and how well do you think it's working?
DF: The Saskatoon Free-Net is another example of that commitment to universal public access. Peter Scott actually came back from a conference talking about Cleveland and I got excited along with three other people and we formed the organizing committee to set up a free-net. Our goal was to allow everyone in our city access to the Internet, not just a handful of companies and the university community so that everyone could use the information and communication tools.
I think free-nets worked exceptionally well. They popularized and evangelized the concept of access to the Internet for anyone. There's been a study that looked at civic networks recently and what people do online. They categorized Internet users as Cyber Groupies - joining groups without geographic boundaries and those that are Local Groupies who connect with groups around their community. I think free-nets helped foster both of these.
MB: How did you decide to start your own business? How does it work to keep one foot in the library world while you're doing it?
DF: The business was started in 1994 by a group of smart computer analysts and programmers. Only one of them had experience with web servers and site development. I said that I wanted to be part of the team. Even though I had a lot of experience teaching Internet searching and web site development, they weren't quite sure what a librarian could offer. I ended up buying everyone out 2 years later.
Sometimes I'll meet colleagues at the University and they'll say "You're still here?" They're surprised, almost shocked. But academia is wonderful in its own fashion. I stay because it is so interesting. You get to explore new ideas and try out new technologies to see how they might apply to challenges faced by libraries. The best part is you don't have to make money. You can look, learn, throw it away and start over. I think I was fortunate that there was the field of data librarianship. Data librarianship is evolving rapidly and the tools and practices are emerging. It is a bit like a wild west. I like being on the edge of the paradigm - looking in at the work of profession but being able to look out.
MB: Intranets are one of your major topics, both in your writing and in conference presentations. Did you help create a university intranet at U. Saskatchewan?
DF: My first intranet was a big flop. I am an early adopter of new technologies, no doubt about that. So in the early days of gopher, I made up a Intranet prototype to show the types of library information we could have for staff. It was too early to be of much interest to anyone. My work with Intranets has come largely through the company and my interest in how people adopt and use new technologies.
MB: You talk about frequently about web site design and usability. What do you see as the cardinal offense of library web sites?
DF: Library sites have had some real strengths that other sites are still catching on to. They deliver services and/or content of real value to their users. I think they fall short of their true potential because they are often designed to please librarians and not users. Most of our users are not like us at all. They use different terminology and have different information seeking behaviors. There has been a dramatic improvement in many library sites in the last 18 months due to more usability testing and awareness amongst library web developers. A library site that makes it hard to find information or services that the user needs seems to fly in the face of what librarians are all about.
MB: Could you talk about your philosophy of librarianship?
DF: You'd think that with a Philosophy and Library Science degree that this would be easy to answer. I think that librarianship is and always has been about providing a service - connecting people to the answers that they are seeking. The way that we do that changes. Right now my work involves creating information products and tools that connect users to the data files that they need. I also believe that librarians are the champions for the public good - for the right to know and have information available and accessible regardless of your economic or social class.
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Where do you want your audience to go? How can you get them there? Amazon.com's CEO Jeff Bezos keeps the destination in mind when he tells people that the company's mission is not to sell books but to help customers make book purchasing decisions.
Richard Saul Wurman. Information Anxiety 2.
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