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Research Commentary on the Spire Project

The Rise of the Internet-Savvy Librarian.
By David Novak

I'll precede this article with a little caution. My experience and education lies with Internet development, Internet research and Sociology. I am a techie. So my perspective will be widely divergent to the perspectives of the librarian audience reading this. No, I'm not trying to be intentionally contentious. Rather I wish to express a cautionary perspective on the global move of librarians into the role of information guides for the Internet.

The story goes like this. Librarians as a group are attempting to assert the role of the librarian as the information expert on the internet. Not just assert a role, but secure recognition that the librarian is the BEST PERSON to be researching and organizing the internet.

"Your Best Internet Connection is your Librarian" reads This is an inconsequential site but the message is too close to being true. If this is the future, we need to step carefully now.

Remember, librarians as a group are late-comers to the Internet. And I assert this from my non-librarian perspective. Librarians have long been producing some of the best research assistance online, but until recently, rarely presenting this assistance as that of a librarian. The WWW Virtual Library (W3Vlib), older than Yahoo, is prepared almost exclusively by librarians and university professors - but you wouldn't know by looking at it. The W3VLib feels slightly academic - true, but nothing reminds you of a library. The university library efforts look more 'University' than library. All other top tools (save and BUBL) are library unrelated. And MetaData is years away from popular success.

Ownership of the idea of internet research traditionally rested with either Computer Techies as a group, or more loosely with Internet Experts. A strong case can be made that if you were to ask for help getting something from the web, would you 1) Ask a TAFE computer teacher, 2) Approach your techie co-worker or 3) Ask a librarian? That the answer is not obvious means no occupation or group has secured ownership of Internet Research.

Of course, lack of ownership would not be a bad thing - if it were not obvious that every other occupation and group of people on the internet is ignoring the challenge of organizing the Internet. Commercial interests focus on minor changes to search engines. But these changes are both glacial and not dramatically changing the information landscape. There certainly is no opportunity for paid research assistance. The Internet is far far too de-monetized for any commercial success like that. In fact, the ascendancy of the librarian into a possible source of internet research guidance is, I would argue, the most exciting change in Internet Research over the last 18 months.

Social closure is a common enough event. Think medicine - think Doctor. Think law - think Lawyer. Think Internet Research ... well... we don't think Librarian just yet.

The positive results of social closure are generally a marked improvement in skills. Doctors have to be good. So do Lawyers. Create an association and Presto! It becomes a focus for improving skills. Same process is involved. If the image of the Internet-savvy librarian takes hold, then Presto, we have more internet savvy librarians - and more highly-trained internet savvy librarians at that.

The down side, of course, is Money. Law is expensive. Anyone can theoretically speak in a courtroom, but do we? Internet Research, however, is much more nebulous, much more hand-on. It would be a shame, though likely, that the ascendancy of the librarian will mean all future public-service internet development grants were by policy to be delivered to the librarian community.

But there is so little grant money out there - and so little interest in developing internet research as a field in its own right, that there should be little to lament - and little to stop the global Librarian community from achieving this goal. With it, of course, comes the delightful payoff of greater skill and experience available to the public.

Ah, but then we run into the Internet ethic. Down with corporations... down with proprietary ownership... down with attempts to assert ownership of the internet. Many techno-savvy internet lovers would find the thought initially stomach-turning that the librarian community would spend public money trying to convince the world they are the best at internet research. Or worse, somehow prematurely secure complete government acknowledgment of their role without tipping the hat to others who were their first: the technogeeks.

And worse still, it could look like the bureaucratic librarian community, aware the internet is rapidly eroding the bookstock bedrock which has supported the industry-occupation for generations (read disintermediation) is finally waking up and fighting off the attack by declaring themselves Technogeeks all along. I'm sorry, but the internet community loves nothing more than the collapse of some mighty industry or business group due to the even mightier power of the internet - and watching the pathetic twitches of the hapless victim in the process.

But before the blood hits the wall, someone has to stand up and say, the whole topic of internet research is being ignored by everyone except the librarians anyway (with the humble exception of yours truly, of course.)!

Besides, many librarians are closet socialists-utopianists anyway and would be deeply mortified to see themselves painted in anti-internet colours.

So before the "Think Internet - Think Librarian" advertising hits the public, we need to recognize that however beautiful the move, however warranted, it will be contested. The library community requires more groundwork in improving the internet research skills of librarians, information content of library websites and slowly raising the awareness that so very much of the existing field of internet research is already the results of techo-savvy librarians.

As a librarian, you are partaking in this fascinating change in the information landscape whether you like it or not. Will the techno-savvy librarian image emerge pristine and egalitarian, or be mauled by a premature land-grab? I am not certain.

* * *
David Novak, founder of the Spire Project, delivers seminars on Exceptional Internet Research around the world. I hope to see you one day. for details.

Social Closure defined - is a small californian outfit of no consequence to this theme - but the dilemma is that the words they have uttered are just too close to being true, but not popularly accepted.

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