LIBRARIES AS BETA LABS?
by Marylaine Block
I have no idea whether this is a brilliant thought or a really dumb one, but it occurs to me that it could help solve two library problems: how to attract teens who don't frequent our libraries, and librarians' need to learn expensive new technologies we can't necessarily afford. My solution? Could we offer our libraries as beta testing labs for new technologies, search engines, and databases? Librarians could test out the products aimed at us, and we could recruit teens to beta test the stuff aimed at them. Recruit? There'd be so many young applicants we'd have to fight them off.
In return for the new toys, er, systems, we could provide thorough evaluations of the usability of new products, and assessments by kids of their coolness potential. Obviously we'd have to be very careful about who we recruited, and we'd have to have rules, maybe even contracts, about ethical use, but what do you think? Would it work? Has anybody done anything like this? Is it worth trying?
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REVIEW: SUPER SEARCHERS MAKE IT ON THEIR OWN
by Suzanne Sabrowski. 0-910965-59-5. $24.95. Information Today, 2002. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
This follows the standard format of the invaluable Super Searcher series: a knowledgeable interviewer asks top researchers how they do their job. What are their tricks of the trade, their favorite tools and strategies? In this case, though, the focus is not on the search but on the business. In an era when information is abundant, and most of it is believed to be free, how do you convince people that they need to buy it, and from you? How do you make the decision to go private? How do you build a clientele? Price your services?
The answers vary widely because the information entrepreneurs include generalists, experts in aviation, intellectual property, public records, search engines, telecommunications, and Canadian business, and an information expert who provides contract library services to corporations.
But there are commonalities, too. This work is not for the faint of heart. Information entrepreneurs need to be willing to take risks and trust their abilities. They need opening-day credibility, the ability to answer the question, "why should I hire YOU?" with a "Because . . ." derived from years of acknowledged excellent performance in information retrieval. They need to have a clear sense of who their prospective clients are and how to market to them.
For many information entrepreneurs, the solution is added value. The fact is that raw information is valueless. Professional researchers have to have the background knowledge to ask the right questions, find the most useful data for the purpose, and recognize when key information is missing; furthermore, they need to be able to summarize the data and provide the analysis, the "so what?"
That's why many researchers specialize in highly specific subject areas. Some of the people interviewed here were never librarians, but were knowledgeable experts in a subject area who became expert in manipulating the information structure of the field. Martin Goffman, for instance, was a specialist in intellectual property and patents, was a chemist, inventor, and an owner of patents before he got into the business of patent searching, and Crystal Sharp, who specializes in Canadian business information, got her degree in economics and was a contract researcher for the Harvard Institute for International Development before she decided to offer specialized business information for a living.
Word of mouth and networking are the primary marketing methods these researchers use; as public records specialist Lynn Peterson says "every client I've ever had has led to two or three more." Many of them publish newsletters to stay in touch with existing clients and let them know about new services and tools; they encourage their clients to forward the newsletters on to anyone who might be interested (and become a future client). Many of them publish articles in the trade literature and work the conference circuit; by sharing some of what they know, they pick up both new clients and new referrers in the information community. They all maintain web sites, not so much as a way to attract new clients, but as a quick way to acquaint prospective clients with the kind of work they do, show them sample projects and/or lists of satisfied customers, and present their pricing structure.
Their search habits are living proof that it's NOT all on the web for free. They all use the internet for some purposes, but for their meat and potatoes they rely on the various databases they subscribe to. Sometimes they'll get on the phone to experts in the field, and they'll even go to libraries and archives as needed (or subcontract this work to others).
All of them must deal with the issue of continuous learning and retraining. Most of them are part of professional listservs and discussion forums, both within their subject specialties and within the information community -- the book is kind of like a love-letter to the Association of Independent Information Professionals.
All of these information entrepreneurs enjoy the flexibility of setting your own hours. Many of them went private so that they could work and still have the time they wanted with their young children. They like the control that comes from running your own business, the freedom to choose or refuse assignments, and to do them in the way they see fit. And they like the respect that comes from a job well done, respect that is measured in the willingness to pay large amounts of money for their expertise.
As for the down side -- well, actually, there doesn't seem to be one. Not if you know your stuff, and people know you know your stuff. If you're ready to take the plunge yourself, but would like to have a lifeguard standing by, this book offers plenty of tips, things to think about, and suggested reading.
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Once you have a sense of organization, however casual, you can . . . begin to examine the information from different vantage points, which will enable you to understand the relationship between bodies of information. Ask yourself: How can I look at this information? Can I move back from it? Can it be made to look smaller? Can I see it in context? Can I get closer to it so it is not recognizable based on my previous image of the subject? Can I look at the detail?
Whatever problems you have in life . . . can be illuminated by asking these questions. How can I pull myself out of the situation? How do I see it by changing scale? How can I look at the problem from different vantage points? How do I divide it into smaller pieces? How can I arrange and rearrange these pieces to shed new light on the problem?
Each vantage point, each mode of organization will create a new structure. And each new structure will enable you to see a different meaning, acting as a new method of classification from which the whole can be grasped and understood.
Richard Saul Wurman. Information Anxiety 2.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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