The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In no uncertain terms, the funding that supports our profession has taken beating on both the local and national level. This year, there will be cuts, layoffs, and closures despite our best lobbying efforts. But while there will be less money going around in the public and private sector for the next couple of years, an article I got today from my Twitter friends really made me think that there will be a upcoming shift as to where information management and interpretation skills will be needed.

The article by the Economist entitled “Data, data everywhere” talks about the skyrocketing growth in the sheer volume of information. I’m not shy to admit that it used prefixes to the word –byte that I had never heard of; it’s staggering on a scale that is breathtaking. According to Cisco systems, “[b]y 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes” (or 667,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or 1/3rd of a zetabyte).

That’s a lot of bytes. Eventually, I presume they will have to start smashing other Greek words together to make up new prefixes.

Aside from this momentary levity, I think this presents an emerging opportunity for information professionals (such as librarians) to shift gears in the way that they approach and treat information. The other quotation that made me sit up in my chair was from Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Data, he explains, are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.

There is an economic value to the management, storage, indexing, and retrieval of this relentless data creation. In addition, there is greater value for being able to analyze and interpret it as well as being able to translate or explain it to others. This data, in quantities not seen before in the long story of humanity, means little to nothing if it cannot be arranged or deciphered.

“The data-centred economy is just nascent,” admits Mr Mundie of Microsoft. “You can see the outlines of it, but the technical, infrastructural and even business-model implications are not well understood right now.”

Take a moment to read the article and see what I mean. While some roles of librarianship will remain the same moving ahead, the nature of information is morphing. It’s on the move, expanding at an exponential rate. Perhaps Seth Godin was right about one thing; this new data world will need sherpas. And that should be us.

13 thoughts on “The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Pingback: thewikiman » Blog Archive » Information Professionals as Sherpas – Part II

  2. First off: I trust you’ve seen The Official Petition to Establish “Hella-” as the SI Prefix for 10^27?

    Second…I love data. Piles upon mountains of data. I love that as the volume of data and interactions scale up you get phenomena that are not merely quantitatively but qualitatively different from what you had before. I love that twenty years ago I was excited about getting a 9600 baud modem to connect my desktop, vital signs denominated in K, to a text-only internet, and now I can walk into the Apple store and buy a terabyte (a terabyte!) of storage.

    But librarians are not, by and large, the digital sherpas in these mountains. Those would be computer scientists. (And it kind of kills me.)

    We have a lot we can learn from each other — LIS from CS, tools, approaches; CS from LIS, values. It’s one of the reasons the tagline of my blog is Across Divided Networks. And it’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to LIS — when a field is on a knife edge between transformation and irrelevancy, there’s an opportunity to be part of the transformation. Love that.

    But what do I actually see? I see a required tech class that touches skills we need in the program, but little of what people are using now. I see classmates (with a few wonderful exceptions!) who are, by and large, afraid of science and technology, and don’t have programming skills. I see professors who regularly make statements about technology that are wrong — at best outdated or claiming computers can do things they can’t; at worst, claiming they can’t do things that they can. I have an idea for the LITA/Ex Libris student paper contest and I’m all excited because I can’t find it anywhere in the LIS literature, but it’s all over CS and has been for years and I get this all the time — I see librarians excited about some technology and I talk to my CS friends or read the literature and it’s been there for years, and may in fact have already been discredited.

    Programmers build stuff. Sometimes it’s crap, but it’s out there and it’s usable and that will always, always beat the committee that’s still deliberating about how to make yesterday’s technology perfect.

    Fail more intelligently, build stuff, kick ass.

    I would, of course, strongly prefer to be among the digital sherpas. I think librarianship has a lot to offer that role, not least a deep texture of history and context. But the skills are rare (and will be rarer still if emerging librarians are widely being taught wrong things about technology). Whereas the engineers are already doing these things.

  3. Andy,

    I certainly agree with you that; “… this new data world will need sherpas. And that should be us.” It should be us, but perhaps you might want to revise your headline from “Greatly” to “Somewhat” Exaggerated, when you consider the 21st Century Skills movement in education, and look closely at what elementary school kids are being taught regarding ICT (Information, Communications and Technology).

    Access and Evaluate Information
    •Access information efficiently (time) and effectively (sources)
    •Evaluate information critically and competently
    Use and Manage Information
    •Use information accurately and creatively for the issue or problem at hand
    •Manage the flow of information from a wide variety of sources
    •Apply a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information

    AASL has published standards for school librarians to teach elementary school kids:

    “INDICATOR 1.1.5: Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context.”
    In the 2nd grade, this equates to “Recognize and use facts that answer specific questions. Interpret information represented in pictures, illustrations, and simple charts.”
    In the 12th grade, this equates to:
    “Evaluate historical information for validity of interpretation, and scientific information for accuracy and reliability of data.
    Recognize the social, cultural, or other context within which the information was created and explain the impact of context on interpreting the information.
    Use consciously selected criteria to determine whether the information contradicts or verifies information from other sources.”

    Sound familiar? Like what you studied in your MLS graduate program?

    I think we have more to be concerned about than just the massiveness of data being generated. I think we need to be very concerned about the high level of information literacy that will be commonplace in another 10 years among the Digital Native library patrons.


    • I am not clear why it would ever make sense to be concerned about increasing information literacy…overjoyed, perhaps.

      That said…there is many a slip ‘twixt a curriculum standard and widespread proficiency. And didn’t I just see some report on how widespread technology use among digital natives doesn’t actually imply any sort of widespread conceptual understanding? Rather in the way that people of my generation can, legendarily, program the VCRs our parents could not, but that doesn’t mean most of us can build or explain them.

      • I have no concern over increased information literacy. In fact, I agree that it is a good thing for people and society to become better “users” of information. But, my concern comes from how that increased and widespread information literacy impacts the librarian professional in 10 years.

        Recognizing that we have been for many years dealing with the explosion of the Internet and the “well known automated tool[s]” for information access, and finally realizing that the Internet did not “totally” replace the librarian, librarians today at least still have a slim lead in the evaluation of information sources, accuracy, validity, value, bias, etc. skills, and can therefore offer those services to the Digital Immigrant patrons, and some less well skilled Digital Natives.

        That situation appears to be coming to an end, based on the initiatives of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, American Association of School Librarians, and other sources.

        These future developments should give librarians cause to pause to consider their future, and their role in that future.

        • Steve, I hope that the initiatives of the 21st Century Skills movement have the kind of impact you envision, but I think that’s a pretty optimistic goal. Those indicators you quoted do sound familiar to me — not just because they’re covered in my MLIS program, but because they were also taught in my elementary, junior and high schools, 10-20 years ago. Granted, there are a lot of information sources around now that simply didn’t exist when I was learning information literacy, and I suspect that the new AASL standards reflect the new developments, but I’m not sure how much of those standards are really “new” best practices.

          I learned a lot about information literacy in elementary school and high school, because it interested me and because I paid attention. Many of my peers absorbed very little, and integrated very little of it into their adult lives. Maybe the new standards will change that for this generation, and I hope they will since it would be to society’s great benefit. Sadly, none of it will make a difference at all if our legislators keep putting school librarians out of a job, like they are in my county and nationwide.

  4. I think I see what you’re saying, Andromeda, but I’m not sure I can agree. I see the computer scientists and programmers as people that will maintain and develop the structure that holds and presents all of this data, but I believe that their role stops there. It is the librarian’s job to manipulate and navigate through the data in order to allow themselves and others to start with a question, and somehow come up with the answer at the other end. If anything, maybe librarians are the travel/mountain guide that helps others venture forth through the information gauntlet and come out on the other side successful and unscathed.

    I also do not see the two roles combining into one super role. To me, it seems that it would be too much to take on, and with the technology changing at such a rapid rate people would not be able to both build the structure and help others with such consistency. I do believe librarians have a role and that the role is relevant to others. Admittedly, this is wishful thinking, but I’m standing by it, darn it!

    • I agree that the two roles are too big for most people to be able to master them both. I don’t necessarily agree that the role of CS is limited to storage and presentation of data; my husband, for instance, codes for a company that does automated taxonomies and decision support, and there’s a well-known automated tool for helping users evaluate the potential relevance and validity of information resources.

      I do think, on reflection, that CS and LIS approaches cannot both be subsumed into a sherpa role. They don’t fit into the same metaphor. LIS, sherpa, sure; CS, maybe more of a trailblazer, providing people with unmediated (or seemingly unmediated) access to data. My concern here is that even when people need sherpas they’ll go for open trails (we’re humans; we satisfice, no matter how meticulous and shiny the sherpa).

      But more so, I don’t think it’s possible to be an effective, or credible, data sherpa without a sound understanding of the data landscape, and I don’t see that understanding being taught in my program — in fact sometimes I see the opposite.

  5. Andromeda, I find much to agree with in your comment. Yes, we have much to learn, and I would love to see a higher level of technology skills and literacy being taught in our LIS programs and treated as core competencies in our profession.

    But the idea that engineers and programmers who build the programs and the systems are the sherpas? Nuh-uh. Maybe we have a different understanding of the meaning of sherpa.

    The sherpa is the GUIDE… We don’t have to build the databases and search tools, we don’t have to KNOW how to build them. We just need to be knowledgeable enough about the what data is out there, and where/how to access it. So much data is still invisible (or nearly so), hard to find, difficult to access, and lacking in context. Not only do many library customers not know where to look for or how to find information (beyond putting words into Google), they often don’t have enough information to know what they *don’t know*. They might not even have a conception or a mental model of the types of finding tools and resources available, so it wouldn’t even occur to them to look for them.

    I know things have changed somewhat since 1997 when I worked at the EPA helping lawyers, scientists, students and politicians navigate the many little-known, and hard-to-use databases in search of environmental data sets, articles, government reports, rules, regulations, etc. BUT they haven’t changed *that* much. There are still a gazillion badly-designed databases chock full of oodles of useful information that most people will never find. Are you saying that an engineer or a programmer is better positioned than a librarian to be the sherpa, guiding our customers through these rocky and unpredictable information terrains?

    If that is what you are saying, I respectfully disagree.

    • Per my earlier comment — I rethought the sherpa metaphor and you’re right; I don’t think it does extend to programming in general. If we’re to keep within the mountain-climbing frame, I think what programming is doing is blazing trails and leaving piles of random tools all over the mountain. What this does is cause people to be able to climb mountains on their own in situations where they formerly would have needed sherpas, and to think they can in others (even if it isn’t true). Either way, if the only thing libraries have to sell is sherpa-age (sherpage?) — and if the way some of us try to flag down customers is by saying that all those tools on the mountain aren’t useful and don’t do what they do, in fact, do — we’re going to find ourselves lonely at the base of that mountain.

      It’s great being a sherpa, but a sherpa who doesn’t understand the tools out there isn’t credible, and increasingly I think sherpas who can’t also build some tools are going to find themselves without enough work to do.

      (And I do agree that lots of people need sherpas but if, as you say, they don’t know that — because what they see is the base of a mountain with trails and tools on it, and what they don’t see is the cloudy tops of that mountain and their own climbing skills — they’re not going to go looking for sherpas, either. Comes to the same thing either way for the sherpa.)

    • (There are, of course, lots of librarians out there with totally kick-ass technical skills. But there are also lots of times in library school when I’ve heard a classmate, or professor, say the equivalent of, “People need sherpas because it is impossible to make pitons” and I’m looking at the mountain thinking, um, guys, it’s covered in pitons? Which leaves me balanced on the knife edge between hope and fear — both of which are motivational.)

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  7. Pingback: The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Part 2 « Agnostic, Maybe

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